The Future (?) of Journalism in the Age of Youtube

The amateur IS the journalist and the amateur is everywhere. All the time.

January 15th, 2009, a plane crash lands in the Hudson River. Less than ten minutes after the crash, a man named Janis Krums snaps a photo of the downed plane and uploads the photo to Twitpic. As the ferry boat heads to the crash site to pick up survivors, Krum’s photo becomes the defining photo of this event, running on the front page of newspapers around the world.


So who is Janis Krums? Who is this person who has captured one of the most important breaking news stories of 2009?

Janis Krums is your competition. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Remember the amazing photos from inside the collapsed tunnels during the London train bombings?
Or the flurry of Twitter and cell phone text messages from inside the Taj Hotel during the terror attack on Mumbai?
How about the amateur video shot by a passenger, capturing the murder of an innocent man by a policeman in the San Francisco BART train station?

The amateur IS the journalist and the amateur is everywhere. All the time.

How did it get this way?

First: The technological barriers to entry have disappeared.

More and more cell phones have the ability to record and send video. Applications such as Qik and Flixwagon allow cell phone users to transmit live video straight to the Internet. The implications of this are staggering. It is only in the last few years that traditional broadcast news networks have begun to use satellite phones to transmit live video without the need for a news crew or news van. Now this technology is common-place.

 Secondly: Distribution barriers have disappeared.

What used to take miles of cable and access to a select few channels licensed from the FCC, or huge printing presses, endless amounts of paper and a complex system of newsstand and home delivery, can now be done with a few keystrokes and reach a more targeted audience than TV ever could.

For those wishing to create their own mini broadcast news network, it’s as easy as purchasing a Flip Video camera, setting up a Tubemogul account, and hosting it all on a custom WordPress website. All of this for under $200!

The destruction of these barriers has flipped the media economy on it’s head. Imagine the traditional media as a funnel. At the top there are world events, below that, the journalists who create stories from these events. Journalists then feed their stories into their respective news outlet, and that information is delivered in a one-way stream to the public. This entire time, the range of news items has been selectively narrowed down to what the news outlet thinks the public should know.

With the rise of amateur content, the funnel has been flipped upside down. Information is no longer scarce and flows from the public up the funnel. The most popular news items are eventually noticed by the media who then write about it or link to it on their website. News is now flowing both ways, and no story is ever complete.

Obviously a teenager with a Flip Video camera is not going to put the BBC out of business. And there are many valid critiques of citizen journalism.

Two Critiques of Citizen Journalism

Production Quality

As YouTube has shown us, people do NOT want what we think they want.

Timeliness, brevity, and emotional impact, are key traits of the most viewed YouTube videos. In nearly every category, videos that excel in these three traits have the highest view count.  This runs counter intuitive to what we EXPECT people to value.  In traditional journalism we expect people to value in-depth, long-form, fact-checked and tightly edited reporting.  We expect people to value accuracy over timeliness.  We expect people to value high production values over spontaneous raw footage. But this is not so.

YouTube hits such as Susan Boyle, from ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, is a testament to what people really want.  People do not go to YouTube for the highest video quality.  They go to YouTube to be informed, entertained, shocked, or moved during the small window of time they have to watch something at work or in between daily tasks.

The days when people planned their dinners around the evening news are over.  People want short, informative, or entertaining ‘snackable’ bits of content that they can watch whenever they want.  The appointment-based broadcast model is coming to an end.

Accuracy and Objectivity

Citizen Journalism has been criticized for being inaccurate and opinion based.  True, stories such as the false claim that Steve Jobs had a heart attack, leaked one day over Twitter, sparked a massive sell off of Apple stock.  This certainly damaged the reputation of citizen journalists around the world.  However, the power of a social network based news distribution model is that any story that is released is subject to near real-time correction by readers.

Wikipedia is created by the masses.  Yet, according to the magazine ‘Nature’, Wikipedia is more accurate and up-to-date that the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Much of our news will be this way soon, where a story is never really finished, it’s only in ‘beta’. Forever.

Many professional journalists scoff at the masses on YouTube.  In doing so, they do themselves a huge disservice.  The popular video creators on YouTube may not be trained broadcast journalists but they have added to the vocabulary of successful video production and more importantly successful distribution and engagement with an online audience.

You have to recognize this new vocabulary or risk becoming irrelevant.

So what can you do?

Broadcast journalists have a great skill: the ability to craft amazing and accurate reports out of chaotic and sometimes nebulous news situations.  This skill is a huge advantage when it comes to making compelling online video. But this skill alone is not enough.  There are new skills that you must learn to compete with people like Janis Krums and the video equipped masses.

The first skill to learn is how to shoot and edit a story using the equipment you have on hand.

Just as great works of art were created with the simple pencil, great stories can be created using Flip Video cameras, cell phone cameras and digital point and shoot cameras.  Sometimes it is impractical to carry a large camera or walk into a situation with a large crew.  Sometimes news breaks when you least expect it and you have no crew or proper equipment.  In these situations you must be able to work with what you have, and you should always carry SOMETHING on you that can take a photo or video and get it online right away.

Shooting with amateur technology introduces creative constraints.  Constraints such as bad low-light performance, weak audio and non-stabilized optics.  Each of these constraints can be overcome and by doing so you will become better at capturing breaking news and crafting compelling stories.  Technical constraints will enable you to look past the technical aspects of making a video, and focus more clearly on why you are shooting what you are shooting, and exactly how it will capture the attention of your audience emotionally and intellectually.

Put away the good gear and see if you can make something amazing with cheap equipment.  You will be surprised how this sharpens your storytelling skills.

Secondly, journalists must understand how to use social networks and video distribution networks to their advantage.  Currently, most traditional media establishments have only a crude framework for promoting content online.  Posting video on the official news website and writing a few blog entries is not enough.   News stations must get up to speed with how video monetization and distribution works.

How many times must the BBC or ABC news see their original content posted illegally on YouTube, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits under someone else’s name?

Those views could have been making the news station money if they had only torn down the wall to their content.  Content wants to be free and will be free. They have to attach some advertising to it, get it out there themselves on many networks, and monitor the number of hits, charging advertisers accordingly.  It’s money that is being left on the table.

Successful independent YouTubers and film makers already understand this and encourage people to take their content and re-post and re-use it all over the Internet.

 Dying from Behind a Walled Garden

If your station or institution wishes to keep its content behind a ‘walled garden,’ then you must start thinking about your personal future as a journalist. You must become your own brand.  You must understand social media, viral video, and how to produce award winning content on your own.

The successful one-person video creator needs to focus on a specific type of content, something that they care about, are an expert in, and have access to. Content needs to be created for smaller screens, made in a shorter amount of time and with less resources.  Story, emotional impact, and/or educational value, must be the driving principles when creating content.

Your videos need to also have certain technical qualities:

  • Under 5 minutes.
  • Descriptive and enticing titles.
  • Be tagged correctly.
  • Have the best encoding and thumbnail possible.

Making great content is not enough.  You must create an online identity, a brand if you will.  This requires a beautiful and fast-loading website that serves as your resume, your social network headquarters, and most importantly as a place to gather your audience.

You as a Brand

 Things you can do to create your own brand:

  • Create and brand your own independent stories and distribute them to multiple video websites using Tubemogul (or a similar one-stop distributing platform.)
  • Find where the type of person you target hangs out online and market to them.
  • Create valuable educational content for free and for pay.
  • Blog about what you know. Become a thought leader. Become the news source, the one that people turn to as an authority.
  • Start Twittering, and build connections to people that will rave about your content.

Branding and marketing yourself will make you a sought after content-creator no matter what happens to the traditional media during these times of change.

There is no guarantee that traditional media will remain in it’s current form or have jobs for all those graduating from college.  Trends suggest that most traditional media jobs will be a thing of the pastBut you can thrive.

In fact you can do better than your predecessors.

Your core skills of integrity, personal vision and storytelling are in demand and hard to come by.   If you step outside of the box known as the traditional media and become more than just another journalist or camera operator, you will have the opportunity to innovate and re-define what news is and what shape it take in the future.

Traditional mediums may be dying, but great news and content is thriving more than ever.

Thank you.