Intriguing Mystery+CrowdSourced Journalism = ?

I ran across a fascinating NYT video I’d like to share with you. The video centers on the mystery of “a life, or a fragment of a life” explored via social media and reported by New York Times journalist Deborah Acosta. What makes it unusual? Aside from the mystery, which was fascinating on its own, it was Deborah’s approach in presenting the story that caught my eye. She’s pushing forward a new form of crowdsourced journalism – first person and highly interactive – that I think we’ll see a lot more of.

It reminds me of video blogging, but more focused on content. But first, let me give you a little background.

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Deborah Acosta, from the NYT video

Deborah’s job title for the Times reads “Staff Editor, Social Video.” She previously worked at the Miami Herald and taught social media at the University of Miami. As she notes on her LinkedIn page: “Crowdsourcing is the name of my game,” and she’s been at the NYT since 2012.

On Sunday, May 15th, Deborah encountered her mystery in a New York neighborhood called Hells Kitchen. Previously, like an old fashioned street photographer, Deborah would stop to capture telling moments on video, using her cellphone and Facebook to share what she encountered. These posts were usually little slices of reality and served as self-contained pieces, perhaps more observations than investigations. This time would be different.

It was a blustery day that Sunday in New York. As Deborah strolled along a busy sidewalk she noticed the wind had scattered Kodachrome slides in her path. She picked up one, then another and another, following them like a bread crumb trail to discover thousands more stuffed into a black garbage bag abandoned on the corner. She opened the bag and took a look. She could see the slides were very high quality, obviously taken by a professional. What were they doing there? Who was the photographer? Who threw them in the garbage? As a journalist, Deborah saw a story in the making.

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from the NYT video

Now here’s where it gets interesting:  she used Facebook Live to record and transmit her activities as she encountered the mysterious slides, examined her discovery and searched for answers – as a way of sharing and telling the story and bringing others into the process, all in the style of crowdsourced journalism.

In this relatively new form of reporting, everything plays out in bits of real time as she responds to viewer comments, researches her story, asks her viewers/readers for leads and suggestions, makes phone calls, tries to identify the mysterious photographer and discover why the work was thrown in the trash. You are not only there aside Deborah as she launches into her quest for answers, you can also add a comment and become part of the story.

I found it at once engaging and off-putting. Engaging because it was such a fresh take on a traditional, well-established process and off-putting because, on Facebook, she left in all the boring parts and not all people make comments that are insightful, useful or even interesting. But she selects the best bits for the video, which works very well, as you’ll see.

You can go to Deborah’s Facebook page and scroll down to May 15th and May 18th to see her posts (the equivalent of raw, unedited footage). I suggest you just watch the video below, which gathers highlights of those moments, to see how she corrals social media to help the story unfold. Take a look and see what you think.


If the video doesn’t display well, you can find it here.

After watching the video I wanted to know a little more about its subject, Mariana Gosnell, and found these few lines from her obit:

Mariana Gosnell

Mariana Gosnell, from her obit

 

Mariana Gosnell, 79, of New York City and Treaty Island, died suddenly on March 23, 2012. She had been ill the past few months… She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University as a Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the foreign service in Norway, for the Museum of Modern Art, and for over 25 years at Newsweek, primarily as their medicine and science reporter. She then wrote two well-reviewed books, Zero Three Bravo, about traveling cross-country in her small plane and later ICE, which led her north of the Arctic Circle and to the South Pole.

Here are links to her two books, Ice and Zero3Bravo

I applaud Deborah Acosta for how she used crowdsourcing on social media to help report the story – Deborah’s approach and the content complement each other perfectly. She has an appealing, low-key style that works very well on camera, plus she knows how to make you feel welcome as part of the story. It’s easy to see that this style of crowdsourced reporting fits her personality very well. I do have a few comments, though.

I wish Deborah would have plunged more deeply into Mariana’s life, character and accomplishments to give us a greater appreciation of who Mariana was and the life she led. Just from the photo below I see a vibrant, engaged person who wasn’t well captured in Deborah’s video.

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Mariana Gosnell, from the NYT video

We exist in such an of-the-moment and disposable time, it would have been nice for Deborah to offer us a little more perspective. Given the circumstances, I would have appreciated a more meditative piece on impermanence and memory. Perhaps this reflects more on the differences in our ages, as I get older, these things matter more to me.

I think Deborah gave too much screen time to Mariana’s life companion Jamie Fenwick, who, despite their decades together, just tossed her work in the garbage. Many of the comments he made were self-centered, which served to turn the focus more on him and less on Mariana, especially given how the video ends. Jamie appears to be such a lifeless character even as Mariana seemed so spirited, curious and alive.

I don’t know why Deborah decided to go in that direction. Perhaps if the piece ended instead with a focus on Mariana’s imagery, it would have been more satisfying. After all, Mariana captured all these telling moments in her slides, it would be nice to be able to honor that and allow us to reflect on her images and her life’s work, and perhaps on the impermanence of all we behold.

Those are my thoughts. So, what’s your take? Did you like Deborah’s piece? Is this the future path for journalism and storytelling? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

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About Dan Bailes

As a writer and storyteller I explore the creative process and how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. For my blog, The Vision Thing, I write on creativity, innovation and vision – with a focus on pathfinders and the inspirational moment. I also consult and write for clients, play drums in a blues band, practice yoga and enjoy photography.
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