Evolution Media #2: Katrina and Current TV

<![CDATA[Here's the new episode of Evolution Media, my bi-weekly audio rant. The subject this time is how the media showed its best side when covering Hurricane Katrina, as well as the promised review of Al Gore's Current TV network and its approach to citizen journalism.
As usual, you have three ways to listen (there still seems to be no way to offer a choice of formats through RSS, other than having multiple feeds—which is virtually impossible to manage in Movable Type).
Audible Format 3, the voice-optimized file is smallest (5.2 MB)
Audible Format 4, MP3-quality, far smaller than MP3 (10.3 MB)—Your best choice, IMO
MP3 (51.4 MB)
For those of you who want to read along—I rewrite in my head constantly while reading so there is no faithful transcript—you can continue reading this posting to see the text I worked from….

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Hello and welcome to the second installment of Evolution Media. I’m Mitch Ratcliffe.
Let me start out by saying that it has been a terrible week for the people of the Gulf Coast region and that I hope you’ll take a moment to visit to make a donation to help in the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina.
I’d planned on doing a critique of Current TV, the television network founded by former Vice President Al Gore, in his installment, and I’ll get to that after an introductory digression about how the media showed its best side in covering the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
The coverage of Katrina is another milestone in the development of citizen journalism and a reminder of the value of the press in a free society. Using increasingly ubiquitous tools, bloggers reported events from their homes and the refuges they found from the storm, home video and cameraphones were used to capture the earliest images of the true scope of the disaster, and television networks and Web sites carried reports by real people caught in the region. The Web was turned into a public lost-and-found bulletin board and gave voice to a rage at the bumbling response of the federal government, becoming an editorial page open to all that ignited a political crisis.
Katrina coverage was also an outstanding example of the merging of new and old media that, as I explained last time, is an inevitable outcome of the evolution of media. We actually saw many examples of established media and citizen journalism working side-by-side, adding extensively to the information available to the public rather than fighting over which source was right or more complete.
In times of crisis, the apparent conflicts between the new and old give way—everyone who is trying to tell the story of something as vast as Hurricane Katrina knows they are getting only a small slice of the horrible reality; when it’s a domestic crisis, the professional objectivity that often gives the appearance that the established media is unfeeling is obliterated by the reporters’ familiarity with the place and people. The repeated expressions by mainstream journalists at the unadulterated frustration they felt at the failure of the emergency response were as honest as the reports of a blogger living in New Orleans or southern Mississippi.
I followed a number of blogs, but also spent a good deal of time watching the television coverage of the disaster. It is always instructive to watch the way the normal news filters come undone during a disaster because it tells us a lot about how news malfunctions in normal times.
Thinking back to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which happened while my wife and I lived in San Francisco, I recall watching the coverage from inside the disaster area with a growing sense of the limited information each reporter had access to. Just as the folks watching at home are overwhelmed by the scope of an enormous disaster the reporter standing on a rooftop is struggling to make sense of something they can’t comprehend. If you remember the 1989 quake coverage, there was a single CNN camera position broadcasting from the roof of a building in downtown San Francisco early in the aftermath of the temblor. It was really nothing more than a reporter trying to explain where the flames he saw were located. I could walk outside to see the same glow in the night, calculating that there were fires in the Marina district, but also that there were fires in the Sunset district that the television reporters had no idea were burning.
It was pretty discouraging to think that all the rest of the world was getting was a partial view of the reality on the ground, because the city of San Francisco needed help, fast.
Another experience I had, while working at Mount Rainier National Park during summer break in college, showed me exactly how desperately television media will pursue the scraps of a story in order to get something—anything—on-air. That summer, in 1980, there was a massive icefall on the mountain that killed about a dozen people. House-sized blocks of ice came down on a climbing party and six hours later the Paradise Lodge, at 7,500 feet on the Mount Rainier, was swarming with camera crews.
I was standing outside the lodge during a break, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the mountain. The area where the avalanche had happened was hidden from view by a ridge that ran down from the peak to the Southeast. Most of the newspeople had no idea where the accident had taken place, just that it was on the mountain somewhere. The guides on the mountain weren’t talking, because some of their own had been lost. A hotel guest came up to me and asked how to find Camp Muir, the overnight camp near 10,000 feet that served as a staging area for the recovery. I pointed up toward a notch in the ridge that separated the lodge from the location of the avalanche and was suddenly converged upon by three news teams hungry for information. I didn’t tell them anything, but based on my pointing up the hill, two camera crews, one led by a reporter wearing deck shoes without socks, started climbing the mountain. If they didn’t end up needing to be rescued themselves and adding to the problems on the mountain, I thought, there would probably be a few toes lost to frostbite. It showed me the extremes journalists will go for a story and also how much they risk by going off half-cocked.
When I became a reporter a few years later, I always kept firmly in mind how easily led those news crews had been. All they knew was that their story was up the mountain, and they went off chasing in the first direction anyone pointed. Dumb. A little reflection and a lot of research will get a reporter much further than racing off after rumors.
So, how does all this fit into the coverage of Katrina? Well, the thing about the news is that it typically comes in finite events that can be covered by the press, but which is not enough to fill the vast amount of time available in a 24-hour news cycle. The overabundance of airtime paradoxically leaves no time for reflection and even less for developing the facts of a story before beginning to report it on-air. This is why the coverage of Katrina went from very, very bad—that is, it was completely uninformative for 36 hours before the storm hit shore—to very, very good, when it became clear because of the extensive presence of newspeople in the ravaged region that no help was coming; as a result, television news captured real human suffering that, if you had been listening to federal officials, was being discounted or denied.
The television news process falls apart like this in almost every instance of a major news event, because, unlike print reporters who have to summarize news in a limited space on a regular schedule, television news leaves no time for reflection before something has to be on the air in order to beat the competition. Ideally, if we wanted a television press that was perfect, they would go off the air until something worth reporting happened and that story was fully sourced and available for broadcast. But we’re never going to see television executives say “We’ll be back on the air when we have something important we really need to tell you.” They have advertising inventory to sell in order to make a profit first and also to keep reporters and producers on the job.
Let’s take a look at the evolution of the news cycle during Katrina.
Sometime on Saturday, the 24-hour news channels went with saturation Katrina coverage. They repeatedly aired interviews with experts predicting disaster and, in an endless parade of weather breaks, showed the storm swirling toward the Louisiana coastline on a direct path for New Orleans, but only, in the scaled down satellite images, an inch at a time. The effect of such coverage is numbing; it apparently put President Bush to sleep, but he was on vacation. He probably appreciated the help nodding off.
By the time the storm made landfall, it had become slightly less intense—being downgraded to Category 4, still far too powerful for the good of anyone in its path—and turned slightly to the Northeast, so that the eye of the hurricane missed New Orleans. This was reported as “good news” and, despite the fact anchorpeople said it wasn’t the end of the crisis, the news gave the appearance that New Orleans had dodged a bullet.
So, all day on Saturday and Sunday, we saw reporters on the coastal beaches and in towns and cities along the coast, all looking out to sea and talking about the wind and rain, with cut-aways to talking heads discussing the worst-case scenario.
Every step along the way, the news was live, like that reporter I watched during the 1989 earthquake: Doing nothing but speculating about what is just over the horizon.
The fact that the media was speculating on what would happen is not the problem. People do need to be informed about the potential of approaching threats and, of course, we know now that in Katrina’s case the worst scenario happened.
The problem is that every approaching weather front, almost anywhere, is covered with the same urgency, because stormwatch graphics and urgent warnings grab viewers’ attention. For each “StormWatch” on local television in the Gulf Coast region or Tornado Alley or even on the Atlantic or Pacific coast that they sit through, the viewer becomes inured to real threats, because there is no gradient of risk apparent when every storm is handled like the same opportunity to go live 24/7 with speculation. After so many StormWatch special reports, the media looks to many viewers like the boy who cried wolf. If news directors would choose not to turn every storm front into a potential crisis, their warnings would be far more useful the public when really serious threats appear.
Unfortunately, the media, along with the Bush Administration, treat the whole world as an immensely dangerous place to live these days, and they are always trying to grab our attention by linking whatever news they have to our personal well-being, regardless of how much they have to stretch a threat to do it. Perhaps the news coverage was why the federal government ignored the severity of the threat to New Orleans until long after the storm passed, though I don’t think that’s the case; instead, we’re all complicit in supporting the extension of the crisis mentality to every corner of our lives by passively accepting it and shrugging it off. When you consider that the job of the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, seems to have become that of talking head who tells reporters that everything is fine, instead of actually planning for disasters, it’s pretty clear that public policy has been cleaved from reality with the voters’ consent.
Unlike a bombing in London, which put every mass transit system in the United States on Code Orange for two weeks, Katrina’s first pass at American shores, in Florida, didn’t merit the label “crisis” and, so, by the time people had been inundated with 36 hours of crisis reporting about its approach toward the Gulf Coast, the feds and media were unprepared for the real fury of the storm.
It was in the midst of the storm itself when the networks repeated idiotic on-the-spot reports featuring television personalities in ponchos being whipped by wind and rain that the absolutely human, stupid face of the media came into clear focus. Folks, the media was saying in the sub-text, we don’t know what the hell is going on, so we’re just going to show you what it would look like if you were stupid enough to go out into a hurricane. When did the news become a platform for demonstrating bad judgment? Instead of a comprehensive view of the emerging disaster, viewers got the many fragmented views available from wherever a TV camera crew did a stand-up report. It was totally uninformative and startling, because the resources to report on the storm were nowhere near as great as the storm. Television screens were left looking like kaleidoscopes, not a coherent view of the world.
Let’s look at another event in recent television history for a contrasting view of the news process breaking down to show how little information can be turned into saturation coverage: The death of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose private plane went down in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago. For hours on end, the television networks went live with pictures of water, the stretch of ocean where Kennedy’s plane went down. The anchors talked over the image of the waters where Kennedy’s plane went down and reporters did live shots from the island he was bound for, the airport he left from and all the Kennedy homes, all while the networks kept a shot of the water where his plane crashed in frame. It was idiotic, almost as though they expected either that Kennedy would pop up waving or that his corpse, along with that of his wife and a friend who died, would suddenly surface for the live shot of a lifetime.
That never-ending video of the waters off Martha’s Vineyard where JFK Jr.’s plane crashed conveyed the same message as the kaleidoscope reports from the edge of Hurricane Katrina: Folks, something big has happened out there, but we haven’t the foggiest idea what exactly.
In the interim between the end of the storm and the clear signs that a disaster had happened, both the news networks and bloggers displayed what can only be described as relief. In blogs based in the region, the message was “things are terrible, but we’re still here” and on television the fact that New Orleans was standing and the French Quarter wasn’t under water caused everyone to breathe the sigh of misplaced relief. It was understandable, human, and mistaken, however it reflected feelings perfectly. It was good to hear people were okay, then the real magnitude of the crisis came into sharp focus as homeless people were trapped by rising floodwaters—flooding always trails the storm, something everyone forgets—and the extensive damage began to be reported.
It was in the 48 hours after the storm hit that the news became really good at what it is supposed to do: Convey information and the opinion of people on the ground about the real meaning of events. The disaster became a series of coherent stories focused on specific examples of human suffering, such as the plight of people at the Superdome or New Orleans Convention Center or the destruction of much of coastal Mississippi. All of it was startling because it had been largely inconceivable that this magnitude of suffering could happen in the United States.
The surprising thing about the Katrina story is that television and blogs alike covered the story in a way that made a huge difference to the people in the disaster area. They made the politicians pay attention and act. Mainstream media, along with the blogs and other online news sites, became a conduit for information from people within Katrina’s path to those on the outside wondering if friends and family were safe or even alive. The Web was a self-organizing disaster response system that acted dozens of hours before federal officials.
Television networks put hundreds of crews on the ground and reported about the ever-deteriorating conditions of hurricane survivors, broadcasting images and testimony that directly contradicted the voices of authorities in Washington. Bloggers in the region posted first their shock, then the horror they experienced seeing their lives and their neighbors’ lives in ruins. The evacuation of New Orleans played out in a bizarre slow-motion version of real-time news as it dawned on everyone, everywhere almost simultaneously that as many as a million Americans were out of homes and needed to be moved to safety before hunger and disease killed them.
The ad hoc nature of this reporting was fascinating, people found novel ways to get their messages out. It was riveting to follow New Orleans lawyer Ernest Svenson, whose ErnieTheAttorney blog was written for a few days by a friend forwarding text messages sent from his phone, as he fled the hurricane. Ernie’s life literally unraveled and slowly returned to focus within a nightmare before his readers’ eyes. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the daily paper in New Orleans, took up Web-only publishing, just as the San Francisco papers in 1989 used the latest in technology at that time, desktop publishing, to keep the news flowing. CNN, Fox News, CNBC and the broadcast news organizations published short reports and photographs submitted by wireless phone users in the devastated region.
And what emerged was an honest, un-spun version of reality, one that made most folks angry, as it was clear that despite all the alleged preparation and factual sacrifice made by Americans since 9/11 that our government is no longer prepared for a disaster, whether natural or terrorist-made.
From the blogging side, the despair on the ground was made real. ErnieTheAttorney wrote: “I’m pretty sure that this disaster is going to create a huge fork in the road for many of us, and that many people will choose to create a new life outside of New Orleans.” A CNN reporter in Mississippi said on Thursday that she just wanted to throw down her equipment, give the water she had to the people she was meeting, and start ferrying stranded people out of the disaster area, because no one was coming to their aide. Transmitting the palpable rage of the people in New Orleans and that of everyone watching the news was an example of the press functioning at its best, calling for aide and assistance for the least powerful in society. Blogs and the mainstream media stood side by side in demands for action in relief of the victims of the hurricane.
Community forms when we see beyond our conflicts to the things that matter most and survival is the most primitive and urgent human drive that unites. We can use this disaster to forge a community of news coverage that breaches the traditional barriers between regions, classes and races, if we can remember the common ground forged through media that expressed the shock and outrage created by this Katrina and its fumbled aftermath.
Of course, the television networks returned to the mean. By week’s end, when even correspondents normally assigned overseas were brought into the Gulf Region, reintroducing that professional distance from events and people, the press corps inundated the area the volume of information increased, but the relative importance of each item of information was lost in repetition. The Katrina saturation news cycle was abruptly punctuated by the death of Chief Justice Rhenquist on Saturday, when the round-the-clock coverage of Katrina gave way to a more normal news mix.
The filters had kicked back in.
In fact, the networks should have been reporting more than just Katrina all along if only to keep the hurricane in context. For days, despite a horrible stampede that killed 700 Iraqis who were spurred to run for their lives by rumors of a suicide bomber in their midst to the preparations for the upcoming Congressional session and confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, there was much going on about which people needed to know. Financially, however, going to 24-hour Katrina coverage was the best way to keep an audience tuned in, goading them to keep their eyes fixed on the screen in case they miss seeing something first. In that sense, the networks milked the story to the detriment of viewers’ sense of proportion.
It’s easy to see the effect of the 24/7 advertising revenue stream when you compare television to newspaper coverage. Although papers went heavy with their coverage of Katrina, they still kept up on local, national and international news, knowing the they have earned their audience’s attention (even if those audiences are shrinking) based on their role as an informed gatekeeper for readers with limited time and a desire to better understand the world. Besides no one could read 36 pages of text about Katrina, but almost anyone can sift through the many stories in a newspaper to find the variety of events around them. And, yes, I am over-generalizing. Nevertheless, the difference in coverage between a newspaper and television news network is the difference between being far-sighted and short-sighted; everything on television has to break fast and keeps airtime only as long as it continues to “develop,” which is a way of saying, as long as the pictures hold our attention.
Which brings me to the subject of this week’s comments, Current TV.
Last year, former Vice President Al Gore and legal services entrepreneur Joel Hyatt bought Newsworld International, a television network that rebroadcast news programming from around the world. It was carried on cable systems that reached 14 million homes. By the time the network was relaunched this past July as Current TV, the network’s reach had reportedly expanded to 20 million households. Apparently, Gore is the first to turn the vice presidency into a platform for reaching a bigger audience.
Current TV is part journalistic endeavor, part youth culture network, though it shares more in common with A&E Network or The Travel Network than CNN or the giant of youth culture, MTV. It’s main feature, though, is what the network calls “VC2,” or “viewer created content.” These are segments produced and submitted by independent filmmakers and home video producers, some of which are fascinating.
Current programming is a strange mix of rapid-fire graphics and an antiseptically serene youth treehouse setting from which segments, known as “pods,” are introduced by a parade of attractive 20-somethings. The Current studio is a set that appears to be a curvilinear lounge with views from faux windows of regions that are strangely unidentifiable. Unlike the location-specific backdrops you see on network television, where the Washington Monument or Seattle’s Space Needle lets viewers know at a glance where the correspondent is speaking from, the Current set seems strangely above and beyond the world it covers. It may just be that I am in my 40s, not my 20s, but the Current set conveys to me a sense that the network is a portal to a dream world where no one over 30 has power and location is superfluous to tribal identity.
Likewise, the Current staff, who introduce the “pods” share more in common with MTV VJs or Food Network chefs (because are, ostensibly, videographers themselves) than news anchors, though no one seems to work a regular on-air shift like they did on MTV. You never know which host is going to appear next. Pods are assembled into the schedule with pre-recorded introductions—the network appears to produce only about 90 minutes of new programming a day, repeating pods every few hours—always with the same introductory segment, so that the prerecorded nature of the programming is starkly evident. There is, in short, nothing current about it. The hip attitude of the presenters is undermined by their interchangeability, the uniformity of their vocabulary, their dress and clubby style.
Some of the segments I’ve watched—but, wait, let me use the correct Current terminology—segments are “pods” on Current TV. Whether this is an homage to Apple’s iPod and the generation using it most or an appeal to a potential advertiser, I don’t know, but it does not seem to me that it is necessary to reinvent all the terminology of television if you’re sticking with the broadcast schedule that features top- and bottom-of-the-hour standing elements, as well as a full slate of commercials, which should lend hope to anyone contemplating launching a citizen journalism service.
As I was saying, some of the segments I’ve watched were fascinating. A former gang member’s work with current gang members was absorbing; a segment on reform in the California Youth Prison system introduced an issue about which I was largely ignorant; a home video report by a guy who volunteered his boat for rescue efforts in New Orleans was as urgent and captivating as anything on network television. But these stories were flawed, too. The gang member, for example, is filmed returning to the place where he was shot by a rival, saying that the perpetrator had been “dealt with” while he was in prison, yet, the reporter, who was celebrating his return to the neighborhood as a peacemaker did not ask the obvious follow-up questions: “Do you mean you or your friends had him killed? Was that right? How do you explain that to the kids you work with today?” Likewise, the California Youth Prison system report talked in broad generalities about the nature of reforms, reporting at one point that the youth prison recidivism rate was 91 percent, though never completing the thought with a statistic that reflected progress in reducing recidivism, so that it wasn’t clear what had really changed; after the segment finished, a Current producer editorialized that the program was “making great progress” even though the piece seemed to be largely about what people hoped will happen.
I was particularly struck by the fact that reporters in these stories are not really involved in events, but, just like reporters on mainstream television, just seem to be passing through, looking at things. They make grand statements about the importance of their reports—in a segment on San Francisco scooter enthusiasts, the opening footage carries a voice-over that declares scootering is a culture. Culture—youth culture, extreme sports culture, music culture—is big on Current TV, but these cultures struck me as fabricated in the editing bay rather than organic.
In one particularly flawed segment, a reporter who tells a story about a Web sex worker in Eastern Europe makes every mistake a reporter can possibly make in five minutes: First, he takes the typed chat comments of the sex worker as fact, reporting that both her parents are “gravely ill” and that she gets by on about $1 a day, without confirming these “facts,” then goes on to contribute his fee from Current to the sex worker, essentially paying his source, which is simply forbidden in journalism. The girl, who certainly has a shitty life stripping and catering to the sex chat fantasies of losers around the world, has no reason to tell the truth to the reporter, rather she could be playing to him in an act ironically reminiscent of the sex work she performs.
Likewise, a Japanese man who fights people in the street for cash is displayed, but not reported on in depth. He is shown initially as a pathetic character, battling with anyone who has a few yen, but then the camera follows him to an apparently comfortable, trendy bar, where he seems to be singing karaoke—is he homeless, is he anything other than a street performer? We don’t know and the report doesn’t tell us. It’s not clear whether he represents anything other than a variation on the despicable bum fight promoters in the United States, with the twist that he fights himself.
Other segments on extreme sports, sex and dating, could be shown on ESPN, Spike TV or HBO’s Real Sex without any changes—they are un-unique attempts at filmmaking and reportage.
The fact that Hurricane Katrina happened just a month into Current’s existence was significant. If you remember, CNN had been on the air for only a few months when the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan catapulted the network to prominence as it covered the story in the first 24/7 news cycle. It was a raw, honest view of events, far different than today’s polished CNN; for the viewer, though, it was a complete departure from the brief flashes of news available on the broadcast networks. Currrent TV did not step up to Katrina with anything particularly new in news. The same kinds of citizen journalism it produced were also available on CNN, MSNBC and other networks, and those other outlets brought the news more immediately.
Current missed Hurricane Katrina, though it initially put an excellent series of reports on the impacts of global warming into heavy rotation after the hurricane struck. Adam Yamaguchi, a Current producer, had recently visited Louisiana, which has lost thousands of miles of shoreline to rising seas.
However, if you had flipped back and forth between CNN and Current TV during the hours when the crisis along the Gulf Coast was coming into focus, the otherworldliness of Current was starkly visible. Katrina was all but absent from Current, appearing only in a regular segment on what people are searching for on Google. Later, there were the reports by the rescue worker and a segment drawn from NBC’s Meet The Press, but Katrina, though I am sure the Current team didn’t intend it this way, seemed like something disturbing that the kids in the treehouse couldn’t quite ignore. I don’t think this is an intrinsic shortcoming of the network, rather it is probably a result of the very scant funding available at Current for news reporting.
In fact, Current is upfront about the fact it not a news network in the normal sense. In addition to the issues reporting it does, Current carries a heavy load of music, style and entertainment news, including packaged promos of new shows on CBS. CBS News also provides the network with archival reports on, for example, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and basketball player Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had AIDS. These segments failed to tie those events into current news. For example, the Challenger investigation, which found a simple explanation for the explosion of the shuttle, went unreported. I didn’t see any pieces that would have tied Katrina recovery efforts to previous hurricanes, such as Hurricane Andrew. History is encapsulated and isolated in these pieces rather than embraced and learned from. Again, I think this reflects a youthful belief that old mistakes will not be repeated, which may be attractive to the network’s target audience but does not serve them well.
Current features two Current Google segments each hour, which are supposed to give a sense of what people are currently searching for. But these, too, are buried in a graphical storm that makes it hard to take any immediate measure of the importance of one story compared to another. In many ways, this approach to defining what’s news follows the worst features of traditional news, since the volume and subject matter of searches is largely defined by the current content of other news sources.
And tightly intertwined with all these reports are commercials that often bear a striking resemblance to the journalistic segments. The first day I watched Current, there was a travel story about a German spa that plays music in neon-lighted pools, where young spa-goers lounge and drink until late at night. The tone of the report was identical to a commercial that followed about a band’s new album, so that the two were indistinguishable. The Current Tech report that day, which featured months-old footage from the National Association of Broadcasters convention, was about the tools viewers could buy to produce segments, or “pods,” for Current TV. This piece was a self-referential as the segments network news do about entertainment shows on the same network: “Tonight, we go behind the scenes to hear how Jennifer Aniston really felt about the finale of Friends. Only on NBC!”
The total effect of the programming is that Current is all over the board in terms of coverage—it’s about everything and, so, it’s about nothing, which is why the reports on new tour dates for bands or reviews of movies by the Current hosts are treated with equal respect as the best journalistic reports the network offers—the treehouse people introduce the culture segments with the same gravity as they do the news segments.
Now, this is a new network and I am sure it will get better. It already does some things well. The problem, though, is that, at this point, Current TV is about brevity, perhaps more so than the media it hopes to succeed. Granted, Current segments are longer than normal news reports (though what a “normal” news report is today is an infinitely arguable point), but the content is crammed so full of significance introduced by the producers that facts and complete thoughts often go unstated.
Citizen journalism is different than Current TV’s viewer created content, or “VC2” as it is called on-air. Citizen journalism, the movement, intends to report stories from a personal level, with an emphasis on facts and progress (we did the following to solve this problem) or to forge a debate over those facts and the policy needed to create progress. This is the role of the press generally, the idea is to open that critical and factual channel, which has been enveloped in a vacuum by limited access to audiences, to everyone so that democratic debate can flourish amid the sound of many voices. By contrast, viewer created content often seems to be content made to be viewed together, to confirm some common identity. If it is simply that I am not of the appropriate generation to appreciate that shared identity, then the Current TV business model is probably doomed to perpetually race against the demographic clock as its audience ages and it seeks new hooks for its coverage. That is how news became a heavily marketed commodity rather than a public service, so we have been there and done that, already, and do not need Current TV to repeat the trick that ruined the existing media.
So, my summary judgment of Current’s programming is that it is like a magazine without a great editor, there has been no line taken about the voice of the network. A catalog of topics has been compiled, but someone needs to start asking hard questions of the staff and really shaping the assembly of reports so that they lead the viewer to ask and answer questions for themselves. Ultimately, if Current were to commit itself to a voice, it would unleash the contributors from their generic presentation of events and challenge them to really say something.
There’s one more element of this story to examine: Current TV’s attempt to create an economic model for its viewer created content is a critical experiment that deserves applause, simply because they are trying to pay people for video, and close criticism.
Producing for Current TV could easily be a living for a successful videographer. The network pays first-time contributors $250 for a piece that reaches the air; producers then make up to $1,000 per segment after six pieces air. With the right approach to production—that is, a cheap approach to production—one could easily get their start in news reporting on this network.
The problem, though, is that by submitting a piece to Current TV, the producer is granting Current a three-month exclusive right to use the footage. That’s perfectly reasonable for a feature segment that’s not topical, that isn’t breaking news; the producer is granting the network the opportunity to look at the segment, decide if its something they want to air. But in the world of citizen media, where the footage may be timely, like video of the post-Katrina, and the contributor merely wants to get it out to the world, the Current TV submission agreement is a greater barrier to reaching the air than making the video freely available and sending it to the news networks, which have picked up some citizen reporting in hours, not months.
The Current TV Web site lets visitors view a select group of candidate segments and vote for those they think should be aired, but that’s not the spirit of citizen journalism. Instead of more news directors, there are more reporters and news-makers (in the sense that people are capturing the raw material of news) in the world than ever before.
Current’s viewer created content deal is aimed at aspiring producers, which is fantastic for aspiring producers, but not for the free flow of information generated by individual citizens in the midst of breaking news. I have some experience with upstart news networks, having built a 24-hour financial news service on a very small budget. Current could balance its feature acquisition process with a small team of producers who reviewed incoming footage quickly, as well as surfing the citizen journalism sites for footage they could promote on-air. Current should also partner with the OurMedia, a site where anyone can post audio or video and have it stored perpetually—Current could fill a lot of air with the reports that show up there about a variety of cultures and ideas, for free.
If they found a piece that deserved to be on air, they could buy it or simply put it on air on a non-exclusive basis, but they would be charged with racing other networks to get the best citizen reporting on first. As it is, Current has taken a very traditional role in the media, acting as a gatekeeper that puts a hold on information that can be distributed freely; it needs to change this, at least in part, to leapfrog other networks and cement its position as the place where people not represented by the mass media get their stories out. Once Current started providing breaking news in a venue where it is expected, the network would be in a position to commission work from a larger pool of producers, gaining exclusivity for segments it helped to create while opening the floodgates for citizen journalists.
In a way, Current has dipped its toe into this kind of reporting, but within its stable of producers. Functionally, that’s how any news network works, drawing on talent it knows and trusts, but the opportunity with so many people taking up the journalists’ role in society is to get everyone thinking of reports and sifting through them for the gold. As I said before, if Current had a definitive voice, that would inform submissions and arm that team of producers surfing for the best citizen journalism to ask critical questions which improved the stories they aired.
Current did a good job with a piece about telejihadist Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the U.S. government should kill the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Someone at Current called a friend in Caracas and asked them to do some man-on-the-street interviews with Venezuelans to get their reaction. It also issued a call for submissions the reflected different perspectives on Hurricane Katrina, but it needs to let the outside world do more of the thinking ahead about what gets on the air as well as creating a virtual editorial meeting where anyone can suggest stories that, even if they don’t have the ability to shoot the video, they want to see. All this is not to say the network should turn the keys over to anyone that happens along, only that by engaging with the open media world on terms that increased the speed with which ideas are turned into news Current could work some real magic.
That’s Evolution Media for this week. I’ll see you soon with an idea about how to better describe and imagine the relationship between the established and upstart participants in the growing web that is media.]]>

4 replies on “Evolution Media #2: Katrina and Current TV”

Robert, I didn’t “hint,” Google is providing the data they talk about in the Google Current segments.
The program guide displays “Google Current” when that segment is on-air, but it is not called “Google Current,” so it is incorrect to say that the network is “all Google.” In fact, the network is more CBS.