Keeping You Posted — An OpenLetter from Jason Barnett, Executive Director of The UpTake
The social media buzz sparked by the live-streamed video of Wendy Davis’s 11-hour filibuster in the Texas State Senate is still going strong. The Columbia Journalism Review is practically fainting at the “sexy” power of this whole, new-fangled series of tubes and things we, um, call The Internet.
CJR’s headline about the Texas Tribune’s video streaming of the event, which captured online viewers from coast to coast, was, “Making politics and policy news sexy,” with the breathless story focusing on the magic of this whole “live video” thing.
To us at The UpTake, it was as if CJR had caught up to the invention of the trans-Atlantic telegraph. What Hath God Wrought, indeed. I have news for CJR and other folks who have just begun to tumble to the fact that delivery of public-interest events like Davis’ brave stand against a punitive anti-abortion proposal has jumped ahead of the 20th Century. None of the national cable news networks carried the dramatic events in Austin, but hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country followed, moment-by-moment, on Twitter, on Facebook, YouTube and the web site of the Texas Tribune. Here’s a brief video the Tribune posted of the Senate gallery ovation Sen. Davis received at the end of her long filibuster that stopped passage (for now) of a Draconian anti-abortion law:
The UpTake is one of the pioneers of this brave new all-digital news world, so it is gratifying to see the innovations we have helped pioneer finally gain the attention they deserve. It is also a bit annoying. We have been doing this work for six years, and it is long past time that the mainstream caught up with the world we are helping to create, along with great new non-profit media sites like The Texas Tribune, which started up in 2009.
“This was a truly transformational moment in Texas politics,” said Evan Smith, the editor and chief executive of the Austin-based Texas Tribune. But even he was a bit surprised how the filibuster story caught fire as “netizens” around the country watched the determined Sen. Davis stand up (literally) to the reactionary forces attacking women’s reproductive rights. “We hadn’t considered the possibility that by the transmission of this live stream it would become the national and international story that it did,” Smith said.
I’m normally one who enjoys trying to “mess with Texas,” but in this case, I’m glad to see live streaming of state politics get the recognition it deserves. Finally.
At TheUpTake.org we’ve been live streaming the Minnesota Legislature since 2009, including blockbuster political moments like the Norm Coleman/Al Franken election recount, which we were the only newsroom in the state to cover live, gavel to gavel. We’ve carried countless videos on such high-profile debates as the defeat of Constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage and requiring voters to produce photo IDs. This Spring, we brought our audience important live debates from the Capitol in St. Paul on everything from housing rights to frac sand mining to gun-safety efforts to the mesmerizing votes and passage on the same-sex marriage bill that was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton last month in front of thousands of jubilant demonstrators in St. Paul – another historic event we carried to our viewers.
We hit high traffic marks that much larger news organizations would kill for and had our footage picked up by MSNBC and other mainstream outlets, helping to shape the national debate.
In 2009, The Minneapolis Star Tribune said this about us:
“The UpTake is doing everything that the visionaries of the late 1970s had imagined for cable, but they are doing it better and with more imagination and reality. In addition, when you talk to these enthusiastic
TheUpTake.org volunteers you find that the limitations are only those of us of an older generation who can’t imagine some of the things this bunch is willing and able to try.
It is, in fact, an operation that is only limited by the capabilities of the latest in web and video technology and the exciting horizons of TheUpTake.org’s collective imagination… TheUpTake.org—along with others…(has) completely changed the definition of news to the reporting of what IS happening.”
Wow! Someone noticed! Maybe you can see why the sudden rush of media attention to the kind of thing we have been doing for years would be a bit annoying to us. We can handle it: We helped design, lay out and pave these new paths that are helping the public develop a better understanding of government, and helping them play a bigger, more direct role in decision-making.
And we will continue to explore these new ways in order to serve our audience, not for profit, but for understanding.
Live streaming is increasingly being considered a core tactic for meeting the information needs of communities. In its landmark report on the topic, the Federal Communications Commission went so far as to call for “mini-CSPANs” for State level work:
“Citizens should be able to more easily monitor the workings of state and local government. State government spending has risen substantially while the number of traditional news reporters watching over that spending has dropped by a third. Several state public affairs networks (SPANs) have showed that they can help provide some measure of accountability—simply by airing the proceedings of government. Some SPANs also provide venues for candidate debates, town halls and forums on critical state and local issues. Therefore, every state should have a vibrant public affairs network, a state-based C-SPAN.”
I couldn’t agree more, but even with this kind of endorsement and huge potential, live streaming, and public access TV have received little additional funding in recent years.
As the excitement over Texas has shown, live streaming is part of the new toolkit for all journalists. After the filibuster had lit up the Internet, The Washington Post said the story showed how advocacy organizations and folks with larger followings on Twitter can ramp-up a story. At the center of it all, and something The Post downplayed, was the kind of work we do at The UpTake: The glue that holds all of this social media buzz together is the live-video of the thing they are all tweeting about. The responses to moments in the Texas legislature that riled up the Twitteratti would not have reached the frantic level of engagement without the live-video to react to.
We think the link between Twitter and live-video is so powerful that we built a tool that alerts us to key elements happening on our multiple live-channels. This tool has allowed us to crowd-source the monitoring of our endless hours of live video and find the key moments our audience cares about. We know what live-video elements are important to our community because they tweet about it, we harvest those clips, publish them back to our community and the rest of the media call them “YouTube sensations” (I’m looking at you, AP) when they are actually organized content published by our news organization, using the tools our community finds useful.
We have to make very tough choices on what to cover, day-to-day. Our community in Minnesota is so used to us showing up and going live, that people complain when we’re not there, live. We wish we had the staff and resources to livestream more events, and, with the help of our audience and potential funders, we hope we will someday soon. But in the meantime, we do as much as we can, and our livestream reports are helping to make government more transparent, and more accessible. It is demanding work that requires a significant investment of time, equipment and talent. Foundations like to talk about “open government,” “transparency” and “engagement” but they are not following through on funding enough groups that actually do this work day in and day out.
What we didn’t have when we launched was access to wealthy donors or big foundations. We launched in 2007 as a totally volunteer venture, and had zero money for about a year before we started being able to raise small dollars. We’ve covered many national events, trained volunteers internationally and repeatedly had “viral” YouTube videos. We aren’t old media converts who made their money when times were good in newspapers and are now dabbling in nonprofit journalism. We’re entrepreneurs with an idea, and a proven track record of success working in an industry that has a very difficult business model.
In an industry based on finding facts, reporting on who is doing what, the elite in our field still like to focus on the in-crowd, their pals with the money and how amazing they are when they do something that is new to them, no matter if it isn’t new to anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of the MinnPosts and Texas Tribunes of the world. I think The Texas Tribune is actually the best model out there for this type of regional news outlets. They are all doing great work.
But, so are we. If you want to expand the playing field in local reporting in your state and train the next generation of journalists and prepare newsrooms that can live stream actual news events, we are ready to help. We aren’t new to this “new” world.
We were here before this whole interlocking series of tubes thing got hot.
Thanks for listening,
Executive Director of The UpTake
Oh, one last thing: Just for fun — or if you’re still catching up — here’s a video about all of that: