Can Jim MacMillan's iPhone save journalism?
Jim MacMillan didn't have to be at the fire. The longtime photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News had left the paper a few months earlier, frustrated by the kind of budget cuts that have been plaguing so many dailies. He could've been sitting on his pile of severance money, waiting for a gig in academia to come along. He could've been sleeping.
But on the evening of Dec. 26 he took a call for his girlfriend, a wire service reporter. A deadly blaze had broken out in Southwest Philly and she was asked to cover the story. So MacMillan, still the newshound, went along. Once at the scene he jumped out of the car and did what he'd done for nearly two decades: started snapping pictures. With his iPhone.
Within minutes--scooping even the Associated Press--MacMillan was using his phone to publish the first images of the fire and its aftermath to Twitter, a micro-blogging online service where he had more than 3,000 followers.
An editor at Philly.com took note and bought the pictures to illustrate the story in its early hours. And MacMillan, who once shared a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Iraq, found himself drawing attention for his career's second act: as a living experiment in the 21st-century possibilities of sharing and gathering news.
"It's always been my nature to try new things," MacMillan says. "It's still communication. It's still journalism."
Journalism, of course, is famously in crisis. The struggles of the Daily News and Inquirer have been well-documented in these parts and are symptomatic of wider problems. The decline of newsprint and the rise of the Internet have forced the Tribune Co. (owner of the Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times) to declare bankruptcy; the Rocky Mountain News may well close its doors this month. Just last week The Village Voice terminated the venerable Nat Hentoff; thousands of other journalists have lost their jobs in recent months.
The dawn of 2009 has even brought speculation that The New York Times would be a web-only publication by spring. This week marked the first time in its history that the Times put a display ad on its front page.
All of this may be why MacMillan's unconventional news gathering at the fire made such an impact.
"We need more of [his attitude] inside papers," says media critic Jeff Jarvis, who touted MacMillan's fire coverage at his blog BuzzMachine.
MacMillan left tradition behind in September, after 17 years at the Daily News.
"I'm catching on that there's no future in newspapers," he says. "The game is over. And it breaks my heart. I love newspapers. But it's over."
Feeling the pinch financially, MacMillan transformed himself into a one-man band of Philadelphia journalism. He shot photos and videos of fires, parades, protests and other happenings around town and posted them to his website, jimmacmillan.net. And he aggressively promoted his work through roughly 30 social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, where his stream of posts--often around 10 or more per day, mixing links to breaking news with his original content--built an audience of more than 4,000 followers. (The Inquirer has about 1,500 followers.) Various ranking services place him as either the first- or second-most influential Twitterer in Philadelphia.
His personal life even became fodder. In December MacMillan took a holiday trip to New York, the entire time posting pictures from his iPhone to Twitter. His Twitter feed added several hundred followers.
"It was more successful than when I'd tried to cultivate a Twitter following," MacMillan says.
But it was the Dec. 26 fire, which killed seven people, that drew wider industry notice. MacMillan wasn't entirely comfortable using just the iPhone to cover the event. "We're talking about an enormous compromise in quality, in terms of camera and image control," he says. With photojournalists from other outlets already on the scene, though, he decided the phone gave him one big advantage: speed. "For all of their other expertise," MacMillan wrote on his blog, "none of the pros can shoot and send on one device."
Philly.com editor Wendy Warren thought MacMillan's pictures were good enough, posting them to the front of the website as the story emerged. (The freelance deal was struck through Facebook messages.) In later hours, she added photos from the AP and staff photographers from the Daily News and Inquirer.
"We drew from all over," Warren says. "It's a little bit of a false dichotomy to look at this as quick vs. quality."
In fact, says Jeff Jarvis, "what he did isn't extreme at all but will be the norm as most of us will have the tools to share news as we witness it--even live. The tools will be simpler and everyone in newsrooms should be learning them and using them."
Jarvis, a former Entertainment Weekly editor, has spent recent years haranguing newspaper companies into online innovation. He said MacMillan's efforts--including the fire coverage--represent the future of journalism.
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