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Catching Up with Chuck Olsen: Fighting the Good Fight Takes Funding

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A little over two years since NewTeeVee came online, we’re catching up with some veterans who’ve been working with the medium since before Google paid off YouTube’s VCs, Hulu was just a glint in News Corp. and NBC Universal’s eye and Apple hadn’t taken up their set-top box hobby. This is the first in a series by one of the original NewTeeVee writers, Jackson West.

Chuck Olsen has been called “Minnesota’s Video Ambassador” by one of the premier news destinations in the online video community. OK, that would be NewTeeVee — but the Minneapolis resident chronicled the growth of online publishing in Blogumentary, was a pioneer in Web-enabled community news with MNStories, and spent 2008 doggedly covering politics from the primaries to the recounts for The UpTake. Since it’s not clear whether Norm Coleman or Al Franken will get the last laugh in court, Olsen still has some hard news to cover while the national press pours over photos and videos of first lady Michelle Obama, hoping beyond hope that they miraculously find a fetus. But does serving the public interest pay?

Olsen started out making funny videos for friends, and posting them online proved easier than getting everyone over to sit in his living room. “The desire to have my work seen and discussed is probably a disease without a cure,” he noted in an email response to questions. It’s an endemic affliction among filmmakers and narcissists alike (granted, the two aren’t mutually exclusive), and it provides the pool from which the user-generated content geyser gushes.

But in rare cases has it proven a good way to make a living.

Even by partnering with Next New Networks’ Veracifier and getting an ad-revenue sharing agreement with YouTube, the existing grant for The UpTake is mostly gone, even as the team is finding a niche by reporting the Coleman and Franken battle live. The UpTake’s coverage has won praise from Minnesota’s Secretary of State, but as the case promises to stretch on for weeks, it leaves the site scrambling for partners and funding, leaving Olsen with his “fingers crossed” and working on other projects.

After putting his site MNstories on hold during the campaign, Olsen is devoting more time to making work. Rather than curating it alone, now users can upload videos directly, and he’s developing a relationship with to broker advertising for the site. By giving users a forum to provide content for free and by giving local advertisers a platform for promotion, as newspaper pages dwindle, he still hopes to turn the site into a full-time gig.

Who knows, it may actually be less risky than giving up the dream and trying to find a day job in this economy. Not backed by major networks and without access to Google’s (s GOOG) billions to bail out revenue shortfalls, Olsen’s only got his own time and minimal overhead to leverage. But when you’re a content creator in a mid-sized market who loves political wonkery, neighborhood communities and fine arts, it remains a dicey proposition.

In response to my question of what he might have done differently in hindsight, Olsen joked, “Take up carpentry? Buy Apple (s APPL) stock?” Either of which would have proven more profitable. But he’s still optimistic:

I see a lot of desire and opportunity for partnerships between indie media and mass media…I think there’s a sense of “We need to work together to survive,” especially if each party has some proven success and something to offer. This may be especially true among indie media, little guys banding together.

The disease Olsen caught early on — a drive to produce and share content — is still pretty infectious, but I worry that niche sites like MNstories and The UpTake will survive if a cure in the form of regular cash injections isn’t discovered soon.

4 Responses to “Catching Up with Chuck Olsen: Fighting the Good Fight Takes Funding”

  1. Chuck is smart, and has provided vision for unique ways in which video can be used at the local level. It is surprising to find people with the courage to back vision takes time and courage to execute (i.e. real vision). It does exist though and we wish him all the luck in getting something to keep going… good luck…Chuck!