Do Try This at Home

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By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005; 9:18 AM

Readers who caught up with Random Access the day after the July 7 London terrorist attacks will recall my coverage of the cell-phone photos, video and nearly instantaneous blog entries that Britain's news Web sites solicited from amateurs rather than reporters who rushed to the scene.

I said it was the first "professional-style" test of community journalism and that it passed, thanks in part to the organization that professional editors and reporters brought to the influx of raw content.

The attacks, along with a busy hurricane season and a growing sense of "who's that sneaking up behind me" prompted some of the nation's largest newspapers to devote weekend features to the latest wave of the community journalism phenomenon.

The Boston Globe used Hurricane Dennis as an example: "During the hurricane, MSNBC periodically broadcast commercials inviting viewers to e-mail photos or video to MSNBC to be used on a website or for broadcast. CNN's website drew photos of damaged boardwalks and flooded coastal areas, some of which ended up on the air. Officials at ABC and CBS say that they are developing channels through which the public can submit content. 'These are the kinds of images that will be critical in the future,' said Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer for NBC News Specials & Special Projects. ... Recently, NBC officials have started to equip both reporting and nonreporting staff with cellphone cameras in case they come upon a news story, as have officials at ABC and CBS. 'We could use it at any time,' said Paul Slavin, senior vice president for worldwide newsgathering at ABC. ''We might use it in undercover circumstance. We could make it part of the flyaway kit for any correspondent. We need to make sure everybody has it.'"

Robert Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism department, likened the trend to outsourcing and an increasing reliance on stringers as more news services shut their bureaus.

But CNN/US President Jon Klein provided the Globe with what might be a necessary "don't try this at home" message -- after all, the newsroom isn't about to assume liability for the home reporter's medical expenses: "During CNN's hurricane coverage, the network received hundreds of submissions, said CNN/US President Jon Klein. Klein said CNN officials admonished viewers not to take any risks for a photo just as the network mandates safety for its camera crews. 'The greater part of the audience was concerned with getting the hell out of the way, but a few, intrepid, maybe crazy, reporter-type people will take a picture before they go,' he said." journalism? We'll see.

For some interesting historical perspective about the rise of Internet-based citizen journalism, check this article in the Australian. "The September 11, 2001, terrorist strike is considered the first big citizen-reported event, with much of the most dramatic footage of the fatal attack on New York's World Trade Centre captured by video camera-toting tourists who happened to be nearby. Many images of the Boxing Day tsunami and the electricity blackouts on the US east coast were also provided by members of the public rather than of the media. But the London bombings are the first big news story in which the initial visual coverage was dominated by such images, says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School."

The New York Times reported that ABC affiliate WABC-TV in New York called on its news anchors to solicit amateur photos and video: "'It allows our audience to be true eyewitnesses,' said Kenny Plotnik, vice president and news director of WABC, who said he was riveted by cellphone photos from the London subway bombings and from areas hit by Hurricane Dennis."

The Times noted several pitfalls that I'm sure I'll be writing about in this column before too long: "WABC's requests for viewer submissions caution people not to endanger themselves to get a good shot and warn that their cellphone carrier may charge them for sending data. What's more, very large files might encounter transmission problems, Mr. Plotnik said. Mr. Plotnik says the station will watch for hoaxes. 'We will make news judgments on these pictures just as we make news judgments on our news coverage,' he said."

Community Journalism in the Heartland

In Sunday's edition, The Washington Post profiled Your Mom, a weekly newspaper for teenagers run by Lee Enterprises Inc.'s Quad-City Times. The ad campaign features catchy come-ons such as "Check out Your Mom," "Your Mom is hot" and "Your Mom has issues," as Ariana Eunjung Cha reported. Aside from one full-time editor and two interns, the Web site and newspaper are staffed by and written about teenagers. (Here's some video Cha took for her piece.)

The idea was started by students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, the article said: "In the spring of 2004, they presented their proposal to the Quad-City Times, and the newspaper executives decided within days to invest. Today the Your Mom Web site has about 1,200 unique visitors each week. In addition, 9,000 free copies of the 16-page, 6 1/2 -by-11-inch newspaper -- designed to sit comfortably in a back pocket -- are distributed at schools, malls, pizza shops and pools throughout the region. The Quad-City Times invested $80,000 in Your Mom for start-up costs, and it operates on a $18,000-a-month budget. While Your Mom lost money its first year, Quad-City executives said they expect to turn a profit in the coming fiscal year."

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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