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Got a Camera? You, Too, Can Be A Network Reporter

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

Clarissa Jessup was next in line to ask a question of John Kerry at the University of Florida when another student "stole the mike," she says -- and handed her his digital camera to record the scene.

"The police had already threatened me with arrest" for refusing to "shut up" and sit down as the session was winding down, says Jessup, who adds that she had never met the other student, Andrew Meyer. When Meyer launched into a diatribe, was dragged away by campus cops and subdued with a Taser gun, Jessup, 22, quickly sent the footage to CNN -- because, she says, she wanted national attention and does not like Fox News.

CNN aired the footage last Tuesday hours after receiving it (Jessup also posted it on YouTube), sparking a national debate over whether the police went too far or the journalism student got what he deserved. Without those pictures, the story would have been a mere blip.

It started with a trickle, but television news operations are now awash in video and pictures submitted by ordinary folks. The much-buzzed-about phenomenon of citizen journalism is firmly entrenched, thanks to the spread of digital and cellphone cameras and the rise of an interactive culture.

It is one sweet deal for the networks: small armies of tech-savvy volunteers in places where reporters aren't, offering their services free of charge.

"It's not that different from wanting to show your photos of a trip," says Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and blogger who has launched an online media research effort staffed entirely by volunteers. "It's a way of participating in public life. There's a very potent impulse to share what you have."

Citizen pictures are most vital when disaster strikes: hurricanes, tornadoes, the Minneapolis bridge collapse. All the networks carefully vet the material and use only a fraction of what is submitted, with far more posted on their Web sites than making it to the air.

Fox has received nearly 40,000 videos and pictures in six months under its uReport initiative. "There's something very raw and real about the pictures, because they're not highly produced," says Executive Producer Suzanne Scott. "They really make the viewer feel they're at the story." The only problem, she says, is that "spammers have figured out a way to use the uReport to send in their promos."

MSNBC's FirstPerson program has drawn 28,000 submissions since its launch in late April. "We have two-way conversations, so it's not just about us showing the news, but the community being able to share the news with us," says Gina Stikes, marketing director for MSNBC.com. "It really empowers us, and empowers them as well."

At CNN, the first cable network to launch such an effort 14 months ago, more than 60,000 videos and pictures have poured in from its "I-Reporters." The most newsworthy have involved such events as a Dallas factory fire and a New York steam pipe explosion. On the day of the Virginia Tech massacre in April, CNN paid for an exclusive deal with graduate student Jamal Albarghouti for the first shaky video taken during the shooting.

"Some folks in our industry look down their noses at it a little bit, and that's a huge mistake," says Sue Bunda, CNN's vice president for content development. "It's such a disregard for the value of our audience." She says she got the idea last year when she saw her teenage son's pride in a T-shirt from a video-sharing site -- and says CNN now sends shirts to contributors whose material is aired.

Not all pictures involve breaking news. At ABC's i-Caught site, which generated a six-episode summer series, the most popular video -- played nearly 400,000 times -- is of animal attacks at a South African safari park. MSNBC is soliciting pictures of viewers partying in Las Vegas, for example, while CNN has posted images of Coney Island attractions that could give way to redevelopment. After "NBC Nightly News" aired a series on caring for elderly parents, 6,000 people submitted material about their families.

Some stories might not exist without cellphone cameras, such as the footage of Michael Richards's racist rant at a comedy club. And such footage can be valuable. TMZ.com, the gossip site that pays for information, obtained the Richards video.

The rise of citizen newsgathering is changing the news business in subtle ways. It's an extension of the Facebook culture, in which members post hundreds of pictures of themselves, and the YouTube ethos, where pointing and shooting can capture "macaca"-type embarrassments. And it sends a signal that anyone, not just well-dressed professionals with good hair and a resonant voice, can be a journalist.

Don't Touch That Dial

The network newscasts are stepping up efforts to grab you -- in the opening seconds.

On "NBC Nightly News," Brian Williams has junked the old introduction, in which he was the unseen narrator as video of stories and headlines rolled, following the names of each of his predecessors back to John Cameron Swayze. The new opening is quicker and more conversational, with Williams on screen as graphics appear in a box over his shoulder.

While he had been puzzled by viewer complaints that "waiting one full minute for me to come on is punishment," Williams says that partially ad libbing in front of the camera -- and in a less booming voice -- "fits my style better. I think it's higher energy. Seeing someone standing there is better than hearing someone's voice."

The sequence is similar to the intro on ABC's "World News," in which Charlie Gibson simply stands and reads the headlines.

The "CBS Evening News" has gone in the opposite direction, yanking the opening in which Katie Couric took a step forward to a quick burst of music. In its place is a longer, magazine-style beginning -- with more footage and sound bites from the day's news -- and Couric appearing on screen only briefly.

"It brings an energy and content to the program that is much better than what we were doing," says Executive Producer Rick Kaplan, adding that it resembles the introduction he used when he worked at "Nightline." "What's important is: What are the stories we are covering? . . . We're by no means trying to hide the anchor. She's reading the headlines."

No Dice on Rice

The secretary of state has always been considered a prize catch for the Sunday talk shows. But when the White House offered Condoleezza Rice for appearances eight days ago, after a week focused on Iraq, two programs took the unusual step of turning her down.

Executives at CBS and NBC say Rice no longer seems to be a key player on the war and that her cautious style makes her a frustrating guest.

"I expected we'd just get a repetition of the administration's talking points, which had already been well circulated," says Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's "Face the Nation," who questioned two senators instead. "We'd had a whole week of that with General Petraeus and President Bush. I thought it was more important to get a sense of where the Senate Republicans were."

Tim Russert, moderator of "Meet the Press," who also hosted two senators, declined to comment on why he turned down Rice.

"She was happy to have her Sunday morning back," says State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "There are lots of weekends where we're getting urgent phone calls requesting her to be on Sunday shows."

Footnote: None of the five shows turned down Hillary Clinton yesterday, although there was grumbling about the lack of exclusivity.

Unsafe at Any Speed?

When General Motors ran a six-page advertising supplement in last week's Washington Post, touting its environmental credentials, many newsroom staffers were upset. The reason: The section was filled with articles bearing bylines of Post writers.

Why was the paper lending its credibility to an automaker that it covers? Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says that because the stories were previously published, "we were not doing journalism specifically for this section."

Downie says he is undecided about such cooperation with future advertisers: "I'm not sure where the line is on that, and that's why I agreed to go this far."

Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell said in her weekly critique that the use of the bylines "bothers the hell out of me" and that "it doesn't blur the line. It obliterates it."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources."

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