Last year I was in the waiting room of a Denver veterinarian’s office when I got a call from work on my cell phone. A reporter from the Kansas City Star was urgently trying to reach me for a comment. It seems a couple of city aldermen from Riverside, Missouri, were volunteering to be publicly “tazed” by members of the local constabulary as a publicity stunt.
Their goal was to get 2000 community members to visit our blog and vote for Riverside’s entry in the recently inaugurated “All-America Stories” video contest. Ordinarily, I’m pretty good with words, but this was one of those rare times when I was literally speechless. “That’s crazy,” was the best I could offer. “Don’t quote me.”
It was then and only then that I began to appreciate the awesome, Oz-like power of video. Earlier that year, I had been assigned to work with the New Media Lab & Incubator project, a bold experiment to determine whether five nonprofit groups could be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty first century.
Each nonprofit was assigned a couple of new media “producers.” In our case, it was documentary producer Mark Smolowitz and Huffington Post blogger Tanja Aitamurto. Together, they came up with the idea of starting a new blog to promote our annual All-America City Awards and of kicking it off with a contest in which communities would make their own videos and the public would vote for their favorites. Initially, I was skeptical. I was wrong.
Thankfully, the Riverside city attorney nixed the tazing idea, but even if the brave aldermen had been allowed to go forward, it wouldn’t have done any good. They were asking for two thousand votes. Try 5,000 votes, 10,000 votes, even 20,000 thousand votes. It still wouldn’t have been enough to win.
I think Acworth, Georgia, the winner, got something more like 25,000 votes. In all we got about 58,000 visits to and 126,000 page views of our blog in two weeks time, and it was all about the video contest. Blog traffic dropped like a rock as soon as the voting came to an end.
Recently, I’ve been working on an article for the National Civic Review on media access and training programs for youth, so I interviewed Kathy Bisbee, executive director of the Community Access Media Partnership in San Benito, California. She explained how CMAP had morphed from an ordinary public access cable channel into a technology and media resource for the community, especially for youth.
Ironically enough, given its proximity (60 miles) to the Silicon Valley, the county has remarkably low level of technology and media penetration. There some parts of San Benito County so inaccessible that broadband service isn’t available, not to mention the inconvenience of being too broke to afford a connection. The area has been hard hit by the Great Recession with some of the highest rates of unemployment and foreclosure in the country.
When CMAP started its youth training, it found that a majority of the kids in the program had never used a word processing program, much less owned a laptop. “When you haven’t learned Microsoft Word and you haven’t had access to a computer,” asks Bisbee, “how are you going to get those twenty first century jobs skills? The idea of working on a laptop at a coffee shop is just so foreign to them.”
But thanks to CMAP, and the San Francisco-based ZeroDivide, which is providing some of the funding, more and young people in the county are learning to use—not just laptops—but cameras, audio equipment, lighting and editing software to create and upload their own videos (like this one) telling stories about their communities. They even had their own video contest (or actually a video festival) to celebrate their cinematic efforts.
The funding, says Bisbee, has allowed CMAP, which is headquartered in Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World,” to expand its technology and media training in places like Hollister, a depressed farm town where the only Starbucks is a counter at Safeway, and in the remote Panoche Valley, where kids literally attend a one-room school house.
It’s the power of video, and thanks to groups like CMAP and ZeroDivide, it’s coming to a community near you.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.