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April 15, 2011, 2 p.m.

Requiem for the Flip cam, newsroom video in a box

When I think back to when I did a day of Flip cam training at my old newspaper, I remember feeling a bit like Billy Mays or Ron Popeil when trying to answer questions from my fellow reporters: What about shooting multiple angles? What about zooming? How much recording time does it have? What about editing?

My colleague Suzi and I found ourselves saying different versions of the same thing over and over: It’s a simple tool, just point and shoot.

Here’s what we were really saying: Set it and forget it.

That really was the beauty, and the promise of Flip cams: simplicity. Well, that and cheapness. I suspect a scene similar to mine played out in newspapers all around the country over the last several years as Flip cams became the go-to device for newsrooms looking to dip their toe into video. The nice gear went to the photographers; the reporters got a Flip.

Now that the dagger has finally fallen for Flip (cue up “Candle in the Wind”), the wisdom seems to be that it was a dead-end product, living on borrowed time as it was bracketed by high-quality cameras and video-capable phones. (Maybe that was part of why newspapers were so smitten with the Flip; they too are beset by competition eating away at their market share from above and below.)

In newsrooms, Flip cams became the latest symbol in a long history of products that could help transform journalism. They were democratizing little gadgets for multimedia that offered news organizations big and small the chance to have video for their website. As the multimedia push swept across newsrooms, it created a new division of have and have nots: on one side, organizations that could afford high quality gear, let alone time for photogs or web staff to produce a piece; on the other, the Flip Army.

The timing could not have been better, with newsrooms contracting and demands on reporters were rising. Along came this camera that seemed like an incredibly low-impact proposition. It was dumb tool — it didn’t offer much in terms of adjusting for light, sound or zoom — but it was powerful enough to convey a crucial bit of information, or sometimes even a story. If you were an editor, it probably seemed like a godsend: Here’s a small, inexpensive tool to give reporters but it provided additional material to feed the insatiable beast that is the website.

We all know what happened next: Flip cams took a firm hold on the future of news as the gadget was added to multimedia training and j-school curricula, and the phrase “backpack journalism” was ascendant.

All of this is why, even in Flip’s death, we won’t be seeing an end to the work it inspired. After all, the camera did unleash a legion of similar devices, and yes, shooting video is now widely available on smartphones. (Although those phones don’t fit as well into stretched newsroom budgets as Flips, since Flips never required a two-year, $80-a-month contract.)

If there was an unexpected twist in the media’s love of Flip it’s when journalists followed the lead of consumers in accepting something short of perfection in our Flip videos. For average users, the Flip cam was for capturing a surprise development in their child’s life with little fuss, or grabbing a quick video memory of a vacation without having to drag along an extra camera bag. And more and more, the Flip was for the bystander who happened to witness an accident, fire, or protest. All that video was made by the same people we’re producing stories and videos for, the same people uploading 35 hours of video per minute to YouTube, and they don’t seem to mind if it’s not perfect.

That too may be the legacy of the Flip: It allowed us to embrace the idea of publishing material that was “good enough” and realize H.L. Mencken wouldn’t rise from his grave in disgust. (But if he did, that would sure make for sweet footage.)

Image by Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     April 15, 2011, 2 p.m.
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