Yes, the venerable newsweekly is jumping on to the "citizen journalism" bandwagon. We have another phrase for it: "free labor." And who can blame a media institution for asking for handouts in these troubled economic times?
"Ideally, video pieces will be already completed (produced/shot/edited) and ready for delivery, but rough footage ready for editing will also be considered," says TIME video producer Vanessa Kaneshiro, who's accepting pitch ideas at email@example.com.
Judging from what they already offer, the online publication sure could use some help in the video department. But from rank amateurs? Well, that seems to be the trend in this YouTube age.
Times are tough in the art world, too, but you don't see museum curators saying, "Hey, we can't afford a Picasso, so we'll call our members 'citizen artists' and let them splash their own paint on our gallery walls."
Yet the democratization of journalism is endemic. The U.K.'s Guardian reports that German newspaper Bild is selling cheap camcorders to its 82 million readers "in the hope that it will nurture a new generation of citizen video journalists who will use it to collect material and upload it directly to a special desk of content editors."
They're calling it a "media evolution." Or, in German, "volksjournalismus" (people's journalism). Unlike their American counterparts, at least they have the decency to pay for contributions -- 500 euros.
"We started it during the World Cup in 2006, encouraging people to send us their pictures, because we knew our journalists couldn't be everywhere at once," says Michael Paustian, deputy editor-in-chief of Bild. "It has been a huge success, so that we now get around 4,000 photos a day."
Around 9,000 of these pictures have been published in the paper, while tens of thousands have appeared on the website. There have been citizens' takes on everything from celebrity break-ups to the disabled interior minister doing his morning exercises in a specially converted wheelchair.
"Technology has improved to such an extent that we'd be foolish not to take advantage of it," says Paustian. "There's one button to turn it on, one to record, and zap, before you know it, the material is with Bild." The publication literally has eyes -- and buttons -- everywhere! Zap!
Extending the volksjournalismus project to videos seems only natural. But it has unsurprisingly stoked the wrath of German organizations for journalists, who are convinced that ordinary mortals will trample the profession's ethical codes -- a concern that Americans would no doubt find amusing. Their real fear, it turns out, is that professional journalists will be punished for amateurs' boorish behavior by being barred from legitimately covering events.
Then there's always the concern about "standards." But Paustian says: "It's not the reader that makes the decision about what material we use. We've got people here to do that."
Still, the pros feel their profession is under attack, and their careers on the line. Paustian insists that the project is not about cutting jobs, and in fact has created jobs. "The specially established department which sifts through the picture material that's sent through to us employs 10 people."
Christian Meier, a German media expert, says the video reporter scheme throws up scores of legal questions, such as: "Who vets the pictures, who makes sure that personal rights and laws are not being broken, how do they deal with material that involves criminal activity which might not sometimes be apparent until after the material is published?" Details!
The most popular download on Bild.de is a reader's recording of the crash landing of a Lufthansa Airbus at Hamburg airport. Other hits have included a DJ exposed for making a "Heil Hitler" greeting. A favorite last week was a naked couple discovered in a drunken coma in their garden by a neighbour, who also recorded the police arriving to take them away.
Paustian notes: "Without the use of lay people we'd never have access to such images." Edward R. Murrow weeps.
When a plane crashed in a residential San Diego neighborhood recently, CNN's "iReporters" were all over it. iReporters? Those would be invididuals who happened to be in proximity of the tragedy and volunteered to capture the still and video images on their cellphones, and transmit them to CNN, with audio of their own perspectives: "Awful!"... "Horrible!" ... In short, vague disaster-related adjectives that even J-school undergrads know to pluck from their copy.
CNN.com offers a "toolkit" for iReporters with tips and pointers about basic journalism precepts (truth, fairness, etc.), but as Los Angeles Times reporter Patt Morrison points out: "These useful instructions about the principles and practices of journalism aren't likely to be uppermost in the mind of someone who's just seen body parts scatter in a terrorist bombing. Professionals in any field -- medicine, fire-fighting, journalism -- know how to keep their heads and swing into action and get the job done, all the more so in a crisis or disaster."
Here is CNN's official take on "citizen journalism": "Lots of people argue about what constitutes news. But, really, it's just something that happens someplace to someone. Whether that something is newsworthy mostly depends on who it affects -- and who's making the decision. On iReport.com, that is you!"
Back in the day, we journalists were a proud crew, not willing to blithely hand off our duties to anyone with a cheap videocamera, or to convey the impression that it takes virtually no training, experience, skill or talent to tell a story thoroughly, fairly, fast and accurately -- and put it in proper context. Reporting consisted of more than pointing a shaky cellphone camera at a disaster, and providing an "Ohmygod!" narration track. We didn't call those bystanders "iReporters." We called them eyewitnesses. And we interviewed them ourselves, and incorporated their observations into a bigger story, that included real facts, figures, and quotes from authorities, victims and other sources.
All over the world, Web publications like Time and CNN and Bild are looking to beef up their newsrooms with free or cheap labor, by turning their audience into their staff. As they close bureaus, they open opportunities to the average Everyperson, who will provide average "reports" of average quality -- despite Bild editor Paustian's assertion that "Our citizen reporters quite simply make journalism better and more interesting."
We live in a YouTube shoot-and-share world. But at KobreGuide, we champion excellence and professional standards. Videojournalism is an art form. Inviting museum visitors to fingerpaint on the walls is neither better nor more interesting.