Students, Denver and the Fifth Estate

I’m in Denver today with a group of University of Nevada, Las Vegas students who are kind enough to call me their teacher. Fellow-learner is more like it.

Once again, we’re experimenting with the future of journalism — using the latest tools in different ways to help people get news and better connect with information, events and newsmakers.

The students are using Nokia N95 cellphones to stream video live from Denver and the Democratic National Convention straight to the Web. But that’s not all. The video is being broadcast on our Web channel at Kyte.tv that lets anyone with a computer or smart phone chat via text with the students and their video subjects live, in real time.

So if you have a question, you can type it in, and the student journalist can see the question on the phone, and pass it along to the delegate, protester, elected official or whomever. You can even ask them to change the camera angle. It’s transparent, so anyone watching can also see the question and comment on it or type in a follow up.

You can also subscribe to our Twitter feed here, where you’ll get notified every time the video stream goes live>

Historically, the Fourth Estate — the press — has been in charge of deciding what questions to ask. But this week on our channel, the Fifth Estate — the people – will have a voice and access to power.

That means the people in the East Paradise neighborhood next to UNLV — a remarkably diverse and historically underserved area — will have just as much access to their elected officials and delegates as reporters do.

I was 28 when I first got to cover a convention, and it was the utterly scripted 1984 re-coronation of Ronald Reagan in Dallas. I covered the feds — the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, Secret Service — and I remember trying to worm some information out of one of the agents about people being arrested. “Robert Ludlum will have it in print before you do,” he glowered.

Having been double-dog-dared, I worked as hard and as fast as I could, and just two days later, Jerry Needham and I had a double-byline story stripped across page one of the Dallas Times Herald about the supposed plot to attack the convention center via hang gliders.

For today’s reporters, news is just a nanosecond away from worldwide broadcast on the Web. And instead of talking to people, we can have a conversation about the news even as it is happening. That’s a great advantage, because as we know, the Fourth Estate commonly asks pretty clueless questions and could use all the help they can get from the Fifth Estate.

I cannot imagine a more fabulous time to be a journalist!

The students and I have many people to thank for this extraordinary opportunity, most importantly, Ardyth Sohn, Director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, who lured me to Vegas, sight unseen, to teach convergence, new media, digital journalism, multiplatform reporting and Web publishing and design, even though I could barely pronounce the word syllabus and had never written one in my life.

And we couldn’t have done this without a generous grant to support civic journalism from LasVegasNow.com, KLAS-TV Channel 8. That provided students with reporters’ backpacks, MacBooks and cameras to explore and document the neighborhood. The money also supported the student-developed Website, East Paradise, and it paid the four students’ way to Denver.

I am tremendously grateful to Nokia, where some good-hearted folks had the technical chops and the vision to imagine what kinds of remarkable things can be done with the powerful N95 cellphones that only recently became available in the U.S. They loaned the students (and their lucky teacher) phones to experiment with this summer for this project.

Over at the San Francisco startup, Kyte, people went way, way far out of their way to help us load beta software and launch a classy-looking channel for the video and chats. You can make my day by embedding our Kyte.tv channel in your Website or blog and spreading the word.

And thank you to my fellow learners, Reid Geary, Ariel Gove, Sandra Herandez and Denitsa Yotova. You truly are the ATeam!

I hope you will watch, participate and tell us what you think.

Blog it (well) and they will come

Students in my Digital Storytelling class zoomed into the prime time blogosphere this week, providing live, multimedia coverage of the Democratic presidential debate and the accompanying mayhem at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Besides making more than 150 posts to the UNLV Presidential Debate 2007 blog, many of the students published audio, photos and text directly to the blog from their cell phones, using a new, free tool called Utterz.

The 17 students also provided solid journalistic coverage of the week’s events, including writing about CNN’s shabby behavior on campus. The post about CNN consistently ranked as the second most popular one on the blog after it went up Tuesday evening.

As of Friday morning, the blog was less than 100 hours old and had received more than 1,100 pageviews. Stats from our host, WordPress, show that the audience is coming from WordPress tags, MySpace bulletins, emails and link-love from places like Utterz and from my alma mater site in San Antonio and from my own Facebook profile, where I’ve posted and linked to it.

The students have been required to maintain a personal blog all semester, and this breaking news group blog was part of the plan in the syllabus all along. (Translation: They are being graded on their work, so there was some incentive — besides the sheer fun of it — to participate enthusiastically!)

Some aspects of the blog came as little or no surprise, because we spent a lot of time in class discussing things such as:

  • Transparency and ethics. So when I accidentally broke the blog Thursday evening, I wrote about it. That’s transparency — letting viewers know what’s going on, particularly when you’ve just screwed up.
  • Journalism. They know one of my basic rules is “quote ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” So when representatives of CNN acted rudely in public, the students wrote about it here, here and here. They told the truth. (New basic rule: Don’t underestimate students who buy their pixels by the barrel.)
  • Finding and telling true stories in different mediums. So they were as comfortable as could be expected when I didn’t give them any more specifics on their assignments than “don’t bore me,” and “tell me what happened,” and do it with text and audio and photos and video.
  • Marketing, search engine optimization and visibility. So when it came time to do this blog, they tagged the blazes out of their posts (and sent out bulletins on MySpace!) — and they got your eyeballs.

But one thing I hadn’t expected was how much time we would spend in class wrangling with technology. It amazed me how difficult it was to even get a blessed piece of audio off of a digital recorder and onto the students’ blogs.

So after I talked to Randy Corke, the co-founder and president of Utterz when I was at BlogWorld last week, I decided the student bloggers would try something I hadn’t planned on or tested because it sounded like just the pixie dust we needed to make this blog fly.

Utterz lets you use your cell to send in photos, video, text and audio, then it mashes them together and plunks the finished product right down into a blog post. If there’s anything else like this out there, I sure hadn’t heard of it. Update: Here is a linknk to what somebody a lot smarter than I am had to say about Utterz two months ago.

Because these students are almost digital natives and all the way fearless, they tried it on deadline, and they not only made it work, they made it sing. One of them immediately waded into a crowd of demonstrators, interviewed people with his cell phone and had the audio up on the blog in less than 10 minutes — it was his first live “radio” interview. Holy cow!

(Here is a list on Utterz of all of the student posts tagged UNLV — you can see the good, the tests and the things we can learn from.)

How long have I been waiting for something like this? I told Randy a story about something that happened long ago and far away, in Phoenix, where my husband was the assistant city editor in charge of the cops and courts team at the Arizona Republic in the mid-1980s. His reporters were lugging those huge, shoebox-shaped Motorola “mobile” phones around to crime scenes out on the sticks, and they also had those whiz-bang Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100s to file their stories.

One day my husband asked the Motorola representative if they couldn’t come up with some sort of gizmo to make the two devices physically connect to each other. The dude from Motorola just shook his head dismissively. “No one would ever use that,” he said.

And then there was the year of deadly hurricanes, Emily, Katrina and Rita.

As content director at MySanAntonio.com, I launched what I jokingly referred to as the world’s first interdenominational, multimedia hurricane blog. We pulled off the unthinkable: We got television reporters and newspaper reporters and newspaper photographers to all get along inside the same blog, and to file like someone else’s life depended on it.

We had it all — except the technology to easily pull it together. In the end, the “man behind the curtain” at that blog was one of my Web editors taking dictation over the phone because we had no other way to get the television meteorologist’s spoken words to go from a cell phone in a satellite truck in the field directly into the blog.

Well, now we do. And that’s not just a baby step toward real independent and mobile journalism.