Story vs Tech: some missing commandments

Steve and Moses

This is an archetypal battle that began playing out in the garden of eden and long before Moses went up the mount with his tablets and returned with a ten chapter story we all thought was possibly missing a few essential commandments.

The joke is that Moses broke a tablet on the way down, but maybe if he didn’t have to rely on a hammer and chisel, while the Lord dictated; if he had one of Steve’s tablets to work with, we would have had a few extra thoughts and a more complete story.

The missing commandment dilemma plays out daily as it impacts every facet of life. It played out for me when I arrived at the ABC more than 20 years ago and realised that their charter – in essence their tablets – recommended a more inclusive less marginalized more diverse multicultural approach to broadcast than was occurring; in fact, a more inclusive Australian story. However, in those days, the ABC seemed more interested in technical diversity and their impending move to digital.

In 1993 I chose to run an experiment at the ABC. I took the watching paint dry obs doc format the poms were producing so well, and re-formatted the style for prime time half hour slots (see Home Truths, Nurses). The aim was to train ordinary citizens to create user-generated content (UGC) to edit into a series – 22 years ago we called it self-shot. In essence to tell a more complete Australian story on the ABC.

The first thing that happened, even before we began searching for citizen participants, was that the ABC Sydney camera department went on strike. How can we be showing amateur digital DV quality on prime time TV (we were on at 8pm:)? It will be our ruin, they screamed. The on air quality was deemed to be ok, especially when the series rated as well as it did. The truth is, the audience, our viewers, were more interested in the story than the quality of the video.

The point I’m making slowly and one which Dino De Laurentis put so eloquently in 1984, when he told us that “even Dino couldn’t f@#$ a good story”; is that story rules. In the case of the ABC experiment, the viewers put up with the lesser quality because the self-shot nature of the story was unique. Dino went on to tell us that people will always watch a great story and if MTV has taught us anything, it’s that we are very accepting of ropy vision as long as our audio is ok, and that many of the best rock clips have a story.

How does all this play out with mojo?

Firstly, there are many great mojo trainers that we chat with on Twitter. Some who are  involved in this conversation, focus heavily on tech, others lean on story. A predisposition either way appears to depend on the trainers background. The trainer with a tech, radio or print background, will generally be more rigid and advocate a tripodian view of mojo. In essence a view that strives for a technical look that would put mojo in competition with content delivered by mainstream crews.

My background as a journalist, a cameraman and as an executive producer on countless TV series, informs my view about mojo; as does my story telling and location based experience as a producer and occasional camera person on international current affairs series like Foreign Correspondent. It’s natural that we are all the product of our experience.

I have always been quite tech-savy but my focus is story, or more correctly, finding a balance between story and tech. It’s not a techno determinist view or some digital sublime state – a euphoric notion that tech is the complete answer. I learned a long time ago that the best way to compete is the be unique. This approach informs my mojo philosophy today.

What I look for when I begin my training programs with journalists is a link between what they know and what I’m teaching, and that’s story. I look for the same connection when I work with citizens and students. This link is the basis for our conversation. Without your story there is no mojo, is a truism that journalists, citizens and students get.

When I’m training journalists in a print shifting to digital broadcast environment, I find a number of factors impact traction (a) digital skill lag; (b) a techno determinist approach; and (c) time credits.  Story is a journalists stock in trade. As I wrote in this article about my work with Ekstra Bladet during their conversion to digital and web TV, journalists are most concerned about digital storytelling impacting adversely on the time they have to do their job properly, and in the main that’s telling stories, not pressing buttons. Yet today the two a irrevocably tied.

This focus on story has worked for me with print houses loving that their journalists are seeing video as fun and producing it voluntarily. News bosses are seeing a growth in self-esteem and confidence, to a point where one major news room informs me that their  journalists, now trained in mojo, are checking their own online stats. At another large media house I’m told 25-30% of journalists who did the mojo training program are producing 1 to 2 complete edited mobile videos each week, with 50% of journalists producing 1-2 videos each month. Those of us involved in mobile conversion know how difficult it is to get traction – so these results are encouraging.

Having said this, mobile technology is a conduit between your story and the global conversation. There’s no denying the impact of technology on communications and no denying that the new news room is a mobile heavy space. With journalists learning mobile storytelling skills, it seems that being a professional journalist necessitates being able to use mobile. If this is true then what or who is a citizen journalist who also uses a mobile to tell UGS? What’s the difference, indeed is there one?

Citizen journalist or citizen witness?

The notion that citizen journalism is the result of someone having a picnic on the banks of the Hudson river, who snaps a plane crashing into its icy waters, is underwhelming and  undervaluing citizen journalism and the citizen’s role as participant in the journalistic conversation. That citizen witness is citizen journalism is a commonly held view and one that can be true, depending on the nature and the augmentation of the citizen witness UGC. It is also a view that organisations like CNN espouse. One reason is that iReport provides CNN with free content that they call citizen journalism, a view they promote to justify its use without charge to CNN, in their verticals streams. Indeed, the fact that citizens need to sign an complex iReport contract that enables CNN to use iReport footage in any of their programs, is some evidence of this. The CNN iReport TOU states:

“By submitting your material, for good and valuable consideration, the sufficiency and receipt of which you hereby acknowledge, you hereby grant to CNN and its affiliates a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce, use, create derivative works from, syndicate, license, print, sublicense, distribute and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit, or any portion thereof in any manner and in any medium or forum, whether now known or hereafter devised, without payment to you or any third party.”

Not withstanding the service that iReport might perform, can it be true that iReporters give those rights away just by submitting material for consideration, even if it is not broadcast? Of course if CNN sell your material to a third party they’ll pay you something after costs, but you don’t get anything for their use and re-use of your content. The irony is that if you are a community who sees something interesting on CNNs iReport and wishes to use it for your own initiative, you will first need to get permission from CNN, who now expressly state that they own ‘own(s) a copyright in the selection, coordination, arrangement and enhancement of such content, as well as in the content original to it’.

Now, if you use your smartphone to edit your UGC into UGS, it may not get a run on CNNs iReport, and if it does, it may be more difficult for CNN to use it in their vertical content streams, because it’s not raw footage anymore, which is easier to augment, badge and voice. By creating UGS and not just UGC citizens maintain diversity at source and more control over their message and their content, which by the way, can be sold, possibly even to CNN.

Hence, technology will help capture, edit and disseminate content, but your ability to create story – to transform UGC into UGS – will maximise your potential to create a less marginalised and more democratic public sphere – for your voice to be heard.


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