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NBC News Snaps Up Tech Startup to Drive Citizen Journalism

NBC News Snaps Up Tech Startup to Drive Citizen Journalism
Image credit: Creative Edge

In the fast-paced world of news, television broadcasters and digital brands have come to rely on eyewitness photos and video footage to capture major news events until professional journalists can arrive on the scene. This user-generated content, often shot with cellphone cameras, can be found on Facebook and Twitter within minutes of an event occurring.

With its acquisition of nascent startup Stringwire, announced today, NBC News is aiming to take a lead role in the realm of user-generated content, and therefore in modern newsgathering.

Stringwire will allow NBC to instantly access live video from verified contributors around the globe. Using their mobile devices, eyewitnesses will be able to provide footage in real time. NBC News will still exert editorial control over the user-generated content, directing contributors and reviewing video feeds before putting them live on the air.

The next time a volcano erupts, or an earthquake rocks a city, or a bomb goes off in a public place, people will inevitably tweet about it. When they do, Stringwire can reply to each of them with a clickable link. This link will enable livestreaming from the eyewitness's phone or tablet straight to NBC's control rooms, according to The New York Times, which broke the story of the Stringwire sale on Sunday.

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Among news broadcasters, the most fully developed network of amateur contributors is CNN's iReport, which launched seven years ago. CNN's experiment with iReport was so successful -- from the standpoint of cost savings, if not reportorial quality -- that the network laid off dozens of editors and photojournalists in November 2011. In a memo to staffers, Jack Womack, a CNN senior executive, cited citizen journalism as a primary factor in the layoff decision. By that time, there were more than 750,000 registered iReporters.

But while user-generated content is nothing new, it usually takes the form of photos and videos submitted to news organizations, which staff must then review or simply host online with disclaimers warning that the material has not been vetted. Amateur live video, Stringwire's focus, has traditionally presented problems for broadcasters because they have been unable to vet the material quickly or give real-time directions to those capturing the footage.

Vivian Schiller, chief digital officer for NBC News, made it clear that NBC's purchase of Stringwire is an investment not only in digital tech but in entrepreneurial talent. Stringwire's founder, Phil Groman, will join NBC as a product lead working out of its San Francisco office.

"Stringwire is at the leading edge of user-generated video products, with immediate value to our on-air and digital businesses," Schiller said in a statement. "Phil is an incredibly talented developer and inventor who will bring a wealth of innovative and entrepreneurial experience to the NBC News Digital Group."

Groman is a 2013 graduate of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he earned a master's degree focusing on mobile experiences. Stringwire grew out of work he did at NYU, prior to which he spent two years as a designer at Afroes, a mobile development studio based in Pretoria, South Africa.

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Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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