Friday, April 1, 2011

Citizen journalism: is it sustainable?

What was up with that? Being the curious type, I later called one of The UpTake's founders to find out. Michael McIntee, a former longtime TV news exec and now the The UpTake's executive producer, told me he and his colleagues launched their venture with the intent of covering the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, live.

They got warmed up by covering as many primaries and caucuses as they could. "Nobody had put cameras in caucuses in Iowa before like we were doing," McIntee told me. "We were well-versed in doing live stuff by the time we got to the RNC."

The magic of the Internet also gave them an edge in providing live coverage of protests outside the convention. To put it quite mildly, things got a little hairy, with police arresting journalists as well as protesters. McIntee said one advantage of being able to stream live video from cellphones during the chaos was, "They couldn't confiscate your video, because it was already out on the Internet."

Technology giveth, indeed.

Today, McIntee said The UpTake has a core of about a dozen volunteers that do the "heavy lifting," but it has about 100 or more volunteers helping to edit copy, moderate live blogs and other duties. "We want to broaden that base in terms of people who occasionally help us, versus those that do the hard work," he added.

The UpTake has some paid staff -- and McIntee isn't one of them -- that help provide constant coverage of the Legislature. He said the staff aren't paid what he considers their market value, because The UpTake can't afford to. But these are people who aren't in it for the money. Even some of The UpTake's hired freelancers also volunteer their time.

Is it sustainable?

Like many other news outfits these days, The UpTake is grappling with the question of how to make its mission sustainable. Their model, which relies so heavily on a lot of unpaid workers, makes sense for a nonprofit. But I still have qualms about how it could work for a traditional, or "legacy," news provider.

For starters, The UpTake's stance on the issues it covers isn't entirely neutral. Occasional headlines such as, "Meet the Koch Brothers' Future Union-Busters" and "What the Revolution Feels Like and Looks Like in Michigan" hint at where its sympathies lie.

McIntee admits The UpTake has a liberal bent. But he doesn't believe in the traditional definition of objectivity in news, anyway. "Journalism doesn't have to be balanced," he said. "Journalism needs to be fair. Journalism needs to be true ... If (an opinion) is B.S., it doesn't have to go in there."

McIntee's definition of fairness is giving people the chance to respond if they're attacked, and not knowingly putting something in a story that's false. In my opinion, this pushes the concept of news closer toward "informed commentary." And that's OK, I guess, as long readers/viewers know that's what they're getting. And, if The UpTake is streaming things like an ethics panel hearing in its entirety, with no edits, then the only bias you'll see is coming from the politicians in front of the camera.