As a high school magician, Waywire Networks CEO Steven Rosenbaum could make doves appear out of thin air with a single wave of his wand. Yet little could the future video curation and channel aggregation entrepreneur imagine at the time how valuable those youthful conjuring skills would turn out to be.
That date with destiny would literally materialize out of the clear blue sky on the morning of September 11, 2001. As the Twin Towers fell, Rosenbaum directed five film crews he had hired for an Animal Planet shoot to race to lower Manhattan with an eye toward capturing the devastating aftermath of 9/11.
The legacy of that effort became the Emmy Award-winning documentary, “7 Days in September” as well as a research archive of meticulously curated amateur video now housed at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Finding Needles in User-Generated Haystacks
Rosenbaum’s 2011 best-seller, "Curation Nation," generalized those early experiences with video curation to marketing as a whole. His compelling case for the power of curation to harness the potential of first-person storytelling also incorporated his groundbreaking use of user-generated content (UGC) on the legendary series, “MTV News UNfiltered.”
With the 14th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, we sat down with Steve Rosenbaum to talk about unexpected career detours, the power of curation and the "new magic" being created by today’s connected media.
Sobel: You and I met many years ago when you were producing a local newsmagazine in upstate New York. Can you share your journey from there to your three-decade career here in New York City?
Rosenbaum: My first venture right out of college was called "OurTown TV" and the idea was to make something local and meaningful. It was ultra-local alright, but people liked it and we grew.
We were doing long-form non-fiction right at the time when cable network growth was taking off. Demand for programming was insatiable. At one point we had 140 employees occupying eight floors of a building on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan.
But viewers’ tastes were changing. Non-fiction was starting to morph into reality TV just as 9/11 happened. So it was ironic that I, a newsman to the core, found myself pivotally involved in the ultimate reality project as I assembled and curated the world’s largest archive of 9/11 video footage.
Sobel: You’re referring to your documentary, "7 Days in September," which examines the immediate impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Can you share your inspiration?
Rosenbaum: The day itself on September 11, 2001 was remarkable ― a crisp blue sky, the first day of school for my younger son, and Election Day. I had five crews geared up to begin shooting a series for Animal Planet and instead they volunteered to head downtown to film the unfolding events.
As everyone was heading out, one of the photographers turned back and asked, "What should we shoot?" The best directorial advice I could muster was to say, "Lots of news crews will be down there so just take a look at where they're pointing their cameras and shoot in the opposite direction."
We were budgeted for seven days so in the days following 9/11 we just kept the cameras rolling. That’s how we ended up with documentary footage not only of the crowds and the destruction but close-ups of the horror and shock on people’s faces as well.
Later, when I started to edit, almost as an afterthought I put an ad in The Village Voice asking anyone who might have amateur videotape to call me. The phone went nuts. People had grabbed their cameras and shot video ― remember, there were no smartphones back then ― and they were just so pleased to have their efforts be useful.
Today, I’m proud to say that all 500 hours of the film’s raw footage are curated and preserved at the 9/11 Memorial Museum as an enduring resource for our children’s children.
Sobel: Curation has since become a major theme in your work, most obviously with the publication of your best-selling books, "Curation Nation" and "Curate This!" Can you share your insights?
Rosenbaum: So much has changed: Gear has gone from being complex and expensive to being ubiquitous. Now many of us carry portable TV studios in the form of smartphones and tablets around in our pockets wherever we go.
So my dream of seeing media creation become democratized has come true. But that leads to an interesting new problem: How do you find media that is relevant to you?
What I found was that my West Coast friends wanted to "edit" content and my East Coast friends wanted to "program" channels. I was searching for a term that merged the power of algorithmic aggregation with the magic of human discovery and organization. I came up with "curation" and it stuck.
There’s a strong historical basis for the practice. In "Curation Nation" I trace curation’s roots back to Time magazine's Henry Luce and to DeWitt Wallace, the publisher of Reader’s Digest. They were the first publishers who based their work on curation, and video curation today has evolved from what they began.
Sobel: Steve, you were a magician in high school, and now you refer to curation as the "New Magic of the connected world … making the world contextual and coherent again." Can you explain your thinking and share with us the future of Waywire and your upcoming projects?
Rosenbaum: What drives me is the fear that if we don't embrace the curation of a wide collection of voices from across the web, the sheer volume of noise and random content being produced will force us to retreat to a handful of mainstream media sources.
Curation addresses that fear. It lets wonderful, tiny, relevant content created anywhere in the world bubble up and find its audience. That's why I call it magic.
Waywire is working with mainstream publishers and a growing number of community-based curators to power a wide range of topics and channels. We think it's about finding and illuminating what matters within deep, rich content verticals. You can't ask for a more world-changing challenge than that.