We’ve reached a point where debates over citizen journalism have been washed over by a torrent of online video, blogs, and other media created by people who, while they may not identify themselves as journalists, are nevertheless documenting what’s happening in their communities. Sometimes that’s a political uprising, other times it’s a devastating tornado. Often, the documentations get picked up by mainstream sources — or, based on the power of the stories they tell, go viral all on their own.
What that’s done, overall, is give pretty much equal weight to the impact of video and multimedia that’s produced by individuals and that of content created by professional journalists. The key difference now is quality, not in the sense of refined storytelling, but in the sense of the equipment and tools used to produce multimedia narratives.
In its pilot effort documenting the lives of residents in Kurdistan, The Tiziano Project — named for an Italian journalist “who liked to go where he shouldn’t” — attempted to close that gap through offering better tools and training to regular folks. Now, with the help of a $200,000 Knight News Challenge grant, the project will try to refine its technology and expand its scope.
Jon Vidar, executive director of The Tiziano Project, said the project will develop a suite of tools that will help community journalists produce and showcase their work — effectively a content management system designed specifically for multimedia storytelling. Vidar and his team will be building that system off the template of their 360 Kurdistan project, which featured personal accounts of Iraqis coupled with work from professional photojournalists. Vidar expects they’ll move quickly, using the one-year grant to build a beta in 6 months, then test and tweak the project for the rest of the year.
“The grant itself is a technology-only development grant for us to take the 360 platform we built in Iraq and use the funding to make it scalable and usable by other organizations,” Vidar told me. Part of that also includes designing a new interface that will include an interactive map to display an array of 360 projects from various communities. (To get an idea of what those projects look like, check out the interface The Tiziano Project created for the Kurdistan project, which combines still photography with audio as well as video segments.)
In many ways, Vidar said, the original 360 project was a proof-of-concept, showing that with sufficient tools and support, people can tell compelling, visually arresting stories about their community, the kind that may otherwise go unnoticed. Taken together, those stories have a great impact and can change perceptions about a group of people and where they live, Vidar said.
But those stories don’t happen automatically. “Back in 2006, 2007, when we were starting up, “community journalism” was a buzzword, like hyperlocal is today,” Vidar said. “A lot of those programs failed. They went into communities and handed out Flip video cameras and thought they were going to get amazing, high-quality video content.”
One of the big hurdles in the Kurdistan project was funding, which was provided through a $25,000 grant from the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. That helped to provide the basics, Vidar said: a team of photographers to offer guidance and a Flash developer to build out the site.
Part of their focus now will be developing a front end for the project, something that works across multiple platforms, from desktop to mobile and tablets. The original project was built in Flash, but Vidar said they’re now looking at using HTML5 to build a flexible site. That too can provide complications, though, and Vidar and his team want to make sure they’re using the right technology for the job. If you’re dealing with photography and video, the design and usability experience is key to getting people to engage with your work, Vidar said. “We don’t want to take the quality of the experience down just to make it cross compatible.”
What the 360s could provide is a new avenue for local journalism, something that is a hybrid between pure amateur cellphone video and packages developed by professionals.
“There’s three types of content producers now,” Vidar said. “The professional journalist; the citizen producer — the everyday guy uploading to YouTube; and then there’s the intermediate. They’re not professional journalists, but active commentators, people who use in an in-depth way. We want to elevate the people who are taking cellphone video and posting it to YouTube — elevate them to the next level.”