YouTube Gives More News Reporting Power to the People

News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch is threatening to divorce Google over the issue of unpaid news content. However, Google’s YouTube division still wants the marriage of technology and traditional journalism to work; hence the Tuesday launch of YouTube Direct, a tool designed to bring together media organizations and citizen journalists.

The new tweak to the YouTube API allows news outlets to embed themselves in the user-generated video upload process and set up a so-called virtual assignment desk. A broadcast news company, newspaper or Web site can request citizen-shot videos of breaking news events — or commentary on hot-button issues — and the responses can be uploaded to a member’s YouTube account page via the news organization’s Web site. The content doesn’t get published on the traditional media company’s Web site until vetted by its editors.

“One of the main features of this tool is control. That’s what we’re trying to provide to news organizations,” Olivia Ma, a product manager on the YouTube News team, told TechNewsWorld. “The user content will live on YouTube but not be associated with the news organization in any sort of public way until an editor from that organization has the opportunity to go into a private moderation panel, and they can go in and review all videos in response to that assignment and decide which ones to approve and reject.”

That process is apparently secure enough to attract some big-name news customers on launch day: the Washington Post, ABC News, Huffington Post, Politico, the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR.

The Journalistic Seal of Approval

The idea, Ma said, grew out of the 2006 elections, which saw user-generated news items become a top story in some instances, most notably the failed senate campaign of former Virginia Gov. George Allen and his “macaca” moment. That built through last year’s presidential race and continued through this summer’s Iranian protests.

“Over 20 hours of video content is uploaded every minute to YouTube,” Ma said. “It’s an amazing world of video, but what has been difficult for news organizations, who want to connect directly with users, to leverage all that organic activity. The goal of Direct is to build a set of tools to do this more effectively.”

YouTube Direct builds on an open source API, so news organization developers can customize it to suit their Web site’s technical needs. However, what about their journalistic goals?

While concerns remains about accuracy and “spoofs,” YouTube Direct helps cement the concept that user-generated content (UGC) is here to stay, according to Ann Hollifield, a professor of media research with the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism, who is currently editing a book examining the impact of UGC on traditional news media. “When they are using UGC, they are essentially deploying an army of journalists in places that traditional mass media can’t or won’t go. They can’t be on site for every storm that breaks, but if somebody is feeding video from a neighborhood, it’s extending eyes and ears in ways they didn’t traditionally recognize. Additionally, media executives are expressing more recognition that audiences want to hear from their peers,” Hollifield told TechNewsWorld.

Does It Help?

Even though more media companies may be recognizing the value of taking in UGC — especially as budgets continue to tighten — Hollifield says there is no research she can find that shows a connection between the phenomenon and increased readership/viewership.

Neverthless, “I was terribly impressed” with YouTube Direct, said Kathy Gill with the University of Washington’s digital media program. “My initial tweet on it was, ‘Google responds to news media criticism by creating a tool for news media.’ The interface looks pretty straightforward to me. How easy it is to manage is a key issue for news organizations who want to make sure the video that goes up on their site isn’t full of expletives or is appropriate to the article,” Gill told TechNewsWorld. “More eyes on more information is innately good, because you filter the truth more easily. That’s the essence of open source. And vetting is an issue, but aren’t news organizations doing that already with photos?”

What About Pay?

Yet as user generated video finds its way onto more higher-profile news platforms — YouTube’s Ma said “Good Morning America” will be using YouTube Direct for Thanksgiving-related programming — user compensation might become a sticking point. Direct is a free tool for news organizations, Ma said, and the question of paying users for their amateur video is between those users and the news outlets.

“It’s the ongoing colonization of the user-generated space by large companies and brand names, seeking to take back the territory they ceded to users, freelancers, hobbyists, enthusiasts,” said Hanson Hosein, another UW digital media instructor who is a former NBC News producer/reporter. “It also takes advantage of users who want to see their content ‘in lights.’ Frankly, if I have superlative video of a major breaking news event, I would either post it to my own blog and share it with the world, or quickly hire an agent and sell it to the highest bidder — which is what a news organization would do if it owned the footage itself,” Hosein told TechNewsWorld.

“At some point there’s going to be compensation for UGC that is valuable, but it’s probably not going to be enough for the average person to make a living at,” Gill said. “Some people will, just like some people make a living at blogging today, but the average blogger does not.”

News organizations are likely already thinking about the issue of paying for UGC, University of Georgia’s Hollifield said, but a strategy is yet to emerge. “There are issues of copyright and permission to use,” she explained. “To the executives I’m talking with, that’s still a pretty gray area. I think it’s inevitable — somebody shoots something that they think is interesting and exciting and important and they upload it as a citizen journalist, and then they realize the financial value and they want it back and want to be paid for it.”

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