By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter for the Washington Post.
Amanda Congdon was the digerati's "It Girl" of 2006. The perky, quirky and camera-ready 25-year-old attracted tens of thousands of daily visitors to, and scads of media attention for, Rocketboom.com, the offbeat videoblog that she anchored and helped write and produce. Thanks to Congdon's star power and site founder Andrew Michael Baron's Web savvy, Rocketboom assembled a huge audience with little more than homemade video,
public-domain news clips and lots of insouciant attitude. Rocketboom also suggested a new kind of news for the broadband age--unmoored from any traditional news agenda, inexpensive to produce and universally accessible.
And then, the blowup. In late June, Congdon and Baron unexpectedly parted ways after a long fight over the site's direction. Rocketboom continues, but without Congdon.
After taking a cross-country road trip (chronicled, naturally, on her blog AmandaAcrossAmerica.com) and moving from Manhattan to Los Angeles, Congdon resurfaced in December with a couple of surprising new gigs. She's become a weekly videoblogger for ABCNews.com; she's also developing a hybrid television program and videoblog for HBO.
Nowadays, instead of Rocketboom's thrift-store set, Congdon anchors for ABCNews.com from the control room of a TV studio. Her field assignments have included a visit to a Vermont farm that creates electricity from cow dung and reports from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (where Congdon took a taser for the camera and interviewed Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell about his company's tree-planting program). Congdon denies the suspicion, often voiced on the Internet, that she's been coopted by the big media outfits she used to tweak. A more sympathetic, and certainly more grandiose, view is Congdon's own: that she's helping the mainstream media to "invent new news" in the digital age.
AJR contributor and Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi , who wrote about Rocketboom in the magazine's June/July issue, talked to Congdon in January about the new developments in her career. An edited transcript follows:
Q: Describe what you're doing now.
A: So now I'm doing a weekly five-minute videoblog for ABCNews.com, which covers a variety of different topics--technology news, the environment, politics. Those are the main focuses, but really anything that catches my interest in a given week is on the blog. Aside from that, I'm developing a TV and Internet show for HBO, and also doing a weekly blog called starringamanda-congdon.com, a personal videoblog. It's kind of like a scratchpad, something that I can just use as an experiment.
Q: What do you tell people you do?
A: I usually tell them I'm a videoblogger, and often I get blank stares. So often I ask if they know what a blog is, which most people do at this point.
Q: Really you're kind of a hybrid--an actor, a host-presenter, a producer, a videographer and a journalist.
A: I wouldn't call myself a journalist, and I would add writer to that list. I don't know if what I'm doing is journalism in the traditional sense of the word, in the sense that I'm not concerned with doing the on-the-one-hand-this/on-the-other-hand-that routine. I very much have an opinion, and I'm comfortable with voicing that opinion. So that makes what I'm doing a little bit different, whether or not you want to call that citizen journalism or networked journalism... But I wouldn't call it straight journalism, because that has so many connotations, and the traditional meaning of that is so much different.
Q: But you're at ABCNews.com. That sounds like a journalistic organization.
A: Yes, it does. And that actually is a cause of some controversy. A lot of comments on the site object to the fact what I am doing is, I guess, it's different from what people think of when they think of traditional journalism. So I myself am not sure ABCNews.com is exactly where I belong, unless we are really trying to invent what's news, and perhaps that's what we're doing.
Q: That's an interesting concept. You're trying to 'invent what's news.' What does that mean?
A: Invent a new form of news is what I'm trying to say.... Blogging is inherently personal, I think, so when you put your commentary in and inject your own opinion into a piece, it becomes something that may not be straight news in the traditional sense, and I think that reinventing of the medium is something that needs to happen for a new generation to stay interested or become interested.
Q: Your work for ABCNews.com so far has been a little more conventional than what you did at Rocketboom. Agree? Disagree?
A: I guess I don't agree. I think that I'm just being myself no matter where I am. The thing that's conventional about ABC is the Web site. And I'm fighting hard against that right now. The layout and the pre-roll ads and all the wrapping is what's conventional. I feel that I'm still the same.
Q: Are you looking to uncover something new, or just to cover the same things in a new way?
A: I think I'm looking to do a little bit of both. For example, the cow dung story--alternative energy is always going to be something that I look to cover and is not well covered in the mainstream press. Yeah, little gems like that will be things I'm looking to cover differently. I may cover the iPhone or some other subject that has been touched upon by another reporter, but maybe they didn't go the extra mile or maybe they didn't get up close and personal.
Q: Not to be argumentative, but since your background isn't in traditional journalism, what do you know about covering a story? Do you feel any obligation to the who-what-when of a story?
A: I do hope that the viewer leaves having some sense of the who, what, when and why.... I do assume a little more than the average--I don't want to say average--than the mainstream reporter. I don't play to the lowest common denominator. If I'm going to cover a cow-dung piece, I don't need to say, 'Hey, why is it that people are looking for alternative fuels? Well, maybe it's because of global warming.'.. I don't spell things out in the way that maybe a more traditional reporter would. And in that way I do skip steps, which may be naughty [laughs].
It's like this as well. I don't know if you've ever seen "Mystery Science Theater" [a cult TV hit from 1988-99 in which comic characters crack wise during screenings of old sci-fi movies]. They have all these little jokes, and you may get a third of them, and if you do, you know a lot about pop culture over the ages. It's almost as if some of the little side points that I make during the [Webcast], most people will skip over them and possibly not understand them. But those that do really feel connected and clued in. And if you only get one of the four, that's OK, because that one has made you feel special.
Q: What are you working on for HBO?
A: It's in the very beginning stages, but it looks like it's going to be a TV show-Internet show hybrid, possibly a daily Internet show, although I don't know how that's going to be possible with my schedule. Both will stand independently of the other, so if you don't have cable you can still watch the Internet version, and if you don't have broadband you can watch the TV show. Nothing is set in stone. We're still working it out, finding the right people to work together. Basically, it's a year-long development deal to figure out what the show is.