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Web Documentaries Put You in the Reporter's Seat

Clark prefers traditional cameras to digital ones since "they're still much better and sharper." When working on Mount Everest, she sent rolls of film via a runner or a yak down to an air strip, where they were helicoptered to Katmandu for developing. Snafus canrun from the technical to the, well, animal. "One time, when we reached the summit of Everest, we tried to do a Webcast press conference," says Clark. "But the yak carrying the sat phone was lost."

The process of documenting for the Web isn't just about juggling multiple technical elements. A Web documentarian straddles documentary filmmaking and broadcast journalism--offline mediums that flirt with each other as they draw on similar skills.

"I essentially do both," says Fellman, a graduate of Columbia's journalism school. "I consider myself a journalist first but I also make documentary films. I try to make the most of any event by doing a film, putting it on the Web, writing a book. Anything and everything."

"It's hard to come up with an accurate term for what we do," says Clark. "I guess you could call it 'parallel producing.'"

Parallel producing is the only way to do it these days when developing content for the Web. "I'm skeptical of Web-only productions," says Seema Williams, an Internet analyst for Forrester Research. "People who do more than one [medium] work better. For a single-production effort, they're producing more than one product." Candide Media Works, the Silicon Alley company Fellman works for, is primarily in the business of making Web documentaries, but it also does the Silicon Alley shuffle by contracting itself to create Web sites for media corporations. "That's how we pay the bills," admits Fellman.

Currently, Candide and larger entities like PBS and the Discovery Channel are the only ones who make Web documentaries on a regular basis. "But not that long ago a lot of people were throwing money at this," says Fellman. "It just went through a correction recently, but I think there will be renewed interest."

Microsoft's Mungo Park is perhaps the best example of the correction. As part of MSN's Expedia site, a travel site that allows users to book airfares and hotel reservations, Mungo Park was a gimmick to exploit consumers' dollars by documenting expeditions to faraway romantic places like Timbuktu or Java. But the gimmick was dropped--along with all the other content products Microsoft was developing--back in February, as part of the company's new strategy to offer more practical services like news, weather, travel, and search.

Today, producing content has taken a back seat to becoming a "portal" or Internet hub--a permanent home page, so to speak. Heavy hitters on the Net, from Yahoo and Lycos to MSN and AltaVista, are flaunting their portal status. Still, some think that Web documentaries are closer to the true sense of what the Net wants to be. "We are fulfilling the promise of the medium," claims Buettner. "We're taking people places and letting them participate in the real world."

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