MTV wants digital army to bring back the buzz

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / January 12, 2008

NEW YORK CITY - While New Hampshire residents voted in this week's primary, Megan Budnick was taking a crash course for her new job: covering the presidential election for MTV.

The 24-year-old has no professional journalism experience whatsoever. But MTV, seeking to reestablish itself as a relevant medium for young people, has hired Budnick and 50 other amateur journalists as part of a pilot program to deliver campaign news with the kind of pizzazz that put the network on the map in the early 1990s with programs like "Choose or Lose" and "Rock the Vote."

Better known now for its raunchy reality shows, MTV is trying to regain its cachet as the hippest election observer, a role lost in recent years to bloggers and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Starting Monday, MTV's novice reporters - armed with laptops, digital cameras, and camcorders - will file weekly video news stories, blog, create podcasts, and send out dispatches on mobile phones as part of the network's most ambitious election initiative.

Youth participation has grown in the past two presidential elections. And an unprecedented turnout of young voters helped Democratic contender Barack Obama win in last week's Iowa caucuses. The difficulty of reaching this audience in the fragmented media market has spurred a new genre of presidential coverage, led by online publications such as, the first national online student newspaper, which was cofounded by a senior at Philips Academy in Andover.

The idea behind MTV's project, known as the Street Team, is having citizen journalists across the country bring a fresh perspective and grass-roots values to coverage. MTV also expects the Street Team to uncover the untold political stories that matter most to young people, such as job opportunities and the Iraq war.

"We are redefining journalism. This is about the will of the people, the voice of the people," MTV's president Christina Norman told the Street Team members crammed into a small screening room this week. "And you are the voice of the people."

MTV hopes its pop sensibilities and decades of promotional prowess will help make its citizen journalists the best in the business. The availability of tiny high-tech equipment and broadband access has made it possible for anyone to submit high-quality video, and MTV has struggled in recent years to innovate on the Internet as YouTube and MySpace have become the destination for entertainment news, videos, and music, said Sasha Norkin, a journalism professor at Boston University. Meanwhile, MTV has battled sagging ratings and dwindling viewership.

"MTV has been fairly successful in gaining an audience with reality TV. But it's not been particularly successful in recasting itself as a place to turn for serious news," Norkin said. "I laud them for making efforts to get this audience, but it's going to be difficult."

Street Team's reports will represent the first time a media outlet will provide regular election news updates via mobile phones in an organized way, state by state. The reporters will be paid about $10,000 for the year and their reports will be broadcast in local markets, the first major effort by MTV to tailor content geographically.

To find its citizen journalists, MTV posted ads on its website and on Craigslist. After weighing written applications, video submissions, and in-person interviews, MTV chose one person from each state and Washington, D.C. The Street Team features a comedian, a boxing gym owner, children of illegal immigrants from Mexico, college journalism students, documentary filmmakers, and other media newcomers like Budnick, who draws blood as a technician for the Red Cross. Most are 25 or younger; the oldest is 39. The team includes various ethnicities and is almost evenly split between men and women. MTV looked for diversity so that young voters could relate to the journalists and hear about issues that affect them not only as young people, but also, for instance, as Hispanics, African-Americans, and lesbians.

Carla Babb drew MTV's attention through a headline-making video. A graduate journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Babb submitted a video contrasting John Edwards's decision to locate his headquarters in one of the wealthiest parts of Chapel Hill with his campaign's goal of reducing poverty in America. The Edwards campaign saw the piece when she posted it on YouTube last fall and demanded that Babb's journalism professor withdraw the video and threatened to limit UNC journalism students' access to the campaign. That story was picked up by the national media and blogs, including the popular Drudge Report. Babb kept her piece up and got hired by MTV.

At MTV's headquarters this week, Babb and other Street Team members fumbled with palm-size Panasonic camcorders, trying to figure out white balance and microphones. During an intensive three-day orientation, they received lessons on ethics and journalism, maintaining objectivity, and new forms of mobile media. One MTV producer handed out a "shooting bible" and dispensed advice such as "Don't drink with your sources" and "Work smarter not harder."

Other media groups are investing in the project. The Associated Press agreed to distribute Street Team videos to its online video network, which includes more than 1,800 sites. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private foundation based in Miami, is giving MTV $700,000 from its Knight News Challenge program, an annual worldwide competition for innovative ideas that use digital media to inform and inspire communities.

For MTV, the initiative has implications that go far beyond the presidential election. If successful, it could transform the way MTV delivers content for some of its regular programming. The most immediate challenge, media analysts say, will be upholding journalistic standards that aren't needed for MTV's typical diet of reality programming while also letting citizen journalists do their own thing.

"If MTV controls it too much, it will become like anything else," said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. "If they control it too little, they might not get anything valuable back."

Budnick, who lives in Connecticut, said she was anxious but eager to start.

"I'm going to wing it," Budnick said, smiling. "I just hope I can get everything done efficiently and adequately and not come off looking like a fool."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

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