15 Megabytes of Fame

December 1st, 2007 Fast Thinking, Tech, Tech Features

We’ve all seen them — banners in newspapers asking for our reports and photos of a newsworthy event. Drew Turney wonders whether it’s just the 21st century letters-to-the-editor page or a new paradigm in media content…

Just before 9am on July 7, 2005, three bombs went off in London’s underground Tube system and killed 52 in the highest profile terrorist attack against the West since September 11, 2001.

By the time a fourth bomb destroyed a bus in Tavistock Square an hour later, the news gathering had already started. After leaving his carriage of one of the bombed trains, Londoner Alexander Chadwick took photos of the shaken commuters stumbling through the smoke-filled tunnel towards King Cross station on his mobile phone.

Within hours they had travelled the world, appearing on news websites everywhere and making Chadwick one of the most visible examples of the new citizen journalist. It wasn’t the first time news material from a member of the public made its way into the press, but it was a digital milestone.

The new media is the melding of the broadband age where anyone can be a publisher, the mobile age where we can transmit words, text and images from anywhere, and a media landscape where information is hard currency.

You can see the net effect in many Australian city newspapers — banners and straplines that ask if we were ‘there’, inviting us to send our photos and reports by email, SMS or MMS.

While graphics promising your own 15 minutes of news media fame seem an inauspicious part of a revolution, they could be yet another marker in the continued upheaval of the media business.

Or maybe its just business as usual — a 21st century update to the way newspapers have always worked. “Before all this happened, the first thing photographers would do when they arrived at the scene of the crime or event is ask people for their personal photographs,” says Michael Young, a newspaper industry veteran and author of Death, Sex and Money, an exposé about life behind the news desk. “It’s a way of replacing the pencil and notebook. The technology just makes news gathering more efficient and all embracing.”

There is however little doubt the immediacy of new technologies has amped up the process — as well as put more pressure on the news business. The days of having a 24 hours cycle to fill your paper with hard news seem as remote as the era when news took weeks to cross the world by steamship.

The constraints on the news media to get the story couldn’t be tighter, and the newly enabled armies of eyewitnesses with digital cameras and email addresses are resources they couldn’t ignore.

“They didn’t come up with the idea, but someone said ‘let’s not be too scared of this, ‘let’s co-opt it’, says Les Posen, a clinical psychologist and media consultant who thinks the papers realised they had to ensnare what they could of citizen journalism before it got away from them. “It’s a tidal wave. You can’t just put your hand up and say ‘please stop’, it’ll wash right over you.”

So where’s the pressure coming from? In the pre-web newsprint era, few had the chance to trump their competition at the newsstand as everyone worked to the same cycle of daily editions.

Now, we expect a newspaper’s website to have the first photos and reports on the site within minutes with regular updates as reports crisscross the world. But it’s not just the immediacy of the Internet they face, it’s competition from the web itself.

Stephen Hutcheon is the online technology editor of smh.com.au, the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, and his competitors are the millions of bloggers, amateur photographers and forums. Besides being as fast as he is with news, such competitors also specialise far more than he can.

“It’s made our jobs tougher because now anybody can be a news publisher, so our competition isn’t just mainstream media outlets,” he says, “and it splinters the audience. If someone’s only interested in Apple stuff they’ll go to an Apple blog instead of the mainstream media, which might only have a couple of Apple stories.”

The Big Shift

The influential digital prophet Tim O’Reilly coined the phrase Web 2.0 a few years back, a now-overused term to describe the potential opened up by delivery platforms for digital content such as YouTube, Flickr and blogging that allows everyone to be a media publisher.

To some, it means the web’s full of rubbish — everybody with a camera and computer suddenly given free reign to create and distribute with no restraint or professional editing, often with nothing even terribly interesting to say.

As a book publisher told Fast Thinking in defence of her industry; “because they’re published books, you know they’re reliable sources of information, which is not true if you just search on the Internet. There’s an awful lot of garbage out there…”

There’s certainly something to be said for the work produced by a journalist who chases stories for a steady income. One viable criticism of the independent or ‘consumer-produced’ media is that the reporter often has a barrow to push, a phenomenon the Internet is not only full of but was built upon. We should think twice before we mistake mass expression for news or knowledge.

But to many excited commentators, the mere presence of so much user-generated content represents the moment in history when the information flow changed. No longer top-down from media corporations pushing a commercial agenda, the global conversation flows every which way from a million individual media mash-ups. The consumer has become the producer, a movement the mainstream media has been quick to dive into — look at the number of print journalists whisked away from their duties to write the growing number of newspaper blogs.

So what’s in it for everybody from readers to publishers? Little happens in the commercial world that doesn’t improve the bottom line, and newspapers have spent 10 years and countless millions trying to fine-tune profitable online content models. In Michael Young’s Death, Sex and Money, Sydney Morning Herald editor Alan Oakley talks about the evolving newspaper business, of online being where people go to ‘graze’ headlines and get their up-to-the-minute facts, and print versions which have little chance of breaking stories any more becoming the forum for reflection and analysis.

But how will it all affect the balance sheets of the newly deregulated and rapidly swelling media conglomerates? Australia’s quasi-official online watchdog Crikey.com.au has recently wondered if at least one large publisher is thinking about consolidating several external bureaus.

In the age not only of mass digital communication but potentially thousands of unpaid photographers on the streets, does the media no longer require a local presence? “I don’t think any photographers have lost their jobs over this,” says smh.com.au’s Stephen Hutcheon. “We had a few examples of unsolicited photos sent in, and some were so great we ran them online and in the paper. You can’t be everywhere and if you can enlist your readers to help you be the eyes and ears you leverage their goodwill and get wider coverage of things.”

The elephant in the room of reader contributions nobody’s acknowledged yet — perhaps not even seen — is the contributors themselves. Little of the content reproduced or created for newspapers is done so for free. If a paparazzi photographer had happened to be in the London Tube tunnels that morning he or she would be very rich right now. Why isn’t Alexander Chadwick, the young man with the mobile?

Few people providing content to the newspaper would look further than their photo or video in the paper or on the web for all to see, and for most of us that would be payment enough.

But beyond the harmless contributing of your photos to the newspaper for free, could there be legal and monetary minefields lurking? The short history of the Internet is full of examples of the law lagging behind the global and anonymous reach of the medium — even when various powerful interest groups can agree or thrash out what those laws are.

“[The practice] relies on the naivety of the person who sends it to the paper thinking ‘isn’t it great to have my 15 minutes of fame’,” says Len Posen. “But if they discover a mainstream organisation is perhaps profiting from it they might think twice about that. Who knows what the law would say?”

So far most reader-contributed photos have been innocuous, such as snow in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney when there hasn’t been a staff photographer in the area, or Australians in the US who queued up to be among the first to buy the iPhone on it’s early July release. As smh.com.au’s Stephen Hutcheon asserts; “A few people expect return for their contributions but on the whole people are happy to send them in.”

But here’s the contradiction. Whether you take a photo, write a poem or draw the design for a fighter plane on a serviette, international law automatically accords you the copyright. If you provide a photo to a newspaper under tacit agreement that it’s free, where does that leave you if they on-sell it to 150 media outlets around the world (as they frequently do, via news wire services) and profit handsomely for doing so? Could there be another high profile lawsuit around the corner calling into question the notions of jurisdiction and ownership on the Internet? A lawyer Fast Thinking asked called it ‘a significant can of worms’.

Then there’s the viral nature of the Internet itself, the reality that once something’s out there little you or a lawyer can do will stop it replicating, making unauthorised money for someone or embarrassing you — as everyone from various former AWB Chairmen to hotel chain heiress’ can attest.

The Fundamentals

From one viewpoint, citizen journalism isn’t going to change the news business as much as streamline it. For one thing, having a mobile phone doesn’t make you a reporter. “We can’t all be journalists, that’s the key thing,” says Michael Young. “We can all be witnesses but witnesses are just the beginning.”

“There’s still a story to be told in how the person with the camera happened to be there and what their story is,” adds Les Posen, “so if anything, the notion of storytelling in journalism has been enhanced by that immediacy, the need to pull a story together and present the big picture.”

It’s also worth remembering the business model of the news being the first with the story isn’t directly for the benefit of the audience but to make them the most attractive medium to their real customers — advertisers. Such breakneck pace of information isn’t necessarily as important to us as they keep saying. Though we’re often seduced by the rate and potential of technological change, most of us are quite happy not to learn the whole story until we watch the 6 o’clock news after work.

A Many-Way Street

In the end, citizen participation in news may have nothing to do with commerce, fame or getting the scoop. It might be just one facet of everything the web was designed for and the reason we communicate with other human beings — connection.

“Citizen journalism is broader than the event and the big story,” says Michael Young. “It’s about what makes communities tick and the exchange of ideas, that’s its main strength. It’s a community not being the audience but participating in the conversation.”

Citizen Media in History

Of course, just like making films and music, citizen media wasn’t born with the digital age — it was simply made easier.

If you’d been standing on a sloping area of grass off Dallas’ Elm St one November afternoon in 1963 at about 12.30pm, you might have seen local businessman Abraham Zapruder filming with his Bell & Howell Zoomatic Camera.

Zapruder’s office receptionist was holding him steady while he filmed the approach of a motorcade bringing President Kennedy through Dealey Plaza just moments before history’s first — and in many ways the most shocking — example of citizen media.

Just as notable is the fact that Zapruder’s film was the first example of the commercialisation of citizen media. Three copies of the original were made, one sold to Life magazine for $150,000 only three days later.

Today, there are two streams of citizen journalism. One is the 21st century version of Abraham Zapruder, the eyewitness in the right place at the right time with the means to record whatever event they’re witnessing — a power most of us now carry in our pockets.

The second is one that took advantage of the viral, censorship-free aspects of the Internet in its early days, one intended as a counter to mainstream news and information produced and — as many still believe — strongly filtered by corporate media interests.

The 1999 Seattle WTO protests were ground zero for a new People Power movement driven by new technology, and organizations like The Independent Media Centre (indeymedia.org) and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (fair.org) were the first examples of what remains a vibrant independent news gathering movement today, often staffed by professional by volunteer journalists and photographers.


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