Citizen Journalism: Dead; Citizen History: Alive by Ron Steinman

Citizen Journalism: Dead. Citizen History: Alive by Ron Steinman

Here are a few names in the news that we would not have known unless people pointed a cell phone in their direction, often during an altercation with the police. Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri. Tamir Rice, Cleveland, Ohio. Ezeil Ford, Los Angeles, California. Freddie Gray, Baltimore, Maryland. Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York. The Dallas, Texas pool party. Often posted on YouTube, turned over to public authorities or to authentic news outlets, we would be in the dark unless someone turned on his or her phone camera.

These names and events exist outside the realm of citizen journalism and for good reason. Citizen journalism, once considered the savior of journalism in the new digital world of reporting, is dead. But these names are forever in our memory. Citizen curiosity, in the form of pointing and shooting a cellphone to take video, is creating history instead. The death of citizen journalism has been quiet, disappearing without fanfare. Just as well. Journalism takes conscious use of taught skills about technique, philosophy, morality, right and wrong, ethics, patience and time. In journalism, rushing to judgment usually means failure. Consider, too, that most “citizens,” read normal people, if you like, lack all of the above skills, especially patience when it come to developing a story that people will understand, read or watch on any Website or screen. Journalists do not always have fun when covering a story. That is how it should be. So, citizen journalism died. It proved too hard for the uncommitted. And that is not bad.

It is easy to take still photos or videos with a smart phone. In fact, it is too easy. The companies who make these devices know the simpler the better to aide users in their pursuit of picture taking. People are not aware that citizen journalism no longer means anything. But they use their smart phones to record what they see. As a record of the event, those pictures often become history. The poor quality of the recording makes no difference to what the image portrays. The image means everything. The image is all. Stick the phone in front of an action, allow the phone to record what the lens sees – not necessarily what you as the so-called cameraperson sees – and you have a record of usually ungainly participation in untoward acts. Those images are frequently shaky, out of focus, badly framed, and often show only one angle or view.

CCTV and security cameras sometimes add to what a smart phone enthusiast captures on his pocket computer. Almost nothing of how the image is recorded matters. The historical record is important. Without such a record, perpetrators may go free for lack of evidence and social change might never happen. Hail to the citizen historian for having the tenacity to turn on his or her camera phone to record an event when no one else is around. Rest in peace citizen journalism, but thanks for paving the way for the citizen historian.

Without the cell phone, we the public might continue in the dark especially when force rules over good sense. In some cases, force might be necessary. Even when that happens, having a record of the action can add clarity to the confusion that surrounds sometimes-deadly exploits.

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Twitter: To Be or Not to Be by Ron Steinman

Twitter is in trouble. It is not enough that it has more than 300 million monthly users and is the darling of the Internet intelligentsias. There have been management changes at the top. Investors want more revenue. Twitter has never made a profit. It lives off those who invest in it. Is it a niche or something more? It is that simple. What should Twitter do? Should we care?

Twitter as a company is imploding. Still the darling of critics, though many are telling Twitter what the embattled social media site should do to polish what had once been a high sheen. Commentators are advising how Twitter should change to become something it never envisioned being and how this micro blogging service should move forward in the face of social media competition. As an investor, you may think that is all to the good. Maybe that is not the case.

Until now Twitter has been freewheeling, enough to allow people to react impulsively to events large and small, to ideas major and minor, all usually without much thought. When thought accompanies a tweet, it is usually to promote a product, a happening or, excuse me, even some potted philosophical notion, something the twitterarti is good at doing.

For all the tweets each day, Twitter deals with nothing important. That is worrisome enough. It worries me more when Twitter deals with the news. I don’t trust tweets about news events. It comes down to no one is watching the henhouse when the guards are asleep. Twitter is unregulated. Dangerous at its worst, it is impossible to control. There are no gatekeepers in Twitter’s world. They probably will never exist. The hoax abounds on Twitter.

Without gatekeepers, no one should trust news reports that erupt on Twitter without anyone vetting what is in the tweet. Professional journalists are at fault for trying to be first with the news rather than trying to be accurate. The companies they work for have to share the blame. Competition is at times more important than accuracy in the increasingly dominant world of digital news purveyors. I do not think that will change because in the new world of journalism, the audience count is more important than the truth. Investors care little for accuracy and truth and only about profits. They are concerned about where Twitter is heading. Investors who smell big money are in the lead to affect changes to Twitter. They hope to succeed.

Equally important is the idea that many commentators are offering ideas that will intensify multitasking to save Twitter. It is not enough for these writers to allow Twitter to exist as a messaging system. Investors and critics want Twitter to distinguish itself by becoming different from what it now is. They want Twitter to become part of the action – either at a concert, a movie, a play, and especially a live sporting event. In other words, tweet thoughts, ideas, likes and dislikes during the event. That for me spells failure. It is great that you have an opinion. Not so great that when tweeting, you miss a portion of the action. But care not. The advertiser gets a piece of the action. Money changes hands. Multitasking increasingly derided by study after study wins the day. The enjoyment of watching an event comes in second to the event itself. After all, repeated slow motion of what just happened seems equally important and energizing, as does the real thing. Not for me.

If Twitter changes, it will not affect my life. I do not tweet. In the increasingly crowded terrain of the digital world it is not clear the kind of player Twitter will be in the future. Twitter is unique. For now, at least, there is nothing in the offing to replace Twitter. For some it had better change fast or who knows, it might die before another digital darling replaces it.

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Follower or Fan by Ron Steinman

Follower or Fan by Ron Steinman

There have always been fans. In the heyday of print, many magazines doted on the fans who read them. Print is almost dead and the Internet is the substitute for the once glossy, celebrity-filled pages that covered everything from Hollywood to baseball to fashion. There are still fans. There always will be fans, but now there is something new, especially with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a plethora of lesser-known sites. These are followers. A follower is well beyond a simple fan. Followers expect deep worship, a commitment that brings with it something akin to religious fervor. The simple fan or fanatic lives for the object of his or her affection. The follower runs blindly with the group as part of a base that signals the loss of the self. Athletes. Movie stars. Rock stars. Political junkies. Name it — they all have followers. They also have fans.

Now I will split some hairs. Some may think or believe that fans and followers are the same. They are not. A fan has a passion that is often a one-on-one relationship, at least in the fan’s mind. A follower may think he or she has the same passion as a fan does, but he follows to be part of the pack. A follower is not a disciple. All he or she has is a desire to fill an otherwise empty life.

The fan does not care what anyone else thinks. He or she bases loyalty on a love that is usually unrequited. The fan wants his fanaticism rewarded with a life inside the object of his affection. A follower cares very little about the purity of love because his or her participation in following whatever it is he swears allegiance to is less in who he follows and more in the act of following. Being one with the collective trumps the single fan’s simplistic concept of love. This does not mean the follower’s love or the team spirit for his object of desire has any reciprocal benefit. The follower never gets any love in return.

Followers are blind. They are pack oriented. Community is more important than self, though even in a crowd they would not recognize each other. Followers never fill arenas. That is the work of fans. Followers join namelessly with others of their ilk to bow and scrape at the feet of those they follow. Most fans know they will never fulfill their fanaticism, unless, as sometimes happens, they decide to try to form a bond though violence.

A fan can have the freedom of one. His or her taste is in the particular. Fandom revels in the peculiar. Knowing everything about the object of his or desire is more important than sharing in the object’s success.

The followers lives in the world of many where the individual does not exist. Followers follow because of a fear of being alone. Followers feel good knowing there are others, sometimes in the millions, with them in their pursuit of togetherness.

However I cut it, I am neither fan nor follower. For that I am thankful.

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Hotel Chelsea, Part 2. Photos by Victoria Cohen

Hotel Chelsea, Photographs by Victoria Cohen, Pointed Leaf Press. Part 2, by Ron Steinman

No people are in any of the photos. There is no hint or identification of who lived in each room. Each photo has only a number. That number gives no indication of the room’s occupant. There are no notes about who lived in each room. Putting a room to a face or a face to a room would possibly help us understand what attracted the many creative artists who once lived in the Hotel Chelsea. I am sure that Victoria Cohen, the photographer, knows who lived where but because she keeps that secret, it adds to the mystery and allows our imagination to thrive. It makes each photo more intriguing. That is part of the fun and challenge of the book. The possibilities are endless.

Cohen used only natural lighting and a hand-held camera. I am sure she held her breath a long time to get the exact exposure she desired. The rooms as photographed are as if each is on a display in a middle class furniture store, in an old-fashioned home-style magazine, or in an advertisement on early TV. As such, we view each photo waiting for someone to sit in an easy chair or lie on the bed. The rooms bring to mind those one might find in a small town where travelers and salespersons stop for a short stay. The rooms, as photographed, are pristine and neat, with nothing out of place. For me, that is a veil to make us want to believe that is what the room looked like before a famous or glittering name occupied the space. These photos feel as if we are looking at a painting rather than a carefully composed photo rich in color. I can almost hear voices but no, each room remains strangely silent.

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Hotel Chelsea, Part 1 by Ron Steinman

Hotel Chelsea : Photographs by Victoria Cohen. A Belated Review and Essay in 2 Parts by Ron Steinman

(Because of its length I am posting this review in two parts over several days.)

Victoria Cohen Pointed Leaf Press ($95) and Exhibition at Third Streaming Gallery Note: I will post Part 2 in 6 days.

I will begin by noting the address where I spent some time, though in part virtual, many months ago. It is 222 West 23 Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan, meaningless to most, until you put a name to it – The Chelsea Hotel, but important to those who once lived there. The name may not mean much to you unless you are a New Yorker and interested in the arts, outrageous and serene, and those who once helped define the creative spirit of the city. As a New Yorker, I cannot tell you how many times I passed the Hotel Chelsea and wondered what was life like behind its thick walls. I knew this Victorian-Gothic pile had a public life as well as a hidden one unlike any other address in New York. That artistic spirit no longer exists at the Hotel Chelsea. Now refurbished, it is a tourist attraction. Designated a New York City Landmark, it is also on the National Register of Historic Places, two honors deserving of its past. I do not know who resides there today but I suspect it is nothing like it was during its prime. In that glorious and sometime nefarious past, mostly in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of the famous and infamous once lived in the Chelsea Hotel. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Larry Rivers, Charles Bukowski, Sid Vicious, and Jack Kerouac, to name only a few who slept and worked in the hotel’s rooms. In the deeper past even Mark Twain and O’Henry occupied a room there when needed. These names are only a few among the many who laid their head on a pillow, got drunk, got high, fought, made love and sometimes created eternal art.

Many people have an insatiable desire to know how other people live. Usually what they see of other’s lives is only from the outside. Behind closed doors, there is often a world far different. The exhibition at the Third Streaming Gallery that ran until October 29, 2014 lives in the book “Hotel Chelsea,” through the creative and carefully composed photographs by Victoria Cohen. It allows us to see the rooms of the hotel as they once may have been. It satisfies the wish to go behind the walls, to a degree, and takes us inside a world once inhabited by people whose lives most people could only imagine. On the bare walls of the exhibition and in the pages of the book, these oddly soothing photos rich in color and in deep contrast, tell us a story of some famous artists of every kind who once lived in the hotel. It is a story of the walls that surrounded them and the furniture that filled the rooms they inhabited.

In the exhibition, long gone, curated by Michael Steinberg, we see only 26 rooms of the 83 opulent photos in the book as photographed by Victoria Cohen. The bare gallery, up a rickety set of steps in a non-descript Victorian era building off Canal Street in Manhattan fits the tone of the exhibition. It was if ghosts from the Chelsea Hotel had made their way to the walls of the gallery, there for us to ponder their presence.

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Dumbing Down in Media Land by Ron Steinman

Dumbing Down in Media Land by Ron Steinman

In a recent post on the Web — of course — a well-known editor and writer who runs a business Web site, suggested that it was time to kill what he called “the 800 word article.” He said, “Shorter stuff that is focused, creative and social with a really good headline,” is what people now read online and should replace the longer, more traditional news story. It would be impossible to respond to his suggestions in anything near the fewer words he wants. Sorry, but fewer words means less substance. That doesn’t mean more words or more turgid writing. Style and brevity count but not at the expense of leading to an understanding of issues.

He further said we should abolish the concept of the “beat,” for the uninitiated that is the part of the world a working journalist covers every day. He would be happy to replace it with what he calls “obsessions.” I could go deeper into what the writer wrote, but a deeper dive will not do justice to silliness that verges on pandering. By pandering, I mean giving in to the ignorance of a lazy audience. The audience today is impatient. It wants its fix immediately. No standing in line. Instant gratification. A belief that one line of a story tells you everything you need to know. Scary. The reader today takes a sentence or two from the opening of the piece, and, thinking he or she has all the information needed. He or she then makes a comment and starts a thread usually steeped in ignorance. The person then moves on to the next story often passing on his or her ignorant musings to the next in line without any analytical thinking.

Is there any guarantee that the audience which usually reads only the opening line of a story will read more of the story if it knows there is less on the page, meaning it is shorter than usual? Relegating every story to a precise number of words in shorter articles indulges a culture too often in a hurry and dedicated to the idea that less is more. If you believe this is possible, dream on.

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The Curmudgeon on Photojournalism by Ron Steinman

When you manipulate a photo, is it still photojournalism? Is it journalism of any kind?

At what point when taking a photo, does a photojournalist forget his or her role in capturing the moment of an event – of revealing the truth of a story? When is a photograph not a photograph in today’s world of seemingly anything goes to make or create a picture that did not exist until “played” with by an app? The many apps that help change a photo grow daily. Some mentioned here may disappear by tomorrow. We have apps such as Histaminic, Instagram, Socialcam, Viddy, Camera+, Camera Genius – the list goes on, the apps are ceaseless, ever growing, usually created by people who know very little, if anything about the art and craft of photography. Of course, we must also mention one of the father’s of photo enhancement, Photoshop.

Professional street photographers, photojournalists especially, and even fine art photographers should beware of the seduction that comes with using photo apps to create images that are not real to the eye, what the lens sees at the moment of creation. Most probably understand this but there are still too many who do not. They are the ones who put the integrity of the photographer in question. Using an app to change or enhance a photo the user is not recording the event as it happened. This makes the image something different from its original intent. It may work with some fine art photography where the aim is not always to recreate reality but to enhance it. For me, the only reality is that conceived or generated by the person behind the camera.

Because one takes a picture does not mean that person is a photographer. Apple has a TV advertisement that makes the over-the-top point that more pictures are taken with the iPhone than any other camera. The implication is that everyone is a photographer. That is good for those who sell smart phones the major source of all photos today. However, most of the pictures taken with smart phones are not very good and the value they have is personal, a keepsake but valueless as art. Also, equality in the use of a device does not make for lasting art. Wielding a paintbrush does not mean everyone can be a Rembrandt. Mostly taking pictures is only saving memories for the sake of, well, saving memories. Good for home viewing and nostalgia but not worth more than that. Remember the Brownie film camera? Not much art but lots of nostalgia. Recalling family outings and faces has value for family and not much else.

Citizen journalism once a popular assist to journalism, even sometimes an asset, seems to be fading fast and losing its value. These days there is a new category for photos or videos of unique events caught with a smart phone. Increasingly I see the term public history used instead of citizen journalism. It means simply that the recording of an event even when important and singular is not journalism until a trained journalist interprets what the photo or video means. It may be the start of what is the new normal for the accidental capture of what journalism did for hundreds of years. We can only hope. Time will tell. Maybe.

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