Capitalizing on Citizen Journalism: Tools to Manage Multiple Streams, Sources, Files and Formats

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In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, user-generated video would come to tell a big part of the story, as eyewitnesses uploaded photos and footage shot on cell phones, smartphones and other mobile devices to social media, YouTube and local news stations.

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User-generated video played an important role in coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing in April for stations such as WCVB Channel 5 in Boston, boston.com and CBS News.

Boston ABC affiliate WCVB Channel 5 began to see a steady uptick in user submissions, some on the 15th but increasingly more over the next few days. “As people began to look at what they had shot, they began to realize they had pictures germane to the bombing,” says Neil Ungerleider, WCVB manager of digital. “In one case a user had a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fleeing the scene but didn’t realize what it was until a few days later. After the suspects were identified, that picture became very meaningful.”

But for the Hearst Television-owned station, the most telling videos would come in on Friday, April 19, from the residents of Watertown, Mass., where the manhunt for the two suspects culminated in a community lockdown and a firefight. The station received about a dozen videos shot by residents trapped inside their homes while law enforcement and the suspects traded fire outside. With no media access to the scene—“Correctly so,” Ungerleider notes—and the fluid nature of the story, those videos shot by citizens through their windows provided the best vantage point as events unfolded.

“You heard the gunfire and the explosions,” Ungerleider says of the videos. “The experience was something none of us had ever seen, and we realized what we were doing was important work that needed to be done very well and we needed to apply all of our journalistic standards to doing it.”

Fade into the Background

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From a newsroom perspective, the technology platform that enabled WCVB to go live with broadcast-quality versions of those videos was among the unsung heroes in the story. In the midst of preparing viewer-submitted content for air, the myriad technical challenges of transcoding video must fade into the background as the focus becomes vetting the material’s relevance, newsworthiness and authenticity in near real time.

“The station was able to tell the story through many different eyes very quickly through user-generated video,” says Joe Addalia, director of technology, Hearst Television Inc. “From a technologist’s point of view, I found it incredibly interesting as a prime example of how the means of gathering news is really no longer traditional.”

Large station groups like Hearst and other news organizations have embraced user-generated video—and citizen journalism on a broader level—as an essential reporting tool. They’re providing viewers with online submission platforms and tying those systems seamlessly into newsroom production for output on-air and online.

Hearst, for example, developed “u local” about five years ago, Addalia says, to enable its 29 stations nationwide to collect user-generated videos and photos. U local is featured on each station’s web site and integrated into locally branded apps. At the local level, usage typically spikes during major weather events, when citizen reporting can bring remote stories to life.

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CNN’s iReport platform sees about 500 user submissions a day worldwide.

Similarly, CNN’s iReport platform, created by Turner Broadcasting’s BEST (Broadcasting Engineering and Systems Technology) group, is now in its second generation. Available on CNN web sites internationally and distributed via a number of CNN apps, it sees about 500 user submissions a day worldwide.

NBC News’ acquisition of user-generated video service Stringwire in August signals it is also looking closely at how to integrate citizen journalism more tightly into its news ecosphere. Stringwire’s technology enables the collection of live video from around the world from a verified network of contributors via Twitter, making it ideal “for breaking news and stories that have a real-time visual component,” NBC News said in its announcement.

Increasing Choices

While user-generated video has become a standard component of news coverage, the technological challenges of transcoding and managing it for broadcast playout are only increasing as the number of devices, operating systems and formats available to consumers multiplies. Each of those factors complicates the process of converting video from the array of mobile video formats to one suitable for broadcast.

Broadcast systems are typically best-of-breed, combining software developed in-house with off-the-shelf products to provide newsrooms a soup-to-nuts system for transcoding and moving the video. Leading vendors of transcoding products include Telestream, Elemental Technologies, Harmonic, Matrox and Digital Rapids.

Turner built CNN’s iReport from scratch because that was the only option at the time (2006), but the company generally develops most of its systems in-house. “If we were doing it all again from scratch today, there are lots of vendors out there,” says Chris Hinton, Turner Broadcasting vice president of software development.

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From a commercial for the Samsung Galaxy Note II

The operational burden of managing user-submitted content is often overlooked, Hinton says. While most U.S. adults have smartphones, most are not professional shooters. Informing citizen journalists about what is and isn’t usable can go a long way toward easing that burden. “We spend time getting users to understand how to shoot video and images, and [telling them] not to shoot in portrait mode,” Hinton adds.

Efforts like those are important as the definition of what constitutes “user-generated” video is evolving as quickly as the enabling technologies. The once clearly identifiable line between professional and user-generated content is much less distinct.

“It used to be really clear 10 years ago what people created for their own purposes versus what was shot by a professional, but with the advent of citizen journalists, the lines are blurring,” says Keith Wymbs, vice president of marketing, Elemental Technologies. “There’s been a push to encourage prosumers, giving those individuals a means of distributing their content and constantly educating that base.”

Content Is Still King

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The bottom line when it comes to getting user-generated video on-air is the value of the content itself. “If it’s a great video, [the producer] will run through fire to get it on air, and it has little to do with what technology is available,” says John Pallett, director of product management, enterprise products, at Telestream.

WCVB’s Ungerleider notes that television viewers have a higher tolerance for video quality in breaking news situations. In the case of the Watertown coverage, he says, user-generated video “was the only visual account of what was going on, and the video being unsteady or out of focus was not a consideration when putting it on TV.”

“Citizen journalism is an unstoppable freight train,” Turner’s Hinton says. “It is going to get huge, and organizations that don’t embrace it and are not actively engaged in it will be left behind.”  

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