My Guardian column this week argues that what Jimmy Justice does, videotaping errant traffic cops, is vigilante journalism, but journalism nonetheless. (nonregistration version here) Snippet:
So here’s the question: is what Jimmy Justice does journalism? Consider: he is performing the watchdog function of journalism, holding government and its agents to account. He is recording facts; his video camera – oscillating between the no-parking signs and the cops’ licence plates and badges – does not lie. He is asking tough questions. Then he shares what he learns. . . .
But Jimmy’s not slick, he’s sloppily dressed, he has a grating accent and manner, and his camera wobbles. In short, he’s unprofessional.
Aren’t journalists supposed to be professional? Not necessarily. Not anymore. That is precisely what the professional class – in many trades – fears from the internet: it enables the amateurs. And that’s not always pretty. Institutional journalism considers its ability to package – to make things look neat and complete – a key value. But that expectation was really just a necessity of the tools of production: you have one chance to print this story, so make it good. In truth, a news story is a process to which many can now contribute. Life is messy. So is reporting on it. . . .
But I still say that if we care about a watched government and an informed society, then the response to Jimmy shouldn’t be to scold him but perhaps to teach him. Indeed, a commenter on my blog suggested a gadget for Jimmy that would help him hold his camera steadier. Perhaps journalistic organisations should arm a thousand Jimmys with cameras and microphones. Perhaps they should assign the public to report alongside the professionals, to gather more news than could ever be gathered before. Maybe, just maybe, this is an element of a new means – and one new business model – of news: armies of Jimmy Journalists.
MORE: Or they could be Johan Journalists. Martin Stabe says that the German tabloid Bild has used more than 400,000 photos sent readers via their mobile phones and that politicians aren’t happy about it. That must mean they’re doing something right. (Full story auf Deutsch here.) Here’s a key to it: The paper pays â‚¬500 if the picture gets in the national edition, â‚¬100 in a regional edition. Still cheaper than having 2,500 photographers on staff all over the country.
Sometime ago, I tried to swear off commenting on linkbait that attacked either blogs or mainstream media. It’s just so tiring. Everything has been said. I feel the same way counteracting arguments against evolution, free speech, and television. I assume you do as well and so I don’t bother with the blog-v-MSM pissing matches. At the conference on networked journalism I’m holding at CUNY on Oct. 10, I’m thinking of having a gong on stage to bang if anyone even starts to head down that road. Enough already. Can we move on? Please?
So I was surprised when Jay Rosen bothered to snap back at Michael Skube’s contrarian-come-lately attack on blogs in the LA Times, just another in the apparently endless series of such screeds that pop up on op-ed pages like worms in the rain. In what was surely Jay’s shortest post ever, he told Skube to just retire: “I’m serious. You’re an embarrassment to my profession, to the university where you teach, and to the craft of reporting you claim to defend. It is time for you to quit, as you’ve clearly called it quits on learning– and reporting.” Here, here. That’s that.
But I should have figured that Jay was up to something bigger; he always is. He then turned around and asked his crowd to help him refute Skube and his crowd (once and for all, one would hope) with examples of these damned bloggers doing what Skube did not do: report. This then yielded a stirring and well-documented defense of bloggers’ journalism — beyond Trent Lott — as part of the Times’ lame new Blowback feature (a very controlling effort to add just a little bit of interactivity to its content, instead of just opening up to the discussion that is already happening all around them — see the post below). Jay ends:
No one owns the practice of reporting or assigns the right to do it. It’s a democratic thing to tell others what’s going on and “show your work.” Some people will not be deterred from doing that. Most of them don’t care what you call them. They do care if their story stands up.
I’ve said it before and I hope we can stop saying it soon, but this is not a matter of ‘or’ but ‘and’: Rather than one tribe of reporters attacking the other, we can and should be working together to report more than ever.
Maybe if we just ignore the linkbaiters they will, like bullies, skulk away. Or maybe they’ll write books and we’ll be dumb enough to debate them and give them more attention. I prefer to just walk away from this game of Wack-a-mole now. I’ll consider Jay’s piece the definitive response to the professional curmudgeons and urge the rest of us to just move on and do something constructive. Like report.
I love Jimmy Justice, the guy who wanders the streets of New York videotaping traffic cops who are violating the traffic laws they are supposed to enforce and confronting them with their sins. This is the power of the people, armed with their own cameras and the internet, acting as watchdogs on government. Isn’t that journalism?
On the Today Show this morning, David Gregory got on a high horse interviewing Jimmy, asking whether he wasn’t just a bit obnoxious. (I dare you to try to find the story on the show’s site; I can’t.) *
Well, what’s any less obnoxious about a reporter asking the same question? That’s exactly why subjects so often think reporters are rude: they’re being asked questions they don’t want to answer. But here’s Gregory calling a citizen with a camera obnoxious for doing what reporters do. Maybe that’s because Jimmy has an accent and an attitude. Gregory clearly thinks that asking the question in a tie with a sterile TV voice is less obnoxious: more professional. Style is substance on TV. And I can hear someone now saying that Jimmy has an ax to grind, a bias, an agenda. Well, yes, but so does a reporter when he decides to follow that cop and confront her about her actions; that agenda is precisely the motivation for the question. It’s all journalism.
If they really care about watchdogging government and its abuses of power, the proper response from the Today show and any journalistic organization should be to encourage more people to do what Jimmy is doing. What’s wrong with more watchdogs on the street? Indeed, Today should hand out some video cameras or at least share a few lessons with Jimmy about how to shoot video without giving us motion sickness. And it would be generous of them to talk about Jimmy’s rights to shoot public officials’ actions in public, since those officials try to threaten and intimidate Jimmy.
Hey, Mr. Gregory: You and Jimmy are on the same side. You’re doing journalism. It may not sound as slick, but the end result is the same.
* LATER: Thanks to Dan in the comments for finding the Today segment. David Gregory’s fuller quote: “It’s a little obnoxious. Do you not worry about coming off as an obnoxious, aggressive guy here?”
Do reporters? Should they?
Jimmy says he was frustrated getting anyone to pay attention to his complaints about the traffic officers: “I had to bring it to YouTube. I had to show it to the people.”
Calling all New York and New Jersey news organizations: Want to enlist your audiences in a networked reporting project that will have a huge impact on government and make a difference in all their lives — a project you couldn’t do without them?
Get your audience to report on the failures of the infrastructure around them.
Put up a Google map (with Platial on top) and town and neighborhood wikis and ask them to pinpoint every failure of infrastructure — or feared failure — they see: streets that flood every time it rains, bridges that look just too damned rusty, potholes, pipes that burst, streets that don’t get plowed, streetlights that don’t work, signs that are missing. . . . Ask them for dates and other specifics and for pictures and video. Urge them to blog their stories of frustration and bureaucracy.
Use your promotional power and influence to mobilize your public.
Then do what you do best: add journalism. Go verify what they say and tell the story of that street that closes every time it rains, of the people whose lives lose hours as a result, of the government bureaucrats who should be fixing it of the money spent on other things instead.
And because you have your audience contributing vast amounts of information you never could have gathered on your own, you can see patterns that also become stories: What towns and neighborhoods are crumbling most? Where is money being spent and wasted most? Who are the officials overseeing the worst declines? What are these failures costing the public (how many manhours were lost in yesterday’s traffic jams?)?
Then when you do what local news organizations have always done — bring pressure for change — you get to take credit for not only improving the quality of life and efficiency of government, you also get to brag about working collaboratively with the public you serve. You can boast that you are a pioneer in networked journalism. You’ll be not only useful but hip.
Jim Colgan, a producer at the Brian Lehrer show at WNYC in New York, tells me that they started a little bit of a networked journalism (crowdsourcing …. whatever) project:
We’re getting our listeners to count the number of SUVs out of all the cars on their block, and we’re getting an overwhelming response (236 contributions so far). [Later promotion said 400 -ed] We’re going to parse the results on the show Thursday and bring on a car expert who will look at what it all means.
That’s a simple thing but that’s the beauty of it: Lots of people can join together to create something bigger. I talked with Jim a few weeks ago and he wanted to find a way to mobilize his show’s other asset — besides Brian — to do something together. And it worked.
Every news organization should be asking themselves the same question: How can we mobilize our public to find out something they want to know, to do more together than any of us could do alone? Your public is your other great asset. These people are ready, willing, and able to join up — all you have to do is ask them.
This happens on a small scale when blogging journalists ask their readers for help: ‘Does anybody know…?’ But on a larger scale, it’s easy to see that the promotional power of a newspaper or radio or TV station could be brought to bear to enlist people to gather lots of information. They could ask their audience to report how many computers there are in their kids’ classrooms for a story on technology in schools. Or they could map every pothole in town. Or they could check the prices of certain good in the store. There’s so much a public can do.
This was part of the idea behind NewAssignment.net: mobilizing the people to report together. But there was another side to NewAssignment: The people make the assignments. So I’d like to see Brian’s show ask the audience what they want to ask themselves to do next.
NowPublic’s Leonard Brody’s a smart guy but I think he’s full of gas when he says that local doesn’t matter. He told Liz Gannes at GigaOm:
“I not a believer in local anymore,” said Brody. “I used to think that hyperlocal was what mattered to people, but for 35 and under especially, the concept of local is very different. Like Facebook publishing the news feed… it’s changed from hyperlocal to hyperpersonal.” Weather, traffic, and crime are important, but they’re commodities, he said, adding local politics might be the exception, but nobody cares about them anymore.
I agree with Rafat Ali’s reaction to that: “What he really means: local’s hard as hell.”
Amen. But important as hell. Let’s look at the front page of NowPublic right now. Here’s a story about a Caracas metro crash. Now I’m very sorry for the victims of this tragedy, but it doesn’t touch my life. It’s not local to me. It touches lives in Caracas. It’s local to them. Here’s a story about a fire in the Jersey pinelands. I’m in Jersey but that’s not local enough for me. But to the folks who can smell the smoke, it matters. It’s local. The UK floods story is international — at least on this end of the world — but it’s also a different story locally (see what the BBC did with maps in networked geojournalism).
Local is damned hard because no one yet — apart from newspaper companies — has managed to get a critical mass of local content and no one — including me — knows yet how to create an alternative that can gather and share that much and more on new economics. But I have no doubt — no doubt — that there will always be a market for local news. And I have no doubt, too, tnew tools and means and people — like those behind NowPublic — can be used effectively to help gather it. Still, it’s almost impossible for a metro paper — let alone an international citj service — to say it is local because the odds that it will have what is local to you are next to nil still. That’s what makes local so hard.
Not every story is local. And lots of local angles are insipid. But to say that young people don’t care about local is making the mistake the AP made with asap (see below). Beware.
I care about local and so do most people I know, regardless of age. We care about our local taxes, restaurants, crimes, construction, economy, services, communities, neighborhoods, and gossip, too. I would take in more local reporting — more broadly definied — if it existed. I say we need more local reporting, not less, and it needs to get more local. I would like to see how the NowPublic infrastructure could be outsourced to help incumbent local news companies and new local news companies do that. I think that would be a more productive path for discussion than just dismissing local as the province of provincial old farts like me. And then we need to organize it and that’s why I’m excited by Outside.In (to which — full disclosure — I am an adviser).
The great opportunity in local is that no one has solved it yet.
It’s odd to congratulate anyone for getting venture funding: Oh, good, now you have people properly breathing down your neck to make sure you perform; now your ass is on the line. In any case, I congratulate Merrill Brown and the guys at NowPublic for getting venture funding. I’m especially glad that there is investment going into networked journalism, citizens’ journalism, pro-am journalism, call it what you like: the growth of journalism. (Now Public will be among those talking at the Networked Journalism conference I’m holding at CUNY on Oct. 10.)