Pass the microphone to the people

Very quietly, an experiment has begun in San Antonio which could
revolutionize TV news. It’s the first really new thing in local
television news since the canned Eyewitness News format came along
some decades ago, and contrary to what you might expect, it’s not
being tried on local cable access or public TV.

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

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

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’

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.

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