User-generated content and citizen journalism, seen by some as the next potential wave in online video news reporting, has generated just a few small ripples for cable giant CNN and its five-month-old I-Report program.
As the captured-by-phone videos of Saddam Hussein’s execution and Michael Richards’ rant show, there is definitely an interest and an outlet for user-generated news content. While CNN says it is happy with the “thousands” of user-generated submissions it has received, the twin challenges of producing and then verifying independent reports has relegated the CNN-approved user video to a tiny niche, especially when compared to general online sharing sites like YouTube.
Announced with much fanfare back on Aug. 1 of 2006, CNN’s I-Report program was designed to showcase “the explosion of cell phone and digital cameras enabling people to catch powerful images of interesting news events,” according to the CNN press release. In reality, it’s been more of a sporadic pop that spikes whenever there is a major news event, especially if it is an unpredictable one like a weather story that isn’t already being covered by one of the network’s many professional crews.
CNN’s companion Web site initiative, CNN Exchange, was meant to be the showcase place for the user-generated content; but its hard-to-find positioning on the CNN home page and small sampling of actual content (especially on the video side) seems to be an online admission of something even company spoksespeople call a “1.0″ effort. Still, there is much more content on the CNN Exchange site than on a competing effort from Yahoo and Reuters launched in December.
CNN says it plans to keep increasing and improving the ways viewers can upload material, calling it a unique way to add perspective and deepen relationships with its online and broadcast audiences. Over the New Year’s holiday, CNN aired a compilation of I-Report material in a special broadcast segment, showing that user-gen content can make the jump up to the big screen as well.
While declining to provide any detailed numbers, CNN spokesperson Jennifer Martin said there have been “thousands” of submissions to the I-Report program since Aug. 1, though she did say that still-photo submissions outnumber video submissions by a factor of about 30 to 1.
According to Martin, the challenges of actually producing video and then having it verified by CNN editors is a twin factor that will likely always limit the I-Report upload rate. Unlike YouTube-type videos, news reports rely mainly on being there in the moment — a factor that lends itself more to phone-device captures than videocam tapings.
“People seem to have mastered the cameras on their cell phones, but maybe haven’t quite got there with video,” Martin said. As for the vetting process, Martin said that “as a global news brand, verifying authenticity is very important for us.” The several-step process of verification, she said, means that “not every I-Report submission gets used.”
Another potential factor limiting I-Report’s appeal is its lack of compensation to viewers who upload material, even though CNN requires viewers of I-Report videos to sit through pre-roll ads. Paying content generators is a business model that is being widely tried elsewhere, including sites like Revver, Eefoof and more. Martin said CNN does provide an I-Report T-shirt to people whose material is used.
While the video uploads may be minimal, Martin pointed out that still photos play an important role in TV broadcast reports. She cited the recent snowstorms in Denver and the fatal plane crash this fall of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Liddle as incidents when I-Report material added significantly to CNN’s coverage.
Martin also said the I-Reports setup allows viewers to comment and participate in ongoing news stories in non-traditional ways; following the accidental death of Australian TV star Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, CNN had “more than 500 plus submissions,” many simply tributes to the effect the animal-show entertainer had on peoples’ lives. One submission was a video of two children wrestling with a toy alligator. “It provided additional perspective and gave us a unique angle on the kind of reporting we can do,” Martin said.
While Martin did not provide any concrete timeline for improvements to I-Report (whose video upload is powered by Blip.tv), she did say CNN continues to seek ways to improve the experience. “User-generated content is nothing new,” she said. “What we want is to make it more user-friendly to submit to us, give them the mechanism to be our eyes and ears.”