Friday, June 14, 2013

Building a News Meritocracy

An adapted version of this appeared on the website of Ambulante, Mexico's largest traveling film festival.

 There has never been a better time to be a documentary filmmaker or video journalist. Thanks to the web, documentaries are now reaching more people than ever. The tools and training have become affordable and ubiquitous. Online video journalism is actually a GROWING sector in the news business. As a result, there are more freelance non-fiction videomakers than ever.

 What’s exciting about the web is how different it is than anything that has come before it. It is not a one dimensional content pipeline like television or newspapers, but a flexible, programmable medium only limited by human imagination. It is capable of transforming documentary from a linear, one-way experience to a much more immersive, interactive one. I believe that in the next decade, the web will lead to more innovation in documentary production and distribution than ever before.

But with these new opportunities come new challenges. The news business that was disrupted by the Web a decade ago, has not yet been redeemed by it. Lots of big media companies are still scaling back their global news gathering operations, letting go some of their most talented reporters, often replacing them with pundits or news aggregation services. How do we pick up the pieces and cover the world in a sustainable way when business models have been broken? How do we, as video journalists and documentarians, make money doing this crucial work? How do we prevent the same media monoliths who control the airwaves from controlling broadband as well? In many ways we are starting from scratch, with difficult questions that have yet to be answered.

In the past decade, we have seen that the democratization of media doesn’t yield the highest quality results, or a winning business model. It’s sort of like a football team where everyone is allowed to play. In all likelihood, this football team will not win a single match. Similarly, user-generated content and citizen journalism experiments have failed to attract viewers in a sustainable way, and thus, advertisers. This idealistic experiment has led to lower standards, and even less trust in media. Tailoring media coverage for social, viral engagement will just lead to similarly low standards. The rise of aggregators is ushering in the tabloidization of the internet. If news consumers don’t fix their unhealthy viewing habits online, we will witness a great decay of the intellectual and moral fiber of our society. In today’s world, we are what we click.

The best way to ensure our collective future in news is to build a meritocracy based on quality, credible video journalism for the web. More and more people, especially in emerging countries, now have the ability and equipment to make documentaries. But with the vast quantities of content now being produced, it becomes even more essential to figure out which are the most valuable stories to the largest number of viewers. There are several possible approaches, but we believe in a proactive one; providing the tools, guidance, and editorial support to train people how to make high quality journalism. At the end of the day, this meritocracy serves everyone’s best interests. Filmmakers improve their craft and make a living. Media companies regain trust and audiences. Most importantly, the highest quality stories that serve the public interest get to see the light of day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Improving the Quality of Information

I just read a fantastic book called, the Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen.  Keen's core message is something I've believed since I watched my first cat video go viral on Youtube; that if we're not careful, user-generated content will destroy the most sacred institutions in our society, and perhaps the notion of "truth" itself.  Think this is an extreme statement? I don't.

Consider what most people do these days to settle a fact-based argument.  You probably first go to Google.  Then that leads you to Wikipedia and you settle it there.  But how credible is Wikipedia?  Who are the contributors and editors?  Are they experts in the topics, or just regular people?  What is the value of an encyclopedia entry edited by someone who is not an expert on the subject matter?  Not to mention a more cynical observation: Certainly getting a favorable write-up in one of the world's most popular websites is a valuable piece of marketing.  Could Wikipedia editors be bought off ?

Wikipedia prides itself on being an encyclopedia that anyone can edit.  For that reason it is an encyclopedia that nobody should fully trust.  Keen mentions an anecdote of a world renowned climate scientist who fought to get an entry on global warming changed, only to be rebuked by Wikipedia's arbitration committee.  Shouldn't Dr. William Connelly, a Cambridge educated climate modeler, be the one responsible for editing an entry on global warming?  Keen questions why Wikipedia would favor another source over Connelly, and he is right to wonder this.  Shouldn't a supposed "open source" encyclopedia be more transparent about who their authors/editors are?  If not, what credibility does it have?

Journalism is another case in point.  My beloved profession got kicked in the gonads by Craig's List, and now we're out hunting for new business models.  In the early naughts there was much hype that "citizen journalism," was the holy grail.  After one too many shaky zoom-ins and sloppily written blog posts, news organizations and society at large are coming to their senses on the subject.  This is a positive development.  Professional journalism is as difficult as it is crucial.  We need to trust it to the people who do it well, understand when they're being manipulated, and don't have any other hidden agendas besides delivering the facts.  While I do see some very cool and useful applications for citizen journalism, it should always be complimentary and contextualized by the real thing.  Sure, there will always be rogue professional journalists, but if we outsource journalism to the masses, poor judgement and quality will become the rule rather than the exception.

The latest trend in journalism is the movement towards "branded content."  I don't blame unemployed journalists for taking these jobs.  Journalists need to eat, after all, and companies need to sell products.  But the idea of calling their work product "journalism" just makes me sick to my stomach.  You can not work for a company whose mission is to sell detergent, condoms, or cars and still call yourself a journalist.  It just doesn't work that way.

I wonder if Keen would prefer a cult of amateurs or a cult of corporate pseudo-journalists in his dystopian newsroom of the future.  Either way, the writer and techcrunch TV presenter, who describes himself on his Twitter handle as the "Anti-christ of Silicon Valley," deserves a lot of credit  for taking on the establishment.  He passionately and persuasively argues against the false prophet that was Web 2.0's.  User-generated content didn't usher in the great democratization for which we are longing, but, generally speaking, led to an orgy of self-indulgent mediocrity.  Don't get me wrong: It is a beautiful thing that anyone can create a blog and publish something online.  Sometimes the blogger or amateur musician or citizen journalist will be that one-in-a-million star that was empowered because of Web 2.0 tools.  But chances are they won't be. 

And for you cynics out there: No, I do not know Keen personally and am not getting paid by him, his publisher, or anyone else to write this.  But it's good if you're asking these questions!  While I am a journalist by trade, I am writing this on a free publishing platform called "Blogger" and will not make a penny off of this blog post. 

So where are we headed? I am cautiously optimistic about Web 3.0. (Is that what we're calling it?)  In the previous decade, investors, in their frenzy towards products and services that engage the masses, were concerned far more with their bottom line than any other consideration.  This will not change.   But imagine what Youtube would have been worth in 2006 if they had a higher ratio of quality content?  Think about the problems they are having getting high CPM's (price per thousand views) right now from advertisers precisely because most of their content is worthless.  I think investors are slowly coming to terms with the fact that quality content is the most valuable asset money can buy, and will back startups who are working towards that end.

But Keen raises more of an ethical question than an economic one.  What is the net result of watching too many viral cat videos? Do we in fact risk the great institutions that nurture talented writers, artists, journalists, encyclopedias, and scientists in our society?  It's a compelling question, and one that I'm glad is being asked.

I do believe that with every action we make on the internet or in the real world, we cast a vote.  On the web it's called engagement.  In the real world it's called attention.  You may not think its that important, but it is.  Companies that can get engaged audiences make money, and companies that don't go under.  In this game for our attention, we're all known as users.  But, like democracy, as users we do have some power.  If we stop watching cat videos or engaging in questionable content, we can drastically affect corporate decision-making.  So be a good user and use your attention wisely.

The great reggae icon Bob Marley wrote, "Don't forget your history or your destiny."  These words are extremely poignant today.  This quote, and life itself, is all about balance.  Let's not rush to an uncertain future devoid of all the things that make our culture rich and strong.  Let's take it slow and do it right.  We should embrace the democratic virtues of participation, but not at the expense of high quality information.  We must strike the balance between empowering people and preserving that which is most sacred.