TCS Daily


Guerrilla Media Troubling Guerrillas

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 20, 2005 12:00 AM

I've written in the past about the future of guerrilla media, as a means of supplementing -- and where necessary, bypassing -- the traditional media. And it just keeps happening, in bigger and more involved ways.

There's been lots of unhappiness with media reporting from Iraq. But where people used to just complain about that, now people are doing something about it. J.D. Johannes of Faces from the Front is one of them. I interviewed him recently.

 

GR: What's your project all about? How did you come up with the idea?

 

JJ: The project is about telling a story that otherwise would have gone untold. The story of one Platoon of Marines, all of which are volunteers, as they root out insurgents in Iraq's Al Anbar province. The story is told through 3 mediums, web, at www.facesfromthefront.com, local TV news stations in Kansas and Missouri, and a long form documentary for local PBS tentatively titled "Outside The Wire." Washburn University has partnered with me for the documentary making me an Adjunct Professor in the Military and Strategic studies department. The PBS station, though licensed to the university, has been a challenge.

 

Local TV affiliates were not going to Fallujah to follow a group of Reserve Marines from their area. Local PBS stations were not going to Fallujah to produce a long form documentary about Reserve Marines from their area. The big networks were never going to cover a group of Reserve Marines from Kansas City. The daily newspapers were not going to cover them. The story of the courage, dignity and compassion of this group of Marines would never be told, unless I went.

 

The only time local stations or newspapers cover a local Marine or Soldier is if they die in combat. That is an outrage.

 

The idea sprang to me in late December 2004. I was dissatisfied with the coverage of the war. I had an idea turning in my head about how coverage could be improved through syndication targeted for local TV markets. My college roommate and occasional business crony, David Socrates, thought the idea was a bit crazy, but jumped on board. When I learned that an Infantry Platoon from my former Marine Reserve unit was being deployed to Iraq, everything became clear. I knew what I had to do. I did it because I knew no one else would. A lot of others could, but no one else would.

 


PFC Bittle jokes with some Iraqis near Fallujah. While Lt. Gobin and the Sergeants were having tea with some tribal elders, Bittle watched the shop of one of the Elders' family members. From Alabama, Bittle used southern charm and his knowledge of Arabic to keep a steady stream of customers coming to the store. I think the shopkeeper even offered him a job. (Image and description courtesy
www.facesfromthefront.com)

 

GR: How has technology played a role in letting you do this sort of thing? Would it have been possible 20 years ago? If possible, feasible?

 

JJ: This project, the way it was thrown together, would not have been possible 10 years ago. The major technological leap forward is in the low cost availability of 3CCD cameras that shoot broadcast quality video and off-the-shelf video editing software that rivals television production equipment. Ten years ago, a production quality camera would cost $25,000 - $40,000. The editing equipment would have been a Video Toaster or two bulky decks and two bulky monitors. The total cost being around $100,000. But now, its $4,000 for a 3CCD camera, $1,000 for Adobe Premiere software plus features and $2,000 for a laptop computer. We ship video from Iraq using a combination of FedEx and NorSat KU band satellite transmissions. Neither of which would have been feasible 20 years ago.

 

The web end of things obviously wouldn't have worked 20 years ago. Ten years ago, the web part of the project would have been slower, with fewer and shorter video clips. The facesfromthefront.com website would not be nearly as rich in content ten years ago, server space would have been too expensive.

 

Ten or 15 or 20 years ago, a person with a large, well-established video production company could be doing what we are doing. But a small company or a start-up company? Not a chance. The initial capital investment would have been too great.

 

GR: Do you see a trend toward independent newsgathering and filmmaking of this sort? Should the Big Media folks be worried, or should they see it as an opportunity?

 

JJ: The technological trend should result in more independent news gathering and filmmaking. I once had a conversation with Hernando De Soto about how technology made the U.S. look so different from parts of Europe, especially in the red states. In Kansas, where I live, everything is spread out. The roads are wide, suburbs and cities distant and the farms massive. The railroads were the first bit of technology that allowed this, as cities were built around rail terminals. Then came cars. The cities of the American Midwest were built for cars. Farms expanded as the tools of production (tractors, combines, etc.) became larger allowing one person to do more work.

 

The availability of the cameras, recorders, affordable server space and affordable software will open up the news game to more people.

 

Over time, news gathering will reflect the technology that makes it available, but the Big Media will resist it. Not the business end of big media, they will adopt it, but the reporters, producers and editors will resist it.

 

The second phase, and this will be the angle TV is likely to take, is in specialized syndication.

 

Every local TV station has a "Statehouse" reporter. What makes these reporters so special that their coverage should be respected? Nothing, other than they work for an identifiable and reliable media outlet.

 

Do they have any special knowledge of law, politics, government, economics, policy, etc? No. They have a bachelors degree in Mass Media or Journalism, possibly the worst education possible outside of a teaching degree.

 

I worked in television for four years producing newscasts every day, these reporters are some of the least equipped individuals to be covering important topics that affect people's lives. And in TV news, performance abilities are rewarded more often than analytical ones.

 

And there is a 'paying your dues' aspect to TV News. Everyone must start at the bottom and work their way up, unless they have a patron or a well placed uncle.

 

The concept of some guy with a camera being able to produce stories and analysis superior to that of the big media is a threat to the status quo, and humans hate threats to the status quo, especially if it affects their livelihood.

 

The News Directors and producers would be incredulous at the idea of some lawyer covering the "Statehouse." That would be an infringement on their turf.

 

But upper management could see the economy of scale.

 

If one man and a camera, could cover the statehouse under a syndicated contract for $6,000 dollars and get one station in four markets to buy in, he could make $24,000 a year for working just 6 months. If he had something else on the side, he could make a respectable living.

 

The resistance would not come from upper management, but from the News Director, who would see this freelance interloper as an invader. In a newspaper, the same resistance would come from the lesser editors.

 

Indeed, I experienced this first hand a few times with the Iraq project.

 

But most original news coverage by bloggers resembles first person rambles, not news. A mere change in style would go a long way.

 

Because most bloggers are hobbyists, serious citizen journalist hobbyists, they are not able to devote the resources necessary to original reporting. The bloggers provide the best background information and in-depth analysis, but they rarely produce fresh news.

 

When enough bloggers take the leap, and start reporting on the statehouse, city council, courts, etc., first hand, full time, then the big media will take notice and the avalanche will begin. . . .

 

If it can be done in Iraq, it can be done in statehouses and city hall.

 

Technology has made all sorts of things possible. Twenty years ago, or even ten, it took a huge infrastructure to allow one guy in a safari jacket to report from places like Baghdad and pretend he knew what was going on there. Now it can be a do-it-yourself project. This is probably bad news for terrorism, which is an information warfare operation disguised as a military one, and one that is based on taking advantage of the kind of reporting (hysterical and shallow, for the most part) that traditional mass media tend to do. I suspect that the growth of guerrilla media -- ranging from operations like Faces From the Front, to reporting by freelancers like Michael Yon, to reports from Iraqi bloggers and even emails from soldiers -- has made the terrorists' task tougher, as the reporting is by people who are much closer to what's really going on, and much more closely connected to their audiences.

 

I also agree that the local-reporting angle is likely to be big. Most media coverage is wide but shallow. Individuals can actually outperform big news organizations when it comes to reporting on a single topic, and as it becomes easier for individuals to develop and market niche expertise, we'll see more of that. How will Big Media respond? It will be interesting to find out.

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