Guardian column: Live

I’m two days late putting this up thanks to tortured internet access in my Munich hotel. The limits of technology: a revolution is stopped by a log in the road. Anyway, here’s my Guardian column about the impact of live TV news from witnesses, a polished-up version of the discussion here:

The wait for Apple’s iPhone turned out to be the great non-story: hordes slept outside Apple’s stores across America to get a phone that turned out not to be in short supply. As soon as the lines emptied, one could just walk in and buy one.

Yet I say we will mark this non-story as the moment when television news changed forever. For in those lines were people with small cameras hooked to laptops, which used mobile phones to transmit video to the internet, live. They are lifestreamers, who have been simulcasting their lives 24 hours a day. Why? Because it’s there. They’d already been blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, Flickring, podcasting and YouTubing their lives. Live video was merely their next frontier.

Yet because they were there, we saw this news covered live, in video, sent to the internet and to the public by the people in the story and not by reporters. The news came directly from witnesses to the world. Two months ago, after mobile-phone video of the Virginia Tech mass shooting went online via CNN’s website – more than an hour after the event – I speculated in this space that someday, we’d see that same video from a news event being fed live, directly to us on the internet. Well, that didn’t take long.

This changes the relationship of witnesses to news and news organisations. When witnesses can feed their views live to the internet, news producers will not have the means or time to edit, package, vet and intermediate. All that news groups can do is choose to link or not link to witnesses’ news, as it happens. This means that we in the audience may not see the news on the BBC’s or CNN’s sites or shows; we may see it on the witnesses’ blogs via embeddable players from services such as uStream.tv and Justin.tv, which enable lifestreaming.

This presents an infrastructural challenge for news groups and consumers: how will we know where to find this news? For a time, we may go to portals for live TV, but they are overcrowded with content – and anyway, portals don’t work any more. Instead, I imagine that news organisations will devote people to combing live video to see what’s happening out in the world. Or collaborative news collectors, such as Digg.com, will find and pass the word about news now. The real value will then be alerting all the rest of us to something going on now so we can watch on the internet … or perhaps on our iPhones.

And soon, those very phones will be a means of gathering and sharing news. Lifestreamers have had to carry their apparatus in backpacks, which sounds onerous until you consider all the equipment and expertise still hauled around by the networks. One of the lifestreamers covering the Apple lines at the gigantic Mall of America, Justine Ezarik of iJustine.tv, has glamorous looks destined for broadband. She wouldn’t let a backpack spoil her image. Instead, she perched her tiny camera jauntily on a fashionable cap and hooked that into a tiny laptop in her purse. Yes, news gathering is now purse-sized.

The fact that this coverage from the scene is live also means it can be interactive: the audience may interact with the reporter, asking questions, sharing information, suggesting they go shoot this instead of that.

Now add in global positioning technology and the ability to email or SMS people who happen to be near a news event and it becomes possible to assign witnesses to open their video phones: everyone at Glasgow airport with a camera could have received an SMS suggesting that they start shooting and sharing what they saw moments after the flaming car rammed the terminal. They also could be warned to stay away from the danger. Live.

Problems? Of course, there are. Yes, someone could fake a broadcast. So producers may choose not to link or may issue caveats. It is incumbent on journalists and educators to instil an ever-greater scepticism as a keystone of media literacy in the era of ubiquitous news. And, yes, through each lens, we’ll see just one angle of the story; it is necessarily incomplete. But we can also get more people to show more perspectives on that story than was ever possible with coverage from the networks.

In a comment on my blog, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said this is a case of “media evolving toward a more and more complete imitation of life”. Or perhaps the two begin to merge: life becomes news.

  • http://www.spencercritchley.com Spencer Critchley

    Illuminating as usual!

    I think though that in discussions of the amateur future of media there’s an issue of risk management that usually goes unexamined. Traditionally, risk has been encapsulated in corporations (for profit or not), and individual reporters have been able to risk time, effort and potential liability because a corporation was both compensating and insuring them.

    The Internet and cheap digital tools allow crowd-sourcing of news by amateurs, not just because the technology makes production and distribution fast, easy and cheap, but also because it diffuses risk through the crowd. So it makes any individual’s share of the risk small enough to be acceptable, and makes the small compensation (recognition, fun, etc) acceptable as well. In the same way, the net itself is made available for next to nothing by diffusing the cost (risk) through countless servers and routers.

    But I think he question remains of how we make sure we still cover stories that require a lot of risk to be taken on by one or two individuals. The diffused risk model is fine – and may even be better in some ways – for reporting stories that can be covered from the outside, by amateur observers. For example earthquakes, riots, terrorist attacks, speeches, commentary, etc.

    But some of the most important stories still require individuals to take on very large amounts of risk: months or years of time and potentially huge liability. For example financial crimes, political corruption or wars.

    Put another way, I think risk analysis can provide another way of looking at the “buggy whip maker” argument – that you shouldn’t try to force your fellows to pay you for economically unproductive activity.

    We might dismiss old ways of doing things, but we can’t just dismiss risk (I’ve noticed – and certainly been guilty of it myself – that when risk has been lost track of, hand-waving starts). In the new media world, some risks (such as printing costs) do disappear into the cloud. But only some.

    Not all risks are financial. One possible outcome of the “amateurization” of news is that politically important stories stop being covered (and I’d say such a trend is already well under way as the unit value of news coverage drops). Not because only old-style experts can possibly report them, but because the risk isn’t being managed (including, I’d have to say, the risk involved in becoming an expert).

    This could be a financially optimal result. It might also amount to democratization in some ways. But socially? Maybe not so good. It amounts to whether or not there remains a distinction between citizens and consumers.

    I’m not saying “old ways good, new ways bad”. But I’m also not saying “new ways good, old ways bad”. As is usually the case, I think the new reality is likely to be complicated. And I think we’re going to have to find new ways to manage risks that will still be worth taking even after the old ways of handling them are gone.

  • http://www.stevosphere.com/grayce-pages/derouin.html.webloc H. Grayce Petrick Ezarik

    Mr. Jeffry Jarvis,

    Thanks for the recognition of Justine Ezarik, (ijustine) and her lifecasting for iphone. She is making her internet mark, and her life literally.

    Perhaps you would get a chuckle out of her lastest lifecasting event, if not for your profession, perhaps just for fun. It will give insight to how AT&T operates on a regular basis. It really does take texting to a new level.

    Have a fun day and keep up the good work, I love to read your thoughts.

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