March 3, 2011

Twenty years ago tonight, George Holliday was awakened in his LA-area apartment by sirens and a police helicopter. He saw the commotion between police officers and a motorist on the street below, grabbed his brand-new Sony Handycam, and captured a scene that put a city in flames.

A lot has changed, and a lot remains the same, since Holliday committed that act of citizen journalism by chronicling Rodney King’s beating. Here are some thoughts on the tools, the distribution and the economics of citizen journalism, then and now.

The tools

It’s easy to scoff at Holliday’s video camera as being bulky and inconvenient compared to modern camera phones. But even then, these cheap tools were democratizing journalism. (In a post Wednesday, Dan Gillmor explores Holliday’s place in the history of citizen photojournalists.)

Holliday’s video wasn’t the only act of citizen journalism related to Rodney King. The next year, after four police officers were acquitted of assault and excessive force charges, riots erupted across Los Angeles. Timothy Goldman, an unemployed former Air Force officer, videotaped the violence, including the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny.

“There has never been anything like this,” said John Hoos, an FBI spokesman, in a 1992 New York Times story. “The new technology has created a wealth of vital information that is revolutionizing our ability to do investigations like this.”

In the years since, the tools have become cheaper and easier to use. Remember the debate about what had happened between King and the police officers before Holliday started recording? Holliday had to run into another room and unhook the camera from its charger and tripod before returning to his balcony. By then the beating had already started.

If Holliday were to awake tonight in a similar situation, he’d probably reach over to his nightstand and grab his cell phone. Perhaps he would have captured a more complete depiction of what transpired between King and the cops that night. Then again, depending on what phone he has, perhaps the picture quality would have been so poor that none of it would have been usable.

The distribution

Holliday recorded the video for about 9 minutes. Afterward, he and his wife watched what they had captured. It seemed important, but he had no means of getting an audience beyond his living room. He didn’t even have a way to find out what had happened to King; he later told reporters that he got nowhere when he called the police station.

At his friends’ urging, he brought the tape to Los Angeles TV station KTLA, which broadcast the video the next night – though not at the top of the broadcast, he noted years later in an interview with The Sun.

Warren Cereghino, the station news director, told the Associated Press that Holliday offered the video “because he just thought it needed to be seen. … He didn’t want any money at first.”

In 2011, of course, Holliday could have posted the video to YouTube. Maybe he would’ve live-streamed it that night from his phone via Ustream. And now that Twitpic has enabled support for videos, he could’ve tweeted it, too.

Distribution is as important as cheap tools in the democratization of media. Having your own distribution channel makes you a publisher, not just a source. Janis Krums didn’t call a TV station or a newspaper to tell them about his incredible photo of a plane’s emergency landing in the Hudson River. When the media saw it, they found him; just 34 minutes after tweeting the image, Krums was interviewed on MSNBC.

Self-publication brings control, too. KTLA edited out the initial 10 seconds or so of the video, before the image was in focus, that shows an extremely blurry shot of King charging at the officers. Although most television viewers didn’t see that part, it was key to the jury that acquitted the officers. Perhaps Holliday would have posted the entire video, and that piece of information would have affected public discussion.

The economics

Holliday sold his video to KTLA for just $500; over time, he grew to regret it. The station shared the video with CNN, which distributed it to networks that played it over and over. A 2006 Los Angeles Times story describes Holliday’s misgivings:

“He didn’t have kind words for the media. He may have pioneered ‘citizen journalism,’ but he feels that he was swallowed up and spit out by CNN and the like, which, he said, gave him little credit and no compensation for his contribution to history. ‘I don’t watch the news or read the papers anymore.’ ”

Holliday sued broadcast networks and CNN, claiming that he hadn’t been informed that the tape would be distributed. A judge dismissed the lawsuit. (I contacted Holliday to ask about his impact on citizen journalism, but he said he wasn’t interested in talking.)

Contrast that with Goldman, who recorded the mob dragging Reginald Denny from his truck and beating him. According to a New York Times story, when Goldman went to videotape the riots on the second day, he struck up a conversation with a journalism student, who offered to be his agent.

Goldman earned “tens of thousands of dollars” in three months by selling the broadcast rights, not the tapes. Holliday has told reporters that he has made less than $10,000.

These days, when someone comes across a big story, they’re more likely to do what Krums did – share their amazing photo or video with their social networks. They can tell their friends that they were witness to an incredible event. Maybe, like Krums, they’ll beat the pros to the story.

“If you think about it, we are now trained to overshare,” Krums told me. If someone like him finds himself headed on a ferry to pick up the passengers of a downed airplane, “they’re going to be sharing it, because they’re trained beforehand that this is how you interact.”

The tools are smaller, cheaper and more ubiquitous. The means of distribution are well-established, free and global. People want to share what they have witnessed, and many don’t care about making money from it. But the economics of news haven’t changed so much.

In the hours after he took the photo, Krums said he was asked to sell the rights. One of the first offers was just $75. Later, he said, the Associated Press offered him $700.

He turned down the requests for exclusive rights, and in the couple years since, he has made much more by selling non-exclusive rights for use by Oprah Winfrey, ABC and Apple.

Thinking back on it, he said, he didn’t even know at the time how valuable that photo would become. It’s only after the fact that the average person realizes the importance of what he has captured.

“I could definitely see how you could feel … taken advantage of,” Krums said. “You have professionals calling amateurs.”

In his book “Mediactive,” Gillmor criticizes the assumption of media companies that they should get citizen journalism for free:

“This is not just unethical, it’s also unsustainable in the long run, because the people who give freely of their time won’t be satisfied to see mega-corporations rake in the financial value of what others have created.

“Not every person who captures a newsworthy image or video necessarily wants to be paid. But many do, and right now, for the most part, their compensation is a pat on the back. Eventually, someone will come up with a robust business model that puts a welcome dent into this modern version of sharecropping.”

Gillmor argues for a real-time auction system that would enable citizen journalists to be paid for valuable breaking news reportage.

There’s another key difference in how Holliday’s citizen journalism was handled 20 years ago and how it could be handled now. In several states, videotaping police officers is considered a form of wiretapping. Today, you could be charged with a crime for doing what Holliday did. Imagine that trial.

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
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