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Fear and Vlogging on the Campaign Trail, 2008?

BY Michael Connery | Thursday, December 20 2007

This morning, MTV dived into citizen journalism on the campaign trail with the launch of Street Team '08, the 51 member blogger/vlogger press corps which I've reported on in the past. Using a $700k grant from the Knight Foundation, which is working to promote new forms of news gathering and reporting, MTV has equipped 51 young citizen journalists - one from each state and the District of Columbia - with video cameras, computers, flash drives; all the equipment they need to blog and vlog the campaign trail for the next 11 months.

From the press release:
“Street Team ‘08” members represent every aspect of today’s youth audience – from seasoned student newspaper journalists to documentary filmmakers, the children of once-illegal immigrants to community organizers. They are conservative, liberal, from big cities and small towns. The tie that binds them all is a passion for politics and a yearning to amplify the youth voice during this pivotal election. All of the “Street Team ’08” correspondents will begin reporting early next month, after an intensive MTV News orientation in New York City.

Reporters are required to file video news stories with MTV on a weekly basis. These stories will be specific to their home states, and will be distributed primarily through the Associated Press’ Online Video Network and Think MTV, the corporation's activist social network, where all 51 reporters have home pages (for a full listing of URLs, see below). At the editorial discretion of MTV, some stories will be rebroadcast to the reported 88 million subscribers of MTV, MTV2, mtvU and MTV Tr3ìs.

Citizen journalism has been a hot topic in recent years. In 2005, Al Gore stepped into the field prominently with the launch of Current TV, a cable news network where all content is generated by the users, and many editorial decisions are also outsourced to the viewing community. More recently, new ventures like Assignment Zero and Off the Bus have tried to harness in varying ways the power of crowds/regular people to provide reporting that is equal to or better than that provided by the mainstream media. This has met with varying degrees of success thus far. Street Team '08 offers a lot of exciting possibilities for MTV to step into that space and give regular people a chance to change the debate with a younger, and more local, perspective.

These vloggers will essentially be their own editors, reporting on the local political stories they care about, with total authority over their work. That's a big step for a corporation like MTV that, until recently, was more widely known for broadcast-era programs like PSAs and news specials. I don't expect to see those programs vanish, but clearly MTV is aware that a shift is happening in media, and they are working to position themselves to lead, or at least not get left behind.

Now, before I go all techno-utopian on you, let's keep things in perspective. These content distribution deals will give the 51 vloggers and their stories a great deal of exposure, as will, presumably, the fact that their work will be not only embeddable, but local and specific (read: valuable to state-level bloggers and youth orgs). But in the end, MTV isn't ceding all control. They are still the gatekeeper to the 88 million domestic viewers of their 4 cable channels, and what type of content gets moved up to that next level is a big question mark. Will it be safe, non-controversial, platitudinous content? Or will it be diverse, controversial, and thought-provoking? The vloggers supposedly come from a wide array of ideological viewpoints. Can MTV distribute such wildly contrasting world-views on their cable channels in a way that is inspiring and exciting? Or will content pulled up to the network be least-common-denominator material designed to play it safe and protect the ratings? Will the final results be more Hunter S. Thompson or David Broder?

On this I'm willing to give MTV the benefit of the doubt. Their work with MySpace on the candidate forums has been impeccable, and as I'm personally acquainted with three of the vloggers (OR, NE, MA), I'm hopeful for the best. I expect their reports to be hard-hitting, and at this point have no reason to doubt that the other 48 candidates will be any different. Only time will tell.

There is one other distribution channel that will be open to all vloggers without the editorial control of MTV - mobile media. It's not quite clear yet how mobile distribution will work (can you subscribe to one vlogger at a time? All at once? How exactly is content delivered?), but the press materials sent out by MTV mark it as one of the primary distribution channels and make no mention of MTV exercising editorial control over mobile distribution.

Personally, I'm somewhat skeptical that as a country we're ready for high-quality content delivery on mobile phones. The hardware, service, and contracts that most users are subject to are still prohibitive of such content distribution on a massive scale, especially compared to other countries where service is better and cheaper, and more people own devices with more capabilities. But more importantly, I don't know that user habits are there yet to support such content delivery as more than an extremely niche product. Maybe the usage habits of tweens are radically different from that of teh general population, and even the early-adopter population, but I don't see a lot of people watching video on their cell phones as of yet. I don't doubt that mobile content distribution like this is coming, but I don't think that 2008 is going to be its break-out year. Maybe in 2010 when a significant number of people have iPhones or iPhone-like devices.

At the very least, it will be very interesting to see how MTV fares in this strategy. If anyone has the ear of the demographic most likely to exploit such technology, it's MTV, and their findings come November will likely be a leading indicator on what we can expect in the near future for mobile content delivery in politics.

Taking a step back to look at the larger picture, I have to wonder if this is MTV making a move toward a more general adoption of the content model pioneered by Current TV. Perhaps not for all their programming (it would be hard to ditch the ratings and/or replicate the production of MTV's reality TV series), then at least for the majority of their news programs. If Street Team '08 is successful, MTV could conceivably expand on the program. If the vloggers caught on and gained an audience, I could see MTV quickly opening this up to all audience members and implementing a pay/rating system similar to that employed by Al Gore's user-content driven cable channel. MTV already has a larger audience (88 million compared to Current's 51 million), and with a lower spot on the dial and a much larger brand name, MTV could very easily beat Current at its own game if it was willing to cede even more control to the users. The way MTV has been embracing social media this year, I don't know that such a scenario is all that far fetched.

As I've reported before, MTV is really stepping up its game this year. Their candidate forums are clearly one of the best innovations this cycle in using social media to improve upon what is still essentially a broadcast politics event. The launch of Stret Team '08 seems like another step in the right direction for them, and it's hard to doubt that at least in the youth political space, MTV is working hard (and perhaps succeeding) at recapturing the political relevance they held after their initial parnership with Rock the Vote in 1992.

State Name Homepage
AK Dani Carlson
AL David Whiteside
AR Patrick Kennedy
AZ Nicole Fagin
CA Carl Brown
CO Trevor Martin
CT Megan Budnick
DC Erica Anderson
DE Stephanie Woods
FL Anthony Wojtkowiak
GA Shelby Highsmith
HI Angela Wood
IA Nathan Stienstra
ID Brian Rich
IL Jacqueline Ingles
IN Whitney Allen
KS Alex Parker
KY Lauren Snowden
LA Phillip Rollins
MA Kyle de Beausset
MD Kristen Teraila
ME Jaime McLeod
MI Nadir Omowale
MN Carissa Jackson
MO Steven Smith
MS Haley Crum
MT K'Lynn Sloan
NC Carla Babb
ND Emily Catalano
NE Jane Fleming Kleeb
NH Lauren Sausser
NJ Sia Nyorkor
NM Christine Begay
NV Michael Gonzales
NY Sara Benincasa Donnelly
OH Joel Hanek
OK Jill Penuel
OR Nezua Limon Xolographix-Jonez
PA Cassidy Hartmann
RI Tom Shevlin
SC Shantel Middleton
SD Jonna Langston
TN Dustin Ogdin
TX Maira Garcia
UT Charles Geraci
VA Sabina Thaler
VT Dustin Degree
WA Cory Midgarden
WI Charlie Berens
WV Griffin McElroy
WY Nick Perkins