Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NYT Photo Project Encourages Citizen Journalism

All pictures submitted, like the one above, have a Creative Commons license.

On November 1, 2006, William Drenttel and Jay Rosen launched the Polling Place Photo Project, an opportunity for ordinary citizens to photograph their polling places on election day and submit pictures online. The project's founder, Drenttel, enlisted the help of well-known media guru and friend Rosen. “He inspired and supported it,” says Drenttel. The friends discussed possibilities over lunch and executed the idea a few weeks later in time for the 2006 midterm elections.

Drenttel is a partner at Winterhouse Studio, a graphic design and editing company in Connecticut. He also co-founded the Design Observer, a blog about design and visual culture.

The New York Times and the Huffington Post both became interested in working with the Polling Place Project. Drenttel negotiated with the Huffington Post, but he said ultimately it "seemed too partisan for a project supposed to be non-partisan."

The Polling Place Photo Project was adopted by the New York Times in 2007 and subsequently re-named the New York Times Polling Place Photo Project. Today, Drenttel still oversees the site's content. "We approve every picture here in my office. It's designed to be a part of the New York Times and they helped a lot to make it better," says Drentell.

The goal of the project is to document what happens in polling places across the United States on Election Day. In the idea's preliminary stages, Rosen wondered, “Would anyone participate? What does it take to get people to cooperate?” These basic questions encouraged the construction of a project in which people can easily upload pictures without written requirements. Participants can add captions if they so desire and there are a series of questions to answer. The required effort is minimal in order to encourage the highest level of participation.

The goal of the project was to create a picture record of what happens in polling places and see to what degree people would become involved. According to Rosen, "There's a limit to what people will contribute beyond the basic request. People will participate, but not always as you thought."

The idea is based on an open platform, meaning anyone can participate. Citizens with the ability to operate a camera, who are enthusiastic about capturing their voting experience, can contribute. Simply put, the project is an experiment in citizen journalism.

Bianca Strzelczyk, a senior journalism major at Northeastern University , took pictures of the polling place at Northeastern's Matthews Arena for the 2008 primaries. She said it was convenient because she voted and then photographed campaign signs outside the venue.

"It opens up a door for more citizen journalism I feel and it's going to be interesting to see in four years, during the next presidential election, how much bigger it gets. If it gets bigger. Or if people just aren't interested in being citizen journalists," says Strzelczyk.

Andrea Kulish also photographed her polling place for the 2008 Primaries last spring. Kulish, a resident of Roslindale, Mass., took pictures of Roslindale Public Library and Phineas Bates Elementary School.

"I was feeling a little shy that day and I felt like they may not allow me to," explains Kulish in reference to why she didn't snap some shots inside.

Despite Kulish's hesitation about photographing inside, the Polling Place Photo Project has many examples of citizens who did just that. Enter specific search terms on the home page or select a state you want to find pictures of. There are pictures of everything from voters marking their paper ballot to individuals campaigning to long lines of people waiting.

The Citizen Media Law Project, based at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, reminds citizens that laws regarding photographing polling places vary state to state. Although citizen journalism is encouraged by the Citizen Media Law Project, citizens should ensure they're educated on the laws surrounding Election Day recording. Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project, hopes his work will educate people so they know what they're getting into. "Different laws state to state can be very confusing," says Bayard. Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas ban recording of any kind within polling places. Bayard recommends citizens be aware of legal issues and be courteous to others during the process.

Legal policies aren't the most prevalent issue surrounding the New York Times Polling Place Photo Project and citizen journalism in general.

Bill Lancaster, a communications professor at Northeastern University, supports the New York Time's Polling Place Photo Project and similar ideas which encourage citizen journalism. Lancaster's recent documentary, That's News to Me, analyzes citizen and mainstream journalism in a technologically advancing society. He explains that ordinary people are using digital technology as a tool to express their opinions and cover the news.

“Digital media came of age in terms of citizen journalists with the devastating tsunami of several winters ago. I think that was to blogging what the JFK assassination was to broadcast news television," comments Lancaster.

There is no doubt that citizen journalism is earning an increasingly significant role in the media world, but it's difficult to determine the value of the New York Times Polling Place Project. With almost 6,000 pictures in its archive, the project has collected and documented elections all over the country in the past two years. What impact did it have on the 2008 presidential election, if any? It's difficult to tell and even its founders have found the results inconclusive.

Jay Rosen says “We didn’t become important in this election because in the end it wasn’t a close election. You can imagine if we did have problems.” Imagine a serious problem occured in a polling venue on election day; the pictures could potentially serve as evidence of what happened and be used to point out flaws in our voting system. So far, the project has documented the country's voting process and allowed citizens to capture democracy in its truest and most basic form.

“The New York Times Polling Place, as harmless as it might be, is an indication of where we’re heading. The desire for individuals to report the news and share their stories, pictures and opinions- that’s not going away," says Lancaster. "And nor is main stream journalism going away. So, I believe the new model is going to be a melding of the two.”

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Secret Behind Universal Hub

Adam Gaffin took a break from searching for savvy, interesting Boston blog posts Wednesday afternoon to speak to my Reinventing the News class with Professor Dan Kennedy.

The man behind Universal Hub started the blog as a hobby, but it turned out to be a great success. Make no mistake- he isn't quitting his day job anytime soon, but the site's popularity has potential to develop further with a nice advertisement boost.

Gaffin reads blogs during his lunch hour and while exercising, so he makes time during his busy schedule. The quality of Universal Hub would make one assume he's working away 24 hours a day; reading and analyzing every blog possible. Although the blog isn't his day job, he's very dedicated and this is evident through the articulate selection of stories and Gaffin's reporting.

Universal Hub is a unique yet reliable supplement to main stream media. Because Gaffin is the writer, editor, and final say on everything; he chooses to incorporate personal stories and topics left out by big news organizations.

Also, Gaffin is a perfect motivation for people who are interested in starting their own blog, but are afraid they don't have the resources to commit to such a project. It can be done, you simply need to time manage and be enthusiastic. If you're looking to make money off your own blog then hop to it....time is of the essence. And remember to link as much as possible (and people will reciprocate).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Twitter: Yay or Nay?

So Twitter. A shorter, extremely condensed method of blogging. Is it really necessary to summarize your thoughts in 140 characters or less? What's next? People eliminate face to face interaction completely and communication only through online programs? I know my example is exaggerated, but you get the point. We have text messaging, facebook, myspace, blogs, and dozens of other social networking sites. Not to mention instant messaging and google chat.

Professor Dan Kennedy described Twitter as a "micro-blogging platform" in his presentation Monday, which is an accurate characterization of the chatting. It's blogging simplified and less formal. Could it be considered tasteless using casual Twitter lingo to give a play by play of an individual's funeral? Yes.

This may seem a little harsh, but I think the idea behind Twitter is a bit....obsessive. Yeah, maybe information can be streamed and shared immediately. So,
something happens in the world people are going to run to their computers or engage in Twitter conversations with complete strangers on their phones?

Furthermore, I wouldn't consider Twitter a substantial or reliable resource for breaking news. As long as people understand Twitter is a forum for conversation, it's not a problem. But, I don't see the connection between Twitter news feeds and journalism.

The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai were twittered about alot. I'm uncertain of the value of the "tweets" because who are they coming from and what is the purpose of conversing through Twitter? Is it to share cold hard facts and straight forward information or analyze news with one another? The problem is that ordinary citizens and journalists can't be separated on Twitter.