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The I Files brings investigative news to YouTube

What's your favorite YouTube video? Does it involve baby antics, pet tricks or sports blunders? Clips from “The Daily Show?” I confess a weakness for music video parodies like “Whole Foods Parking Lot," which has more than 4 million views.

Or, if you want to talk about mega-numbers, just consider what might be the platonic ideal for an alluring YouTube video: Shakira singing the official anthem for the 2010 World Cup, "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)," which combines emotional highlights from the world's most popular sport with the “Hips Don’t Lie” appeal of a crossover singing sensation. The result: nearly 500 million views.

Into this media world, we now venture. We're introducing The I Files, an investigative news channel on YouTube.

Edited by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California Watch's parent organization, The I Files will be a showcase for the best investigative news videos from around the world – stories that investigate power, reveal secrets and illuminate your world. Our motto: Dig deep.

Our contributors include major media players such as The New York Times, BBC, ABC and Al-Jazeera, as well as public television's ITVS and a host of independent reporters and producers. We will be working in association with the Investigative News Network and its coalition of 60 nonprofit news organizations, from ProPublica to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.

This is, of course, an experiment, yet another new venture in a media environment where the Web has splintered audiences into thousands of niche markets. But there is a method to our madness. 

YouTube, just seven years old, is a vast and rapidly changing media environment, and within the almost incomprehensibly large YouTube universe, news videos have begun to find an audience amid the entertainment and clutter. It's news that is often raw and citizen-generated – like footage of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami – but increasingly, it's also professional news from established broadcasters.

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism confirms the trend of people turning to YouTube as a source of news and information, especially in times of disaster – whether natural (a volcanic eruption in Iceland) or unnatural (the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colo.). TV is still, by far, the No. 1 source of news for most Americans, but the Pew report found that YouTube has established itself as a rapidly expanding platform for “a new form of video journalism … where professional journalism mingles with citizen content.”

Cellphone images of newsworthy events – from Occupy protests to fighting in Syria – have an immediacy and authenticity that appeals to viewers who have come to prefer their news raw and unfiltered. But as we know, there are shortcomings. Can the source of the video be trusted? Who provides background and context? Who will investigate what's going on behind the scenes?

That's our assignment at The I Files: to be timely and relevant, to provide an outlet for a citizen journalist who captures an incredible moment on camera, but above all to dig deeper and to present well-reported and engaging stories that offer real information and insights. 

Five years ago, I produced a PBS “Frontline” documentary with correspondent Lowell Bergman about the state of news on TV, in print and online. It was called “What’s Happening to the News,” and it was not an optimistic analysis. Much of network TV news was being degraded, newspapers like the Los Angeles Times were being gutted by new owners who didn’t seem to care much about in-depth reporting, and online journalism, such as it was at the time, didn’t seem to offer a satisfying, immediate solution. The biggest thing on YouTube back then was the Numa Numa guy.

Don't get me wrong. I like the Numa Numa guy and his ability to reach out to the world from his basement with a lip-syncing viral hit. I was happy to see him again, bouncing around on a video screen in the lobby at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, when we visited recently to discuss launching The I Files.

And that's when it struck me: There's a reason this new venture of ours feels exciting. Online print journalism made a name for itself years ago, but more recently, online video reporting has evolved enormously.

I was lucky enough to participate in a successful early experiment in commissioning and overseeing original video content for the “Frontline/World” website, a series called “Rough Cuts” that won Emmys and Webbys and drew a substantial audience for serious international reporting. Well, the truth is still out there, and there’s an increasing desire for people to discover and report it in a new kind of visual journalism that engages the eye, brain and heart – and is instantly available, anywhere, anytime.

With The I Files, we hope to create a community of engaged viewers and video journalists who share a passion for discovering how the world really works and how it can change.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has given us the funding to make this possible. YouTube and its parent company, Google, have given us a platform. With your help and support, we’re going to commit to journalism on the Web. We launch Thursday with 10 remarkable videos – the first of many, updated daily. Please join us.

Clarification: This post updates INN's news partners.

Filed under: Inside the Newsroom

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