In Depth

Technology: Letting the Public Tell the Story

By Daisy Whitney

It’s nice when someone else can help you do your job, especially if they’ll work for free.

Audience submissions are coming into their own as a resource for news networks, local stations and newspapers, which are increasingly incorporating layman-generated video and feedback into their offerings.

Parker Polidor, co-founder of Cell Journalist, a software platform designed to be integrated into news outlets’ Web sites that enables the public to submit images and video from mobile phones, said his 2-year-old business has experienced startling growth just since the beginning of the year.

“We started with WKRN in Nashville two years ago and we had 20 clients by the beginning of 2009. We now have 65,” Polidor said, noting that the breakdown of broadcast to print clients is roughly 70 percent to 30 percent.

“TV is more about breaking news, while for newspapers, it’s more about community-based events, like festivals and high school sports,” he said in explaining the disparity, adding that TV stations can also instantly drive traffic to their sites by promoting viewer submissions on air.

Cell Journalist counts among its TV clients Scripps Television Station Group, Media General Broadcast Group, Raycom Media and Young Broadcasting.

Among cable networks, CNN has been among the most aggressive in mining user contributions through its iReport.com service that lets viewers upload videos of news events, which can then be used on the network or on CNN.com.

The significance of that service first came to light during 2007 with the Virginia Tech shootings and the Minneapolis bridge collapse, as some of the first video footage for both stories came from local citizens on the scene.

“The Virginia Tech event was sort of a wake-up call internally to the power of the platform and that continued with the bridge collapse,’” said Lila King, senior producer at CNN.com who oversees iReport.

iReport launched in 2006 as a vehicle for users to upload breaking news they witnessed. Now the site iReport.com immediately posts anything users upload, but those same pieces must be vetted before their make it on air or online.

During the Iran coverage, CNN leaned heavily on iReport for footage from the ground. “It’s allowed CNN to tell the story and tell the rest of the world what is happening. It’s become an invaluable news-gathering tool,” King said.

CNN said Web users clicked through on iReports from Iran stories at double the average rate. “What we have seen in Iran provided a new model for breaking news,” King said. “The reason iReport worked is that it invites people in the middle to share what they are seeing.”

News organizations nevertheless must be cautious about user-generated video. When CNN vets iReports submissions, producers correspond with the person who submitted the footage, check whether the material may have been doctored, and cross-check with resources on the ground.

During the Iran election coverage, CNN had received 5,879 user submissions by June 19, only 220 of which were ultimately approved for use on air, CNN said.

While it’s hard to determine whether any one report or service contributes to growth in a network’s online ratings, CNN.com has seen page views rise 16 percent in June from the year before, with unique visitors up 35 percent from the year ago period, claiming 107 million unique visitors in June, according to Omniture data provided by CNN.com.

News operations are also increasingly sharing viewer feedback on their on-air content. For instance, Fox-owned WJBK-TV in Detroit uses its MyFoxDetroit.com message board to give the public a chance to sound off on stories. Sometimes such feedback is mentioned during a WJBK newscast with anchors reading commentary and requesting additional viewer response.

Along these same lines, WJBK streams its morning show online alongside a chat room, letting the local community interact with each other and sometimes with the anchors during the on-air/online simulcast.

But not every news organization is so keen on user contributions. While ABCNews.com has relied on Twitter as a communications tool and a resource, it’s shied away from user-generated content.

“The inclination of people to put up content that is usable is few and far between, and with the vetting issues you get so little of it that you can use,” said Paul Slavin, senior VP for ABC News digital. “I’m not suggesting it doesn’t have a role and can’t grow into something, but we haven’t seen that yet.”