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January 03 2011

17:41

Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…

Yes.

Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…

Yes.

So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.

—–

[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

November 20 2010

17:36

How Public Access TV Evolved into Community Media Centers

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

Around the country, community media centers are launching exciting new collaborations with local organizations, neighborhood activists, schools, and media outlets to create online, hyperlocal citizen journalism sites. These projects are re-imagining how Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) access TV stations -- which are funded through regional negotiations with companies like Comcast -- can serve their communities' information needs in the digital age.



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These innovators are using digital and cable access technology to generate civic awareness and create diverse local media -- a function that's increasingly crucial as traditional journalism institutions face their greatest challenges to sustainability.

These centers provide much more than public access to cable television, having fully embraced computer-based production and broadband technology to augment their media training programs. As a result, innovative experiments in community news production are replacing the tired old "Wayne's World" stereotype of public access. This article spotlights five examples of how PEG access organizations are using funds tied to cable television as the bearing wall to support experiments in inclusive community news production.

Deepening Citizen Reporting

The Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRCMC) launched the Rapidian in 2009 in partnership with the Knight Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. At this year's Alliance for Community Media Conference, Laurie Cirivello, executive director of GRCMC, explained how her access center spent nine months generating community interest and support before launching the community news project:

This project is greatly a result of social media and community coming together. We consider ourselves a host of the Rapidian and a welcomer. We created the platform in response to what people were asking for and looking for. We held a series of town hall meetings. We had meetings where we invited our commercial media folks to discuss how this could help with what they're doing.

Out of these meetings, GRCMC staff decided to develop four neighborhood news bureaus, but they realized that they needed to connect with the community physically before the neighborhood would buy into the community news platform online.

The Rapidian and NeighborMedia at Cambridge Community Television (where I used to work) are two examples of citizen journalism projects that are leading the way in community news innovation. The good news is now other PEG access TV organizations in Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Reading and elsewhere, are launching their own neighborhood news initiatives.

Opening up Election Coverage

PEG access is often the best place on TV for residents to access local election coverage. Take the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington, VT, which operates the city's government access TV channel. The station has been at the forefront of innovative uses of cable access TV and the web. For example, earlier this year I wrote about how viewers can access on-demand "clickable meeting agendas" via the Center's website.

During this past election, Channel 17 created Live Vermont Election Coverage, a website where residents could livestream the results and interact via CoveritLive. The Center also posted videos featuring local voices from exit polls produced by community members. When combined with new online tools, community media centers can use their TV channels to make local content more accessible and more relevant to people's everyday lives.

Hosting a Media Commons

The Bay Area Video Coalition(BAVC) operates San Francisco's Public Access TV station. Along with offering media production classes and youth media programs to Bay Area residents, BAVC has found new ways to bring cable access into the digital age.

BAVC.gifBAVC's public access website at SF.commons.tv is powered by MIRO Community, a project of the Participatory Culture Foundation. This interactive video platform gives BAVC producers the ability to share their local media alongside any other video available online using embeddable RSS feeds. For example, SF.commons.tv has a San Francisco Bay Area channel featuring local news from KQED, a public media organization in Northern California.

Creating a Civic Media Memory Bank

Access Humboldt in Eureka, California believes that broadband is the future of community media. They have established partnerships with other community organizations to develop a broadband network for the rural community they serve. Their "Digital Redwoods" project is working to cultivate a "sustainable media ecosystem." As they explain:

Local PEG Network assets are deployed and interconnected with wireless transmission networks that reach remote locations for broadcast radio, TV and Internet, and for mobile users' broadband needs. This 'digital ecology' approach takes a long term view for the growth of communication networks both on the ground and overhead, engaging local resources with any media necessary to help meet comprehensive community needs and interests for public health and safety, for lifelong learning and for civic engagement.

Access Humboldt is building on their broadband infrastructure through a partnership with the Internet Archive. The two organizations created the Community Media Collection to encourage public access centers to upload their community-produced content. Thousands of hours of local cable access programming from across the country can be viewed at archive.org.

Amplifying Minority Perspectives

After 27 years of trying to launch a Public Access TV station in Philadelphia, PhillyCam began cablecasting on October 23, 2009. A year later, it received an award from J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism to launch Drop Zone, a
"youth-led investigation into why young men of color leave school," in partnership with the Voice of Philadelphia website and YESPhilly youth training organization."

In an announcement about the project, PhillyCam partner Voice of Philadelphia said: "The effort, which will involve local youth affiliated with YESPhilly, will investigate why young men of color leave school. Aside from reporting, the project will allow VoP to engage in one of its other long-term goals - the training of citizen journalists." Drop Zone builds on PEG access TV's long-standing mission to ensure access to diverse voices in local communities.

Community Media's New Context

These innovative community news projects show the potential of PEG access TV stations to re-imagine themselves as community media centers in the digital age. However, all is not rosy for public access TV. TechFlash recently reported that SCAN TV in Seattle will shut its doors to the public at the end of the year. In the process, SCAN TV joins a long list of community media centers that have been negatively affected by an economy in crisis and by legislation that has shifted local control of media to the state over the past five years.

These cutbacks are happening at a moment when community media centers are serving vital local needs. After all, it has been proven that many support what a recent report by Blair Levin calls "a sensible approach to broadband adoption" by providing the public with media and digital literacy training.

Free Press and other public interest media organizations have called for an expanded public media system to provide funding and support for community news projects, which model an open and democratic form of Public Media 2.0. PubCamps across the country -- such as the one this weekend -- are beginning to set the stage for collaboration between public and community media. To thrive, the PEG access community desperately needs a broadband policy framework that supports such pioneering local media initiatives.

Colin Rhinesmith is a doctoral student and Information in Society Fellow at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an Affiliate with the New America Foundation's Media Policy Initiative.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 05 2010

12:00

Moving on After the Knight News Challenge

In 2008, the Open Media Foundation (then Deproduction) received a $380,000 Knight News Challenge award, and it was a major turning-point for our organization. We added staff, formed new partnerships, and maintained a level of growth that had us approximately double in size each year over our first five years after forming in 2004.

The Open Media Project grant is for a four-part effort that began with a re-building of the software we developed to automate an unprecedented approach to user-generated and community-powered TV. The second phase saw our team implement this re-built Drupal software and business model in six additional public access stations across the country. Third, we took the lessons learned from the beta-test implementations and released an installation profile that incorporates the contributions and lessons learned in the seven beta-test sites.

The fourth and final phase has our team focused on content-sharing among these stations, enabling us to cooperate as a true network by sharing the top-voted content from each station, and building a collection of truly engaging content unlike anything else you can find on TV. As we tackle this fourth phase, we are also facing the challenge of sustaining this project (and our team) without ongoing support from the Knight Foundation.

Earned Income

From the beginning, we anticipated that the long-term sustainability of the Open Media Foundation would be based primarily on earned income. We hoped the success of the Open Media Project would generate a strong demand from public access TV stations and other organizations looking for support in implementing a similar model. This approach enabled Denver Open Media to thrive even without the general operating support most public access TV stations enjoy from their local government or cable operators.

Our first such client arose in San Francisco after the city drastically cut operating support for public access and then selected the Bay Area Video Coalition to launch their new public access TV stations, SF Commons. We have found a great partner in BAVC. They are now poised to set a new standard for participatory, community media, and are committed to be a part of an open source movement that has each of us benefiting from the investments of the others. The earned income from this project (and others to follow) will hopefully help our team sustain its success and continue to build upon the expertise we've gained over the past five years.

Cooperation and Partnerships

No successful open source project can be carried by a single organization. The Drupal modules we've developed have been downloaded by over 100 organizations, ranging from public access TV to community colleges. Several of these partners have contributed back to the software in ways that are benefiting the entire community. But this hasn't come about easily.

Over the past decade, many public access TV stations have developed open source software, but few projects are built in a way that enables the software to be truly useful in other environments. Our initial foray into Open Media Project tools included myopic code and assumptions that made the software more difficult to leverage in than if we'd started from scratch.

Developing the code in a manner that makes it useful in diverse environments involves a sacrifice that few organizations have been willing or able to make. It requires investing resources in development that we hope will pay off in the future when partners use and contribute back to the code.

Early partners made the same mistake as us, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into code that is practically useless in any setting other than their own. The Knight News Challenge award enabled us to take the time to better collaborate with the Drupal
community, host code sprints, attend conferences, and, ultimately, back-track and re-design a more extensible code base.

With our grant period soon coming to an end, we have a number of partners poised to take the reigns and collectively help ensure the continued growth of the project. Davis Media Access in California has devoted significant time to improving the code and is a clear success story. Their work has, among other things, extended the OMP code to integrate with a new broadcast server.

Our growing relationship with Tightrope Media Systems, and their recent commitment

to open source software
, can largely be credited to the efforts of Darrick Servis and Davis Media Access. Other successes and failures of the beta test process are equally valuable. Ongoing cooperation with Boston Neighborhood Network, Channel Austin and others will continue to yield benefits to the project.

We're most excited about our newest partner: the Bay Area Video Coalition. They bring a commitment to open source collaboration that we've not yet seen in previous partners. Everything about their SF Commons effort gives us confidence that they will set a new example for the next generation of networked, user-driven public access TV. Though their operating support is meager, they have strong, visionary leadership in Ken Ikeda and Jen Gilomen. They also stand to benefit from their close proximity to organizations like Archive.org, Creative Commons, and the Wikimedia Foundation, all of whom inspired our software and business model from the beginning.

Even if the Open Media Foundation were to shut our doors, I'm confident that organizations like BAVC would keep the project alive and growing... of course, we're working on making sure that isn't the case.

Expanding the Open Media Project

While earned income has the potential to maintain the level of activity we've enjoyed here for the past two years, our true vision of building an entirely new kind of participatory media network is going to require a significant ramp-up of the project. The Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program funding available through the stimulus plan represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that.

We partnered with Free Speech TV, the Alliance for Community Media, and 20 other public access TV stations across the country to apply for $2.2 million to expand the Open Media Project. The proposal addresses the many lessons learned from our Knight-funded beta test, and proposes a more self-contained and supported solution that can transform a wide range of public access TV stations into gateways for broadband adoption for disconnected communities.

Statistics show that the primary factor preventing individuals from using broadband is not a lack of infrastructure, but the perception that the Internet is not relevant to their life. Our partner stations will encourage and support these communities by conveying the relevance of broadband access from the perspective of those communities. Together with Free Speech TV, we will collect the best of this content and provide national exposure to perspectives on broadband's relevance that simply haven't been seen before.

In case our first round application doesn't receive funding, we've invested heavily in planning an application in response to the second BTOP opportunity for funding. I encourage other Knight News Challenge grant recipients (and rejectees) to read the Notice of Funds Availability and investigate if their Knight News Challenge project would be a candidate for BTOP funding.

Regardless of future grants and funding, we are optimistic about the future of the project. We've had our share of pitfalls, but that's to be expected when you're pioneering new territory. The Knight News Challenge experience has opened doors and helped our organization grow in a way that will forever alter our work. If we can sustain the project beyond our KNC award, we'll be part of an entirely new kind of non-commercial media system, serving interests and engaging communities that are left out of the commercial media conversation.

Every change begins with a new conversation.

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