How we won CES with Avatar Journalism

avatar journalism graphic

With the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014) coming up in a few weeks, you might be wondering how all that information gets to you. It’s traditionally done with a tremendous amount of effort, personnel, equipment and money. But my colleague Curtis Walker and I developed a better way to cover CES that’s cheaper, faster and better in every way: We call it avatar journalism.

We started testing our idea before I begin as senior editor for Mashable, and we perfected it on the battlefield that is CES. We reported and blasted out stories for Mashable that beat the competition almost every time. Our conclusion? It’s the best possible way for reporters and bloggers to get information from the show floor to you.

This exact technique has been a secret up until now, because we were worried our competitors might use it against us. But now, I’m going to describe to you exactly how it all works.

In short, roving reporter/photographer Curtis Walker is at CES in Las Vegas while I’m at a workstation in Milwaukee. Using a variety of off-the-shelf devices, everything Curtis sees and hears, I can see and hear too, and every picture he takes shows up on my screen within a few seconds. Using his eyewitness descriptions and photos, I can quickly put together a story and publish it almost immediately.

If you’ve ever been to CES, you know the show floor is a madhouse. People are packed in there like sardines, especially at the events, booths and press conferences you really want to see. It’s hard to tell where anything is, and it’s equally difficult to tell what the heck is going on.

You need someone who can help you spot stories, and help you do some of the heavy lifting of editing and publishing — someone who is away from the battlefield and the fog of war.

It’s a lot easier to track the hot stories of CES when you’re at a workstation with broadband connectivity. With a map on one screen of my four-screen workstation, I can function as master control, sending my intrepid reporter to the hotspots where everything is happening.

What technology do we use? Curtis and I both use iPhones, and with our earpieces in place, we’re in constant communication. When Curtis gets to a press event or booth on the show floor, he’ll often fire up video chat app FaceTime and show me highlights.

If there’s a company representative worth talking to, he’ll do an interview with that person while showing it to me on FaceTime, and I can transcribe what they’re saying in real time, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a speech recognition program I’ve been using for the past decade.

avatar journalism

Meanwhile, Curtis takes pictures (and sometimes video) of the proceedings, and with the help of Eye-Fi, a cheap Wi-Fi-enabled SD card in his DSLR, every picture he takes is transmitted to a MiFi, a cellular data hotspot he’s carrying in his pocket. It uses the wireless broadband LTE network, and is capable of transmitting all those pictures back to my workstation a few seconds after he’s taken them.

Because Curtis has taken the pictures in the smallest possible jpeg size, they’re easier to transmit over sometimes undependable data connections. He sets his Eye-Fi to place the pictures in our Dropbox folder in the cloud.

On my end, the pictures in that Dropbox folder are automatically downloaded, and then they’re automatically processed using a Photoshop action. That automated droplet places a watermark on each photo and resizes it according to our specifications. Boom! The photos are immediately ready for publication with no further action required.

Once Curtis has finished gathering all the information we need, he’s highly skilled at describing what he’s seen, and sometimes even dictates the story to me. As he speaks, I repeat after him each sentence into my headset, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking types my words into WordPress, our content management system (CMS) of choice.

Then it’s time for me to hustle, quickly choosing which photos I’d like to use, dropping those photos into a gallery, editing and enhancing the text, and posting a story within minutes.

There are some caveats, though. CES veterans know all too well that connectivity is an enormous problem at the gigantic trade show, so sometimes the data can’t be transmitted right away. That’s because there are too many people trying to use limited cellular data connections. We’ve had some success working around that — each year, we figure out which one of the LTE-equipped cellular providers is the least popular in Las Vegas, and then we get a MiFi unit that accesses that network.

However, in a worst-case scenario we are usually still able to at least talk with each other on smartphones, so Curtis can still describe a story to me as I transcribe, and can sometimes even message a small iPhone picture or two to me.

If even voice communications don’t work, he can text me the main points. And if worse comes to worst, he can always sprint to one of the CES press rooms and plug into an Ethernet connection, getting me the pictures and story, and then I can edit and publish them almost immediately.

Another concern is battery power, but Curtis is an experienced reporter who always has a variety of backup batteries and powered iPhone cases at the ready.

This avatar journalism technique is not only faster and more efficient than the old-fashioned way, but it saves us money. Because Curtis lives in Las Vegas, a major expense is eliminated: hotel rooms. He can do the work of three or four reporters, because he knows exactly where he’s going and where everything is happening. And, he can simply deliver the information to me, and then be on his way to the next story.

If a reporter still must be sent to Las Vegas, those hotel room costs are still there, but there’s a distinct advantage for a reporter: He or she can continue reporting without being bogged down with writing, editing photos and publishing posts. With this technique, the reporter reports and the editor edits. While the editor is cleaning up photos and publishing the post, the reporter can be on the way to the next story. It’s more efficient.

The technique is particularly effective when there are three or four reporters with one editor at the home base. All of the reporters are free to report, and then they quickly move on to the next story. If they all have stories to transmit at the same time, they can still do so, with the editor deciding which stories must be published first.

Why hasn’t anyone used this avatar journalism technique before? Probably the biggest reason is that technology hasn’t been capable of doing all these tasks until recently. But the technology is here now. The connectivity problems of CES are the major hurdle to overcome, but that seems to be getting better every year as well.

The future is here. You might consider trying avatar journalism, because if you don’t, your competitors might beat you to it.

Tech needed:

Graphics: Evan Wexler, Charlie White

6 thoughts on “How we won CES with Avatar Journalism

  1. Great teamwork. This idea could work for IFA in Berlin. Let me know if you are interested in me being the reporter avatar next year. I am a credentialed American journalist living in Berlin and I covered IFA last year.

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