An article last month in WIRED online, by Dylan Tweney, is provocatively titled “Even With Spike Lee Directing, Cellphone Movies Will Still Suck.” It talks about Nokia’s deal with Spike Lee to make a short movie based on amateur cell phone videos. The film, according to Lee, will have three acts, up to five minutes in length each, with “the theme loosely based on the concept of humanity.”
Yeah, it sounds awfully general, but that’s what you have to expect when you don’t know what users are going to submit. But Tweney poses an interesting series of questions:
Why couldn’t the project involve user-submitted cellphone clips from post-Katrina New Orleans? Shots of urban street life and racial conflict in the Bronx? Rival fraternities at a historically-black college in the South? Or cellphone videos of bank robberies?
Tweney answers his own question by saying that those projects would be way to real for Nokia’s marketing department.
Could be, but it reminds me of a talk I gave last year to a group of newspaper editors at the Philadephia Inquirer. Like everyone else in the newspaper business, they were completely freaked about what to do in a world where their newsgathering budgets were decreasing, while they were being beseiged by demands to incorporate online in their news plans.
One of the things that I talked about was using the power of social networking to help their readers contribute local coverage that they could no longer afford to do. People could upload videos of local high school baseball games, or store closings, or snow banks that hadn’t been cleared away days after a blizzard. With some boldness in an editorial approach, they could encourage people to post their own “videos to the editor” that would, in a Wikipedia sort of way, become self-correcting and self-policing.
One year later, I don’t see much in the way of progress on this front — at the Inquirer or anywhere. Some local television stations are showing viewer mobile videos of tornadoes or arrests, since their reporters can’t be everywhere all the time. But the filter is way too fine grain right now. Everything is going through a layer of editors to make sure that the material is “station approved” and up to their standards (this will leave me wide open for a crack about the lack of real standards in local news — so, go ahead, and know that I agree with you).
Someone is going to have to let go of some of that control in order for this idea to catch fire and become a true local news reporting tool. It would be great to have people uploading videos like Tweney suggests? That is the real place for his short video suggestions. It could propel news gathering in new and very exciting ways.
After I posted the above entry, I stumbled across an entry by Colin Mulvany in his blog Mastering Multimedia, in which he talks about his career path in his job as a multimedia editor at a newspaper in Spokane, Washington. Interestingly, he talks about a survey from the Newspaper Association of America, which (among other things) documents just who is shooting video for newspapers today. The chart below tells the interesting story.
Less than half of the people making newspaper video are videographers. The bulk of them are, as I mentioned above, people who happen to be doing other things at the paper — mostly photographers. This means that, for those people, newspaper video is illustrative, not story telling. I know that this is a broad generalization and not even I quite believe what I just said 100%. But my point is that telling stories using multimedia isn’t the same as taking a news photo, or even the same as doing print reporting. It’s a different breed altogether. And we may not be doing it justice.