Why Everybody Is a Reporter

Paul Chenoweth never leaves home without his digital camera or video camera. A graduate student at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., he shoots video and photos around town and posts them to his technology-themed Weblog, Chasing the Dragon’s Tail. Chenoweth is particularly proud of a piece he filmed recently in Rio das Pedras, Brazil, where a group from the local Brentwood Baptist Church helped construct a new church.

Chenoweth is not a reporter or cameraman but a one-man news crew among a growing number of citizen journalists now exploiting the efficiency of cheap, portable gadgets and the instant speed and spread of publishing on the Internet, particularly on Web logs (or blogs). It’s vox populi meets reality TV.

For some, it means picking up a camera and supplying pictures and video to a local TV station. Others are going a step further, creating their own mini news organizations with pictures, news stories and video clips of events in their communities—anything from softball games to town-council meetings.

Budget-conscious stations, lured by the prospect of beating the competition, are willing enablers. In a twist, a handful of mainstream news outlets not only are using amateur footage but are also training contributors in basic journalism.

In cities from Bakersfield, Calif., to Greensboro, N.C., residents have started hyper-local Web sites that go into minute detail about at-home happenings. One such Web site, Denver-based Yourhub.com, also publishes weekly supplements for the Rocky Mountain News. A handful of radio stations are even coaching listeners on how to be hosts and reporters.

Traditional journalists and media companies say these newcomers aren’t true journalists. And, though they occasionally break news, citizen journalists lack the resources to be reliable and often get facts wrong.

But the trend doesn’t show any signs of abating. In October, University of Maryland’s Institute for Interactive Journalism will host the first-ever “citizen’s media” convention, which will, in part, advise individuals on how to start up and execute newsgathering and reporting in their own communities.

“Many neighborhoods and towns are not terribly well-covered by the mainstream media,” says Rich Gordon, head of the new-media program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, in part because it is difficult for news organizations to financially support staffing in suburban and rural areas. But taking contributions from locals, Gordon says, could be a solution that would give communities more exposure and provide TV outlets with free or low-cost coverage.

That sentiment is expressed in Nashville, too. “There are other people besides journalists that have a voice,” Chenoweth says, “and they aren’t being heard on the news.”

So far, the most high-profile effort to recruit audience participation is not in news but from a cable entertainment channel. At newly launched Current, which is geared toward young adults and backed by former Vice President Al Gore and legal-services mogul Joel Hyatt, about 25% of its programming is “viewer-created content”—short-form pieces created by Current’s 18-34 core audience. To get on the air, viewers submit their work online for peer review, and Current staffers scour the feedback and select work to air.

Yasmin Vossoughian, a 26-year-old aspiring journalist and filmmaker, submitted a short documentary to Current on women in Iran that she filmed while visiting family members there. She says viewers can help bring more perspective to TV: “So many times I’m watching the news, and I’m like, 'God, I would’ve done it like this,’ or, 'Why aren’t they showing subjects like this?’”

Current’s “v-c squared” model, the channel’s buzzword for its viewer-submitted content, consists of mini-documentaries that are more likely to come from aspiring filmmakers. But TV networks and stations across the country are clamoring for more audience participation.

The proliferation of new technology is making such efforts possible. More than 60 million Americans own video camcorders. Cellphones with built-in cameras are flooding the market. This year, almost half of the cellphones sold in North America will come with cameras. Cellphone maker Nokia now says it is the largest manufacturer of digital cameras in the world, elbowing out traditional camera companies. And, says WABC New York News Director Kenny Plotnick, “Anyone with a camera is tantamount to being a reporter.”

Citizen journalism seemed to reach critical mass this summer when suicide bombers attacked London’s transportation system. On shattered subway cars, victims recorded the aftermath on their cellphones and e-mailed dark, grainy video and still pictures to British TV networks. It was the first time cellphone video had been widely used to cover a major news story. A month later, when an Air France jumbo jet careened off the runway in Toronto, shaken passengers once again took out their cellphones and started recording. The recent earthquake in Tokyo yielded the same results.

These events inspired many newsrooms to advertise for content. The national news networks began asking viewers to send in breaking-news images and video. A handful of TV stations, from big-market players like WABC to smaller outlets such as WTKR Norfolk, Va., also put out the call. Most say they’d be willing to pay for video—up to several hundred dollars—to secure exclusivity. Still, liability over such issues as privacy rights and defamation has yet to be settled.

TV reporters are testing out their own portable gadgets. ABC, CBS and NBC are handing out video-enabled cellphones to staffers. Later this year, ABC’s 24/7 broadband and cable network, ABC News Now, plans to outfit some reporters with Nokia’s new $900 N90, which the manufacturer says shoots VHS-quality video.

But news executives are divided on how much of a role the audience should play. Chief among their concerns: the quality and authenticity of video and pictures that viewers send in. “These are not journalists, and that scares me,” says Steve Schwaid, head of programming and news for NBC’s owned-and-operated stations. “How do I know what training they’ve had and what their relationships are?”

Another dilemma, news managers say, is that overly eager people could become community paparazzi, getting too close to victims or disrupting police work. “In television, we have sensibilities about shooting video,” says TV-news consultant Valerie Hyman. “We mute the sound or shoot from far away. People in the general public have none of that discussion—and who would expect them to? They’re not journalists.”

Fight for Attention 

And yet the desire to be first is palpable. If one news outlet won’t take the video, there are dozens more that might. Networks and stations are fighting with cable channels and the Internet for viewers’ attention.

Audience participation and so-called “grassroots journalism” also present a novel way to connect with the audience. “When you have millions of people armed with cameras that may find great stories, it is important you are the place they want to turn it over to,” says Mark Antonitis, president/general manager for Young Broadcasting’s KRON San Francisco.

Once the video or pictures are shot, specialized Internet sites and low-cost production tools enable regular citizens to easily publish their own blogs and news sites. Flickr.com, a photo-sharing service recently acquired by Yahoo, allows users to share photos and commentary; Blinkx.tv lets users search thousands of podcasts and video blogs. Yahoo recently launched My Web 2.0, message boards for people with common interests, and Google is adding video searches. Scoopt, a Glasgow, Scotland-based startup, helps people sell their cellphone pictures or video, although it keeps half the proceeds.

TV-news professionals are still trying to “grok” the blogosphere. Political bloggers reported on the presidential campaign with unrivaled zeal, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for the first time. CNN added a segment on political blogs to its afternoon show Inside Politics, and ABC News Now handed out Sprint cellphone cameras to people marching in the inaugural parade, then aired their video and pictures.

A handful of TV-news companies are cultivating relationships with contributors. Regional cable news channel New England Cable News (NECN) asks viewers to contribute local stories, such as promising-athlete profiles or traffic-snarl reports. “Viewers are always saying the stories that we do don’t reflect their lives,” says Steve Safran, director of digital media. “OK, so what’s going on in your life? Tell us. We can’t be everywhere at once, but you can.” NECN carefully distinguishes the amateur video from that of its own journalists, opting to call the sources “citizen newsgatherers.”

In Nashville, WKRN is going a step further. The station not only is soliciting video but is also training locals. In July, it hosted 20 area bloggers, including Chenoweth, for a crash course in video production. At the workshop, station photographers gave instruction on basic videography and critiqued the students’ work. “The biggest problem is that people shoot great images but it’s shaky and they zoom in and out,” says Terry Heaton, a TV-news consultant working with WKRN. “If they find themselves in a spot-news situation, we want it to be usable.”

The workshop also gives WKRN a chance to screen bloggers as potential sources. “We’ve started relationships with them,” says station President Mike Sechrist. For example, he says, “if Paul [Chenoweth] sent me video, I’d have high confidence using it.”

Training Citizen Journalists 

The BBC is incorporating local contributors into its newsrooms. Under a new pilot program, the broadcaster is launching 60 stations and plans to have community reporters generate one-fifth of the content. Michael Rosenblum, a former CBS news executive and news consultant, is working with the BBC on the effort and recommends that American news outlets pursue a similar tactic: “Technical training and baseline journalism training are critical.”

Before e-mail and cellphone messaging, if an individual had hot video, news managers recall, they would often bring it into the newsroom themselves. Now content is relayed anonymously. Generally, news executives will ask e-mailers to send their phone number so they can be quickly interviewed. Contributors are usually required to sign documents attesting that the content is genuine. On-air, an anchor might identify the content as viewer-contributed, and on-screen graphics can reinforce the separation. Says Eric Braun, former head of news for Raycom Media’s broadcast-station group and now managing editor of AP’s international TV operation, “We have to apply all the same checks and balances as we do with our own editorial content—and more.”

“More of a Conversation”

Even with safeguards in place, news executives worry that questionable content could slip through. “There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there that could be trying to dupe a news organization,” says Marcy McGinnis, senior VP of newsgathering for CBS News.

Despite any misgivings, McGinnis and others say they want more viewer involvement. “People want to feel like they are participating and we are listening,” says ABC News Now executive producer Michael Clemente. “News should be more of a conversation than a dictation from New York.”

Additional reporting by Anne Becker