COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — This past Saturday, on a crisp afternoon in Copenhagen, Jacob Wheeler and Rick Fuentes, two journalists with the non-profit media start-up the UpTake, walked alongside a mostly peacefully stream of demonstrators.* Roughly half of the total police force in Denmark followed in step. Conspicuous among the crowd were the hundreds of ad hoc reporters with serious-looking digital SLRs slung around their necks.
The demonstration was for COP15, the United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen the past two weeks. For 10 days, more than 3,000 accredited media and countless numbers of unaccredited bloggers and NGO delegates have gathered in Denmark to report on the event.
After pushing through the thousands of people packed into the main square, Wheeler and Fuentes emerged at the head of the march. Holding a tiny Canon high-definition camera and microphone in his ungloved hands, Wheeler was cheerfully ready for anything. Though he’s a professional writer, camera work was new for him.
“When I write I have to be specific,” he said. “Today I’m not being specific. I just want a panoramic of what’s happening.” Wheeler, who lived in Denmark at one point, ended up providing an informed perspective about what was going on in the streets.
A couple hours into the march, Wheeler passed a woman with bleached blonde hair, orange snowpants and a bouquet of fake flowers who was cruising along on roller-skates. She turned out to be a kind of citizen journalist herself, producing video footage for her “TV station,” which turned out to be a YouTube channel she operated with her boyfriend. Their video camera was secured on a small black bicycle trailer and pulled by a friend.
Wheeler shot several minutes of tape as the woman spoke in English mixed with Spanish and Danish about covering refugee camps. “Those are nice flowers,” he told her at one point. The woman smiled and showed a microphone hidden in the bouquet.
“That was great!” Wheeler said after breaking away to find his next interview subject.
The UpTake Takes Off
The UpTake rose to prominence 16 months ago during the Republican National Convention. Protestors clashed with the police in the streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the UpTake’s camera-wielding reporters were there to broadcast in real time.
“When things started happening on the streets, which no one fully expected, we were ready to go live with it,” said Jason Barnett, the UpTake’s founder and executive director. The UpTake was founded because, as Barnett explained, there was an opportunity to provide footage that no one else would have.
It was citizen journalism at its newest and rawest — a classic example of a nimble group of camera-wielding documentarians infiltrating areas traditional media either couldn’t access or didn’t have the resources to cover.
Today, the UpTake illustrates how multi-platform groups are redefining relationships between traditional news, citizen journalist groups and a more nebulous, broader and influential group of what you might call activist-journalists. Most are liberal — and proud of it. As Barnett says of the UpTake, “We’ve never tried to hide our progressive background.”
COP15 helped inspire unique alliances between NGOs, citizen journalist groups like the UpTake, and established publications such as the Nation, Grist and Mother Jones. Now these journalists are working with the groups they once reported on. These partnerships are as intertwined and intricate as a circuit board on the UN-issued Sony Ericsson phones so many of the press and delegates were loaned for the 10 days in Denmark. The UpTake, for instance, is part of the U.S.-based the Media Consortium, a coalition that includes Salon, Mother Jones and the Nation.
Conservative groups tend to try to control the message of independents more, some suggest, which makes guerilla-style reporting difficult. Though Barnett points out that, as a non-partisan organization, the UpTake’s training is open to anyone.
These alliances are mutually beneficial. News outlets don’t have the resources they once did, especially for international and investigative reporting. Then there are independent journalists who find themselves as lone correspondents with no editorial backup or multimedia support. NGOs, meanwhile, have the mass mobilization ability to spread large amounts of information quickly.
The UpTake only received a third of the funding it wanted from non-profit foundations in order to cover the story, so could only send four people to Copenhagen: its executive director, executive producer, a writer-turned-impromptu videographer, and a one-time CBS reporter now working at a public relations firm.
When it came to COP15, “the idea was to go in with a unified voice [in collaboration] with traditional media,” said Barnett. If the Nation needs a video to post on its site, the UpTake’s got its back. If writer Naomi Klein needs a transcript from an interview, the UpTake will email it. And if the UpTake needs access to big names, they can call on their accredited partners. As the Nation noted in its December 21 issue, the goal was to create wall-to-wall coverage” of the event.
Hear the UpTake’s Jason Barnett talk about media biases and his agenda — or lack thereof:
Press Center for the Unofficial Press
For their part, traditional media — Reuters, BBC and Agence France-Presse, for starters — were cloistered in rented white offices at the Bella Center. Groups such as the UpTake, meanwhile, formed their own headquarters. Tcktcktck, an NGO, commandeered The Huset, an expansive bunker-style café, as a home for independent media and bloggers. Dubbed the Fresh Air Center, organizers described it as a “rapid response digital media hub.” (This story was partly written from The Huset.)
One omnipresent figure there was Richard Graves, a 20-something television producer who founded Fired Up Media and Project Survival Media, a citizen journalist program that trains environmental campaigners to tell local stories about climate change. He was hired by Tcktcktck to lead its media offerings. (His official title is blogger and online campaigner.)
Hear Tcktcktck’s online campaigner Richard Graves talk about how many journalists became activists:
Working 18-hour days and already looking exhausted by Day 3 of the convention, Graves performed his activist duties (a term he dislikes) to cross-post Tcktcktck pieces on Huffington Post. Then, switching into his journalist role, he wrote a feature for Grist.
“It was created for people who wanted to get involved, who care about the issue, but are sometimes locked out of process,” Graves said of the Fresh Air Center. “You need professional accreditation from an NGO even to get in the door [at COP15]. We wanted to give a way for independent journalists [to participate] who might not be recognized by UN, which has incredibly stringent rules for online journalists.”
Hear Graves on how activists are filling the investigative shoes that some traditional media have stepped out of:
Back on the streets of Copenhagen during Saturday’s demonstration, the UpTake’s Wheeler pushed on into the night after Fuentes headed back to a rented apartment to upload footage from the first few hours.
At one point, Wheeler chased down a rumor that Danish fashion model Helena Christensen was participating in the demonstration. When he finally packed it in, Wheeler had hours of footage of an event that was dominating world media. He headed back to his own apartment to upload the footage for all of the UpTake’s media partners — Mother Jones, the Nation, Tcktcktck — so they could distribute it out via the networks buzzing throughout the city and beyond.
* Correction December 29, 2009: This sentence originally referred to Jacob Wheeler and Rick Fuentes as “amateur journalists.” In fact, both have experience as professional journalists.
Craille Maguire Gillies is an award-winning writer. A former editor at the travel magazine enRoute and the online magazine Unlimited, her work has appeared in the Globe And Mail and Canadian Geographic. Follow her on Twitter at @Craille.