Category Archives: ecosystemics

Grassroots democracy requires attentive local media

Next week I will be among the 200 or so people who will meet in Silicon Valley for the New Tools 2008 conference meant to foster “innovation, democracy and a new ecology of news.”

My first assignment for that event is to introduce fellow participant Tom Stites, who interviewed me as well. This is a great gimmick to warm up any group — have participants to question and introduce each other. Stites and I spoke via cell phone. I sat in a coffee shop on San Francisco’s Market Street while he popped in and out of the coverage zone while his wife them to a family event back East.

Tom Stites is a gray hair with a passion for democracy and a fear that weak mass media coverage isn’t giving Americans the news they need to grab the levers of power. News media should establish the factual outlines of public debates so the participants can argue over what matters. But, he said, “News seems to have forgotten that. It’s all talk, talk, talk, talk.”

He recalled a 20 year old story that struck him as an exemplar of journalism that did the job. Wall Street Journal reporters Daniel Hertzberg and James B. Stewart unraveled the October 19, 1987 stock market crash in a story that won them 1988 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Only professional journalism can develop that sort of baseline information. Bloggers and citizen media just don’t have the time or clout. And it is only with accurate understandings that citizens can hope to control their increasingly complex world.

“I am a democracy nut,” Stites said. “And I am worried that there are vast anti-democratic forces gaining ground everywhere.”

So what will this conference do to counter that drift and what will Stites bring to the party? Well, there will be be plenty of “talk, talk talk.” Shame on my irreverent-self for injecting that self-deflating levity. More seriously the conference will bring together reformers who want to use the democratizing technologies of social networking, group voting, easy-to-make-media and the global publishing to rebuild the news ecosystem — and the democratic muscle which it empowers.

Toward these ends Stites will bring what he calls “an entrepreneuriall DNA that has been a curse and a blessing” because it has made him want to tinker with systems that his bosses thought worked just swell because the media made money.

Nowadays every part of media is broken from the pathetic performance of the press in regurgitating the lies about WMDs to the layoffs that make employed professionals like me watch their pennies and perhaps their mouths for fear of being swept up in the newsroom layoffs.

In the face of such gloom Stites will bring his problem-solving attitude and experience. “I’m an inventive guy,” he said. “I find new and better ways to do everything.” And he will also bring an optimism that sees past the current malaise toward a better and more informative media. “What I am hoping is that there will be a significant not-for-profit journalism enterprise,” said Stites, who has plans along those lines.

So there’s a snapshot of one would-be change agent. I’ll have more to say in advance of the conference. I’ve been recharging my batteries and rebuilding my finances after a pretty intense period of blog-writing in which I attacked Orthodox Journalism and proposed, in a four-part series (starting here), how to reform corporate media.

It will be energizing to connect with Stites and others of similar intent. What I’m learning about new media is that it’s not about who doesn’t listen. The mass is inert. Change is about those who do listen, who find each other and who can suppress their ego and self-interest so as to act together toward their common goals.

Manzi says let’s Gather to revive media

Sea of Faces by Livefunky and Jessica Torrant

Jim Manzi of Lotus fame has a new interest in the reinvention of media. Below are excerpts from an an essay, (The End of the Literary Industrial Complex) that he published at the Boston startup Gather.com. In the essay Manzi both laments and celebrates the fracturing of the mass audience:

We might retreat into information ghettos . . . societies also require a shared understanding of key precepts; shared values at some level; and a willingness to search for, debate and ultimately invest in a societal common ground . . . a common information experience in the last thirty years is the demise of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite where more than half the nation might gather for their daily dose . . . People have been looking for some time for new, personal centers of gravity to replace other centers that have been marginalized or destroyed . . . No longer must I accept much of my content from what I have called the Literary Industrial Complex, that group of concentrated media organizations with their small elites and self-reinforcing arbiters delivering my news and information ‘top-down.’ . . . Gather, with its member-contributors, has an opportunity to create a new kind of community.

Manzi goes on to talk about creating an Information Republic. I am not sure what that might mean but having been introduced to the thought (thanks to Rosemarie Moeller) I’ll look into this further.

I have my own ideas on how to re-aggregate the scattered contributors to online media forums and, being a conservative sort, I prefer to adapt rather than invent. I wrote a series of essays a while back that looked at content producers much like Prairie farmers. Content producers stand at a disadvantage to network providers, much as farmers were once held hostage by railroads. So the farmers formed producer cooperatives — assemblies of individual producers bound together in a legal way to increase their clout. I laid out that vision in a three-part series titled: Food for Thought. Please take a look if you have the time. I think my job at this point, is to reduce those three essays to a quick slide show.

Thanks to my sister, Rosemarie Moeller, for bringing this to my attention.

Thank the Lord for the people I have found

Tom Abate, also known as MiniMediaGuy; drawing by Dan Kelly

Let me pause today to thank the people who have helped me spell out the problems with professional news-gathering and suggest the blog- and people-centred approach that makes better ethical and business sense.

The professional journalist of the 21st Century will not be a gatekeeper but rather a connector — connecting people to ideas, to other people, and to products or services. The old journalist shouted, “Coups and Earthquakes,” to quote the title of Associated Press writer Mort Rosenblum’s famous if dated book. People sill want to see and hear about great events but the first reports are now more likely to be uploaded by someone on-scene with a camera phone and Web access. The professional journalist will provide context and connections to help the audience react to the news. The Web is an interactive medium. The audience is not passive. Professionals must get interactive or get left behind.

But I needed help to present that argument and a place to work, and both were provided in unexpected ways, starting with the friendship and technical assistance of Charlotte Yee, a former statistician and public information officer for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Charlotte has created the Feds Hall of Shame site for federal whistleblowers — those who disclose official mistreatment or misdeeds to find that the system regards them with hostility. Charlotte completly overhauled the look of my blog and was wise and funny as I worked through the mental gymnastics that helped me take my stand. I owe Charlotte a debt which I intend to pay by helping her to encourage whistleblowing.

Network provider Scot (Birdhouse) Hacker held my hand at critical moments when my primitive understanding of Web technologies made me fear that e-gremlins were conspiring against me. Scot updated my WordPress blog platform the day before I began publishing — which either changed or broke most of my familiar publishing tools. I visited Scot in a panic and left with a tutorial and a workaround to an as-yet unsolved glitch involving Internet Explorer. Thank you for your patience Scot, and blessings to Mary Hodder who aimed me at you some years ago.

Tim Bishop helped with key edits early in the series that helped me set the tone. My kin and lifelong communicant, Deep Cuz, aka The Cuzzola, fed me several very useful links — an astonishing act of mind-reading as I don’t know that I broadcast a message of intent. Yet The Cuzzola discerned my direction and fed me links. May the blessings of Kahoutek be upon him!

Artist and comic novel publisher Doug Millison created the series of illustrations that added a thought-provoking visual dimension (see Mario). Doug is a friend from my UC Berkeley days and his son, Watson, who turned 21 the other day, is the first child of one of my friends who I ever held in my arms. Doug and I will be working together on future visuals around the theme of media reform.

I began writing these posts at the Starbucks in Yucca Valley, California. It offered a wireless hotspot near Joshua Treet National Park where I attended a group campout with my 15-year-old son. The campout was sponsored by the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC). Flailing at the keyboard by day and singing around the campfire at night was how I stayed sane. Or what passes for sane in my context.

I met some great people at that Starbucks starting with Dan Kelly, the artist who created the caricature of me, above. Dan, a retired Lockheed engineer, is a regular at that coffee house and his artworks — of native animals with mythic themes — adorn the walls. He sketched this piece at my request.

I had fun introducing people to each other and it was in playing this yenta role that helped crystallize the notion of the journalist as connector — in this case on a personal level. For instance in separate conversations one day I met Evelyn Bornstein, a retired Los Angeleno, and Carole, a woman of working age who asked that I not use her last name. Both were relative newcomers to that rural locale and we had separate conversations lamenting their cultural deprivation. The next day they happened to come in at the same time and I introduced them. Not bad for a stranger.

Yucca Flats is just west of 29 Palms the site of a gigantic Marine Corps base and I met HM3 Keith Parmalee, a Navy corpsman, the day before he shipped out with a Marine unit for Iraq. May the God bless you and bring you home safe to your lovely wife! ( I will mail out that book I promised to send you later today.)

Susanne Kern, the German tourist traveling with friend, Thomas, thank you for allowing this stranger to accost you with tales of the truly beautiful northern stretch of California. I mentioned Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (about 320 miles north of San Francisco) a magical place where you can hike through cathedral redwoods to the Pacific Ocean. If you visit there you may find a special treat at Rolf’s Park Motel and Restaurant along Highway 101. If Rolf is still there he is a Bavarian chef who makes an awesome Wiener schnitzel.

Mike and Kathy Culwell of Corona allowed me to use their home office for two days at the end of our camping trip. I hope to see you guys at the next HSC campout. I know Aeneas is ready!

After a week in the desert and vicinity I flew to New York City where I got an incredible series of assists from my extended family in the New York metropolitan area. How great is it to have a sister and a brother-in-law who are never home except in the evenings to feed and entertain me while I worked all day, polishing the ideas that I had dreamed up in the desert. I’ll tell everyone I know about the Dolly Inn, where the fabric softener is included with the service.

During the two days I spent at my J-school reunion at Columbia I had a safehouse in Harlem just a stone’s throw from the Cotton Club. What blessings!

Thanks to all, including last but not least, my immediate family who are stuck me in my worst moments.

It’s the interactivity, stupid!

 tn_two-way.jpg

“The internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly says in “Better than Free“ an essay in which he paints the net as a “super-distribution system.” It churns out copies so “super abundant they become worthless.” Kelly advises creative people to invent new ways to make money because it is no longer possible to charge for content.

But Kelly is only half right. Sure the net is a copier. But he overlooks the more revolutionary trait that will work to our advantage as communicators – the net is interactive. It restores the feedback between audience and author that we used to enjoy back when stories were told around the camp fire.

That feedback loop went missing about six hundred years ago. Blame Gutenberg. He mass produced thought and packaged it in books. They diffused knowledge more efficiently than dispatching story tellers hither and yon.

But something was lost in the leap from oral to print. The oral story was interactive. If the audience seemed puzzled the story teller rephrased the tale. Print was practically set in stone. It never paused to look for comprehension. Print told only one version of the story and it always flowed one way. About a century ago broadcast untethered stories from literacy. Knowledge radiated even more widelybut it still flowed just one-way.

And that’s the way it was.

Looking at today’s internet you’d never guess interactivity had staged a comeback. Today’s internet has bolted-on some interactive features – viewers can comment on stories or vote in informal polls. These tactics seem reminicent of early television when announcers cupped one hand behind their ear for better acoustics – realizing how silly they looked.

What would an interactive publication look like? OhMyNews, the South Korea citizen journalism phenomenon, may be the best example. About 20 percent of its content is produced by professionals. The rest is citizen-generated. It was founded in 2000 and is thought to have swayed the 2006 South Korean presidential race. 

Yes, the Internet is a copying and distribution engine. It is destroying jobs and rewiring industries. But the more pregnant change has yet to be realized. For more than 600 years the author and the audience have been sundered. Now the audience is coming back into view. We can see them just beyond the circle of flames. How do we catch their eyes and entice them to stay? That the question will preoccupy the 21st Century publisher.

Personal blog precipitates firing of CNN producer

tn_chez.jpg Chez Pazienza

The New York Times reports that CNN fired senior producer Chez Pazienza after he was told that he had violated a company policy by failing to get permission to do outside writing. Pazienza maintains a personal blog, DeusExMalcontent, and has apparently also contributed to the Huffington Post. CNN told the Times: ““CNN has a policy that says employees must first get permission to write for a non-CNN outlet.”

Panzienza, 38, is married. He and his wife are expecting a child in August. He told the Times he was not going to seek his job back and had not decided whether to hire a lawyer or what to do about the dismissal.

In a Feb. 18 post titled “Requium for a news career” Panzienza tells about how, at age 19, he used a live radio show at the University of Miami to read aloud the minutes of a meeting where his then-supervisors were trying to deal with ”The Chez Situation.” He goes on to write:

“When I got into television, I did my best to bury my inner-revolutionary . . . Over the past several years though, something has changed. Drastically. And I’m not sure whether it’s me, or television news, or both . . .  the profession I once loved and felt honored to be a part of has lost its way.”

He goes on to describe how his whole attitude changed after he underwent an operation to remove a brain tumor and had time to start the blog and explore his own suppressed feelings. The Requium posting goes on to talk in detail about the firing conversation so do read it if you want those details but I was more interested in the ending, where Panzienza writes:

“All it takes is one person to stand up and say ‘fuck this.’ I truly hope so, because I’m finally doing just that. And I should’ve done it a long time ago.”

I hope he and his young family are ready to reinvent themselves. Meanwhile the Times included this parenthetical comment at the end of its article about his firing:

“(For those who wonder, The New York Times’s policy on ethics in journalism does have a section on blogs. While it states that blogs “present imaginative opportunities for personal expression and exciting new journalism,” it adds that blogs “also require cautions, magnified by the Web’s unlimited reach.” It elaborates that personal blog content should be “purely that: personal,” and that staff members should avoid blogging about topics they cover as journalists and avoid taking stands on divisive public issues, among other guidelines.)”

What then is to be done: build or berate?

tn_change.jpg Interactive media invite change

I was arguing with another blogger over the weekend over the best way to make a difference as a writer, and it finally occurred to me that that writing and journalism are too timid for the times, and out of step with the technolgy. Writing is about suggesting ideas. Good ideas are a useful but that judgment is in the mind of readers and they come to most stories with a set of preconceptions. They already have some predisposition toward the facts and when they read it is to see whether the writer has or has not conformed to those preconceptions. Everyone does this. At least so I believe based on 53 years of life experience including 16 years as a newspaper journalist. But I formed this bias, if you will about how people process information, back when I was a 20-year-old Navy journalist, reading a nightly newscast aboard a warship in the Pacific. I used to walk down the passageway from the closed circuit TV studio where I did my thing and hear from my crewmates playing cards on the mess decks. That was during the 1970s. During the 1980s I wrote columns for a now defunct weekly in Arcata, California. It was a small town of about 15,000 and I believe I earned $10 or $15 a week. But for me, as a small business owner, it was about the exposure. And I recall one day in particular when one of my townsfolk stopped to compliment me on something I had written and I made the error of asking them what — and they told me something 180 degrees to the opposite of what I had intended to convey. Whatever they had read had been the opposite of what I meant.

So now we have interactive media available and I think that changes everything. Suddenly the communicator has the ability to request or provoke an action. That is the fundamental difference. So far writers and broadcasters have focused on the ease of distribution. Yes it is easier to send digital copies. And yes this has completely upended the economics of publishing. That economic disruption has complicated the task of journalism. It used to be we could imagine that somewhere, somehow, the news industry would cover the important topics of the day out of the profits they enjoyed through advertising. And both print and broadcast news used to be extremely profitable. So there probably was sufficient wealth to insure a level of scrutiny from the press overall sufficient to play the watchdog role that journalists imagine to be theirs. Nowadays I think every aspect of that supposition is wrong. As the profit goes out of the newsgathering industry there is an inexorable pressure to create content that draws readers and advertising. Pay-per-click advertising demands “good” news because there is nothing that can be sold alongside a keyword like “genocide” (I explored this topic previously in a posting titled Hot Tubs vs. Hot Zones.)

But interactive media change the whole process of communication in a way that we are only beginning to understand because it is so new. We can invite activity. If you agree, vote this article higher. If you agree, write your elected or corporate official. If you agree, join the movement in some way appropriate to your circumstances. The communicator no longer need be merely the guardian angel (or devil) whispering in your ear. They become the organizer or inciter of activity. The writer becomes a rabble rouser. Otherwise they leave the most powerful capability of new media unused, and that is the ability to use the network to coordinate the actions of like minded people.

Why did I wake up this morning in this “storm the Bastille” frame of mind? It has to do with that argument I mentioned. The other party was interested in tracking down some supposedly misleading information about global warming. Why bother is my thought? I can no greater waste of time than trying to change the minds of people whose predispositions make them more likely to sneer than to smile at my ideas. If I wanted to do something about global warming, I would plant a tree. If I wanted to do something in a big way about global warming I would start a group of people who plant trees. I would share information about which trees have the best carbon-dioxide conversion rates. And what about city dwellers? Are there potted plants that could decorate an office or apartment and enlist more folks in the effort?

It all comes down to how change occurs. During most of the last 15 years I have covered Silicon Valley where change is an industrial process. The main take away is the power of small teams of dedicated and focused individuals. That’s what a startup company is — a few people with a laserlike focus on making something happen.

That same method would work just as well for the sort of change that gets lumped under the rubric of social progress. If you want to change some part of the human experience,  create a web page to lay out what you stand for and find the people who agree. Make it easy for them to join you. Or you join them. Do something. Actions speak louder than words. Interactive media finally connect the two. So why fight the losing battle to change minds when there are minds that already agree with you and are just waiting for something purposeful to do?

Postscript: the artwork is from DesignCanChange.org

Where o where is that niche o mine?

tn_newniche.jpg Do you have something cushier?

I collect items about niche media businesses for ideas or inspiration. Here are a few.

  • Columbia Journalism Review published two articles last fall aimed at daily newspaper reporters who wanted more depth than their jobs allowed. Elisabeth Sifton suggests that books rule and newspapers drool in an article titled, “The Second Draft of History.” And in the companion piece former Washington Post staffer Linda Perlsterin explains why she became “Unshackled.”
  • Heidi Benson of the San Francisco Chronicle (where I also work) wrote about the Frontline/World newsmagazine; hardly a niche, I suppose, but an example of how video journalists are trying to cover the stories that fall through the vast cracks of what airs on network news.
  • LA Times reporter Alana Semuels writes about e-mail services that keep La-La landers abreast of whatever is hippest and hottest in “E-mail newsletters seek to mine riches from niches.” I read the piece and saw a lot more niche than rich but see for yourself. (Click to read article)
  • Finally, Associated Press writer Josh Funk says the demise of cassette tapes has been predicted for 20 years and now only niche uses keep this medium alive. In an article about the last audio cassette tape maker in North America, Funk writes that: “Sales of music tapes plummeted from 442 million in 1990 to about 700,000 last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America . . . Officials at the last cassette maker in North America, Lenco-PMC Inc., saythe plastic cases — invented in 1964 to hold two miniature reels for magnetic tape — remain popular in at least three uses: Audio books for the blind, court recordings and religious messages.”