Arrested journalists’ TV network on a mission

[19 June 2009]

By Gina Kim

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — “Vanguard,” the program that jailed journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling work for at San Francisco-based Current TV, has a simple mission: to tell stories the mainstream media are not.

“While other networks are cutting back on their international and investigative journalism efforts, we’re doing the opposite,” the “Vanguard” Web page says.

The two Americans were at the border of China and North Korea on March 17 to report on the trafficking of women there when they were arrested by North Korean police and propelled into the international spotlight.

Their families maintain the pair never intended to cross the Tumen River, a shallow, winding boundary that freezes during winter. But state-run North Korean media said Tuesday the two recorded themselves willingly walking into the tightly controlled communist country, with one of them pocketing a stone as a keepsake.

North Korea also accused the journalists of orchestrating a smear campaign, faking images and falsifying human rights issues. After a closed trial earlier this month, the country’s highest court sentenced them to 12 years hard labor in its prison camps.

“Vanguard,” Ling’s brainchild, is “one of the last best places in journalism,” said Daniel Beckmann, managing director of Schmooru, a freelance journalists’ and filmmakers’ cooperative.

Beckmann served as a former creative executive at Current TV and used to work for Ling,.

“Current TV doesn’t go to North Korea to do a dangerous story for the sake of doing a dangerous story,” Beckmann said. “Laura was the one who would approve stories and make sure there was a budget for them. ... And her thought process was, ‘What is the value of what I’m going to do there?’ “

Stories have highlighted kidnappings in oil-rich Nigeria, the Mexican drug war, the risks taken by Somali refugees and lessons that can be learned from this recession.

“Vanguard” is one part of what Current TV hoped to do when it launched in August 2005 as the multimedia platform of the future. But even with an Emmy award for outstanding creative achievement in interactive television, the fledgling station is still trying to find its niche.

Founded by former Vice President Al Gore and low-cost legal service entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, Current went into almost 20 million homes over cable and targeted an audience of 18- to 34-year-olds.

About a third of the content was user-generated even before YouTube made celebrities of skateboarding dogs.

In an example of citizen journalism, a 20-something uploaded footage from his digital camera as he rescued people during Hurricane Katrina.

Because popular Internet vote decides what’s aired, the channel became more iPod shuffle than traditional cable station with programming that may seem fractured: a serious segment followed by tips on dating in New York.

Current viewers were invited to create video advertisements before it became a trendy contest form. Those whose commercials are aired over television are paid up to $1,000. And during President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the ceremonies were aired live with a steady stream of Twitter posts streamed on the broadcast.

“They were talking big about how they were going to have a real impact on this generation and give it a real voice,” said James McQuivey, principal analyst at new media market research company Forrester Research. “What it did was capture a whole generation of college students trying to break into media, but other than their friends and relatives, I’m not sure it’s been able to establish a voice for itself.”

Current became profitable in 2007 and is expected to generate $89.1 million in total revenue this year, said senior analyst Derek Baine of media research firm SNL Kagan.

But even with its innovations and access to more than 51 million homes through companies like DirecTV, there aren’t enough people watching to warrant the release of Nielsen ratings.

Plus, its target audience generally doesn’t pay for expensive cable service when the programming is available on a laptop over broadband.

“It’s a very self-centered age,” McQuivey said. “It seemed like Current was trying to give this group voice and impact when they weren’t that interested in having it.”

The main chunk of the company’s income comes from cable licensing. Current makes about 11 cents per cable subscriber each month, resulting in an estimated $74 million in revenue this year, and about $15 million comes from ad sales, Baine said.

Ad sales are difficult in this economy across the media industry but especially when it comes to new ventures.

“Advertisers don’t want to take any risks — they want to go with the tried and true and predictable,” said Claire Atkinson, business editor of the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable. “And they don’t want to be around unpredictable content. They want to know what they will be airing with.”

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