Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Kevin Live describes himself as a guy who just “really enjoys live streaming.”
Now, within seconds of going live, Kevin says anywhere between 50 to 600 people start watching him streaming. More than 60 percent of his friends live in Battle Creek and they help spread the word that his camera is on.
Although he has no formal training as a photojournalist and doesn’t have an arsenal of high-tech equipment — he uses a tripod and his cellphone — the more newsworthy images he captures
make their way onto multiple social media platforms including Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram and then onto more established media outlets.
A recent example is a video he
took Aug. 20 of a fatal shooting on the South Pier in South Haven. A 19-year-old gunman shot and killed Charles Skuza and Skuza’s wife, Barbara, who remains in critical condition at an area hospital, before turning the gun on himself.
Live, not his real last name, says he visits South Haven a lot and was swimming about 500 feet away from the pier with a friend as he saw the situation unfolding.
“I was terrified at first,” says Live who doesn’t use his real last name because of threats that have been made against him. “At first, I thought someone was lighting off fireworks. Then I saw this guy with a gun and it looked like he was following this lady around the lighthouse with a pistol. We swam out a little ways and we were a little ways away from him and up to our shoulders in water. I saw him shoot himself in the head. At the time, because I’d never seen anything like that, I asked people if they saw the same thing that I did.”
He took video of the scene on his phone and says it was a “shaky video” because he didn’t have his tripod. He posted that video as police were arriving and stunned beachgoers were taking in what they had just seen.
“There were a lot of people on the beach that day and I wanted them to be able to contact families to let them know they were safe,” Live says of his own quick response. He says he received more than 1,000 messages through Facebook from people wanting to know what he saw that day.
“I think 2,500 people were watching at one point. Me and my friend were the last two in the water and we were thinking that maybe we should hide behind a buoy.”
Four days later, he was taking video of the aftermath of a bank robbery at a PNC Bank on Capital Avenue SW in Battle Creek. He was tipped off to the robbery by someone in the community. Although he has a police scanner, he says messages received through Facebook Messenger or texts on his phone are how he gets the majority of his information about situations he goes on to capture on video.
His exploits as a citizen journalist haven’t always been focused on topics of the hard news variety or coverage of community events. He has been known to post tidbits of information that some say border on the scandalous, not meant for public consumption.
This was the case with a social media post he authored about an alleged affair that came to light between the pastor and associate pastor of Woodlawn Church, a megachurch on Helmer Road.
“Some of it’s tabloid stuff,” Live says. “The church thing was something that I wasn’t really interested in, but the guy who told me about it said it was worth mentioning because their congregation is so big and people in the community needed to know what was going on there.”
That post has since been removed from his Facebook page because there were too many comments and he wanted the focus of his work to be on more impactful events.
“Generally, the comments about the church post were good, but there were a few members who didn’t want the story up there, but if you’re a member, you’re going to be a little biased. I know the church told their congregation publicly. But they didn’t realize it would go viral locally.”
Today his page features snippets from school board meetings where masks for students are debated and video of wild waves on Lake Michigan where a Facebook post says he has witnessed two drownings.
Another Alternative to Mainstream Media
Live, 32, was born and raised in Battle Creek and says he never set out to be a citizen journalist. “I just kind of started doing it,” he says. “I just kind of thought it would be interesting.”
He does not charge a subscription fee to access his videos and posts. He has a donate app on his site where people can contribute. These donations cover his travel costs and the time he spends capturing images.
For several years he had a job in the automotive industry and just recently quit that job to work with a cleaning service that helps businesses to ensure compliance with COVID-related cleanliness standards. He plans to continue his video business, which he started two years ago, in between cleaning jobs.
Although it was slow going during that first year, Live says his video enterprise “really took off last year” when COVID forced people to hunker down. He says he received $500 on his cash app from a retired gentleman who didn’t get out much and appreciated having access to live streams, particularly of local events and situations that were happening.
“When I first started doing it, I noticed I was getting a lot of views from people from their homes,” he says. Meanwhile, he was on the move. “I logged anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 miles going to events.”
Among the most-watched of these events are protests, including a Black Lives Matter protest that happened in Battle Creek that had about 60,000 views online and a pro-Trump rally at the State Capitol building in Lansing that had more than 20,000 views.
But, his video of the aftermath of the theft of tires and rims taken off cars at the dealership where he worked, proved that people also are interested in events of a more criminal nature. He got 330,000 views on Facebook of that theft. Those views increased to one million after someone “stole” his video and re-posted it in groups they run with large followings.
“A lot of news outlets don’t stream a lot,” Live says. “I think people started watching my stuff more because I don’t have commercials in the middle of my videos.”
In addition to donations from viewers in the Battle Creek area, he says he also has received donations from people in Kalamazoo because of coverage of events there, including a Black Lives Matter protest.
From time to time, his videos will pop up during local news shows. He gets a mention, but no financial compensation and says if he has to travel some distance, he won’t share them with these media outlets because he is making a name for himself, in addition to money, and no longer needs that additional exposure.
Citizen journalism was once hailed as a revolution that would make news-gathering a more democratic process — one that would no longer solely be the province of professional reporters, says an article on the website ThoughtCo
. “It has had a significant impact on today's news, with many believing that citizen journalism is a threat to professional and traditional journalism.”
The article goes on to say that, “Social media has played a vital role in revolutionizing news. Many citizens are the first to report on breaking stories, with eye-witness videos, first-hand accounts, and real-time information, all using social media. Even news outlets will share breaking stories on social media before traditional means, but they have to still follow up with larger stories quickly or risk being outdated with their material in this fast-paced news environment.”
Live says he knows he’s providing an important service when people tell him that they find out about important community issues from watching his videos. This happened with coverage of contentious meetings between Pennfield school board members and the superintendent who resigned on Aug. 23.
In the midst of all of this, Live created a post alerting people to the school board meeting videos on YouTube being made private. Days later, those videos were again made public.
While he may not have set out to shed light on issues and efforts by people to hold others accountable, Live says he has come to realize how important this work is.
“We need more people to do it,” he says. “People may not think it, but you’ve got to stay dedicated to it.”