Occupy my TV: The birth of the citizen video reporter

Updated. A police officer calmly walking down a line of sitting protesters, sweeping them with pepper spray: Footage of last Friday’s police actions against peaceful protesters at UC Davis became the most shared video clips on YouTube (s GOOG) this weekend, with the two most popular clips attracting more than two million views in just a few days. The video images of the incident are deeply upsetting, but they’re also a defining moment for media in the U.S. It documents the rise of the citizen video reporter, which really just emerged over the last few weeks, ready to occupy our TV screens.

Sure, online video has played a role in U.S. politics long before the current wave of protestors began when people started camping out on Wall Street. There was the Macaca moment in 2006, and there were various attempts by YouTube as well as major TV networks to utilize online video in political discussions. And with people like Glenn Beck and Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, there are now popular pundits on both side of the political spectrum online. But actual news coverage has nonetheless been dominated by mainstream media organizations.

America’s Egypt moment

That’s not true in other countries. The Arab spring relied largely on this kind of coverage, with people in Lybia recording sometimes horrific footage of military crack-downs with their phones and then smuggling it out of the country to upload it from Egyptian Internet cafes. The work of citizen journalists has been essential for these conflicts, because media is often barred from reporting on the scene.

The same can’t exactly be said for the U.S., where journalists by and large can report freely from protests. However, mainstream media are increasingly facing a different problem, which has never been as apparent as during the Occupy protests: It can only extend itself so much, and be at so many places at the same time. There are hundreds of Occupy protests all over the U.S.. No one could anticipate that a relatively small protest at the University of California at Davis would become a world-wide news event, which is why none of the big broadcasters were on the scene.

For the Occupy protesters themselves, on the other hand, and citizen reporters largely sympathetic to their cause, it’s natural to capture every single moment on video. Watch the footage from the UC Davis campus again, and you’ll see that there are dozens of folks recording everything with Flip cameras, cell phones and even iPads. Whenever something newsworthy happens at any of the hundreds of Occupy protests around the country, you can be sure that footage of it will show up on YouTube only a few hours later. “Since September 17, 47,000 videos tagged with the keyword “occupy” have been posted in the News and Politics category, with a total 73 million views,” a YouTube spokesperson told me today.

A cable show from a cell phone

Many of these citizen journalists are already taking the next step, streaming everything online in real time. Livestream’s CEO Max Haot told me that his site now features 123 live streaming channels from global Occupy protests, clocking more that two billion viewer minutes altogether. 150,000 people watched various streams live when the New York police cleared the encampment in Zuccotti Park last week, he added. Ustream’s PR and marketing manager Tony Riggins told me that the site has seen more than half a million views across its Occupy live streams, and a spokesperson for mobile live streaming startup Bambuser said that it has seen 30 percent more traffic ever since the Occupy protests started.

In the sea of live streams, a few key videographers have been emerging. One of them is Tim Pool, whose TheOther99 live stream has been featured by Time Magazine and who has been called “a perfect example” for citizen journalism by Jay Rosen.

The other is Spencer Mills, also known by his Twitter handle OakFoSho, who has been covering the events in Oakland. Mills started with a live stream with less than ten viewers, but his talent for being in the right place at the right time and his infectious opinionated-man-on-the-street style have helped him to find an audience of tens of thousands.

30,000 watched when he documented the night after Oakland’s general strike when police engaged for hours with protesters, and thousands tune in when Mills reports from the somewhat lengthy and much less eventful “general assembly” proceedings of the Oakland protesters. “We are essentially a small cable show from a cell phone,” said Mills during a recent event with the local Oakland Tribune newspaper.

Check out my video interview with Mills, or continue reading below:


From the fitness studio to the news room?

Mills is currently jumping back and forth between his day job at an Oakland fitness studio and long nights of live streaming from various Bay Area Occupy events. He’s constantly tweeting, and is often following leads on Twitter to where the action is. “Twitter is almost the front channel for me,” he said, explaining that his tweets often get even more attention than his live stream.

These days, Mills can be seen at Bay Area protests carrying a LiveU backpack, which features six cellular modems and a battery rig that guarantees hours of uninterrupted live streaming. These backpacks can cost up to $3500 per day to rent, but Mills got his for free from Ustream, which also sent similar equipment to Pool in New York. “What we are seeing is citizen journalism at its purest form,” the company’s PR and marketing manager Tony Riggins told me via email. “This is what Ustream was made for.”

Mills himself is now looking into ways to financially support his video work and go live full time. He’s open to cooperations with traditional media outlets, but doesn’t want to give up on his blend of what he calls autonomous guerilla journalism. “We want it to be live and unfiltered,” he explained.

Sometimes a star, sometimes a target

This raw quality of the footage is what makes the new citizen video reporters emerging as part of the Occupy protests so engaging, but it also comes with some risks to the folks behind the cameras. Police officers have on more than one occasion taken actions against citizen reporters, with the most egregious incident being the rubber bullet shooting of a San Francisco-based videographer a few weeks ago. “You feel like a target if you are out there and you don’t have a press badge on,” said Mills when I asked him whether he’s treated differently than accredited press.

However, the omnipresence of video phones could also eventually lead to more civilized protests and crowd control. Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera tweeted this weekend that after the Davis incident, police officers should always behave as if they’re in a YouTube video that’s picked up by mainstream media. Mills agreed with that sentiment, encouraging others to shoot video in critical situations as well, if only to prevent police officers from following the UC Davis example: “You are the one that makes them think twice.”

Update: Ustream told us late Monday that it has now seen more than 1.1 million views across its 700 Occupy channels, clocking a total of 422,752 viewing hours since the beginning of the protests in September.

Disclosure: GigaOM has a business relationship with Livestream for streaming its conferences.