One image briefly dominated the TV news in Japan during the afternoon of Monday, June 23: It was a video of a 12-car pileup that occurred earlier that morning on the Tomei Expressway in Aichi Prefecture.
Flames and twisted metal seemed to stretch forever. According to newscasters, four people were dead and 13 injured because a tired truck driver failed to slow down as he approached a congested part of the expressway.
There were no traffic helicopters swooping down to get a better look at the crash and no reporters dispatched to the stretch of highway where the pileup took place that morning. Instead, Japanese TV viewers first saw the crash thanks to another truck driver who used his camera phone to shoot video of the wreckage.
A few e-mails and phone calls later, the trucker was live on Japan?s public broadcaster -- NHK -- describing the crash scene to the nation as the TV station broadcast the grainy video from his cell phone.
Welcome to 21st century journalism, where citizens armed with camera phones can instantly become reporters -- or publishers.
Today?s mobile technology means you no longer need to be at a desk -- or even own a computer -- to e-mail a photo to a newspaper, or to publish an online magazine or blog. Now you can publish text and photos directly to the Web -- or send them to your local paper -- from a camera-enabled phone.
Publishing to the Web from your cell phone or other mobile device -- moblogging -- is all the rage with Tokyo?s digerati, and many believe these new mobile publishing tools will eventually bring big changes to journalism and other industries.
Or at least that was what the early adopters were saying at the First International Moblogging Conference, held in Tokyo?s Roppongi District on July 5.
"All the barriers to publishing that even exist in desktop publishing vanish with moblogging, and that?s amazing," said conference organizer Adam Greenfield, who coined the word "moblogging" in 2002.
The moblogging conference was held in the basement of a nondescript building in the shadow of the giant Roppongi Hills complex. The dark room was packed with engineers, hobbyists and the just plain curious -- about 150 people in all, some standing in the back after all the seats had been taken.
"I think moblogging is very powerful," Takashi Totsuka, president of Sony?s Contents and Applications Lab, told the audience. "This small but interesting media will present a business opportunity.... Moblogging-based journalism meets the criteria (of a disruptive technology), and maybe you can be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs."
So far, mobile publishing technology has only been put to use by a small number of bloggers -- most of them based in Tokyo.
The first mobile blog posting was published in January 2001 -- by a Tokyo-based blogger, naturally.
Since then, a few dozen mobloggers have used their camera phones to build sites filled with pictures of family, friends, pets and drinking parties.
Though its beginnings are modest, Web designer and writer Jeffrey Zeldman predicts mobile publishing will eventually prove useful to a number of industries.
"A TV repairman calls his supervisor from the customer's home, points his phone/camera at the troubled TV screen, and the supervisor can view on a Weblog exactly what's wrong with the customer's TV picture," Zeldman explained.
"A Realtor doing a site inspection verifies that a home repair has been done. He points his cell phone/camera at the repair in question and uploads it to the real estate company's private weblog."
Next time you have a medical emergency, instead of trying to describe the problem, you might send a picture to the emergency team en route. The emergency personnel can use the image to help determine how serious the problem is -- and what you should do while they?re en route.
"There is a similar scenario for almost every ordinary contingency of life and business," Zeldman said.
Half the world away in Dublin, Ireland, Paddy Holahan, CEO of NewBay Software, believes moblogging will be adopted by professional journalists and amateurs alike.
"We believe that professional journalists will utilize blogging (mobile and otherwise) as a publication system. The BBC allowed journalists to maintain personal logs, which were published on the BBC Web site during the Gulf War," wrote Holahan, whose company makes mobile-phone blogging software.
"Anyone can publish both real-time news events and more considered reports by having a blog."
"Mobile cameras will be extraordinary tools for witnesses to capture events with more immediacy than news organizations can provide."
-- Jeff Jarvis, author of Buzzmachine.com
It won?t be long, said Holahan, before "some globally significant event will be reported by an amateur camera phone blogger who takes a picture, provides a comment and publishes it to their personal phoneblog before professional reporters can do so."
Many at the Tokyo moblogging conference agreed. In fact, this scenario is a kind of Holy Grail many mobloggers are waiting for: The big news event that will turn moblogging from a hobby into frontline journalism.
"I often think about what I could have captured and shared if I'd had a mobile phone camera with me when I was at the World Trade Center on September 11th," said Jeff Jarvis, a seasoned journalist who is author of the blog Buzzmachine.com and president and creative director of Advance.net, the Internet arm of Advance Publications.
"There are a thousand images that exist only in my memory but that could have been put on the Internet as they happened. I think, too, how this would have changed the perspective most of the world had on that event: Most people saw it from rooftop TV cameras a mile or two away, cameras that could not show the faces marked with fear and determination, the destruction and the dust. Mobile cameras will be extraordinary tools for witnesses to capture events with more immediacy than news organizations can provide."
"Only professional cameras were used at TV stations 10 years ago," said Masaharu Goto, a TV and documentary producer attending the moblogging conference. "There were no digital cameras. Now everyone uses digital. Amateurs are becoming the media. If you look at the history of TV cameras, you can see where [moblogging] is going."
But major media organizations aren?t panicking yet. The Dallas Morning News published digital photos shot by amateurs in the aftermath of the Shuttle Columbia crash, and the BBC used similarly shot amateur photos during the protests against the Iraq War. But many other media companies are saying the impact of camera phones and the like is negligible at best.
"I have seen zero influence so far," John Dickson, photo editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote in an e-mail. "No one has offered me a picture from one, although it will probably happen eventually. The quality is very low. I'd say it's too soon to say."
Noted blogger and former Iranian journalist Hossein Derakhshan said the technology still seems far away.
"Actually because of the poor infrastructure of digital communication in Iran and the fact that all of it is in the government's hand, I don't think (moblogging) will happen in the near future. They have just recently adopted text messaging in the cell phone system. I guess maybe in two, three years time it would happen."
Pedram Moallemian, a California-based blogger, said, "I try to explore more general issues often unrelated to my daily routine. As such, I don?t think pictures I would take on a daily basis would be of any relevance. I also wouldn?t add text as I?m walking by a park or at a friend?s house or at work, as I like to think more about what I write."
"The truth is that most people are not witnesses to news most days," said Jarvis. "That's why people are putting up pictures of their pets and meals. But on that occasion when big news happens, the odds are better and better that witnesses who are there will now have the tools to capture and share images and news."
And where will we view this news? Will we be turning from cnn.com to personal moblogs to find the inside story? "Yes, some people will be able to use these tools to break news on their own Web sites," Jarvis said. "But that assumes that they have Web sites. I think it will also be the case that witnesses who capture news images will provide them to news organizations."
Whether a moblogger breaks a story on his or her site or a truck driver sends a video to NHK, the lesson is clear, moblogging advocates say: The tools of journalism are changing, and as they become more widespread, citizens should play a more vital role in newsgathering.
"Most news -- and the most reliable news -- will still come from news organizations that have the ability to report and verify and also have special access to newsmakers and events," Jarvis said.
"But the audience and witnesses will provide immediate coverage we could not get before, and that is great. In addition -- and this is profoundly important -- news sources and the audience itself now have a public voice thanks to the Internet and Weblogs, which allow them to tell their own stories and, in the words of blogger Ken Layne, 'Fact check your ass.' The Internet gives the audience more power, and that is wonderful."