Mark Jones

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TV interviews web 2.0 style

February 3, 2009

Twice in the past couple of months I have experienced what I can only describe as the thrill of seeing social media open up live video events to all-comers.

Last month, award-winning Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly conducted a live video question and answer session on his recent trip to Congo — scene of a conflict that is consuming more lives than Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Finbarr answered questions about the nature of that conflict, what it’s like to be a photographer in war, and how he managed the transition from text journalist to photojournalist. All from his home in Dakar, Senegal.

The setup

We used Finbarr’s mobile phone as a video camera, hooked it up to the qik live video service via Finbarr’s wireless broadband, embedded it in a post on our ‘Reuters Photographers’ blog,  and used qik, our blogs comments, an email address and Twitter — the fast-growing micro-blogging service — to solicit questions from viewers/readers.

I’m not going to pretend that this was unmitigated success. One wag pointed out that our production values were reminiscent of an al Qaeda video. The more observant will have noticed that the Reuters logo is out of date. And, as anticipated by Finbarr at the top of the show, the live video feed failed for a few minutes halfway through.

But the reaction, on Twitter and elsewhere, was pretty positive.

Before Christmas, we opened up a Reuters NewsMaker event at Canary Wharf with Conservative leader David Cameron. We’d hosted a similar event with Gordon Brown back in October and been criticised for not pushing to have the Prime Minister take questions direct from social media.

David okayed the social media-casting of his session and agreed to answer questions posed by bloggers and other users of social media.

Sitting in the front row of the Thomson Reuters Canary Wharf auditorium monitoring questions for David coming in live via social media and then putting them to him felt a bit like moderating a TV phone-in. Except instead of all the technical infrastructure of a broadcaster all we had was Christian Payne streaming to qik via  his mobile and me with a laptop.

There were an overwhelming number of questions that came in via Twitter — more than 150 — and there was only time for three to be asked. But David went on to answer more via his YouTube channel.

Our two attempts at socialising live interviews have been reasonably successful but I think they’ve raised some important questions we’ve yet to answer: –

1. Is there an optimal audience size?

We’re new to this and still working out how best to build an audience via social media and conventional PR routes. Yet there were more questions than either David or Finbarr could reasonably answer. Both Finbarr and David Cameron went on to answer some of the questions they hadn’t dealt with during the live show but if the audience gets bigger that’s not going to be possible — the majority of questions will be left unanswered and that’s not going to be such an engaging experience.

2. Is this really free?

The tools we used were free. But handling anything live is labour-intensive. Chris Parker and Ilicco Elia from Reuters and social media bloggers Christian Payne and Mike Atherton did huge amounts of moderation and publicising for the Cameron event. We also had added firepower in the form of editor Adam Pasick for Finbarr’s live video chat. Unless we can find a radically simpler way of handling questions then we will have to reserve the approach for very big events and/or limit the publicity.

3. What has happened to the distinction between Journalism and PR?

In social media there is little distinction between the creation of content and the publicising of it. Bloggers tag and link and network their content as a natural part of the production process. In traditional media, however, there is more of a separation of the roles. So when traditional journalists start using social media effectively there is an inevitable blurring of the line between journalism and PR.

4. What is the role of mainstream media?

In the case of David Cameron, the Conservative party could have done everything we did. In fact it has.  Finbarr could have done a pared down version of this all by himself, using his own site and his own networks to publicise, and limiting channels for questions to, say, just qik.

Finbarr would not have got as big an audience, at least not on a first attempt. And monitoring questions at the same time that you are answering them is always going to be a challenge. David’s social media advisor told me that he saw the value in collaborating over this kind of event was a) the wider audience an organisation like Reuters can deliver, and b) the guarantee of even-handed questioning and civil moderation.

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