I found out the other day that we are finalists for a Knight Foundation Grant for a Citizen Journalism project we have proposed. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
The notion of ‘Citizen Journalism’ sends conventional television news people into fits of hysteria. Youtube! they scream. Look what happens when you give just anyone a camera! Quality will vanish!
The new technologies of digital cameras and laptops married to a web that now carries video mean that anyone indeed can pick up a camera and make TV, or more to the point, make TV news. And we are not talking about ‘accidental video’ here – you happen to be in the trailer park when the tornado hits. We are talking about using video to communicate an idea – not capture a tragedy.
This is, of course, disturbing. We have all lived in a world where television news (and television in general) was left to the hands of the ‘professionals’. That is, we effectively ceeded control of the most powerful and influential medium the world has ever seen to Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.
Well, that makes sense.
Television, it was thoughts, was far too complicated and far too powerful to be left to ‘regular people’. What would happen if they tried to produce television? A mess, to be sure.
But what if we had organized the world of print the way we have, until now at least, organized the world of television?
JK Rowling, at the age of 38, wakes up one day and decides she wants write a book. As they ‘write books’ down at Random House, JK gets herself, after much work, an interview with the head of HR at the book publisher.
“I don’t know about this JK” says the head of HR, looking over her glasses; holding JK Rowling’s resume in her hands. “You are a 38-year old single mother. You are unemployed. You are living on welfare. You have never written anything before in your life. And you want a job at Random House writing books? Do I get this right?”
“Right” says the ever eager JK. “I have this idea about a kid who is a wizard…”
“Sounds…. thrilling” says the head of HR, rolling her eyes.
“So when can I start?” asks JK.
The head of HR puts the resume on the desk, adjusts her glasses and in her most patronizing tone says, “look Miss Rowling, let me be blunt with you, if I may. You have never written a thing in your life. You are unemployed, living on welfare. Frankly, you are just not the kind of person we hire here at Random House….”
“But… but… I have this idea….”
The head of HR smiles. “We ALL have ideas….”
“Please….” cries JK. And the heart of the HR woman begins to soften.
“OK… OK… I don’t normally do this, but in your case, I am going to make an exception”. She thumbs through a stack of index cards. “I do have an opening…..”
JK is delighted!
“An opening as a receptionist”.
“But I want to write my novel”! says JK.
The head of HR smiles. Such an idiot! “This is a very good entry level job. There are hundreds of people who want to break into the writing world who would give their eye teeth for this job.”
“Well, what do I do?” asks JK.
“You’ll answer the phone, photocopy documents and make the coffee… But, if you are very good, in a few years you could become a researcher.”
“Then do I get to write my novel?” asks JK.
“Oh no”, says the head of HR. “You’ll get to research some of the books we are writing, but in a few years, if you’re good, you’ll get to be an associate writer.”
“Then do I get to write my novel?” asks JK
“Oh no” says the head of HR. “But you’ll get to work with some of our famous writers… like Katie Couric or Matt Lauer. Those names really sell”.
“But when do I get to write my novel?” asks JK.
The head of HR looks down at JK Rowling. “You don’t”, she says. “If you are very very lucky, you will get to write what audience research has determined the audience wants to read about. And right now, our numbers indicate that a bio of Anna Nicole Smith would sell very well, particularly if it were authored by Katie Couric.
And if JK Rowling has any brains, she gets up and goes back on welfare.
Harry Potter only gets written because all JK Rowling has to do is pick up a pencil and start to write. When a video camera is as simple to operate as a pencil (and we are pretty much there); when the barrier to access to ‘try’ to make video is as low as the barrier to access to ‘try’ writing a novel, we can look forward to an explosion of content and creativity.
Citizen Journalists are not to be feared. They are to be embraced. Quickly. Les Moonves take note: it is the fastest way to improve the quality of the Evening News.