When President Obama sat for a 35-minute interview-live, on-camera-in the White House library last month, it wasn't one of the evening news anchors or their cable counterparts who sat across from him. It was Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube, who guided the president through a series of video and written questions submitted and selected by the YouTube community.
The interview, which was streamed live online, showed the extent to which Grove has helped make the Google-owned company into a serious player in the news business. By staging a virtual presidential press conference, with the American public cast as the White House press corps, Grove's news and politics team demonstrated just one way it is using the YouTube platform to draw citizens into the newsgathering process and create original news programming.
"We try to model the type of engagement and programming that we think defines new ways forward for TV broadcasters," Grove says.
Grove often cites the moment in 2006 when former Virginia Senator George Allen was caught on video using the racial slur "macaca" as the birth of "YouTube politics." But at the time, there was no news-and-politics vertical at YouTube, and Grove was just another YouTube user. After stints at his hometown newspaper in Northfield, Minn., and The Boston Globe, he went to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he wrote his master's thesis on the need for a "PBS International." (Between semesters, he interned at ABC News, where he worked in Brian Ross's investigative unit.)
While traveling in Southeast Asia for a project interviewing Kennedy School grads, Grove was using YouTube to transmit footage back home when the Allen clip went viral. "I watched that moment unfold from an Internet café in Vietnam," he recalls.
After returning to the U.S, he e-mailed firstname.lastname@example.org, inquiring whether the company had anyone overseeing news and political content. In February 2007, he became that person, monitoring user-posted news clips and working with political candidates who had woken up to the possibilities of social media.
Just two months in, Grove began conspiring with CNN Senior VP and Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman on a way to use YouTube to bring the electorate into the TV debate format. Featuring user-submitted video questions (including a memorable query on global warming from a snowman), the CNN/YouTube Democratic primary debate, in July 2007, legitimized YouTube's value as a partner for traditional news organizations.
"It was a real joining together of the traditional coverage and program side with the new-media side," Bohrman says. "Steve and I ended up being a pretty good team. I certainly hope that we don't see another presidential campaign without public participation like this in the debate sequence."
As more news outlets, political organizations and government agencies-including the White House-have embraced YouTube and established their own branded channels, Grove and news director Olivia Ma, who joined in 2008, have sought to position the site as the nexus for citizens, government and the flow of information.
While YouTube's News Near You initiative brings news programming to viewers by automatically serving up local content based on a user's location, the open-source YouTube Direct platform includes viewers in the production process by allowing news outlets to more easily gather newsworthy user-generated video. "Our mission now has become to get video or commentary on every news event in the world and make it universally accessible and useful, whether it's from a news partner or a citizen," Grove says.
That means providing a crucial platform for news events like the aftermath of last year's Iranian election, when protestors used it to penetrate the regime's news blackout and transmit video of the violent crackdown.
In the coming year, Grove plans to move from YouTube's San Francisco headquarters to New York to set up a YouTube news bureau, with the aim of doing more live-streamed event programming like the Obama interview, as well as working more closely with the news networks.
"I think that's really where the next step lies," Grove says. "How can we work consistently with our TV partners to help them leverage the YouTube community?"