July 31, 2005

The Future of Nonfiction: Reality in Real Time

Oh Yeon Ho (right), founder of 'OhmyNews.com,' having an editorial meeting with staff reporters in OhmyNews Gwanghwamun newsroom in Seoul, South Korea. 'OhmyNews.com' is a marketplace for a would-be citizen journalist. Courtesy of  'OhmyNews.com.'

When we think of documentary filmmakers, we think of work that has a pattern: conceive, research, document, edit, distribute. Of course, that's a generalization, but if I had my cell phone/video camera pointed at a protest in Central Park, and transmitted what I had shot to a website, you wouldn't call that a documentary. But the lines are blurry, as technology makes real-time storytelling part of the future of the nonfiction world we live in.

A number of institutions are breaking extraordinary ground in real-time storytelling and the evolution of citizen media. Take a look at NowPublic.com, an open-source news site that allows users to build their own news stories. The website brings together the power of photographers, both amateur and professional, and bloggers, letting them work together to cover news stories anywhere in the world.

At NowPublic.com, bloggers can convert their work into photo assignments, recruit local volunteers and even set budgets for material they would like to feature. The NowPublic community votes to prioritize assignments and filters real-time coverage emerging from eyewitnesses and people close to the real story. Readers of NowPublic get a fresh look at events and can compare real-time, breaking stories from the blogging community to coverage from other news media.

Meanwhile, in Bluffton, South Carolina, Morris Communications Corp. has begun publishing Bluffton Today, a tabloid newspaper tightly coordinated with a website, BlufftonToday.com. The hyper-local publication will be distributed free in the namesake South Carolina community of about 15,000 people. Readers will be invited to log onto the website and comment about stories, as well as start their own blogs, upload pictures and even contribute recipes.

"Newspapers have gone on the Web by putting yesterday's news online," says Steve Yelvington, manager of website development for Morris. "That's a one-way street. We are doing the opposite; participation is right at the center of what we're doing."

The leader of this trend in citizen journalism isn't in the US, however. It's in Korea. Oh Yeon Ho, the founder of OhmyNews, has intimated that Korea 's citizens are able to change society through "a marriage of democracy and technology." "Citizen participatory Internet journalism started first in Korea with the slogan 'Every citizen is a reporter,'" Oh said in a recent interview. According to the concept, the traditional view on reporters needed to be rethought. "Reporters are not some exotic species; they are everyone who has news stories and shares them with others," Oh maintained.

NowPublic, OhmyNews, BlufftonToday: Flukes or trends? New business opportunities for nonfiction storytellers, or the further unraveling of a profession? It's far to soon to tell what it all means, but one thing is clear for filmmakers: pictures, words and sound are sure to be a significant part of the evolving Internet. And audiences will gravitate toward the ones who tell stories in the most informative, entertaining and enlightening manner.

That's good news for storytellers, no matter what the technology.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at Steve.Rosenbaum@MagnifyMedia.com.