Category Archives: Citizen Journalism

Follow the audience into the 21st Century

(An edited version of an essay that appeared in April) 

Doug Millison mashes up a 1979 B&W graphic by Josh Gosfield

In this final essay in a series let me explain why I accuse mass media of dereliction of duty for helping mislead the nation into war, for uncritically swallowing the sensational and for too often ignoring complex problems until they erupt into crisis.

 Idealistically I am just a very sad American who feels that our nation has strayed from Lincoln’s mission to be “the last best hope of Earth” and that much of responsibility for this lies with the failure of the working press, of which I am part — although I am now on vacation and speak only for myself.

 But I am a pragmatist who does not put much stock in hand-wringing. And while Mario Savio’s impassioned remarks (see graphic above or watch video ) resonate with me, I would not take his suggestion literally because only two types of persons throw anything, especially themselves, into machinery — saboteurs and candidates for the meat grinder. I am neither.

Nor have I merely been critical, for more authoritative critiques abound, including “Breaking the News,” “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” “The Vanishing Newspaper,” “Fighting for Air,” and “The New Media Monopoly“.

So I have suggested how to improve the credibility of mass media by giving rank-and-file media workers blogs, hosted on company websites, so as to drill thousands of connections down into communities, and from these to pull up ideas and stories that would make better journalism and better business than the all-too-common practice of rewriting the empty press releases issued by the officialdom.

It’s good business because it is people who subscribe to newspapers, tune in to broadcasts or click on web sites. And they like to see and hear themselves. Two Stanford business school professors wrote a great article in which they asked Hoover Adams, founding publisher of the Dunn, North Carolina, Daily Record how his paper had achieved a market penetration above 100 percent. This is what the publisher told the eggheads:

It’s because of three things: Names, names, and names . . . . A local newspaper can never get enough local names. I’d happily hire two more typesetters and add two more pages in every edition if we had the names to fill them up.”

Liberating these suppressed voices is a business opportunity because interactive media is not like mass media. Interactive media is about making connections. People to people. People to information. People to products. Whatever. The old media business model based on distribution is dead. Stick a fork in it. Web-heads like David Weinberger have been trying to tell us for a very long time the Internet is a two-way street. But we still have this mindset of the one-way trip to the driveway. And cannot get to these new land of connections with Soviet-style central planning. We must allow newsrooms to follow their audiences into the 21st Century.

In many years of covering Silicon Valley I’ve noticed how those guys promulgate “laws” to lend authority to their educated guesses. I’d call this a cheap trick but make lots of money doing this so let me tell you about Metcalfe’s law which says the more people who use a network the more valuable it becomes. More connections means greater value plus better journalism. It’s a win-win.

(Question: Is community the new media business model?)

‘Golden age of media’ a golden shower

Kudos to the Progress and Freedom Foundation for assembling a thought-provoking book of Media Metrics (pdf) that argues “we have more media choice, more media competition, and more media diversity than ever before . . .  (if) . . . there was ever a ‘golden age’ of media in America, we are living in it today.” In a blog summary, authors Adam Thierer and Grant Eskelsen hope that, guided by this impressive compilation of tables and charts, “future debates on this subject will be be guided by facts instead of fanaticism and by evidence instead of emotion . . . hyperbolic rhetoric (and) shameless fear-mongering.”

Which fortunately leaves me free to heap derision and disdain on this bean-counting analysis that reeks of moral relativism like a chain-smoking French deconstructionist whose underarms have never been dishonored by deodorant.

Let me explain this seemingly bipolar view. I truly appreciate that this libertarian think-tank used its financial support from nouveau corporate media to pull together facts on everything from Internet advertising trends to magazine expansion (see niche breakdowns page 77) to the revelation, at least to me, that more than 3,000 free-circulation local papers have a “combined circulation . . . larger than all the daily newspapers in America.”

That seems impressive until you realize those are “shoppers” as we used to call such advertising-only weeklies when I was a small town businessman in Eureka, California, where the Tri-City Weekly was a fine example of that genre. So when the authors of Media Metrics call this a golden age of media, what they really mean is that this is a golden age of advertising. There has never been a better time for national and international brands to advertise goods and services. And that is not a bad thing until you consider that banks are failing, household debt is high, and “the U.S. is experiencing the worst food inflation in 17 years,” as MSNBC reported in April.

So one might fairly ask whether this more-is-better analysis makes sense when getting more media offer more temptation to buy more things with money we don’t have.

I especially enjoyed chapter six on “the natural decline in media localism” in which the authors make two contradictory arguments. First, they say, the “decline of ‘localism’ is much-lamented but quite natural phenomenon as citizens gain access to news and entertainment sources of broader scale and scope.” Translation – people are more interested in Paris Hilton’s life than in their own.

In the event, however, that our logic rejects this rather specious supposition, the authors offer a contradictory fall back — a 2007 University of Missouri report, “The Community Newspaper Study,” which offers statistics about satisfaction with local news coverage. The 2007 report is compares to a 2005 report to assure us that if we do decide to act locally instead of leer globally that we already have satisfactory local news outlets.

But from what little I know of statistics the Missouri report seems to lies somewhere between extraordinary anecdote-gathering and piss-poor statistical sampling.

For instance the report summary says: “In the 2007 survey, 505 interviews were completed with adults who lived in areas whose total population was 25,000 or less in the United States . . . in 2005, 503 interviews were completed with adults who lived in newspaper markets of less than 100,000 people.”

Even assuming that sub-25,000-person communities are the same as the sub-100,000 variety, how do we know that the communities surveyed in each of the two years are equivalent for statistical purposes, so that we can lump all 500 or so interviews together? And what is the margin of confidence on a sample that small?

We aren’t told, but come to think of it who cares! Paris Hilton’s videos are more engaging than the city council meetings I can watch on my local cable provider’s public access channel.  So thank you, Progress and Freedom Foundation, for giving me evidence instead of emotion, and for helping me realize that this is a golden age of media — in fact it is a golden shower raining down on civic-minded Americans from sea to shining sea.  

Two reasons to oppose the so-called shield

The Senate may be nearing a vote on the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, which has already cleared the House of Representatives. This bill, with its Orwellian title, is ostensibly designed to “shield” reporters from having to disclose the identity of anonymous sources when hauled into court by federal prosecutors. It is purportedly similar to shield laws in some 30 states.

But this is not a shield. It yet another dirty trick on democracy from the same Senate that stripped Americans of the right of habeus corpus, and awarded telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for illegal domestic spying. Here are two quick reasons why journalists, bloggers and engaged citizens should oppose this Trojan Horse.

1. The word shield appears no where in the bill. Put the text into Word and do a search to satisfy yourself. Then read the law’s summary statement — the legislative equivalent to a truth in advertising requirement — which says that its intent is “to maintain the free flow of information . . . by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media.” By its own admission this bill tells federal prosecutors when they can throw reporters into jail. How does that help?

2. This bill would allow corporations to jail journalists who reveal trade secrets. This is an astonishing gift to Corporate America that would squelch environmental, consumer safety and other forms of investigative reporting against corporate as opposed to government power. It is an entirely new power for corporations that works against journalists and the notion of public disclosure. Trade secret law allows corporations to protect manufacturing techniques and other processes from disclosure to competing firms. Current federal law allows companies to file federal charges against its own employees — some of whom must obviously know the secret — if they are caught revealing the secret to a competitor. The formula for Coke is a well-known example. Now say a source inside Coca-Cola told a reporter that the firm was putting cocaine back into the drink. That would be newsworthy. But a careful reading of the convoluted language of Section 2 (Compelled Disclosure from Covered Persons), Section 3, subsection C(i), reveals that a federal court may compel the reporter “to identify a person who has disclosed a trade secret”. So the reporter would have to snitch on the corporate employee who disclosed a trade secret because their conscience told them that the industrial process, defined by the corporation, was wrong or dangerous!

So let’s say you support the notion that there should be a federal shield law. And you realize that this bill is seriously flawed. What do you do? Thank the legislators who support your intent, but do not seek passage of this particular bill. Wait for the next Congress and go through the act to expunge these Big Brother provisions.

Can citizens find and punish illegal wiretappers?

Legal, non-violent, direct action can succeed where Congress has failed

The U.S. Senate seems poised to pass an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act that will retroactively protect telephone companies that made illegal wiretaps for Bush Administration. Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd have filibustered the bill but their principled action has no chance. It’s not like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The pro-wiretapping faction has more than the 60 votes needed to force a vote, reports The Nation. Majority Leader Harry Reid will send the bill to the floor despite his supposed personal opposition. Apparently, he lacks either the courage to just say no, thus forcing the cracen Senate majority to remove him before voting their cover-up.

On this Fourth of July weekend this knowledge makes me heart sick. But I’m past the point of being sad. And I don’t want to get mad, or even. I want to get active.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. The Tenth Amendment reserves ultimate power to the people. Let’s form some hybrid of grand jury and/or citizen posse to re-establish the rule of law in this regard — to defend our rights and the Constitution in this case in which our elected representatives have let us down.

Here is what I will do: I will send this note to the leading groups already involved in this fight, notably the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and suggest that interested parties form a new ad-hoc web site as a center of direct action. The mandate of this direct action website should be simple while clearly spelling out both the goal and the range of permissible tactics.

I think the goal should be to force the Congress to investigate the illegal wiretaps and report to the people.

The methodologies should as imaginative as the American people themselves. I will hint at a few below after suggesting one ironclad requirement — each and every action should be legal and non-violent. And by non-violent I mean that not just a prohibition against physical or verbal assault. Not so much as a strand of wire should be touched. We are right and they are wrong. Dirty tricks subtract from our moral authority.

The image of Gulliver being tied down by the Lilliputians (see above or click here) suggests the theory behind this approach but as for tactics, here are some starter thoughts. What if we knew there were legal declarations that telecos are required to keep in district offices. Or what if we learned of state regulatory hearings, of the sort that common folk regularly avoid, but we might be able to persuade a couple of activists to take the day off from work to attend and speak. Would it be legal to organize a 411-day in which thousands of Americans dialed directory assistance, and ask for a supervisor? The Constitution allows Americans to petition the government for a redress of grievances. But perhaps, to paraphrase the Doors’ in the Soft Parade: YOU CANNOT PETITION AT&T WITH PRAYER!

I’m not sure, the whole point being to put our head together in a way that has never before been possible in human history to coordinate a series of action directed at the lawbreakers themselves. And to continue these small but persist actions so as to cost them little bits of money that will — if we are united and determined — add up to big bits of money. And that should eventually get the attention of their shareholders who may step in an perform the investigations and take the corrective of Congress seems incapable.

As for why make this suggestion on this issue, I suspect anyone who has read this far already knows. Because this is how the Nazis started. A lot of people get their knickers in a twist when the other N-word is used, so lets not get hung up on labels. Maybe this is just a period of compassionate fascism.

But whatever it is I don’t like it. And this is where I’d to draw the line between mere discontent and direct action. Alone, I am nothing. But if we band together, quickly, I am certain we can succeed. I’ll circulate this and report back if there is interest. Meanwhile, if you like this idea, do what you can to circulate it and begin the process of forming this ad-hoc group.

(On an ironic note, I found the above graphic at the bottom of a White House web page headlined, “Governing with Accountability.” From this I infer that these guys have a sense of humor, because otherwise their self-identification with Gulliver would suggest they see themselves as beleaguered — which would be so clearly irrational as to suggest they have a bunker mentality. And I do not wish to further inflame the situation.)

‘Until somebody pays, nobody eats’

With that pithy quote (see headline) former suburban newspaper publisher Tom Noonan encapsulates his message that serious media blogs need a business plan. And his article, “Cracking the local market” offers sensible tips on how to design an editorial product and sell it to advertisers. Noonan writes:

People advertise for but one reason, to sell something. Whether it’s hard goods or nifty concepts, they want to attract buyers . . . And don’t sell just ads, sell promotions and sponsorships. Craig Dennis, publisher of the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, recently won a prize from Suburban Newspapers of America for his News Kids feature—a weekly TV style video sponsored by a car dealer. The page features children at local schools reporting on area events. It’s a big traffic builder and the sponsor pays a tidy $500 a week.

Noonan wrote a guest blog for SensibleTalk.com, a new site by Robert Niles, former editor of the now-defunct Online Journalism Review. Niles notes that Noonan is his father-in-law. Niles also recruited Tom Grubisich to survey and rate hyperlocal websites

This is indeed some SensibleTalk. Good luck to Niles in finding someone to pay for it — ’cause you know what don’t happen till then!

Newspapers, blogs converge and conflict

To a considerable extent blogs have fed off mainstream media, repeating and commenting, supplementing and contradicting, but more often than not using some news article as their starting point. Now two developments, noticed by contributors to this blog, show how professional and citizen media groups are trying to coexist.

Der Cuz noticed recently that bloggers who want to develop their own stories and do their own reporting are turning to workshops organized by the Society for Professional Journalists. An Associated Press article carried by Wired News says:

About a dozen would-be reporters navigated the basics of journalism at a recent training offered by the Society of Professional Journalists in Chicago. The group plans similar seminars this month in Greensboro, N.C., and Los Angeles.

One lesson taught at such workshops has been how to avoid defamation — saying untruthful things that would injure an ordinary person’s reputation (public figures have to take more abuse under the law). The article quotes Robert Cox president of the Media Bloggers Association who says:

more than 100 judgments valued at $17 million have been handed down against bloggers over the last three years – about 60 percent for defamation, 25 percent for copyright infringement and 10 percent involving privacy.

In a related item, Charlotte (FedsHallofShame) Yee noticed a New York Times story about the Associated Press meeting with the Media Bloggers Association to discuss the concept of fair use. I hope I get this right because as a card-carrying journalist I should know that there is a legal threshold for how many words one can cite of a copyrighted work, without specific permission. I think the word count is in the 75 to 125 word range. Excerpts must be clearly identified (as by the indentations used above). It is legal to carry such an identified excerpt and link to the full article. But many bloggers extract and repost the entire text. That is neither fair use nor necessary, in my opinion, to make one’s point.

I notice that the Media Bloggers Association says it “will be opening up registration for membership starting in Summer 2008″ and offering a “media liability insurance product for bloggers as well as a new membership policy that requires all members to complete a 45 minute online training course.”

I am guessing here that Media Bloggers wants to credential and professionalize citizen media. I’ll look into that effort more as time permits. For now, bloggers worried about legal exposure to defamation suits should look into an umbrella insurance policy, as offered by standard insurers. These provide coverage against libel, which is a defamation that is published or broadcast. But I have no idea of the exclusions and will be eager to see if Media Bloggers can get a better deal.

Conference in Minneapolis seeks media reform

The National Conference on Media Reform is being held this weekend in Minneapolis and while the gathering is largely being ignored by the corporate media that are the intended targets of reformers, the organizers offer plenty of ways to listen in to the speeches. The local alternative paper, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, covered the kickoff of the event. I had hoped to attend this conference myself but it would have been a costly exercise. My sympathies and energies go with the reformers, who correctly argue that mainstream media coverage is so insipid as to be misinformation. Just the other day a U.S. Senate committee criticized the White House for making misstatements about WMDs that led the nation into war. Months earlier a press watchdog group tabulated 935 falsehoods uttered by senior administration officials — all dutifully repeated by corporate news media.

The present news system is broken and the worst of it is the denial. Jay Rosen calls journalism a religion. Professional journalists cling to their sanctimonious self-image as public watchdogs and ignore evidence that the current system has failed time and again, and not just on issues of war. The news media touted the housing sector right up until it the current mortgage crisis. It pumped up the stock market during the dotcom excess. The public has so little trust in U.S. media that one recent poll found President Bush more credible.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune used the media reform event as a peg to editorialize in favor of the Free Flow of Information Act. This is supposed to be a federal shield law which is fascinating given that the word “shield” appears no where in the bill, which cleared the House last year and now awaits Senate action. The Star Tribune editorial notes that the Free Flow Act would “provide reporters with only modest protection” and goes on to say that:

This weekend’s conference will highlight the diversity of today’s journalism landscape, with bloggers and citizen journalists taking on increasingly important roles. Determining who’s actually practicing journalism — and who should receive protection — is one of the ongoing and important debates about the final shape of the law.

What is the paper’s position? Should bloggers have shield protection? Apparently there is not enough moral courage on the Star Tribune masthead to take a stand. The House version of this Free Flow Act limits its “modest protections” to paid journalists and excludes citizen journalists. How unconstitutional, not to mention stupid, would it be create a legal distinction between the press and the public at just that point in history when technology is erasing that distinctions. Now more than ever the First Amendment must cover all Americans or it covers none.

It sounds like the Star Tribune is ready to throw bloggers under the bus. I’d wager its editors never bothered to read the act which codifies dozens of reasons to jail journalists, however journalism may be defined. The bill contains one clause written for Steve Jobs. The Apple Ceo once tried to stop bloggers from reporting details of forthcoming products by demanding they reveal their sources. But the bloggers sought and received protection under the California state shield law (see case summary). The Free Flow Act would create a new federal cause of action that would allow any corporation to force a journalist to reveal the name of any source who discloses a trade secret. What a gift to Corporate America. Stamp “trade secret” on anything and it muzzles the media and trumps state shield laws.

Some months ago I reviewed a book by former Labor secretary Robert Reich titled “Supercapitalism.” Reich argumes that corporate interests now have so much political clout that the legislative process has become a competition for advantage between lobbies. Lawmakers are so overwhelmed by demands from these fictitious legal entities that they can’t hear the flesh and blood citizens they represent.

Like Congress, U.S. media have become corporate mouthpieces. The corporate agenda has become the media agenda. Each day BusinessWire and PRNewswire aggregate corporate press releases and funnel them to the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Press, Bloomberg and other the mainstream news outlets. Thousands of editors see these corporate press releases each day. Like Congress, the media is mesmerized by these corporate messages. Supercapitalism has created Supermedia.

So while we may hope for reform we should not expect it and plan instead to build the media we want.