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From AJR,   June/July 2006  issue

Rocketboom!   

Episodes of a fast-growing, low-budget online newscast emanating from a cramped Manhattan apartment are viewed more than 300,000 times. Do Rocketboom and similar videoblogs pose a threat to the future of television news?


By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

Amanda Congdon isn't ready for her close-up. The Internet's most popular news presenter is cooling her heels while Andrew Baron her director, cameraman, cue-card guy, cowriter and business partner drapes pillows and a white down comforter around her tiny anchor desk. Baron is trying to deaden the echo on the news set, which happens to double as his apartment. As Congdon idly applies her makeup, Baron fiddles with the lights and a tripod holding a digital video camera. He also tapes strips of the day's script on the makeshift teleprompter, a music stand set just beneath the camera's lens.

"Ready?" he asks Congdon finally.

Congdon brightens and settles herself as Baron hits "record" on the camera.

"Hello and good Monday, March 27th, 2006," she says. "I'm Amanda Congdon, and this is Rocketboom!

With a mischievous smile and several flips of her blond hair, Congdon breezes through a series of offbeat and esoteric stories, introducing video clips by tapping a mock control console in front of her. First up is a short bit about a Scottish street puppeteer whose rock-star marionettes play little guitars to a thrash-metal soundtrack. Next, there's footage of a fellow in Tokyo dancing wildly in front of an arcade game. This is followed by stories about an odd, tank-like vehicle that's for sale on Amazon.com and a device that deadens the noise of multiple telephone conversations in busy offices. Congdon winds up a story about the man who designed the modern office cubicle by quipping, "Millions of people across the world are trapped in tiny boxes, and many of them may never get out."

No, it isn't the "CBS Evening News" or CNN. Actually, it isn't even television. Rocketboom.com is a videoblog, or vlog, produced every weekday in Baron's shoe-box-size apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Baron then uploads the episode to an Internet server downtown. The three- to five-minute show, with its sub-amateur trappings and oddball sensibility, might easily be dismissed as an amusing piffle, except for one thing: on average, episodes of Rocketboom are viewed more than 300,000 times, according to Baron and the site's logs.

Let's run that number again 300,000 because it's a significant, potentially even ruinous figure for TV news professionals. Congdon and Baron, and a staff of four, produce a daily information program that reaches more people than almost any single local newscast in America. And Rocketboom is growing like a tulip in early spring. Between January and March of this year, its worldwide audience more than doubled, according to Baron, who has the server logs and hit counts to back up his figures. At its current growth rate, Rocketboom's audience will soon rival that of most national cable news programs.

What's revolutionary isn't just Rocketboom's popularity; it's also how the site achieved it. The short answer is, with almost nothing but some imagination and a little computer power. Congdon and Baron own no satellite trucks, command no camera crews, have spent zip on advertising and promotion. Their videography equipment is no more sophisticated than what's available at Circuit City or Best Buy. About the only things they invested upfront were their time and brain cells. What's more, almost all of the material they present each day the clips of Scottish puppeteers and dancing arcade guys comes gratis, much of it scooped from the bountiful pool of public-domain video available on the Internet.

Rocketboom could be a harbinger. What blogs have done to newspapers, vlogs may someday do to the nightly news that is, offer a competing source of commentary and information, fulfill a lively watchdog role and, not incidentally, steal viewers and advertisers from traditional newscasts.

With bandwidth costs plummeting and video cell phones and cameras widely available (and human exhibitionism a constant), the Internet is awash with the sort of video that Baron, 36, and Congdon, 24, cobble together to make Rocketboom. While much of this raw material is hardly journalistic (and is indeed raw), some of it is as compelling, and as newsworthy, as what professionals produce. Many people got their first glimpse of the devastating South Asian tsunami from homemade videos on the Web. Ditto the London subway bombings, whose immediate aftermath was documented not by news photographers but by passengers and eyewitnesses. Sites like YouTube, Revver, Vimeo and Google Video, which enable anyone to upload video and share it with the world, give some sense of the endless sea of newsy material, from Hurricane Katrina footage to exploding roadside bombs in Iraq to brawls at the local schoolyard. The Web has also turned professional TV news clips into Internet staples; Jon Stewart's excoriation of the hosts of "Crossfire" in 2004 was an early landmark. It was passed around the Web and seen by far more people online than on CNN.

"The old model was that a TV station would put one or two cameras at a major event. Now the same event can be captured by a thousand or more cameras," says Craig Allen, coordinator of broadcast news at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the author of "News Is People," a history of the local TV news business. "Back when, a [bystander's] camera would often capture an event by luck. We're at a stage now where you'd have the Zapruder film [the home movie of John F. Kennedy's assassination] a thousand times over. Only now, no one would be able to conceal it for 15 years."

By cherry-picking some of these video goodies and adding a gloss of wit and cool, Baron, Congdon and Rocketboom are showing that a do-it-yourself newscast, stripped of expensive infrastructure and available free any time of the day, is not only possible but can be wildly successful. "Rocketboom basically shows that news is in the hands of people, not just the pros," says Jeff Jarvis, a blogger (buzzmachine.com), consultant and new-media evangelist. "With the Internet, we all have printing presses and broadcast towers. No one has to beg anyone for access anymore."

A typical Rocketboom episode might include ephemera like a report on a giant pillow fight in New York's Union Square. Or it might feature more substantial fare, such as stories on new technologies or on how the Internet may affect the 2008 election. Or both.

Not only is much of this raw material, this video flotsam, free for the taking, but a variety of inexpensive tools make the Rocketbooms of the world look almost as good as the pros. Near-broadcast-quality digital cameras can sell for a few hundred dollars (Baron uses a $1,500 model). Off-the-shelf digital editing programs are even cheaper; an audio editing tool called Audacity is free. Even so, no one really demands spiffy production values on the Internet. Jarvis says that conventional TV news often looks hopelessly slick and old school when compared with the more "authentic-looking" material found online. This is where Rocketboom has made a virtue out of what initially appears to be a drawback. Congdon's wardrobe (sometimes featuring a T-shirt provided by fans) and Rocketboom's cheesy, no-rent set (a small desk with a paper map of the world tacked behind it) subtly signal to viewers that this isn't your Grandpa's daily news feed.

"One thing we've learned is that the public's definition of quality is not the same as the professionals'," Jarvis says. "If the Iraq war proved one thing, it's that the public doesn't mind low-quality video of [a correspondent] talking on a camera phone if what he's saying is exciting enough.... Professionals are so hung up about being professional. They're hung up on style over substance."

But, in an odd reversal, pros are learning to play the amateur game, too. Many Web sites of mainstream news organizations now invite viewer and reader accounts of events, including those the news outlet itself has covered.MSNBC.com, which is among the most popular news sites on the Web, entreats visitors to "be a citizen journalist" and e-mail moving or still pictures for posting. In an experiment started last year, Nashville's WKRN-TV and San Francisco's KRON-TV, both owned by Young Broadcasting, handed out 3-pound Sony HD cameras to reporters, photographers and editors to create one-person video journalists. WKRN also trained about 20 local bloggers as stringers. While reviews have not been kind (SF Weekly recently described the work of some of KRON's video journalists as "distractingly bad"), it's still early. "There's no question," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, "that stations and networks are aware of [new sources of video] and are paying close attention."

Yet Cochran and others express a couple of obvious concerns about amateur news video: How much of it is really news? And how much of it can be trusted? "With more and more of this stuff available, I keep hearing that it's like trying to drink from a fire hose," she says. "There's so much material coming in from so many sources. How do you see everything that's worthwhile? How do you monitor it, assess it, verify it? all the things that professional journalists are supposed to do."

CBS News has used amateur video but hasn't encouraged contributions, either on-air or online, says Larry Kramer, who heads the company's digital division, which includes CBSNews.com. "We have to keep a separation between journalists and user-generated content," he says. "We've always relied on the public in our reporting, but we filter it. You just have to be careful." Technology, he says, enables ordinary people to distribute content quickly after news breaks. But it also allows them to alter it or manipulate it without a news organization knowing. "We know when our own people do something, it adheres to the rules," Kramer says. "We vet our material. There's no expectation that Yahoo! or Google or YouTube will vet anything."

Or as Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia, put it in a commentary on CBSNews.com in late March: "To its proponents, citizen journalism represents a democratization of the media, a shattering of the power of the unelected elite... However wrapped in idealism, citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals.... I appreciate the access that citizen journalism provides to first-hand accounts of major events. Yet I recognize those accounts are less journalism than the raw material, generated by amateurs, that a trained, skilled journalist should know how to weigh, analyze, describe and explain."

Congdon and Baron certainly have no pretensions about being journalists. Both freely admit they aren't, nor do they aspire to be, despite the nature of their enterprise. Indeed, they're not shy about working personal opinions into their Webcast. They'll often gin up little skits to comment on an issue or a thread in popular culture. In fact, there's a little gentle attitude both are Democrats in almost every show. In one memorable episode last September, Congdon donned a pearl necklace and a white dress to portray a stereotypical wealthy matron, observing blithely, "Oil at $70 a barrel? Make it an even $100. Then nobody can be on the road except me and my friends!" Congdon has interviewed former U.S. Sen. John Edwards twice on the show (Baron cooked up Rocketboom while he was a volunteer in Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign). Some of Congdon's interview in February was frivolous she talked Edwards into drawing a picture of himself with facial hair but it also elicited the North Carolina Democrat's assertion that energy conservation must become "mandatory" in the next 20 years.

"There's so much riding on [professional reporters] to be fair and balanced," Congdon says. "You can never tell what you actually think. We do say what we think. It's refreshing to hear, because it's honest."

"This is citizen journalism, but it really describes a style more than a professional obligation" or set of standards, adds Baron. "We're really saying, 'Don't bank on us.' "

Adds Congdon, "We're not trying to please everyone."

The duo make an unlikely pair of collaborators and business partners. Baron is short and intense. With a squeaky voice and an Apple-logo baseball cap pulled down over his brow, he suggests a nerdier version of James Spader's videographer character in the movie "sex, lies, and videotape." Congdon is the more outgoing one, a gangly beauty.

Baron was teaching at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan when he came up with the idea for Rocketboom (the name has no special meaning; it just sounded good when Baron dreamed it up). His background is in computer-aided design. Figuring that he never would be the face or voice of his brainchild, he recruited the telegenic Congdon through a help-wanted ad on craigslist.com. At the time, she was working as an actress and model after graduating from Northwestern University.

Part of Rocketboom's charm is that it plays off the conventions of TV newscasts, much as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" do. Congdon often rolls her eyes or throws up her hands over particularly absurd stories, and does hilariously exaggerated camera turns in between them, swinging her head from one angle to the next. She frequently breaks her newscaster character, commenting directly to the camera. On "Casual Fridays," the site dispenses with the newscast altogether and presents quirky commentaries or travelogues, many now produced by Congdon's boyfriend, Mario Librandi. Congdon's wealthy matron character was a popular Casual Friday entry.

Still, Baron and Congdon do some of the things regular TV journalists do. There are story conferences and story budgets, daily scriptwriting sessions and all-night editing benders (now handled by a hired editor). Both are equals when it comes to what gets on the show, although Baron is principally involved in scouring the Internet for material. (He's also the majority owner of Rocketboom, holding just a percent or two more than Congdon.) About a quarter of the story ideas and clips come from Rocketboom's tech-savvy viewers. Other stories are shot and produced by the site's 10 "field correspondents," nonjournalists who live in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Boston and elsewhere.

Rocketboom's success has inspired some imitators. A German site called Ehrensef (www.ehrensenf.de) apes Rocketboom's single-anchor style, presentation and breezy attitude. The Public Eye (www.thepubliceye.tv), a daily video program out of Vancouver, Washington, is a little clunkier but uses the same news-from-everywhere approach of its fellow vlogs.

The growing audience of hipsters for the original, meanwhile, has helped Rocketboom attract plenty of attention from would-be buyers and investors. Baron says he's gotten offers from two "mainstream networks" (he won't identify them), but neither he nor Congdon is interested in selling right now. Nor are they returning calls from venture capitalists who want to put money into their hands. "We decided we can skip that step," Baron says. "Other than investing our own time, we haven't really needed any money to keep us going."

But the money is coming anyway. Earlier this year, Rocketboom accepted its first advertising, and in a typically unusual way. Rather than opening the site to any advertiser who cared to pay the freight, Congdon and Baron put a single advertising position up for auction on eBay. After nearly 100 bids, the winner was TRM Corp., a marketer of automatic-teller machines. The price: $40,000 for a week of ads, which Baron and Congdon insisted could only run after each episode. "We could have gotten three times the money if we had given away control," Congdon says. The site has subsequently attracted a second advertiser, the Internet service provider EarthLink, at a similar price. And since that deal closed, Rocketboom's audience has grown substantially.

Before the advent of ads, Rocketboom's revenue sources were licensing fees (to cell phones, TiVo, other online platforms) and merchandising. Congdon says she and her full-time fellow staffers now have salaries that enable them to live comfortably in Manhattan.

Still more mainstream acceptance came in February, when Rocketboom was featured in an episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," TV's most popular drama series. Congdon briefly played herself reporting on a lurid crime. Baron shot the segment with his own equipment and on Rocketboom's homemade set, proving perhaps that it doesn't take Hollywood's overhead to produce Hollywood-quality video.

All this has inspired the Rocketboomers to think bigger. Congdon says the pair has "20 ideas" for new vlogs. There are also talks with a number of possible partners. "We have the potential to grow this into a billion-dollar business," Baron says.

Arizona State's Craig Allen doesn't doubt that Rocketboom, and more serious versions to come, will have their own niche. But he doubts it will ever be big enough to displace conventional TV news. The majority of the population, he points out, are working-class people who don't sit behind computers during the day, when most people consume online news. "You'll certainly have some providers who are going to reach 300,000 people on a regular basis [online], but the impact on the broader society, I think, is going to be small."

Jeff Jarvis says that misses the trees in a very large forest. Rocketboom alone won't kill the mainstream TV news, he says but a thousand Rocketbooms just might.

Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com), a Washington Post reporter, writes frequently about the media. He explored the future of the newspaper business in AJR's February/March issue.