By Mark Rosen-Molina, PBS MediaShift
Whenever news breaks, the first people on the ground, before reporters arrive, are ordinary folks with cameras. Citizen journalists have played an important role in getting us the first glimpses of developing news, from the London transit bombings to the Southeast Asian tsunami to the Virginia Tech massacre. With the advent of YouTube as a hub for video-sharing, there's finally a venue outside the mainstream media where amateur journalists can distribute their videos to a wide audience.
While professional journalists have used the service to distribute documentaries, the nature of citizen reporting on YouTube still remains very time-and-location specific, more a matter of catching an event, something fleeting and out of context, than of telling the story behind it. Last week, YouTube announced Project: Report, a journalism contest that aims to change that.
It's an unmistakable sign that the site is growing up, struggling to become something more than a repository of funny videos of cats falling off of things while still maintaining the community vibe that's made it so popular. Project: Report aims to motivate people outside the established news media — the ordinary people that make up the bulk of YouTube viewers — to take up reporting. The contest is open only to non-professional journalists; even frequent freelancers are excluded under the rules, although journalism students are encouraged to compete. The idea of using a payment incentive to encourage quality reporting may mean that YouTube soon won't just have an army of citizen journalists but an army of quality citizen journalists (or semi-pro journalists), interested in telling stories rather than just passing along comic moments.
Project: Report is a three-round contest for aspiring journalists to dip into video reporting. For the first round, contestants are asked to create a short video profile of someone in their community. YouTube partnered with the Pulitzer Center, a non-profit that supports international independent journalism and uncovering underreported stories. The Center's journalists will judge the entries and choose 10 semi-finalists.
In the second round, those 10 will compete to tell local stories with global impact. Five second-round winners will go on to tell the story of an under-represented community — with an added twist. According to the YouTube press release, "Each of the finalists will be provided with two additional Sony videocameras to give to members of the group they are reporting on, so that they can participate in the telling of their own stories. The reporter will then use this footage and integrate it into the telling of the story of five minutes or less." Rounds two and three won't be judged by professional journalists, but rather put to a popular vote by the YouTube community.
Winners in each round receive video technology prizes from Sony. First round winners also get to participate in a journalism conference hosted by the Pulitzer Center, while second round winners will get one-on-one mentorships with a professional journalist as they head into round three. Finally, the grand prize winner also gets a $10,000 grant to travel abroad and will get to work the Pulitzer Center on an important global story.
Pulitzer Center executive director Jon Sawyer sees the contest as the first step toward fulfilling YouTube's potential to showcase "serious" reporting.
"The Pulitzer Center works to raise the quality of American journalism, and part of that is to keep attention on important news stories," Sawyer told me, "To that end, we created a channel on YouTube, where we now have about 50 or 60 videos up. They're getting good traffic; we put one video about Iraq on YouTube, an 8-minute serious piece, and it's got more than 300,000 views. It demonstrates that, even without any advertising, people are interested in serious journalism on YouTube."
More Than Accidental Reporters
Project: Report is the brainchild of YouTube news & politics manager Olivia Ma and political director Steve Grove, who have long touted the site's potential for more substantial reporting. Through Project: Report, they hope YouTube can become a home for a form of journalism rarely seen in the online video world: longer form story-telling. Until now, YouTube reporting has largely been confined to the "citizen with cameraphone at the right place at the right time" variety. That's largely the brand of amateur journalism that traditional media has tried to tap into with its various overtures to the cameraphone set — including CNN's iReport and Fox News' U-Report.
YouTube's earlier journalism projects likewise focused on the accidental journalist. YouTube launched one of its first such projects in 2007 with a video asking Iowans who brought cameras to their state caucuses to send in coverage of the event.
"That wasn't really a focus project, more of a 'If you're out there and happen to be shooting video, then send it to us,'" Grove told me. "This is more robust and focused, something targeting an audience that wants to delve deeper and really tell a story in much more the way that a journalist would."
Grove prefers to avoid the term "citizen journalist," noting that the contest is aimed at people whose interest in reporting news goes beyond just showing up with a camera but extends into telling a compelling story. He prefers to refer to entrants as "aspiring journalists," noting that the contest targets journalism schools.
Finalists receive support from Pulitzer Center journalists with the goal of creating winning entries that could pass muster both with YouTube viewers and any traditional media outlet — and narrowing the gap between professional and citizen journalists.
Most online journalism contests aimed at non-professionals have generally focused more on content than technique, promoted by advocacy groups asking for works about a certain issue or arguing a particular point of view — like Sunshine Week's Monthly Essay Awards through Helium. In contrast, Project: Report is more about learning the tools of journalism.
Not the Nine O'Clock News
It isn't the first time that YouTube has been used for journalism, but it does seem to be the first time that the Internet video site has moved to get into the game itself. It follows similar moves by YouTube's parent company, Google, to dip toes into journalism with its extensive election coverage page and the addition of comments on Google News stories.
Although YouTube is fostering and encouraging journalism, Grove doesn't see the site as competing with traditional journalism outlets.
"This isn't a case of YouTube getting into the journalism business," he said. "We don't have editorial control over the content. It's not like we're setting up the YouTube news bureau. It's more about empowering people to use technology. It's our responsibility to highlight and serve users by connecting them."
Although Project: Report is an independent endeavor originating from YouTube, Google spokesperson Kate Hurowitz pointed to it as an example of how Google products are becoming a platform for citizen journalism.
"Our focus [at Google] is on organizing information and making it accessible and useful," she said. "We've created a number of easy-to-use tools, including the voter information page and My Maps, that are making it easier for users to find news and information. Rather that thinking of these tools as journalism per se, it might be more accurate to think of them as helpful tools for citizen journalists."
Others agreed that, while journalism is a booming trade on YouTube, key differences exist between it and traditional news outlets.
"This shows that YouTube can engage in a network-type function, but instead of the old 'pushing out' function, it can empower people to create their own programming," said David Perlmutter, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas.
Perlmutter is encouraging students in his new media and politics class to enter the contest.
"YouTube allows that expression because it contains interactivity," he said. "TV networks are declining in terms of viewership. When I was a kid, there was just ABC, CBS, PBS and some Japanese monster movies on UHF. Everyone watched the same things, but today it's fractured. There are only a few shows, like 'American Idol,' that everyone sees. People are recognizing that YouTube can be more than a repository of random bits of entertainment."
But Why a Contest?
Focusing on the cash prize, it's easy to be skeptical that a contest is the best format to encourage journalism. Mark Hopkins of Mashable predicted an outcome with "one moderately excited winner and a whole bunch of disenfranchised losers." Hopkins suggested that the prize money could better be spent in seeding various smaller documentary projects. That's something that Current TV has done well over the past few years.
While YouTube could sponsor more reporting through smaller, individual grants, there's always the problem of getting people to watch them. Grove pointed out that it's precisely the contest format that gets entrants more exposure.
"One of definitive things about YouTube and online communities is that the wisdom of crowds is a great signal for content," he said. "Great videos rise to the top based on what viewers think, not what people behind the screens here at YouTube think. Not having a popular vote wouldn't be true to the YouTube spirit. The popular vote helps get people inspired to view the videos. It will require journalists to use the web how it's supposed to be used, using interactivity to promote their work."
Whether YouTube will hold similar contests in the future depends in part on the response to Project: Report, but Sawyer and Grove are optimistic. So far, over 205,000 people have already viewed the contest's call-out video posted on the Pulitzer Center's website.
New Media Bytes blogger Shawn Smith wrote that the real value in Project: Report could be in connecting citizen reporters to their local media outlets. Those outlets, looking for their next star reporter, would do well to check out prospective journalists' abilities on YouTube. That increased visibility could be a real boon to aspiring journalists in a tough job market.
What do you think about Project: Report? Do you think YouTube can become a home to more polished semi-pro journalism? How might local news outlets work more closely with YouTube to motivate people to produce stories for them as well? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.
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By Mark Rosen-Molina, PBS MediaShift