Saturday, March 29, 2008

On Bill Roggio and Public Multimedia

There's a good article over at the Columbia Journalism Review about Bill Roggio. Not only is it a good story of entrepreneurship, but also shows how ordinary citizens can play an important role in media operations.

Bill Roggio, though, a former Army signalman and infantryman who runs The Long War Journal (which replaced BillRoggio.com) and writes most of its posts, has his sights on something grander. In September 2007, Roggio, along with his business partner, Paul Hanusz, created a nonprofit company—Public Multimedia Inc. (PMI). Their goal is to develop a first-of-its-kind media entity made up of independent reporters, at home and abroad, dedicated solely to reporting on terrorism, so-called small wars, and counterterrorism efforts around the world, to do it in the kind of fine-grained detail that the mainstream press never will, and, as much as possible, without an overt partisan bent. If they succeed, PMI could join a small but promising group of Web-based reporting and analysis operations that focus on a single beat—Talking Points Memo and The Politico on U.S. politics, ProPublica on investigations, and now, maybe, The Long War Journal on conflict reporting.
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But digital technology makes it possible for anyone, including terrorist groups, to speak to a global audience. As-Sahab, Al Qaeda’s media wing, for instance, releases videos all over the Web, and sites such as the Kavkaz Center, based in Chechnya, report on and encourage global jihad. With a little money and know-how, a disenfranchised group can broadcast—and raise funds—worldwide.
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In 2004, Roggio started blogging about the war in Iraq, using his military knowledge to put things in context for family and friends. He spent hours in the evening and during his lunch breaks scouring open-source material buried in government and military Web sites, clattering away at the keyboard after his wife Jennie (a nurse) and three kids went to bed. It was during the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004, however, that he began to focus his effort. He had been posting detailed battle maps of Iraq’s Anbar province on his site, showing where Marine and Army units were meeting the stiffest resistance from insurgent groups who harassed them with roadside bombs and the occasional ambush.

In the spring of 2005, a new group of readers began logging on to Roggio’s site. The Marines in Anbar province were embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, and looking for any tactical advantage they could find. Officers with the Regimental Combat Team 2 discovered Roggio’s site and began using it as an information source, calling his site the “Command Chronology of Western Iraq.” It seems that logging on to his site was faster and easier than going through their own intelligence channels, and Roggio managed to provide much of the same information that Marine analysts were reporting—without the red tape. The Marines eventually invited Roggio to come spend some time with them on the front line in Iraq. Recalling those early days, Roggio says, “I was just working from home, putting things in context, explaining it, and they invited me to come and embed.” After talking it over with his wife, he started raising money for his trip through his Web site, took an unpaid leave of absence from his job as a software engineer, and in November 2005 left for a one-month embed.
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Roggio, who is thirty-eight, met thirty-seven-year-old Paul Hanusz in the spring of 2006, after Hanusz responded to one of his fundraising drives for an upcoming embed. The two live a couple of towns apart in the undifferentiated suburban sprawl of southern New Jersey, and Hanusz, who was working in IT at a bank at the time, was a devoted reader of milblogs, even though he had never served in the military. He told me that when he learned of what Roggio was doing, he decided that, rather than simply stew about what he considers the inadequate coverage of the wars by the mainstream press, he would be part of a solution. The two met for lunch, “and I knew it was something I wanted to continue with,” Hanusz says. “The question was where to go with it.”

In researching how to set up and fund a nonprofit media operation, Hanusz came across the work of Charles Lewis—the founder of the Center for Public Integrity—on nonprofit journalism, and saw a model he thought PMI could emulate. “CPI isn’t a monstrous organization,” Hanusz says, “but it’s a solid organization, and it’s got enough of a staff to put out good pieces, and substantial pieces.” Hanusz left his job in June 2007, and has been working full time on the business end of PMI. For now, PMI still relies on donations from readers, which Roggio and Hanusz liken to PBS membership drives, and they want to borrow further from the model of PBS and NPR, which includes corporate sponsorships and foundation grants, as well as content-distribution deals.

Neither Roggio nor Hanusz would give details about PMI’s present financial situation, but beyond the fact that both have managed to make a go of this full time, they have also hired seven staff members, on the tech and editorial sides, and helped send sixteen reporters so far to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines to cover the “Long War.”

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