Tag Archives: citizen journalism

Another way of thinking about the cost of free

Here’s more grist for the comment war that broke out over my Nieman Journalism Lab piece on photographer Gage Skidmore’s practice of giving away his pictures of Republican politicians, and thus theoretically harming paid photojournalists.

The New York Times reports on singer Amanda Palmer’s invitation to local musicians to join her on stage during her latest tour. The compensation: “joy and beer.” The Times blog post, by Daniel Wakin, continues:

Some musicians are enraged, flooding her Web site with angry comments saying that she should pay her backup band. At least one musicians union, Local 76-493 in Seattle, has been sending out Twitter messages denouncing the move and calling for people to post the comments.

Clearly there are some differences between the two situations, but what Palmer is doing raises a few of the same issues.

On the one hand, at a time when free is becoming an expectation in some parts of the economy, aren’t people like Skidmore and Palmer undermining folks who are trying to make a living as photographers, musicians, whatever?

On the other hand, why shouldn’t a creator have the right to give away his work if that’s what he wants to do? Why shouldn’t one musician be able ask others if they’d like to join her on stage without being denounced as a rapacious exploiter?

A 19-year-old makes a splash with free political photos

Gage Skidmore

This article also appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Don’t miss the comments — a full-scale debate has broken out over the role of free in what has traditionally been a paid craft.

If you’ve spent much time scouring the Internet for news about the Republican presidential campaign, you’ve probably run across the work of Gage Skidmore.

Skidmore’s high-quality photographs of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and their compadres have appeared on hundreds if not thousands of sites, including those of The Atlantic, “The World,” Tech President, and MSNBC.

It’s not just the quality of his work that has made Skidmore so popular. It’s that he posts all of his photos to Flickr under a Creative Commons license, making them available free of charge as long as he’s credited. The license he chose even allows for commercial use, although he has sometimes been paid for the use of his photos. I discovered him when searching for free photos for Media Nation, and have used his pictures on a number of occasions.

As it turns out, Skidmore is a 19-year-old student at Glendale Community College in Phoenix and a freelance graphic designer. A Ron Paul supporter, he began photographing politicians when he was living in Terre Haute, Ind., attending events held by Rand Paul during his successful 2010 Senate run in Kentucky. Skidmore also showed up at stops on the presidential campaign trail in order to see Ron Paul and took photos of other prominent Republicans while he was there.

Click here to visit Gage Skidmore’s Flickr page

Skidmore doesn’t know how many times his photos have been used. Some version of a Gage Skidmore photo credit appears more than 1 million times online, and looking up his name on Google Blogsearch yields about 40,000 results. That makes him the political equivalent of David Shankbone, the nom de photo of a Wall Street lawyer whose free celebrity photos have appeared in venues such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Skidmore told me his Flickr account has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times.

(He also photographs comic-book conventions, and has attended Comic-Con the past six years.)

Skidmore is a paradigmatic example of the pro-am media ecosystem fostered by the Internet — a professional-level photographer without the means or the interest to become part of the traditional journalistic system, but who is nevertheless making a name for himself through the quality and quantity of his work.

I interviewed him by email last week, and have lightly edited our conversation.

Q: How did you get started shooting politicians?

A: I first began photographing then-Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky when I still lived in Indiana. I followed him to various events throughout the state over the course of a year and attended close to 40 events. I had become interested in his campaign very early on due to my support for his father in his presidential campaign in 2008.

I have only photographed a majority of the presidential candidates because Ron Paul was attending the conference that I was attending, whether it be CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference] or the Values Voters Summit. And it really helped to have photographed them before the presidential race began. For example, at CPAC in February 2011, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and the like were still mostly unknown, and thus there was a lack of very many free-to-use photos.

Q: Your work has been a real boon to bloggers. Why did you decide to take the Creative Commons route rather than focus on selling your work?

A: My interest has always been to see my photos used as widely as possible. If someone wants to pay me to use my work, that is really only a bonus. But I find that attribution is sometimes more rewarding in getting your name out there among the crowd, which will continue to use your photos.

Q: Have you given any thought to the effect of unpaid photographers like you on the market for professional photojournalists? Is it all right with you if you may be hastening their demise, or do you think society may be losing something?

A: I don’t really think I’ve had an effect on professional photojournalists, as I still see their photos widely used by many of the mainstream publishers. A lot of the sites that do use my photos would probably find another source of free photos regardless, so it might as well be me.

Q: Do you charge for some of your work?

A: I usually only charge for my work if it is going to used in a for-profit publication. I’ve been paid in the past by publications like Reason magazine, which have found use for some of my libertarian-related photography. I also got paid for a photo that appears in Senator Rand Paul’s book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”

Q: A lot of bloggers, including me, are probably at odds with you politically. Does it bother you that people may be using your work for free in order to criticize political figures you admire?

A: I don’t agree politically with hardly anyone that I photograph. My only allegiance is to Congressman Ron Paul and a few other liberty-minded politicians, whom I admire greatly. I don’t mind that my photos are used by some not-so-nice publications. The only thing I really care about is whether or not I was attributed.

Q: What are your photography plans for the remainder of the 2012 presidential campaign? Have you started thinking about 2016?

A: The only plans I have currently is a trip to attend the 2012 Liberty Political Action Conference, organized by the Campaign for Liberty. If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama visit Arizona, I’ll probably make an attempt to photograph them as well.

My focus has never really been to cover the presidential race, but really only what I would enjoy seeing photos of, and enjoy attending events to take the photos, and what was convenient for me to attend.

Dan Gillmor on how to make the media serve us

With the publication of his 2004 book “We the Media,” Dan Gillmor established himself as one of the most important thinkers in digital journalism. Because of that book, Gillmor, a former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, is often described as the leading advocate for citizen journalism, though he would be the first to point out it’s more complicated than that.

When I asked him if he’d like to take part in an e-mail interview about his new book, “Mediactive,” he replied that it might take him a while. Yet, within hours, I received more than 1,500 words of carefully considered prose about the state of journalism and his hope that citizens would use the digital tools at their disposal to become better-educated media consumers — as well as producers.

This is not what you would call an arm’s-length interview. I’ve considered Gillmor a professional friend since profiling him for CommonWealth Magazine in 2006. He offered me some valuable advice on my own book-in-progress on the New Haven Independent and other hyperlocal news projects. I read “Mediactive” in galleys and wrote one of the blurbs. So it would be silly for me to write a review telling you that you should all read “Mediactive.”

Although, in fact, you should all read “Mediactive.” It’s edgier and less optimistic than “We the Media,” but Gillmor has lost none of his passion for urging readers, viewers and listeners — the “former audience,” as Gillmor dubbed them in his first book — to get up off their seats and demand that the media be held accountable.

Gillmor is currently director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He’s also a columnist for Salon and a faculty associate (and former fellow) at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Our e-mail conversation follows.

Q: Why did you write “Mediactive”?

A: As you know, I’ve been a cheerleader for democratized media for a long time now. But I’ve also been a cheerleader for quality. And it’s been clearer and clearer that people are not sure how to handle the flood of information that is swamping all of us.

So a couple of years ago, I started realizing that we have a number of issues to work on to make the possibilities for democratized media into realities that would, first of all, encourage creation of media by everyone; and, second, find ways to make what we all create trustworthy and reliable. This isn’t just a supply issue. It’s a demand issue as well.

Clay Shirky, who wrote the foreword for the book, put it particularly well. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said my goal was not solely to upgrade the journalism, but very much to upgrade us, the audience.

There’s a lot involved in doing something like this. It boils down essentially to a modern version of media literacy, one that looks much more at participation than traditional media literacy programs have done while building on the great work in that field when it comes to understanding what we read and see. The bottom line is, above all, persuading passive consumers to be active users of media, both in the reading (used in the broadest sense of the word) and in the creation process. Continue reading

Acknowledging a first-rate photojournalist

On Jan. 13 I posted an item on citizen journalists who were on the ground in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there. I put up some links. And I included a harrowing photo of a woman being rescued. I don’t remember where I found the picture, but it was surely from one of several sites I looked at that were uploading work from citizen journalists. I do know that I was ultimately led to the public TwitPic account of the photographer, Daniel Morel.

Yesterday I heard from Morel’s lawyer, Barbara Hoffman, who’s based in New York. It turns out that Morel is a professional photojournalist. She asked that I remove Morel’s photograph and explain what happened. “Mr. Morel’s iconic images were used world wide without his authorization knowingly by news media,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “He was  never a citizen journalist, and used twitter, given the tragic circumstances to  offer the work for license.”

I’m happy to set the record straight. According to an interview in the New York Times’ online Lens section, Morel is a veteran photojournalist who was born in Haiti in 1951. A longtime photographer for the Associated Press, he is currently a contributor to Corbis Images. Morel told the Times:

I don’t take pictures like other photographers. I don’t take pictures as art. Maybe I put like 15 percent of art in my picture and the rest is history, is documentary. Because if you put too much art, you play with history. You cannot deform history. You have to show it the way it is. You have to show it the way it is.

Morel is a fine photographer and journalist. I recommend the interview and the accompanying slideshow. And here is a story — with a photo of Morel — about an exhibition called “Haiti Eyes” that he presented in New York in 2005.

The state of distributed reporting

Amanda Michel

Amanda Michel

Can professional journalists and citizen volunteers play well together? It’s a question that has come up repeatedly in recent years. According to Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting for the non-profit Web site ProPublica, the answer is yes — but only for projects that are properly designed.

Speaking earlier today at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, Michel described one example — the Stimulus Spot Check — whereby volunteers examined databases and interviewed local officials to track the progress of 520 of the 6,000 or so transportation projects that are part of the federal government’s $787 billion stimulus package.

By summer, she said, ProPublica’s citizen-assisted reporting had revealed that ground had been broken on 30 percent of the projects — behind the timetable Vice President Joe Biden had publicly announced.

Currently, Michel said, ProPublica is basing its reporting on health-care reform on concerns raised by people in a survey developed in conjunction with American Public Media.

The idea, said Michel, who was head of the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project during the 2008 president campaign, is to “report stories that are beyond the capacity of a single reporter.” And it turns out that a number of volunteers will step forward, contributing some labor, she said, as though they were giving to their church, or to a local animal shelter.

So what doesn’t work? At Off the Bus, Michel said she learned that not everyone wants to be a reporter or a writer. Of the 12,000 people who signed up for the OTB e-mail list, only 14 percent ever wrote anything. Instead, she said many volunteers merely wanted to give some time and help out — as with the 220 folks who gathered data for profiles of nearly 400 Democratic “superdelegates” during the 2008 primaries.

Projects must be carefully designed to account for bias, she added, sometimes by assigning more than one citizen journalist (a term, I should note, that she disdains) to the same task. And the serendipity of old-fashioned reporting is lost when volunteers are asked to carry out very specific tasks that have been carefully designed in advance.

“You can’t always delegate what you don’t know,” she said.

Journalism about journalism on NewsTrust

My reading and blogging habits will be substantially different this week, as I am hosting the journalism topic area for NewsTrust.

NewsTrust is a social-networking tool that enables community members to submit and rate news stories on qualities such as fairness, sourcing and importance. If you’ve never tried it before, I encourage you to sign up and give it a whirl. I’ll keep you posted on what I’m submitting this week in the hopes that you’ll pitch in.

Here is what I submitted this morning. The links will take you not directly to the story but, rather, to a NewsTrust review page. From there you can go to the story and review it for yourself.

Hope you’ll consider taking part.