Are you ready to do the news?

August 7, 2006

Ordinary people have been shooting news footage for years. That’s how we got film of John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and videotape of police beating Rodney King in 1991.

But with the Internet has come a series of momentous events when civilians with mini-cams or even cellphones uploaded riveting pictures to Web sites for the rest of us to view. They delivered the news themselves to vast audiences.

What’s now called user-generated content (UGC) played a big role in reporting the terror attacks of 9/11, the South Asian tsunami of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tom Glocer, head of the worldwide news agency Reuters, said of the catastrophic tsunami: “For the first 24 hours the best and the only photos and video came from tourists armed with 1.3-megapixel portable telephones, digital cameras and camcorders. And if you didn’t have those pictures you weren’t on the story.”

Other journalists, gripped by the images transmitted by terrified passengers after the London subway bombings in July 2005, talk of a major change in the basics of news production and consumption. “We don’t own the news any more. This is a fundamental realignment of the relationship between large media companies and the public,” said Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC World Service.

Some organizations are scrambling to integrate UGC into their services. Fox Broadcasting Co. says it’s overhauling programming at the 25 stations it owns, revamping websites and adding 34 hours of news with a strongly interactive component. “We will allow people to communicate with each other,” says a Fox official. calls it “YouWitness News.”  ABC News Now, the network’s round-the-clock online spinoff, has debuted a weekly show using videos sent in by viewers who want to comment on top stories; CNN, and Reuters all say they’re planning new ways for viewers to send in their own videos.

Whether this amounts to anything beyond an amusing gimmick ¾ or a way for station owners to save a few bucks on film crews ¾ isn’t clear.

But what is clear is that momentum is building, since this recognition of the potential journalistic value of user-generated content comes at the very moment when marketing, advertising and the rest of the manipulative arts have reached strikingly similar conclusions about the immense audience-pleasing power of consumer-created content.

That movement has already spawned Wikipedia, the wildly successful participatory encylopedia, and Craig’s List, the do-it-yourself compendium of classifieds. The current darling is, said to be the most-visited site on earth.

YouTube consists of homemade videos uploaded, viewed, ranked, discussed, critiqued by a widening community; its backers claim more than 100 million videos are viewed each day on the site. Despite doubts about the demographics of YouTubers as advertising marks, the latest buzz is that the site might be worth a billion dollars.

Marketers are keenly aware that they can profit from the desire of people to talk to one another. At the recent Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, advertisers were rapturous about UGC and the power of so-called viral marketing. That’s when people are so taken by an online ad that they e-mail it to their friends, and the ad spreads to the uninfected. Funny stuff is best; the grand prize in Cannes went to a campaign designed to look like home video of a graffiti artist repainting Air Force One. It purportedly reached 135 million people thanks to online pass-alongs.

So what does that eagerness of marketers to harness the creative energies of ordinary people mean for news?

Broadcast people, by and large, are wary. After all, thanks to amateur newshounds we have shots of the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot. So authenticity is a constant concern, and despite the current flurry of interest, the approach of NBC’s Philadelphia station may represent a more typical mainstream response for now: It invites viewers to upload vacation videos.

But media illuminati like Jay Rosen, the New York University professor who helped launch the civic journalism movement of the 1990s, suggest that UGC could be part of an empowerment that will enrich journalism by creating innovative patterns of news creation and sharing, putting novel perspectives from unplumbed sources before newly activated publics.

Maybe so. We should be mindful, though, that it won’t be easy to distinguish the genuinely grassroots initiatives from their cleverly synthesized cousins — and, instead of a new take on reality, end up with another take of reality TV.

Correction: This column, which is posted here in the form that it was originally posted, implies that New York University professor Jay Rosen, an influential media theorist, is a fan of the user-generated content movement. Rosen subsequently contacted me to say he is. Apologies. For Jay Rosen’s real views, see his Pressthink web site.

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