Call it the Katrina factor or the Al Gore effect, but there's been a surge of interest recently on the part of filmmakers and reporters eager to cover a planet in crisis. In addition, the decreasing cost of technology is making it possible for a new generation of digitally empowered storytellers to make their voices heard.
The soon-to-launch Planet Forward intends to take advantage of this new reality, combining grassroots reporting vetted by veteran newscaster Frank Sesno, CNN's former Washington D.C. bureau chief, and his team of nonprofit partners.
Under the auspices of PBS, Sesno is providing adult supervision to legions of activists, journalism students and bloggers, encouraging them to upload content ranging from "a photo to an op-ed to digital animation or even a poem." Planet Forward is now accepting submissions to its website, planetfoward.com, on how America's energy future should be tackled. The best segments will air on April 15, one week prior to Earth Day.
Planet Forward is for a "group people who care about energy and climate issues, want to share what they know, and are capable of telling a story," Sesno says, adding that he hopes to move environmental issues beyond the Beltway and into people's living rooms. That depends on the information and imagination of the viewer to help propel the show forward.
Planet Forward's format is one of the latest experiments in crowd sourcing, in this case relying on viewer-driven content to help shape public-affairs programming. Rather than relying on the usual suspects, Sesno is sharing the microphone with "citizen reporters" — individuals equipped with digital cameras, laptops and cell phones, often narrating local, community-based stories that can resonate with wider audiences.
"People are doing today with a couple hundred dollars what it literally cost tens of thousands of dollars when I started," Sesno says.
Although the submissions vary in quality, that doesn't mean standards are lax. Several of the pieces are of broadcast quality and, if not totally polished, offer fresh and engaging perspectives on environmental issues, similar to the intimate reporting style that led viewers to swoon over Anderson Cooper when he rose to prominence at CNN.
Segments can be heartfelt so long as the contributors present the facts in an even-handed manner, Sesno says, advancing the debate on energy issues without lecturing viewers.
"I look at this as the new version of the op-ed page, a mixture of invited, informed opinion and those that come to the page offering their own," Sesno says. "In that way you get a mix of perspective and ideologies."
Standout segments include a piece on a Washington, D.C., cab driver's decision to switch to a hybrid car, and Middlebury College's conversion to biomass gasification as a way to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
To promote a diversity of viewpoints, Sesno has also invited video contributions from conservative architect Newt Gingrich and a senator from a coal-producing state touting the benefits of "clean coal."
Planet Forward's real challenge begins once the show airs. If the format works, millions of viewers could generate a massive response, spurring people to produce content and buzz through social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Regardless of the definition ascribed to "citizen reporting," it's filling a niche online for people hungry for information about their communities and their world. "I consider journalism to be journalism if it's reported, verified, if it's balanced and accurate and fair," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of American University's J-Lab, an interactive journalism institute.
The goal at Planet Forward is to create an ongoing series of Web episodes that can then be spun into television programming, a format Sesno acknowledges is still in the embryonic stages of development.
The expectation is the show will shift seamlessly between carefully staged programming befitting network television and the more free-form website that encourages an open-door policy.
Transitioning from Web to TV, however, might be more difficult than previously imagined. Online, the quick and the clever often trump the profound and the ponderous.