Visionaries meeting, which was held in Atlanta in mid-April, we had the
opportunity to tour CNN and to meet with Tyson Wheatley, one of the
founding editors of CNN’s I-Report initiative. This is the section of
CNN’s Web site (www.ireport.com)
where anyone over the age of 13 can upload their own photos, videos,
audios, and/or text submissions as long as that content complies with
are interested in learning how to leverage user-generated content.
Tyson told our small band of Visionaries that the team responsible for creating, piloting, and shepherding i-report.com into being has been “about 1.5 people” until very recently. Now the group has grown to about 7 employees. They’ve had strong support from CNN management from the outset.
The idea behind i-report.com is to take advantage of the power of “citizen journalism.” The people who are closest to breaking news are the ones best equipped to provide photos, videos, and first-hand accounts. CNN has long been the recipient of unsolicited videos and eyewitness reports from far-flung “journalists.” In the past, an editor would always vet the submitted material by talking to the person directly and asking questions to ensure the authenticity of the footage as well as to ensure its legality. Some of the issues that CNN cares about when vetting a submission are the following: the submission can’t contain objectionable or copyrighted material; CNN also need to be careful about where the footage was taken. Was it on public or private property? Who took the video? Only the actual eyewitness is permitted to submit material. Often, Tyson explained, in the case of really breaking news, that screening conversation takes place within minutes of receiving the material. But as the volume of user submissions has increased, it was becoming harder to manage and screen them in a timely fashion.
By creating a section of the CNN.com Web site that is devoted to collecting and featuring customers’ submissions, the CNN editors discovered it was both a good way to make it much easier for people to submit appropriate content and to make it easier for CNN to screen that content to ensure that it meets their standards.
CNN’s Goal: Get the Best Breaking News Coverage; Customers’ Goals: Get Broadcast on CNN
CNN’s goal in recruiting citizen journalists is simple. CNN wants to have the best breaking news and continuing updates in the world. There is no way that any news gathering organization can be everywhere at once, but people are. Tyson explained that both CNN and the users who submit content have a common goal—get the best material on to CNN’s television broadcasts.
Phase 1: CNN Polices the Content
Vet First; Then Post. Citizen journalism—the “I-Report” section of the CNN Web site first went into beta on August 1, 2006. That first day, CNN received 13 submissions from people who uploaded their videos. The initial site worked this way: you uploaded your content, filled in information that helped in the screening process, and then talked to an editor who would call you on the phone to ask more questions. Once the CNN editor was comfortable that the content met CNN’s guidelines and the submitter understood the terms and conditions (CNN now owns this content for worldwide distribution, but you still hold the copyright), they would “publish” it on CNN’s I-Report beta Web site.
One of the first customer-submitted videos to make it on to CNN’s television broadcast was a weather-related story—a video of a squirrel walking on a hot tree branch during a heat wave. But hard news is also submitted. “The story that really put I-Reports on the map,” Tyson said, was the first live footage of the Virginia Tech massacre which was captured by Jamal Albarghouti, a student on campus. Jamal was apparently walking across campus when he saw the police converge, he was told to get down, which he did, but he captured the audio of the shootings (33 people died, including the shooter) on his Nokia cell phone and then returned to his dorm room where he uploaded the footage to i-report.com. As he told CNN later, “Who else would I send it to?”
Phase 2: Unedited. Unfiltered. News: A User-Moderated Site
As the CNN editorial team soon learned, citizen journalists were coming out of the woodwork, and they all wanted their stories and views to be heard and seen. So CNN decided to flip the beta site over to be “customer-moderated,” yet still fulfill the purpose of providing breaking news material to CNN. Here’s how they described the shift in the blog on the site:
“When we launched iReport on CNN a year and a half ago, we uncovered a burning passion our audience had for capturing, sharing, and reporting the news. That passion—which resulted in tens of thousands of videos and pictures sent to CNN—inspired us and got us thinking. What if we built an entirely different news platform filled and organized exclusively by our users? What if we turned this site over to you? What if we allowed people to post raw video and tell stories you'd never see on CNN? What if it had politically-incorrect speech? What if it didn't matter if the stories were balanced? What if, instead of us confirming every nuance, we trusted you to determine what was and what wasn't accurate?
What if we created a site where the community—not CNN—became the "Most Trusted Name in News?"
And so, we developed iReport.com. Don't kid yourselves. This content is not pre-vetted or pre-read by CNN. This is your platform. In some journalistic circles, this is considered disruptive, even controversial! But we know the news universe is changing. We know that even here, at CNN, we can't be everywhere, all the time following all the stories you care about. So, we give you iReport.com. You will program it, you will police it; you will decide what's important, what's interesting, what's news.”
Users Post & Rate; CNN Still Vets the Stories It Airs. When we visited on April 16th, 2008, this new beta site was six weeks old. CNN was receiving 300 to 500 submissions per day. Users’ submissions go live immediately. If it’s a really hot story—like the picture of the fire in Los Angeles that was captured at 6:30 am this morning by Billy Moses—it may be fact-checked and broadcast live on CNN within minutes.
All of the user-submitted content is still post-moderated by a third-party on CNN’s behalf. But users quickly rate and comment on each others’ submissions as well. Users tag their own content.
Among the most popular categories of submissions are weather-related
stories and other natural disasters (tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.),
election-related stories (sightings of the candidates), and
economy-related stories, including gas prices. Coverage of world
events, like the preparation for the Olympics in Beijing, the protests
over Tibet, and the devastation in Myanmar are also easy to find.
Assignment Desk. In addition to live coverage of breaking news, CNN also encourages users to put themselves on camera to give their opinions about topics they care about. For example, how they feel about Barack Obama’s winning the democratic nomination.
Each week, the i-report team creates new “news assignments”—these may be related to upcoming holidays (Father’s Day, etc.), or to other themes (French Politics, Polaroid Memories, WhaleWatching, ManCaves) or to collect reminiscences about people who have recently died (Bo Diddley, this week).
Results: 102,000+ Submissions; 915 Aired on CNN Last Month
The ratio of user-submissions to photos, videos and stories that are broadcast is about 10%. That seems about right to me. The benefit to CNN is that it receives a steady stream of live coverage. The advantage to users is that they have a place to air their views, strut their stuff, and be “part” of the CNN community.