Anyone can be a reporter, and it was only a matter of time before news organizations recognized the same and tapped the reporting power of the masses.
At the forefront now is Anchorage’s KTBY, the Fox News and ABC affiliate in Alaska’s largest city. It has taken the national lead in what is being called a new era of “citizen journalism.”
The station stars in a video touting its relationship with Fresco News, a New York internet start-up that provides an app that makes it easy for anyone to file a story.
A Fresco media release says KTBY can lay claim to being the “first television news station that is fully powered by citizen journalism.” KTBY general manager Scott Centers takes center stage in Fresco’s promotional video.
“For us… it helps me be able to reach out to areas and people that I normally wouldn’t be able to do,” he says.
The video features spectacular and now stereotypical footage of wild Alaska and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“The Iditarod is a 11-hundred mile sled dog race,” Centers says. “There’s very limited flights in and out. We sent out the (Fresco) assignments. And at the finish of the Iditarod, almost immediately, not only did we have one video of the winner crossing the finish line, but we had three.”
How all of this played with Iditarod is unknown at this time. Iditarod has long controlled media access to the finishing chute in Nome in an effort to maintain a commodity – the victor at the finish – it can sell to broadcasters.
If anyone with a smart phone on the scene has the potential to become a reporter, controlling access to the finishing chute could prove difficult for the self-proclaimed Last Great Race.
For news organizations, of course, citizen journalism is all about saving money at a time when media markets are in disarray. The internet has gutted newspaper profits, and broadcasters fear they could be next.
“Despite current financial strength,” the Pew Research Center for Journalism & Media reports, “TV-based news can’t ignore the public’s pull toward digital. The contentious presidential primary helped spur cable prime time viewership 8 percent above 2014 levels, but those audience gains followed a year of declines across the board in 2014. And, while network TV newscasts had a mixed year – morning news audience declined while evening remained about steady – local TV news lost audience in every major time slot.”
Still, TV hasn’t endured the nightmare print is experiencing even as it transitions increasingly to video to try to compete with TV in the tubes into which all news is moving.
“…(Newspaper) Advertising revenue experienced its greatest drop since 2009, falling nearly 8 percent from 2014 to 2015,” Pew reported. “Fully one-fourth of advertising revenue now comes from digital advertising, but not because of growth in that area: Digital advertising revenue fell percent in 2015. It’s just that non-digital advertising revenue fell more, dropping 10 percent in 2015. In 2014, the latest year for which data were available, newsroom employment also declined 10 percent, more than in any other year since 2009. The newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions, or 39 percent, in the last 20 years.”
Locally, the Alaska Dispatch News is reported to be facing serious financial problems. Publisher Alice Rogoff in a January editorial said the situation is such that she had to institute a paywall intended to make people pay to view news at ADN.com.
“We don’t need to make money, but we have to stay afloat,” she wrote at the time.
KTBY is trying a different way to stay afloat. It is cutting costs and pioneering a new way forward.
News on the cheap
“Take a reporter’s salary and then you add in the cost of vehicles, using Fresco we were able to cut that cost into what was once a $3,000 average cost now comes down to less than $200,” a chuckling Centers says in describing the station’s Iditarod coverage. The Iditarod is an extremely costly event to cover because of the air travel involved in following it across remote corners of Alaska as it makes it way north 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome.
Clearly any news organization could cut costs by soliciting citizen journalists in villages along the route to help provide coverage. This sort of citizen coverage of far-flung corners of the state is something Alaska Dispatch.com, Rogoff’s old news organization, tried to do years ago.
“Think of Tundra Telegraph as a giant group blog where you can submit stories, videos and photos — a portal where you can search for citizen-produced content statewide by region and category,” editor Jenny Canfield wrote in 2010.
Citizen journalism then was clearly ahead of its time. The Flip cams disappeared into the vastness of the Bush, and the Telegraph eventually failed.
But a lot has changed in just seven years. Smart phones are now almost as common in rural Alaska as in the state’s cities, and by harnessing the power of the people who carry those phones with them everywhere, KTBY’s Centers forecasts big savings for his company.
“There is a definite 30 to 40 percent cost per story savings that I could already recognize now,” he says in the video. “To wrap all of that up into a cost per story pricepoint of $60 overall for our business model (means) Fresco has become a very important part of our workflow.”
The video then cuts to the newsroom where broadcaster Christina Lob describes how the news works at KTBY and highlights stories delivered with the help of Fresco.
The stories lean heavily toward breaking and visual news: A homicide at a Fairbanks hotel. Problems with potholes in local streets. The simple and mundane sort of things cub reporters were once sent to cover.
The sorts of things almost anyone could cover, as Centers – who did not return a phone call or email asking for comments on this new form of staffing – points out at the end of the video.
“It’s a turnkey solution that requires minimal amount of my time,” he says.
This new way of doing the news is not without its critics.
“WELCOME TO THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF TV NEWS,” FTVLive.com headlined on Tuesday. FTV bills itself as “THE TV News Insider website that has been around since 2000.”
FTV editor-in-chief Scott Jones – a respected journalist who runs a largely a one-man, one dog show – has been watching the shifting media scene for a long time and offered this analysis:
“Well, it’s not like we didn’t predict this quite awhile ago….”
He does, however, appear to go a little overboard in suggesting “KTBY, the ABC/Fox affiliate in Alaska is handing over all of it’s news coverage to viewers and their cellphones.
“No more photographers, no more trained journalists, just people and their phones.”
The promotional video featuring Centers makes it appear more like these so-called “citizens journalist” will work with existing KTBY staff. Going forward, it appears the citizen reporters will be more like reporting adjuncts with their work filtered through trained journalists.
How well that is likely to work, or not, will depend on the skills, training and experience of the journalists pressed into service filling the roles of old-time editors, most of whom have now disappeared from newsrooms.
“This is the first station that will be fully powered by ‘citizen journalism,'” Jones wrote, “but, we can assure you, it won’t be the last. ”
Jones describes the Centers video as a chance to “watch a TV station sell their soul all in the name of making a buck.
“Poor Ed Murrow is spinning at a break neck pace by now.”
But the situation is not quite that black and white. On some breaking news, the comments sections of some news websites already on occasion provide more information than is available in the “news” story, and sometimes more accurate information.
Citizens there are already serving as reporters. The business of journalism has seen radical changes in just the last few years, and Fresco is not the only one trying to harness the power of the crowd.
The big boy
Jimmy Wales – the founder of Wikipedia, the online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia – has launched WikiTribune, which he calls “a new kind of news platform.”
His plan is to hire 10 professional journalists and then let the world edit them for accuracy.
“The news is broken and we can fix it,” his website claims. “We’re bringing genuine community control to our news with unrestricted access for all. We’re developing a living, breathing tool that’ll present accurate information with real evidence, so that you can confidently make up your own mind.”
This idea isn’t exactly being received with welcoming arms from journalists either.
“There’s good reason to be skeptical of this model, but it’s not because volunteers can’t be trusted to make accurate contributions to the news,” writes Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic.
“The larger problem with WikiTribune is this: Someone who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered ‘equals’ with someone who is unpaid. And promoting the idea that core journalistic work should be done for free, by volunteers, is harmful to professional journalism. The difference between a professional and a hobbyist isn’t always measurable in skill level, but it is quantifiable in time and other resources necessary to complete a job. This is especially true in journalism, where figuring out the answer to a question often requires stitching together several pieces of information from different sources—not just information sources but people who are willing to be questioned to clarify complicated ideas.”
The problem with journalism, the big problem, is that it really looks easy until you try to do it, and then it is really, if not hard, at least time-consuming. And most people don’t have the time to do the digging that makes for good journalism.