Web series are the new black, as the media likes to remind us, with many publications taking to the web with spotlight features via video, and individuals as well as organisations using the web series as a fun educational tool. Meanwhile, television is embracing the web, with some creators skipping networks and cable companies altogether to bring their own series to fruition, which means more creative control, more variety, and more innovation. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon all have their own studios, and their products include continuations of series dropped from mainstream television. The web series arrived a while ago, and it’s settled into the couch with a cup of tea.
So has the fun, sometimes silly, sometimes educational YouTube channel, often an extension of vlogging. Commentary on pop culture and media. Videos about history or science. There’s a whole slew of great stuff out there provided for free by people who love being dorks on the internet, for people who are dorks and love dorking out, and I mean this completely affectionately, because I am one of them.
But there’s something I’m seeing more of these days that I’m particularly excited about: The investigative series. One example is Food Crimes, which has taken to the internet to explore a variety of issues surrounding food safety. They’re looking at outbreaks of foodborne illness, who was responsible, how to reform the food system to address gaps in safety protocols, and more. They’re looking at fraud and smuggling and all sorts of misdeeds within the food system. They’re paving new ground for the web series, showing that it can, and should, be used as a tool to expose new information by using time-tested journalistic tools. They’re not doing straight reporting and features, though these are valuable and many web series are doing just that, but specifically getting into the depths of the system, and its problems, to pull out information that many people aren’t familiar with.
We see a deadly outbreak flash by on the news and woefully survey the empty shelves where our favourite brand of peanut butter used to be, but what happened? Why? Who got sick and where, and how long did it take to identify the pattern and put a hold on sales? Could it have been prevented? How, and by whom? These are questions that Food Crimes is delving into as a matter of public good, but also to challenge the food system—as Frontline documents the horrors of the chicken industry for broadcast, so too is Food Crimes delving into other broken areas of agriculture and the commercial production of commodities like peanut butter or the smuggling of saffron.
Online video was initially seen primarily as a mode of entertainment, and one heavily linked to sharing personal video, music videos, trailers, clips from films, and so on—a promotional tool for bands, television shows, and movies. It expanded into something bigger as personal video grew into vlogging, drawing upon that same personal content and development of a highly accessible ‘brand’ to grow an audience who might follow for anything from recipes to makeup tutorials to funny commentary about pop culture. Almost inevitably, creators began to seize upon the idea to build out into fictional web series along with nonfiction designed to educate, spark commentary, or entertain—see much of the oeuvre of Buzzfeed, for example, which really pioneered the short, engaging video on subjects varying from the serious to the fun. You can see ducklings learning how to swim, or serious interviews with members of the transgender community in response to issues in the news.
But it’s the investigative series that are really exciting me, because I have a deep and abiding love for investigative journalism and the way it shapes culture and society. Without such work, we’d be living in a very different world. Journalists have the power to expose that which many people dearly wish would remain hidden to force a conversation, and also to push for reforms. Those who documented sweatshops and child labour helped the labour movement as it fought for better working conditions. Upton Sinclair changed the food system forever. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed Watergate and the corruptions of the Nixon administration.
There are a lot of problems in the US food supply, and while there’s a growing awareness of some issues, others run underground. Fraudulent labeling, food smuggling, and the cold calculations that go into managing outbreaks are just three examples, and web series provide a great way to make them engaging and accessible. Do other forms of media report on them? Absolutely, and I’ve seen all three examples come up in major newspapers across the country as well as in broadcast journalism, with varying levels of public engagement. (The ongoing saga of fraudulent fish labeling, for example, can’t seem to generate much mainstream traction.)
But the web series takes investigative journalism into the new media landscape, and engages with audiences who, quite frankly, aren’t reading, listening to, or watching the news, because they don’t find these formats accessible and they aren’t embedded into their daily lives. I flick on NPR while I make dinner in the afternoons because it’s habit—because it’s what we did throughout my childhood and it feels weird to be making dinner without the strains of the All Things Considered theme song in the background. But I don’t watch television news, nor do I subscribe to print editions of magazines and newspapers, though I do read online. Others of my cohort don’t even do that—and I say this not in a ‘kids these days’ kind of way, because many are socially and politically engaged, but to illustrate that the way we engage with media is fundamentally changing. News organisations that can’t keep up will find themselves growing obsolete, and meanwhile, the mainstreaming of the web series has created an excellent opening for public interest organisations, citizen journalists, freelance investigative journalists, and more to reach a public that’s interested in hearing more.
Image: Parisienne Carrots, Susy Morris, Flickr