If it hadn't been for a cell phone camera, the world would never have seen video of Saddam Hussein's execution. The first video of the London subway bombings came in via cell phone, too, not from journalists but from commuters who saw it all happen. With so many camera phones in circulation, it's no wonder major news organizations are now actively soliciting video from ordinary citizens who might have captured something newsworthy. But who's really benefiting from all this citizen journalism?
In the past few months, CNN, MSNBC and Reuters have launched online ventures encouraging users to share their stories, photos and video, which the companies say could be used on television as well as the Web. CNN's "I-Report," MSNBC's "FirstPerson" and Reuters' partnership with Yahoo! on "You Witness News" differ somewhat, but they have one thing in common: They don't pay contributors a dime.
If you happen to change your mind about the deal you just signed, at least "You Witness News" will let you back out. No such luck at CNN or MSNBC. "I-Report" insists on a "perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce..sublicense, distribute and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit..without payment to you or any third party." MSNBC's "FirstPerson" agreement is "irrevocable."
"I should think you'd be crazy to send your pictures in to a site like that," says Kyle MacRae, founder and CEO of Scoopt.com, which helps people sell their video and pictures to news organizations. He has a vested interest, of course — Scoopt takes a 60 percent cut of every sale — but he also has a point. "Pay for it if you're going to broadcast or publish it," he says. "If it's good enough for that, then pay a fair market rate. Just because it's some amateur behind the lens doesn't make it less valuable."
How valuable could it be? The person who captured exclusive video of terrorist suspects being arrested in London reportedly sold it to ITV and the Daily Mail for tens of thousands of dollars. It's a good bet the news organizations earned that back by selling the international rights to the footage, for which they paid the shooter nothing extra.
MSNBC.com hasn't even considered the issue of resale, says Deputy Editor Tom Brew, but it has decided not to pay for the content it solicits. "Our goal in exploring citizen journalism is not to create a new revenue model or to start paying a new army of freelancers out there," he says. "Our goal is to help round out the journalism on our site."
Dan O'Donnell, news director at Hearst Argyle's WGAL-TV in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also sees citizen journalism as "a supplement to what we do," but he's taking a different approach. He is considering recruiting a few citizen journalists to cover high school sports and community events for the station's Web site. Their submissions would be edited and paid for, although the amount is undecided. "I really think we have to offer something," O'Donnell says. "Otherwise I don't think it's fair, and I think it surrenders a whole lot of our control."
Other stations see no reason to pay for what they can get free. Pappas Telecasting stations feature a "community correspondent" section on their Web sites, where video and photos are posted, unfiltered. Its Kearney, Nebraska, station broadcasts some of that content on the news every day of the week, but Pappas does not offer any financial compensation.
So should local TV reporters worry about becoming expendable? "I think some businesspeople do think of it as a way to get more content for nothing, and maybe we can get rid of some jobs," Pappas' vice president of news development, Desiree Hill, told a conference in New York last fall. "But there will always be a need for someone's job to be to gather news and report... We can't replace reporting with citizen journalism."
Tell that to the folks at KFTV in Santa Rosa, California. The Clear Channel station laid off most of its news staff earlier this year; now it's asking the community to help provide local coverage. Clear Channel won't comment on whether contributors are paid. "We want viewers to tell us and supply us with the content that they want," General Manager John Burgess told Santa Rosa's Press Democrat. "Frankly, I think we're going to do a much better job of covering local issues than we are doing right now."
Really? Well, let's hope they tell all of their viewers where their "news" is coming from. Maybe they could adopt a new slogan: "You report, we make money."