It's being done by a commercial station.
A few weeks ago, news director Victor Landa and his crew at KVDA-TV kicked off what may be the first serious attempt at community-based television journalism in the United States.
Citizen-correspondents get a computer, a web cam, and a high-speed Internet connection, and they're expected to generate and report stories. Landa says the correspondents are '... people who are not necessarily leaders, but people who are involved in their community already, so they're known and they have the pulse of what's going on around their neighborhoods.'
Correspondents report their stories live, from their homes, via the Internet.
Trinity University communication professor Rob Huesca says, 'It was refreshing to see ordinary people on television -- that unrehearsed, unscripted, unedited genuineness did come through. It was refreshing because you never see that on television news.'
The station started off small with only two neighborhood correspondents, but Landa hopes to have two or three more on board by the time you read this. His goal is to have 30 by October of this year.
'The reaction has been good and varied,' says Landa. 'We've gotten reaction from people we didn't even think were watching -- the north, northeast -- that part of town; people who have been calling to find out how they can participate. It's been pretty interesting.'
The stories have been interesting, too, in spite of the severe technical limitations of web cams and the Internet. The kickoff was about problems with an high school band in Edgewood -- shabby uniforms, and instruments and cases in deplorable condition.
At one point in her report, the correspondent said the school didn't pay much attention to the parents of band members until the TV station became interested and involved. Landa says, 'For us, that was awesome.'
Awesome indeed, and it illustrates one of the real powers of the press. According to Huesca, 'The fact is, we live in a media culture, and the media have an impact, regardless of where they point their cameras.'
Huesca says that companies and organizations understand that impact, so they spend enormous amounts of money to buy and manipulate the media with advertising, public relations and marketing.But ordinary people may not have either the savvy or the resources to do the same, so, he says, 'It's a good thing that KVDA is identifying the people who don't have the means of marketing and public relations and advertising at their disposal and that they're trying to give them the same kind of access and the same kind of platform that political parties, sports teams, and politicians have.'
Is this the evil and dreaded advocacy journalism which students hear about from their traditional J-school professors? 'We have no qualms saying that we're advocate journalists,' says Landa. 'But the thing is that every news outlet in town does the same. They're all advocating their own point of view. We just say it.'
Huesca likes that, and he particularly likes that the station is providing a means for people to advocate for themselves. 'I think the idea is excellent,' he says. 'What they're trying to achieve is giving people means of communication, decentralizing the communication and changing the idea of who the journalist is. I think it's a great idea and I applaud their effort.'
Huesca doesn't buy into the traditional concept of a journalist priesthood which filters and interprets events because they're too complex for the public to understand. He says, ' I really do think that if there is a benefit to this, it's that people are closer to the event than journalists can be, and that the expertise they bring is the expertise of real life, not the expertise of detachment, impartiality, balance, and the rest of journalists' values.'
KVDA kicked off the effort during the May ratings period; one of the two most important months in the year to television stations because the ratings determine how much a station can charge advertisers. Landa says, 'We had an upswing in our ratings during the May book. We brought it up with about a week or two left in the May book and that's when we started seeing an increase.'And that brings up the pesky subject of money, always an issue in media. KVDA's effort is being partially funded by support from two large national foundations, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
It's quite rare to see foundation funding for a for-profit organization like a commercial television station, and it speaks volumes both about the innovative nature of what KVDA is trying to do, and the lack of innovation on the part of more traditional non-profits in the area of democratizing media.
On the other hand, while it may not have happened yet, sooner or later it seems likely that Landa will find himself walking a tightrope, caught between what is essentially an idealistic effort to give a media voice to those who have none, and the hard core necessity to be profitable.
Huesca says, 'I can't be too optimistic about a market-driven system that's going to allow democratic discourse over more manipulated market-driven discourse. But I hate to condemn it right now because I think people like Victor Landa also operate with an ethic of serving the public, and that exists in tension with their responsibility to deliver audience to advertisers, so I think the best thing we can hope for is that there's a balance struck between those two responsibilities.'
Finding that balance would seem to be a function of how much courage, genuine concern, and integrity are shown by both the people actually doing the work, and corporate ownership.
Based on what I've seen so far from Landa and KVDA's owner, Telemundo, I'd put my money on them to make it work.
Now I'm only left to wonder whether there's an English-language station in town possessed of the same courage and commitment, and if so, when they'll make their play.