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Home > Publications > Quill > Democratizing Media


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Friday, August 1, 2008
Democratizing Media

By Lee Ann Peck

Halfway through my fall semester magazine writing course in 2007, I decided to stray from the syllabus. I would have my 23 upperclassmen choose five print stories from all the students’ work and do the written pieces via video. My thought: This would help them develop skills they need. So I bought a video camera with my own funds and brought in a broadcast professor to talk about lighting, sound and framing. I broke them into five groups, and we were on our way. Then chaos ensued.

As I learned, the students didn’t have nearly enough time to complete the projects. But judging by their course evaluations, they did like the idea. I must admit, as a former print journalist now in my 50s, I had little experience with video, especially video editing.

A major struggle many U.S. journalism programs face today, including mine at the University of Northern Colorado, is how to integrate multimedia or convergent journalism into their curriculums.

The important thing, though, is to realize there are resources out there to help us give our students great training.

And perhaps none are better than Current TV’s College_Current program.

The program offers a variety of ways for students to get involved in multimedia through text, audio and/or video, and also provides many training avenues. It also allows students to upload their work to its Web site. If the work is good enough, they might even get paid.

What is Current TV?

Independently owned Current TV began broadcasting in August 2005. The San Francisco-based network was founded by former Vice President Al Gore, Current’s chairman, and Joel Hyatt, the network’s CEO, whose goal was to “democratize media” for young people.

Described in press materials as “a 24-hour, short-form, nonfiction TV network,” Current covers topics of interest to the 18-to 34-year-old demographic with a democratic goal of airing a variety of viewpoints, voices and experiences. It should be noted that Gore has nothing to do with the content that is broadcast or put online.

The short pieces that air on television (via digital cable or satellite) and are placed on Current’s Web site are called “pods.” More than 30 percent of the content shown on-air is created by its viewers — after rigorous fact-checking, obtaining release forms when necessary and sometimes a bit of polishing.

The viewer-created content (VC2) is judged via votes by those who log on to the Web site. The rest of the programming is provided by young, professional journalists who work for Current and create pods for Vanguard, which is Current’s brand of investigative journalism, covering U.S. and global issues. Current producers also create programming for the network about such topics as style and spirituality. Many of the people who work for Current are in the age group of its demographic.

In 2007, Current began broadcasting a “localized” version in Great Britain and Ireland, and in May, it began broadcasting in Italy as Current TV Italia. According to Current statistics, the network broadcasts to more than 56 million homes worldwide.

The Web site current.com is truly a new-media novelty and is described by Current as “hyperactive media,” which means a blending of online and on-air content. Via this unique blend, peer-to-peer collaboration happens.

“It’s about getting involved in your world,” says Amy Grill, the outreach executive for colleges and universities. She said Current is different from other sites where people can post their videos. “This is a viable form of civic engagement.”

Saskia Wilson-Brown, manager of VC2 outreach said with a laugh, “It’s YouTube with a brain.”

Opportunities for students, instructors

To view what college students have uploaded to Current and what has been aired (which also means a small payment to the students), visit current.com/college. The videos include a profile of a California man who keeps bees because he couldn’t keep chickens in his backyard, and a personal video diary of a female University of North Carolina student who describes the atmosphere at the school after the student body president was murdered. The quality of the work varies.

Grill, who heads Current’s four-member college outreach team, is adamant about opening new media opportunities for college students, regardless of their skills. Grill did a variety of broadcast work in New York City after she graduated from the University of Kansas, then joined PBS in Boston. Before coming to Current, she worked at Emerson College for several years building its student television network. (See her Current page at current.com/people/agrill.)

Different levels of participation exist at Current, and the college outreach team can help instructors find the right fit.

“Everyone has a skill set that can be applied with Current in some way,” Grill said. “Getting involved with Current is as simple as voting for a pod or submitting a text comment online.”

Current.com can also create a topic page for an instructor, which can be used for a class discussion that will be open for the rest of the world to view and discuss.

It should be noted that students can also submit their work through the other avenues open to everyone, such as viewer-created content or Collective Journalism, Current’s brand of citizen journalism. A faculty/staff toolkit is available that explains the many ways instructors and their students can get involved. Other online resources are also available to help with uploading, choosing music and even pitching ideas to Current.

Brent Huffman, a writer and documentary filmmaker who is also a full-time faculty member at The Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., teaches in the school’s visual journalism department. He discovered Current when the network chose to air a shorter version of his longer documentary about bodybuilding in Kabul. (See his students’ topic page at current.com/topics/86609251_brooks_institute.)

Huffman said he uses Current’s college outreach program as part of the final project for most of his production classes, and about 10 student projects have been selected for broadcast.

“(Current) gives students an opportunity to have their stories heard on a much larger scale, while also involving them in work produced by other students and journalists,” he said. “The staff at Current has been extremely helpful and giving with their time.”

Examples of his students’ work that has aired include a student’s experience dealing with her mother’s cancer treatments and the construction of a highway that would destroy a popular surfing area.

“Current provides a great outlet for student work,” Huffman said. “All of the uploaded stories get extensive feedback from Current producers, who detail how the student can improve the story.”

In the spring, Jon Alpert, the founder and co-director of the Downtown Community Television Center in New York City, co-taught a documentary film course at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism with Matthew O’Neill, a DCTV producer and director. Alpert said he believes Current can be a good entry point into multimedia and film and can also be a “big incentive” for college students because it motivates them beyond presenting something merely to their instructor and class members.

During a semester’s time, “it’s possible to do a nice, short piece, which is exactly the length Current is looking for,” Alpert said.

One of the most valuable aspects of the college outreach program, however, is the pitch sessions students can have with Current staff members, he said. Three Current executives listened to about 10 of his students’ story pitches and gave feedback on their ideas.

O’Neill said, however, that the outreach program’s opportunities might serve inexperienced undergraduates better than graduate students, whom he and Alpert were teaching. The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia often teaches midcareer journalists who are taking a break for a year.

“The pitching and discussion of ideas and how to frame their stories was invaluable, though, and I’m appreciative of that,” O’Neill said. “If I were a professor teaching a group of juniors, I would see Current as nothing but a net positive.”

Grill said Current can be used in ways other than the hands-on experience in communications skill courses. For instance, Eleonora Pasotti, assistant professor of politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, used current.com in her spring freshman Digital Democracy course. Many of the 135 students joined the current.com membership base. Pasotti said she used it as a platform to discuss civic engagement in the age of the Internet.

“It allows the conversation within the classroom to bridge to outside uses,” Pasotti said. “It offers a permeable-wall teaching environment where students can relate to each other, but also have a foot in the outside world and find constant stimulus and feedback there ... I can’t imagine teaching another politics class without using Current; it’s a phenomenal tool.”

Also this fall, Current will begin a DVD series with screening and discussion guides for colleges that can be used by either instructors or student organizations; the first two titles are “Sustainability and the Environment” and “Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identities.”

Grill also suggests instructors consider doing a collective journalism project with students. Andrew Fitzgerald, manager of Current’s Collective Journalism Program, said Current’s citizen journalism goes beyond breaking news.

“We want to go beyond reactive citizen journalism,” Fitzgerald said. “For us, the question is how can we use citizen journalism to do interesting, intelligent journalism. Collective journalism’s focus is on a community of people working together to report a story.”

The first time Current tried this concept was after the Virginia Tech killings in 2007.

The question for Current, Fitzgerald said, was “How do we cover this?” The students at Virginia Tech felt as if “the mainstream media was part of the trauma,” he said. “Current wasn’t going to be just a microphone in their faces.”

Instead, Current reached out to a couple of students and asked them to do a video diary.

“The diaries were about the realness of it; the students could just speak,” Fitzgerald said.

He said the collective journalism program is still in the pilot phase, but its goal is “to reliably cover major issues and have a large enough community of people to do this.”

Wilson-Brown helps Fitzgerald find voices and filmmakers for his projects, but she also looks for filmmakers — students or not. She looks for people from all over the world to cover stories for Current, and, again, if they are broadcast on the network, the filmmakers are paid.

“With the global outreach Current is pursuing, it’s just overwhelming ... the amount of stories there are to cover,” Wilson-Brown said.

For those who want to submit to VC2, Wilson-Brown said to do the following: “Get an idea, get a camera, shoot it, upload it.”

The VC2 team will provide feedback and will take newbies through the process. She also notes that often when people think of story ideas, they think of themselves first.

“When people pitch ideas, they should think about ‘Where is the story?’” she said. “Think bigger — you’re making TV, and it needs to be telling ... and remember journalistic practices and standards.”

For those who teach public relations or advertising, students can create promos for the network or try a viewer-created ad from the assignments. If a student’s advertisement is chosen to air, payment can start at $2,500.

Current also has student executive producer positions at a handful of U.S. campuses, but it welcomes more applications from students whose universities are not actively participating with Current. The students help with media production and get extensive training and are paid as well. About 30 campuses participate now, including Howard University, University of California at Los Angeles, Miami Dade College and University of Missouri.

When I first learned of Current TV’s college program, I didn’t understand all the services that came with it. It wasn’t until reporting for this story that I learned Current can give my students feedback on what they have filmed. And if the Current staff thinks they have a potential story, the staff will take them through the process.

Four of the five groups from my fall class filmed but have yet to upload; they are stuck in the editing process.

If I do this again, I’ll do things a bit differently: I will have students pitch their stories to Current before filming.

And I will give them plenty of time.

Lee Anne Peck, Ph.D., an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Northern Colorado, is a member of SPJ’s journalism education and international journalism committees. Disclosure: Peck’s son, Davis Powers, is the director of music programming for Current in Los Angeles.

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