Video Blogging from a war zone

Creator of Alive in Baghdad sees future in TV-Internet convergence

Mainstream media outlets were making lots of hay about announcements out of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, such as Sony’s promise to equip most of its televisions with a module that can receive Internet video content.

But what will be the long term impact of the convergence of TV and the Net? Rather than ask Bill Gates, you might talk to Brian Conley, a documentary filmmaker and video blogger from Boston who created Alive in Baghdad, an award-winning citizen news site that’s been written up by the BBC for its reports from residents of the besieged Iraqi capital. For Conley, who just launched a new project, Alive in Mexico the ability to hook TVs directly to the Internet could be the beginning of the end of mainstream media, and the start of a revolution in people-centered news reporting. Conley chatted with InfoWorld Senior Editor Paul F. Roberts in December about blogging, the future of independent media and the art of uploading rich media from a war zone.

IW: What gave you the idea to head to Iraq in 2005?

I come from an Indymedia background. We had a few people who promised to host all this video and we were going to release it under a Creative Commons license. But those folks bailed on us, so we just started posting the video on Google Video and the rest, as they say, is history.


IW: What was your first exposure to video blogging? 

BC: At the time I went to Baghdad, I didn’t know what a blog was, much less a video blog. I had a friend here in Boston who’s kind of a Web guy. We talked about what I wanted to do, which was a chronological kind of journalism where I could post what I was seeing each day, and adding video and photos. He was like, “You need a blog,” so I started using a blog. The video part of the site exploded this summer. That’s when we got cameras to our guys in Iraq. That’s changed the direction of things.

IW: What equipment and technology did you take to Baghdad to help get the story out?

BC: I had a 1 GHz [Apple] PowerBook and a Sony TRV 900 an old standard Sony MiniDV camera that some people say is the best camera Sony ever made. It’s just a real tank.

IW: Power and Internet access are pretty finicky in Baghdad, as well as in Mexico. How do you cope with that?

BC: We did what people did 10 years ago and used dial-up connections. We found that 3ivx is one of the best codecs for making [video] really small, especially interviews, because they’re pretty much the same shot. So we’d get a five- or seven-minute interview down to around 3MB and then upload it over a 56K connection, if we were lucky. It would take six, seven, eight hours. But we got better over time. During Ramadan, we figured out that the sweet spot for uploading was right after fast broke, because everyone was eating. So those two hours were great. And our phone line was crazy. It’s not like the United States where you have a jack in the wall. Our phone line was spliced into this other line that just ran out the window. I have no idea where it went.

IW: How do you see technology fitting into your vision for news reporting?

BC: I think it depends on the direction the Internet goes with things like net neutrality. Certainly as the Internet expands and access to high-speed connections expands, people will start demanding information from the source, not filtered by the media. 

IW: Do you worry that people are primarily interested in being entertained rather than informed?

BC: I do, but that’s mostly because people don’t know we’re here. I can look on Google analytics and see that in November we had 21,000 visits to our Web site, and over 100,000 video downloads. Now it’s Dec. 19, and we’ve had almost 16,000 visits, almost as many as in all of November. In October, we had just 6,000. I think that people aren’t really watching much video on the Internet yet. The video blogging community sees it as a big explosion, but in real terms, its not that big a deal. Our success will depend on our ability to get straight to broadcast at some point -- to make the Internet become TV and TV become the Internet in a way that hasn’t happened yet.