Federal Media Stimulus Would Be The Easy Way Out

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger took to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal this morning to talk about the future of the media, it’s financial situation – and recommending that maybe the federal government should step in to assist these organizations.

By the second paragraph, I can already see where I’m going to have a small issue with Mr. Bollinger:

At the same time, however, the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core. The proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers. Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future.

He’s missing a word in that first sentence. It should read U.S. institutional press. Bollinger discussed the idea of the institution throughout the rest of his Op-Ed, and then points to public media organizations within our country (PBS, NPR) as well as others on the international scale (BBC). The balance, he commented, between federal, mixed systems does not mean that the words would be controlled by the feds – the First Amendment would be safe, in his view, because of the same firewall that exists between a newspapers sales and news desks already.

My thought is not a “only the strong should survive” mentality towards the media world. While worldwide bureaus are shrinking, there are so many other realms of journalism that are expanding. The institution is changing, but the citizen footprint is making sure that there are boots on the ground covering stories as they happen – the same technology that is shifting the journalism world and splintering it into a fractured base also is making seemingly myriad contributors to help report those stories.

The reason for a foreign bureau is to ensure first-hand news gathering at a level of access that was fairly expensive except for those major media conglomerates. But that access isn’t nearly as expensive anymore, and it isn’t as high of a barrier of entry. Significant news gathering can be done on a leaner budget by working with the citizen journalists – even in developing regions.

In terms of local journalism, there have been several other models that still provoke the inquisitive and democratic process on the non-profit and crowdsourced model (most notably, in my opinion, would be Spot.us). This isn’t time to run to the Capitol and ask for a check. It’s a time to think about how to make technology work.

Of course, the irony of all of this could be that the link to the above Op-Ed may end up being behind a paywall on the WSJ site. Nothing could be more fitting for an opinion of the nature of Bollingers. The power of tradition, keeping the idea in.

[Citizen Journalism] Demotix is Beautiful Innovation

I haven’t been in Austin these past few days, but I’ve been doing my best to keep up with the talks and news coming out of this year’s South by Southwest the best I could. Geek By Proxy, if you will.

While clearing out the weekend feeds, I happened upon one of this year’s SXSWi award finalists in the community category thanks to a feature at Wired’s Epicenter. Demotix is a U.K.-based start-up that attempts to formalize the citizen journalism process, searching for a Goldilocks solution between the “too amateur” cell phone photography and “too exclusive” professional wire services. The service is based on user submissions of high-quality news images from around the world, and after Demotix reviews and publishes these images, they are available at cost to major news organizations; anything that comes in from a photo is then split 50-50 with the wire service and the original contributor.

I love this concept for so many reasons. One, it creates an army of photojournalist freelancers around the world who can provide a breadth of news stories of which we never knew. Second, the motivation is not career driven, since the payday that comes at the end probably isn’t anything more than pub money, the contributors are likely submitting work that is the result of their interests, not any small monetary reward. Still, these photos are still top quality (here are a few samples; since they are watermarked I didn’t want to embed and encourage you to check out everything available, though).

The service is about more than a place for citizen journalists to contribute; there is a focus on world events and the authentic voices who can relate those stories through photos. The aforementioned Wired piece features an interview with Turi Munthe, Demotix CEO founder, who isn’t shy about how he wants to tell authentic stories: “It’s no longer, ‘White man goes off to tell stories in dark corners of the world and relating it back…We’re telling native stories in a native way and just creating a platform for the stories to get seen and potentially bought.”

You could lose hours clicking through the galleries on the site, so if you have time, you absolutely should. This is a refreshing approach to covering news – and something only possible because of the changes in the way news is made and covered. It doesn’t have to all be, “doom and gloom newspapers are dying.” There are plenty of good stories out there, and plenty of stories that need to be told. Munthe’s army will be there to tell the latter.

YouTube Educating Citizen Journalists

A few interesting media-crossover stories today, but while thinking about the Wikipedia-David Rohde story (fascinating stuff, more on that later), I got distracted by a new project on YouTube via TechCrunch called the YouTube Reporters’ Center.

The concept to me is fascinating. Provide basic education and instructions to encourage more journalistic type of videos for the hopeful cell-phone-camera-reporter. TC complimented it but hinted at the motives:

The idea is sound and some of the content is rather good, and I’m sure it will provide a helpful resource for citizen reporters across the globe. Of course, it serves YouTube’s interests as well when more and more people take up the habit of filming whatever happens in their neighborhood and upload the videos to the wildly popular sharing site afterwards.

I don’t think there’s any reason to look for some dastardly rationalization for the project – YouTube is not going anywhere, and providing basic education isn’t going to help the franchise hit even more astronomical heights. This is just an interesting experiment, especially in the wake of how the service became a place for this type of content on its own during the Iran Election protests.

I think I’m most fascinated by how the media is playing along. Getting Couric, Woodward and others to participate (and many more journos to follow suit) is an endorsement of community media. This isn’t MSM trying to build blogs and Web video in an attempt to mimic the format of successful social platforms. This is them actually saying, yes, there is something out there that we can’t ignore any more. Instead of scoffing at low-quality video that delivers news that we can’t otherwise provide, let’s help folks get it right so that everyone wins.

This very well may be the most social Mainstream Media has ever been.

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward on conducting investigative journalism

The Twitter Revolt Against Mainstream Media

The below piece is an Op-Ed I co-authored with one of the really smart people I work with here at Edelman, Dave Almacy, and is also available at PR Week (subscription required). It’s also cross-posted at Dave’s blog, Capital Gig.

From Moldova to Motrin Moms, Twitter has become the arena of coordinated, widespread revolution several times over the last year. Still, when we look back on how the microblogging platform has evolved into a low-barrier tool for grassroots organizing, these will only be footnotes to the events of the last few days in Tehran. As protestors took to the streets of Iran to voice their discontent with the 2009 presidential election results, people from around the world were attentively watching updates from the ground on Twitter, long before hearing reports from any major news outlets.

The collection of status updates on Twitter provided the world an inside look on the dire situation within Iran from firsthand accounts, each message deeply personal and compelling to a worldwide audience. But when the masses turned to their favorite cable news network for more information, they were met with Mike Huckabee talking about credit cards or other irrelevant programming. With no recognizable coverage in mainstream media as events unfolded, it led users to cry foul on the news networks, demanding more information than 140 characters could deliver.

Among the many Twitter-fueled stories from the event, the one that impacts media coverage the most may be how this backchannel removed the mainstream filter to display an amalgamated concept of the news. It gave the masses – first inside Tehran and then across the world – a crude and easy way to drive the issues that concerned them to the top of the marketplace of ideas.

The crowd felt a sense of entitlement for news they wanted covered, and it left the media world playing defense to users who had turned the trending topics sidebar on Twitter’s home page into their own headlines; a user-generated “above the fold” that reflected the group’s dissatisfaction through leads like #CNNFail. Twitter became the instant ombudsman for the media establishment, holding media accountable for what they were – or were not – broadcasting.

The members of the news desk, as well as PR professionals with a vested interested in its agenda, must face the fact that the pulse is beating within a crowd that has tools at their fingertips to easily express their thirst for a certain story. Whether a global issue like the Iranian elections or a local story, communicators must now adapt to provide insights that will smooth the edges and shine the news called for by the crowd.

4 16 07

When I first visited the Newseum as it opened in the Spring of 2008, I was kind of surprised that, historically speaking, the most recent news item that was covered in the New Media arena was the tragic event that happened at Virginia Tech in April of 2007.

However, as I’ve thought about it more over the last two years, I think that this will be moment in mass media history on which the entire culture of participatory media can be explained. For anyone who doubts the ability of social media to drive a personal, citizen focused story, this event will be the thing to which many of the Digital Native generation will point.

It will be always a challenge for me to forget the horrific events of that day – even though I was nowhere near Blacksburg when it occurred. The reason? Because the story went far deeper than what the traditional mouthpieces of media reported. The dimension created by the immensely personal nature of on the scene videos and instant reactions ultimately changed the story – and media forever.

You see, by hearing from those voices directly – and first – it made the tragedy more than an insulated event at Virginia Tech. It made people on college campuses across the country (where I happened to be at the time I first heard) realize that the name of the school and academic building were incidental. For the first time, the channels my generation had been connecting on for a handful of years became where we also congregated as the collective zeitgeist of young people.

It was the first time Facebook profile pictures became platforms for advocacy, support as photos were flipped out for images like the one above and “Today, we are all Hokies.” Videos and tributes (like this one) weren’t reserved to only traditional news outlets.

There have been events in the past few months in which we have applauded how the culture of participatory media was able to spread a story. But, luckily, those were consumer-misguidings (like Motrin or Dominos) or averted disasters (Flight 1549). The personal emotion that came through two years ago will add to a story that we will never forget – and it will be the chapter one case study on what participatory media brings to the table.


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