Monday, August 15, 2011
Top five: A love letter to iReport

Editor's note: CNN's citizen journalism initiative, iReport, is celebrating its fifth birthday this month. To mark the occasion, we're taking a look at some of iReport's shining moments in a series of top five posts on a variety of topics. Here, CNN's Manav Tanneeru shares five reasons why he loves iReport.

 

 

If you asked me about iReport, I might tell you of its virtues and its flaws.

 

I might use words like “citizen journalism” and “user-generated content.” I might relate the theories that hover around it and occupy panels at conferences.

 

I might read from the many press releases sent out over the years extolling its successes. And, tell you about passionate debates scrutinizing its impact on journalism.

 

But that may bore you. It certainly bores me.

 

What might make better conversation are a litany of memories -- some overly sentimental and saccharine -- from the first five years of its existence, memories that I think encompass the purpose of the project.

 

Carroll Street Café

 

In Atlanta, down a street off of where Boulevard curves onto Memorial Drive, sits Carroll Street Café, a little bistro where the sunlight falls onto the wooden tables like in the movies.

 

When we were young -- when we were younger -- Lila King and I would meet there for lunch. It was a monthly appointment, rarely broken, other than that one time I had a cold and that other time Lila forgot because she was trying on wedding dresses.

 

One afternoon, with her nose scrunched up, her eyes peeking out from under her Lisa Loeb glasses and bangs that fell just so, she said in her singsongy voice, “Everyone has a story to tell, all you have to do is listen.”

 

Years later, Lila founded iReport.

 

Home and Away

 

Joshua Lee Rath was 22 when he died in Maywand, Afghanistan. He was killed in January 2009 when a suicide bomber detonated a homemade device.

 

There are thousands other such stories, thousands such names.

 

During the past few years, a few of us at CNN.com have managed a list of those names. We update that list every day with updates of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

In 2010, we started a project, “Home and Away,” that tells the story of where and how the lives of these troops began and ended.

 

During “Home and Away’s” creation, someone suggested that iReport find a way to let family and friends of the fallen contribute messages and memories.

 

As a result, slowly, over time, the project became a virtual memorial of sorts. And the names began to have stories, habits, memories -- in essence, a past that could be shared.

 

In one such story, a loved one described when she first fell for Joshua Rath during a seemingly normal and innocuous day at a pool.

 

“It began when I watched him swimming, those small flutterings of a crush,” she remembered.

 

“It was when he came to me soaking wet and gave me a huge hug and kiss on the cheek I knew I wanted more than a friendship. And, it was when I saw him consoling a friend and trying to cheer him up I knew he was The One.

 

“Thus began the most wonderful, exciting, amazing, most beautiful experience of my life. I got to love the greatest man I've ever known and I got to be loved by him”

 

Katrina

 

Katie Hawkins-Gaar, a colleague who possesses the unique ability to smile and frown at the same time, loves New Orleans.

 

That adoration, which sometimes borders on the irrational, made it obvious that she ought to cover the five-year anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina struck.

 

A couple of years ago, Katie began a small project to combine historic photographs of locations in her neighborhood with photos of how they look today. The idea came from Flickr's Looking Into the Past group.

 

She took the project to grander heights in New Orleans, organizing a slew of iReporters to document the state of the Louisiana city in comparison to how it was immediately after the storm.

 

You always hope that daydreams and projects you think of with friends and hatch excitedly over a pint of beer become something concrete and real, even useful.

 

That was one that did.

 

Haiti

 

In January 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti.

 

Hours after the quake was first reported, we realized that it would be devastating. After another day or so, we knew thousands had died and many more were missing.

 

During the course of those first few days, a number of reports and submissions about the missing poured into iReport.

 

It quickly became obvious that iReport had become not just a way to cover the story but also help a community in need. 

 

By the week’s end, plans were in place to create a database that would organize the reports of the missing. The hope was that the community could add more reports, search the ones already there and respond to them if they had news and updates.

 

But it wasn’t so easy to organize all the reports that had already come into CNN. The volume overwhelmed the newsroom staff, and this database -- this tool -- was something that needed to be created quickly.

 

The iReport community came to the rescue.

 

Mobilized by an array of spreadsheets and e-mail, iReporters from across the globe jumped into the data and began the arduous and painstaking process of organizing it.

 

During the course of a few days, as a community of strangers helped another, a database was created that included more than 10,000 entries.

 

The next five

 

Lila and I don’t much go to Carroll Street anymore.

 

It’s been years since we have. I’ve grown a littler rounder in places since the last time we did. And Lila has learned a lot more about the intricacies of business travel and the vagaries of presentations to strangers.

 

But we still chat, sometimes during a walk around CNN Center, sometimes on the stairs at her house or at a pub down the street.

 

A few weeks ago, we were in Washington. After a morning of meetings, we walked around the monuments. Later, overcome by tired legs, we settled on a rickety bench by the lawn between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

 

I drained a bottle of water and wiped the sweat off my forehead. She stretched her legs and the pigeons hopped away. And, we got to reminiscing, like we sometimes do, about why we do the work we do.

 

And, yes, our conversations are now more littered with words like “verticals” and other business school jargon neither of us ever learned formally. But, despite the fact we’re older and perhaps a bit more preoccupied by things neither of us ever saw coming, not much has changed since the Carroll Street days.

 

Her nose scrunched up, she peeked out from beneath her glasses and said in her singsongy voice, “So, what are we going to do now?”

 

We’ll see, Lila, we’ll see.

4 Comments
August 15, 2011
Click to view pretensionBS's profile

Even for CNN and i-Report, this overblown piece, this “love letter,” as it so preciously characterizes itself, reaches an entirely unmatched level of pretension and self-importance. Overly sentimental and saccharine, indeed.

 

I will not comment on the details needlessly expounded upon in this piece, except to say that they are preposterous and besides the point; they do not add an iota of information as to how or why i-Report functions the way it does. Or, more importantly, for whom it functions.

 

Which brings me to the point: I-Report proclaims its place in a world of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as a “user-generated section of CNN.com,” a place where “the stories here come from users.” Fine. I get it. But this is a community, right? So why subject a labeled community to a story about the community’s founding members – a 1,200-word story, no less.

  

While it certainly sounds that Manav Taneeru lives a fascinating existence – bohemian and McSweeney-ridden no doubt – his memories are, frankly, irrelevant. It would be expected that i-Report played an important role in his life – he works at CNN.com, he is friends with the founder. How could it not affect him?

 

Perhaps the author would do well to read the analysis he so impertinently dismisses. (If the abundance of such actually exists). Citing such research would add an element of authenticity that this piece sorely lacks.

 

Or, perhaps, more importantly, give me someone who isn’t connected to CNN or CNN.com and tell me that person’s memories of i-Report. Find Jamal Albarghouti – tell me how his video of the Virginia Tech shooting changed his life. Tell me his memories.

 

The author condescendingly refers to “business school jargon” toward the end of his piece. Here’s another piece of jargon that would serve him well: Brand confusion. Facebook and YouTube also purport to be communities: On those sites’ “birthdays,” did we hear anything sentimental from Mark Zuckerberg, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim? Nope. They understand that it’s about the product, about the community – not about them. I-Report should follow suit.

August 15, 2011
Click to view lila's profile

Well, I think it's a lovely letter. But of course I'm biased.

August 15, 2011
Click to view sunethra's profile

oh! WOW! Lila... I love ireport as it gives us all a chance to do and put whatever we like... and there is a nice feeling whenever our reports are approved, a sense of pleasure... and excitement, and there are so many things that I have leant from my fellow ireporters, things that I did not know, I am shy and used to be like a scared rabbit to come in front of a video or people, but after getting to know everyone on ireport, I became more bold and forward I should say... I would not dare go out and interview someone for the fear of making mistakes, and not knowing what to ask, but these past years ireport has taught me how to speak and communicate with others.  I am grateful for ireport for teaching me all these things.

August 28, 2011
Click to view Bellydancer's profile

I am with Sunethra - I love iReport. Thank you CNN - for giving us a place to vent, share, learn and above all - connect.

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