News for Digital Journalists

August 09, 2012

Review: RCFP “first aid” app for journalists

Recently the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched a free “first aid” mobile app to give reporters in the field immediate access to legal resources, especially when encountering obstacles to newsgathering or access. Here are some reasons why anyone who commits acts of journalism should have it on their smartphone—and what news publishers can learn from this type of publishing project…

This app is basically an e-book which you download as an app and customize with information specific to your state—and which RCFP periodically updates with fresh information. For resource guides where information changes often, this is probably a better approach than publishing a traditional e-book, and certainly much more mobile-friendly (and user-friendly) than publishing in pdf or print format.

The app covers these six legal topic areas:

  • Newsgathering
  • Court access
  • Public meetings
  • Public records
  • Confidential sources
  • Libel


When you first download this app, select all the states where you do reporting. For instance, if you report even occasionally from one or more neighboring states—and especially if you cover courts, where venue changes can carry local cases into another state’s courts—it’s a good idea to select all the states you may be reporting from. You can add or remove states from your list at any time.

With state customization, when you access relevant sections of this guide to get answers you’ll see a short overview of the topic at hand followed by state subheadings with additional info, including citations for relevant state laws. This can be helpful if you need to, say, press for access to a closed meeting that should be public. Knowing which law to cite can help persuade an official barring the door who may not be as familiar with legal requirements.

You can also search the text of the app’s content.

The RCFP app also has also a “hotline” feature, where you can place a call or send an e-mail to RCFP for immediate legal answers and assistance. And soon this app will connect journalists to RCFP’s new hotlines for both the Republican National Convention (Aug. 27-30, Tampa, FL) and Democratic National Convention (Sept. 4-6, Charlotte, NC). Presumably the app will also add convention-specific content as well.

This guide is a great example of how to deploy a useful mobile resource that communicates a body of knowledge and actionable tips. There are some opportunities for improvement, of course.

First of all, it would be helpful if users could create text, voice, photo, or video annotations to relevant pages in their copy of their apps, and then have the option of saving them offline, sending them to others, or sharing them back to RCFP. This could enrich the body of knowledge RCFP has amassed, and also provide useful feedback and case studies to further improve and promote this app.

Also this app could (and probably should) also be implemented as a mobile web app—a mobile-friendly interactive web site that can be viewed through a browser on a mobile device. This would offer the significant benefits of search visibility and direct linkability.

For instance, imagine that a reporter who never heard of this app is unexpectedly forbidden access to a courtroom. She would probably call her editor, or reach out to colleagues or social media, or quickly search Google for fast answers and options. If all this content was available on the web, the Google search would deliver relevant pages—perhaps even state-specific info from RCFP, since Google mobile search results are inherently weighted by location.

Similarly, if this apps content was simultaneously deployed via a mobile-friendly website (and if both versions were served from the same content management system to keep them synchronized), the reporter’s editor, colleagues, or social media contacts could send her a direct link to the relevant information. She then could view this in the web browser of her phone, tablet, netbook, or laptop without having to download or install anything. These pages also could advertise and facilitate the download of the mobile app.

A joint downloadable/web app deployment would enable another possibly popular and useful feature: the ability to share links to relevant pages of app content via e-mail, text message, social media, and more.

Still, making all this information available first as a freestanding downloadable app is useful, since you might easily end up reporting from a location that lacks good (or any) wifi or cell signal.

Community publishers might consider this app not just as a useful resource for their own reporters and community members, but also as an example of how to deploy a mobile-friendly resource for your community.

For instance, if your news venue often covers topics such as the school system or harassment by local law enforcement, a mobile guide that offers current context, law/regulations, resources (including phone numbers and e-mail addresses), tips and advice, and your recent or important coverage could prove quite popular with community members. This approach might help promote your news brand—and perhaps also provide new direct or indirect revenue options.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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