Watch What’s Happening

By Emily Craig

More and more people are directly streaming their own video online. Not all of it’s journalism in the traditional sense, but some of it is – by design and by chance.

Citizen journalists (and in some cases ‘people in the street’ would be a better way of describing them) are going out armed with nothing more than a mobile phone and with this technology they’re streaming content for others to consume. The Guardian’s website, announcing the fall of Egypt’s President Mubarak in live time, embedded on its homepage a Ustream video of the protests in Tahrir Square.

This type of reporting requires planning – establishing contact with someone on the ground in preparation – but it means a newspaper can play at being a rolling news provider. The Guardian’s Ustream channel has attracted more than 1 million viewers in the 2 months since it was set up.

Ustream describes itself as an ‘interactive broadcast platform’ that ‘enables anyone with an internet connection and a camera to engage their audience in a meaningful, immediate way’. Minus the PR speak, it’s a Californian dotcom company that allows people to stream video content live on their own channel. With the proliferation of 3G phones, websites like UStream are capitalising on the number of people uploading and consuming video content.

Qik.com, justin.tv and YouTube all offer a similar service. Justin.tv sees 300 million visitors per month. Rival Ustream has 2,000,000 registered users and 5 times as many unique hits so it’s hardly surprising that it now wants to expand into the Asian market with the help of a Japanese investor.

Some of these streamed videos could be described as journalism in the old-school sense. For instance, Ustream provided coverage of certain debates in the 2008 US Presidential elections. But a lot of these videos are socially valuable, rather than newsworthy; in other words, you might think you’ve arrived at a social media site rather than a news portal.

But, crucially, can a website be both? The likes of Ustream and justin.tv are undoubtedly democratic in their approach. People, rather than television networks, decide what’s popular and what’s worthy of being shared (although users can opt to share their videos privately with a select group).

All these video streaming sites emphasise the importance of allowing people to ‘engage’ in a ‘social’ way by sharing video. But with the quality of video content varying widely, will the best videos be the most popular and the most shared?

It’s difficult for Ustream to argue that its service is ‘all about premium content’ when there’s no editorial processes at work. And it’s important to remember that people are streaming their videos live – they’re not editing their footage . This can make for raw immediacy or CCTV-type wallpaper.

In the words of qik.com, ‘Interesting moments can happen anywhere’. The challenge for these video streamers is to be in the right place at the right time.

Local News – The Future

screenshot courtesy of Ledger Live

We’re all familiar with a newspaper’s ‘comment’ section. Or, as some of them like to call it, their ‘opinion’.

These have been stalwarts of print journalism for many years. But, as Toby Coaker outlined for videojournalismonline back in January, The Times is the only UK based paper to transfer this type of journalism onto the web in video format.

In the States things are a bit different – one example of local political opinion transforming into online video is Ledger Live, from New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger.

Here Brian Donohue gives an often sarcastic/satirical take on the affairs of local government.

A good example is this not too complimentary assessment of Govenor Christie’s selective economic policy.

How does this relate to the UK?

Donohue’s producing something that doesn’t really exist in the UK, because national broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky) have to be impartial and national newspapers just haven’t got on board with the idea behind Ledger Live.

The Future

David Cameron’s been a champion of local government since his time in opposition.

As Prime Minister he’s devolving power and says he wants to create more vibrancy in local politics – to get people interested in the affairs of their local councils as part of his ‘Big Society’.

And Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local TV news slip nicely into line with this ideal.

But if the whole plan works and political activism flourishes once again in the boroughs and constituencies of the UK, you can bet that intense frustration will be kindled in the general public when it comes to local TV news.

Local output’s required to be impartial too. As a result Council failure won’t be reported with the angst needed to reflect the voters’ views.

In this political climate there’ll be an opportunity for partial ‘comment’ or ‘opinion’, and the websites of local newspapers will be the platform capable of supporting such a development.

Could they afford it?

On one hand it’s unhelpful to draw comparisons between state newspapers in the USA and their British ‘equivalents’ because New Jersey, for example, has a population of about 9 million and the Star-Ledger’s circulation is about 220,000.

Each UK constituency has an electorate about 66% smaller than the Star-Ledger’s readership, and local papers would reach dramatically less than that.

But print journalism’s suffering in the US in the same way it is here.

Sponsoring online video is now an option – adverts screened prior to the content beginning – and could bring in valuable revenue.

And if Ledger Live shows us something else about the future, it’s that you only need basic equipment to bring politics alive for the next media generation.

Here’s The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank proving this very point. Can you imagine a similar video poking fun at 4 or 5 candidates in Garston and Halewood?