When discussing the travails of major news outlets online, it’s not uncommon for someone to mention the effect that companies like Google and Craigslist have had. But seemingly overlooked in this debate is Google’s own YouTube, which has become a breeding ground for unknown and upcoming filmmakers and broadcast journalists. In what way could the online video giant use its massive reach to enhance journalism and those who wish to practice it?

Last week I attended a DC screening for Project Report, a journalism competition sponsored by both YouTube and the Pulitzer Center. The films shown at the event were each only a few minutes long — no longer than your average YouTube video — and were documentaries made by non-professional filmmakers (In fact, that was the only eligibility requirement to participate).

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Olivia Ma

Olivia Ma, news manager for YouTube, told me after the screening that the video site is increasingly becoming a hotbed for rising stories overlooked by more mainstream sources.

“The news value of YouTube has been of value for a long time,” she said. “We started to see that journalists on the site — aspiring journalists, citizen journalists — were starting to use it to get out their stories, and often times filling in and covering stories that traditional news outlets weren’t covering anymore. So we knew there was a population of these reporters on the site, and felt like the time had come to put together an initiative that would speak to those kinds of journalists. And the Pulitzer Center, we discovered them because they started their own channel on YouTube awhile back.”

YouTube launched the competition on September 8, and, for the first round, participants were asked to make a documentary portrait of an individual whose story needed to be told. The Pulitzer Center then picked 10 semi-finalists who were each given a laptop and other equipment from Sony and Intel before advancing to the second round.

The second and third round each lasted a month. For the second round, the reporters were instructed to tell a local story with a global impact. Winners in that round were then each given an additional camera that they were instructed to give to members of a community they were profiling, so the community could help in the actual documentary process.

All the films I watched at the screening were competently made and a few stood out as exemplary journalism. One of the pieces focused on an Iraqi expat artist who became a journalist and translator during the Iraq war until he was forced to flee to the United States. A second round semi-finalist video explored one of the country’s largest Immigration and Customs raids in Iowa, telling the story of hundreds of immigrants whose lives were torn apart when their husbands and fathers were deported from a small town.

Art Perez

I met with competition winner Arturo Perez, Jr. shortly after the screening. The 25-year-old looks like your stereotypical film school grad and his eclectic lifestyle, in which he works any part time or contract job he can while living in San Fransisco, almost fits the cookie-cutter cliche of an aspiring artist. But unlike the artists of only a decade ago, Perez has the broadcasting powers of Web 2.0, which allow him to sidestep the more traditional avenues that an upcoming filmmaker usually follows.

Perez was born in Mexico City, grew up in Ottawa, Canada, and went to film school at the University of Texas.

“I graduated and right away made a film,” he said. “It was called ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ and it was a story about me and my two best friends coming to San Fransisco to find the political and activist spirit of the city.”

He shot that first documentary with no money and “a little crappy camera from 1997,” but that’s when he really got a feel for how to bring all the different narrative components together to make a film. Perez was on the front page of YouTube the day Project Report was announced and knew immediately that this was the kind of competition where he would excel.

His first video profiled Jeff Heaton, a man who erected thousands of crosses to represent the American men and women who have died in Iraq. The poignant piece follows Heaton as he constructs the crosses and walks among them, reflecting on the massive toll the war has taken.

For the second round, his film dove into San Fransisco’s controversial plastic bag banning. He interviewed everyone from the grocery store owner forced to move from plastic to paper to the landfill workers who have to dispose of tons of plastic bags every year.

But his winning piece, the one submitted for the third round, was the most extraordinary. He handed over his extra camera to residents of Camphill, Calif., a community where adults with developmental disabilities — Fragile X syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, epilepsy and Down’s syndrome, among others — live, learn and work together. The result is a five-minute piece told through their eyes, following their daily challenges and accomplishments and exploring how they work and collaborate as what can only be described as a close-knit family.

I asked Perez whether the self-broadcasting abilities offered by YouTube made him feel more empowered to control the path of his own career.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “There’s a lot more people doing it now, everyone is a filmmaker now. So, it’s hard in that respect. But then it really separates the men from the boys, because I think you’re pushed harder and harder to come out with different stuff, so it keeps pushing you to do harder things. And the good part about it is you no longer have to rely on some executive who’s a friend of a friend to give you money to make your film, but at the same time it’s hard to get seen, to get noticed.”

The filmmaker recognized that as little as a decade ago he would not have been able to accomplish what he’s done so far. The equipment to edit and make a film were much more expensive, and even if you managed to finish a movie there was little chance of anyone beyond friends and family ever seeing it. Even if it was shown in a film festival it would only be seen by audiences briefly before disappearing completely, whereas today a video on YouTube can have an indefinite shelf life.

Perez will receive a $10,000 grant to make another film, which he plans to start on immediately, although he doesn’t know yet what his subject matter will be.

Sustaining Online Video Journalism

I asked Ma whether Project Report could serve as an example of how YouTube could help in securing the future of broadcast journalism.

“We were really just responding to a trend we were already seeing in the YouTube community,” she said. “YouTube is the ultimate self-publishing platform where individuals can create content and potentially get an audience of millions all around the world. So we were seeing these independent journalists that weren’t representing a mainstream media organization using YouTube in that way, and we thought it’d be a great way to pay tribute to do what we thought was really important work.”

Ma said that so much focus was put on local stories in the competition because that’s often a niche that goes ignored by more traditional news outlets. “We really think there’s a gap there,” she explained. “Hyper-local news stories [help] engaged individuals feel like they can be a part of that, then that becomes a really powerful way of filling in the mainstream news media gaps.”

But though YouTube offers a platform for both independent and large news organizations to broadcast their stories, this kind of journalism is still very difficult to monetize. The day after the Project Report screening I attended another YouTube-sponsored event that included a panel of employees from some of the largest news organizations in the world — the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, and CNN. And though all panelists reported success in promoting and distributing videos online, nearly all admitted that the platform is still seen as a loss leader.

In the past, YouTube has partnered with some content makers and shared ad revenue with them (most YouTube partners do not focus on original reported journalism). There have been reports that some partners have made a sizable income, but for those that haven’t partnered with the site it can be difficult to fund their projects without grants or sponsors. And while YouTube’s Project Report is a step in the right direction, it’s not a viable solution for everything that ails traditional media outlets.

But for independent journalists like Perez, monetization is not a necessary component for success. For those who are just starting out in the industry, it’s a chore to just get noticed, and over the past few years we’ve seen several examples of online video stars — who started out making videos for free — getting snapped up by major media organizations.

In a world crowded with journalism and film school grads, the online video giant may serve as a way to rise above the cacophony of aspiring journalists and take control of your own career path.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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