the news frontier

Telling the News on Cowbird

Jonathan Harris’s storytelling platform has journalistic potential
March 22, 2012

Artist and computer programmer Jonathan Harris made a name for himself with unique projects documenting feelings and experiences. We Feel Fine scanned the world’s blog entries for the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” and organized a visual interface based on the subsequent words. I Want You To Want Me scanned online dating sites for an interactive installation, displayed at MoMa, about the search for love. Both projects cultivated huge amounts of data, but Harris has since moved away from this approach. “I saw data as a means of understanding the world,” says Harris. “That’s a belief I no longer have.” Later undertakings, like The Whale Hunt, a story of the Alaskan Inupiat tribe’s yearly hunt, was told through 3,214 photos taken every five minutes, illustrating Harris’s new, story driven focus. This December he launched his latest creation, Cowbird, a platform for people to combine picture, audio, and text to tell their own stories.

Harris has three main goals for Cowbird: First, “to build a space for deeper self expression”; one look through the delicate, personal tales on Cowbird shows it’s being used for exactly that. Second, Harris wants Cowbird to showcase a “new approach to journalism, based on the simple stories behind news events.” But, he says, “I don’t think we’re doing a very good job at that yet,” adding that this is his next focus with Cowbird. The third goal, to create a “public library for human experiences, like Wikipedia,” is one that, he says, “will come eventually, if we’re able to do those first two things well.”

Finding a balance between the personal and journalistic is a challenge, but the potential is there, especially in Cowbird’s “Sagas,” where stories with a similar theme are gathered. The very first saga, “Occupy,” has almost 500 separate stories about the protests, and features small, yet telling moments, events, and stories from people who were there. Valentine’s Day brought the next saga, called “First Loves,” which has almost 700 entries about falling in love, a saga that typifies the emotional types of expression that many Cowbirders use the site for.

Recently, Harris has tried steering the site towards his journalistic goals by implementing a checkbox for entries called “news,” which is meant to indicate to the community that “this is a factual account of a news event. We don’t have an editorial board, so we ask people to give their word of honor,” says Harris. Cowbird hasn’t pushed this feature yet, and so far not many people have made use of it. “Over the next year, we plan to encourage our authors to start posting their own experiences of news events, and we expect the news feature to become more widely used with time,” says Harris.

Perhaps one of the best ways to see the site’s reporting potential is by looking at the way some journalists are using it. Aaron Huey, a photojournalist who’s worked for such magazines as National Geographic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker, says he uses Cowbird to share parts of his reporting that never made it into a publication. “I see Cowbird as a way to pick up the pieces off the cutting room floor and give them new life,” says Huey.

He’s created a “Collection,” a way of grouping stories on Cowbird, called “On Assignment,” for all his entries that are tangential to his own reporting. One story, titled “Never Too Young,” features a young boy with his finger on the trigger of a gun larger than him, a photo Huey took while on assignment for Boys’ Life magazine, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. In the text, he describes how the camp’s “Armed Forces Adventure Area” asks kids for their personal information to “get a neat laminated ID to wear around.” Huey writes:

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In the last screen on the computer before they take your photo you have to agree that the information will be used to recruit you when you get to high school. Everyone clicks “OK” because they want to get the laminated ID which they will need for the climbing wall and the first person shooter game where you kill brown people in the streets of a nondescript Middle Eastern town.

This is “exactly the kind of image the Boy Scouts wouldn’t run,” says Huey. “It was the dark side to that event.” Another entry from the “On Assignment” collection, titled, “This is Not a Story,” is centered on a disturbing image of a starving Ethiopian baby from a community experiencing “green famine.” Huey writes:

I remember the editors told me it wasn’t a story. No one wanted this one.

“We can’t sell it.”

“This is a place for moments they don’t care about,” says Huey. “Moments that are not newsworthy or don’t fit a publications particular angle on a story.” Huey says one of the challenges in getting journalists to use Cowbird is in “getting them to sit down and upload original content that hasn’t been sold yet. It’s hard to give it away for free.”

Sebastian Meyer, a photojournalist based in Iraq, whose work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and Time magazine, spoke similarly about the not-getting-paid problem, saying that this missing element makes it a “great way to share but not necessarily a publishing platform.” But, he says, “I don’t care deeply about the money thing.” He’s used Cowbird a couple of times to tell short reported stories that were too small to sell to a client.

Meyer says combining audio with photos provides a way to convey time; something he feels is missing from pictures alone. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of time in photography,” says Meyer. “You need time to express fear, which is the major emotion of war,” and he thinks audio is a powerful way to add this element, even though most publications aren’t interested in buying small snippets of sound.

He refers to his Cowbird entry called “The Day the Bomb Dropped,” a photo of an explosion in Libya. The audio that accompanies the photo begins with silence, except for the thump of a heart beat. Then, the noise of an aircraft overwhelms your ears, followed by an explosion. “There is a moment where you realize a bomb is going to fall really close to you, and you don’t know whether you’re going to live or die,” says Meyer, “A photo alone doesn’t explain that tension.” In his story on Cowbird, he describes the situation like this:

The sound got louder and louder until something inside of me reacted. “That’s a lot louder than it should be.”

Suddenly I knew what was about to happen and realized that I might actually die. In the split second that followed, the only thought that came to me was that if I was killed, the bomb would be the last thing I ever heard.

And then, before I could think of anything else


And I was still alive.

“Hearing that audio with the photo helps show what the other guys who were there experienced as well. I’m translating my experience into their experience, and bringing that element to the photograph was important to me,” says Meyer. “It tells a simpler story of just that moment. It’s journalism on a different scale.”

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.