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May 29 2010

00:23

4 Minute Roundup: Facebook Privacy Update; Bay Citizen Launch

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition I look at how Facebook tried to simplify its privacy settings in the face of widespread criticism and defections. Now the 50 settings have been streamlined down to 15, but still some critics decry the opt-out nature of sharing vs. opt-in. Plus, the new Bay Citizen non-profit news site in the San Francisco area launched, with high-profile partnerships with the New York Times and UC Berkeley. I talked with editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber, who described their approach to online video and more.

[Full disclosure: Weber was my editor at the Los Angeles Times and at the Industry Standard.]

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio52810.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Jonathan Weber:

weber final full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Making Control Simple at the Facebook blog

No One Really Cares About Facebook's Privacy Flap -- Except Congress at AdAge

Privacy groups assail Facebook changes at CNET

A Guide to Facebook's New Privacy Settings at NY Times

Here's a CNET video explaining Facebook's privacy changes:

The Bay Citizen - 'Hardly Strictly News' at SFGate

The Bay Citizen makes a strong debut at the SF Bay Guardian

The Pitfalls of 'Cooperative' News at Chicago Reader

Bay Citizen nonprofit news producer launches, nabs $3.7M at SF Business Times

Is A Link More Valuable Than $25? The Bay Citizen's 'Deal' For Local Bloggers at SFAppeal

The Bay Citizen

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think non-profit news sites:




What do you think about non-profit local news sites?online surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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April 20 2010

16:05

WikiLeaks, Bay Citizen, and Lessons from the Logan Symposium

Over the past two days, I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium. If you want a blow-by-blow account, check out the live blogs from Day 1 and Day 2.

Now that I've had a chance to catch my breath, I want to reflect on what I heard (and what I didn't hear).

For the most part, the gathering was flat out inspiring. The folks here are doing the hardcore, courageous investigative journalism that takes on powerful interests, asks vital questions, and in many cases puts their finances, their safety, and their health on the line.

This is also the stuff that's most at risk as business models collapse, as newsrooms cut staff, and audiences fragment. At times, as I listened to many of the elder statesmen of journalism recount war stories, I felt like I was being taken in a time machine back to a recent age that has long since ended. If you saw the movie "State of Play," which was in fact the theme of the symposium this year, then you might have some sense of what I mean.

And yet, here were many of these same folks gamely trying to chart a new course. There wasn't much hand-wringing about the problems (as in past Logan Symposiums). But there also wasn't much consensus on how to move things forward.

Non-Profits Sustainable?

On a Saturday panel about collaboration, everyone agreed that there should be more. And thanks to organizations like ProPublica, there is. Throughout the weekend, there was a heavy representation of non-profit news organizations that didn't exist even a year or two earlier. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of these models, I take it as a positive sign that people are moving past the talking phase and into the doing phase.

Jonathan Weber, the new editor of the Bay Citizen, the non-profit news organization being developed in San Francisco, said the reason people like him (who had previously been critical of the non-profit model) were coming around to this model was simple: There is no private capital available from investors to fund organizations that will primarily pay journalists. There's money for things like aggregation, but not journalism.

But as well as ProPublica has done so far, it's still never going to plug all the holes at the national level, and it doesn't pretend it will. What concerns me more is the lack of resources at the local level. In theory, organizations like Bay Citizen will start to plug some holes there, but what I heard from that corner left me more concerned about the direction of the nascent organization.

We heard from two representatives from Bay Citizen: Weber on Sunday, and CEO Lisa Frazier on Saturday. For all the time they had on stage, I still couldn't tell you exactly what it is, or what it aims to be. And for the most part, Weber and Frazier either couldn't, or wouldn't, say. For an organization that at some point is going to be asking for public support and donations, I expected more transparency in order to build confidence and trust.

Frazier, facing some tough questions from Slate's Jack Shafer, couldn't say anything about what the organization's strategy was for grassroots fundraising, or why Weber had changed his mind about non-profits. ("You can ask him tomorrow. He'll be here tomorrow morning," she said to Shafer.) And when Shafer asked why he should donate money to the Bay Citizen, she rattled off some statistics about the number of journalism jobs lost and reduction in content. But there was no sense of what the organization's core mission was. She still sounded more like a McKinsey consultant rather than a visionary leader of a revolutionary news organization.

Weber shed a bit more light on things Sunday -- but only just a little. They won't be using students from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley as slave labor. There will be some paid internships. They will develop some investigative projects and innovative journalism projects through classes at the school. And of course, the Bay Citizen will produce two days of local content for the New York Times.

But what stories will they cover with their 15 employees? How will they be presented beyond the New York Times? Weber said we'll just have to wait and see once they get started. I found that attitude a bit baffling. If he were building a for-profit enterprise, sure, keep your secrets. But as a non-profit that will be seeking collaborations and donations, it would seem wise to be sharing the process and communicating a vision and purpose as soon as possible. Or perhaps the vision hasn't been clarified yet.

WikiLeaks Founder: A Journalism Anarchist

If there was one big surprise for me, it came on Day 2 with the appearance of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Assange took us behind the operations of WikiLeaks. He was tough and passionate. I didn't necessarily agree with everything he said. And there will no doubt be times in the coming months and years, as WikiLeaks pushes the boundaries, that they will do things that will cause wide-ranging discussions about ethics in this new age.

But meeting Assange left me assured that WikiLeaks is being led by someone who is thoughtful, visionary, and yes, a journalist. "Leaking information is an act of anarchy," Assange said.

The good news is that Assange is taking a measured and responsible approach, rather than coming off as a zealot. For instance, he acknowledged that at first he hoped that by putting everything they got online, the crowd would help filter things, discover what was legit or not. "It's bullshit," he said. Now, WikiLeaks employees and volunteers vet information and sources before posting information.

WikiLeaks has structured its organization and its technology to be located in many jurisdictions so it can dodge the worst legal threats. Essentially, WikiLeaks is trying to use the tricks multi-national corporations use to avoid taxes and regulation to protect themselves.

"We built the organization from the ground up to be un-sue-able," he said.

It was a good way to end the weekend, hearing from a thoughtful journalism anarchist. It left us with a taste of the way new technology could in fact be a catalyst for new and powerful forms of investigative journalism.

Chris O'Brien is a business and technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News where he has covered Silicon Valley for 10 years. He was also a recipient of a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant in 2007 to research and design the newsroom of the future.

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April 01 2010

09:08

Lance Knobel: ‘Sour taste’ over Bay Citizen funding

A name and URL has been announced for the San Francisco based Bay Area News Project: the Bay Citizen to be launched at the end of May, with initial funding of $5 million from the Hellman Family Foundation.

But news entrepreneur and journalist Lance Knobel says its call for individual donor funding leaves a “sour taste” in his mouth.

If The Bay Citizen were really a grassroots effort it would make a lot of sense. But it’s not. I find it bordering on deceptive that The Bay Citizen is seeking individual donations without noting clearly that the Hellman Family Foundation gave $5 million in “seed” funding (that information can be found on the site’s FAQ). Warren Hellman, one of the richer people in the Bay Area, is chairman of the board.

(…)

I still want The Bay Citizen to be wonderful and to succeed. But there’s a very sour taste in my mouth. I still think our modest, bootstrap approach, building readers and community organically and then finding our way to sustainability once we have something to show is the right way to do things.

Bay Citizen’s membership director replies to his criticism in the comments.

Full post at this link…

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January 22 2010

17:01

A new convert to nonprofit journalism out west?

The start-up Bay Area News Project announced its new leadership team yesterday, as reported by the New York Times and paidContent, and it’s unfortunate that the most eye-catching bit of the news was CEO Lisa Frazier’s $400,000 salary. Yes, that’s a lot of money, and, like the news about Paul Steiger getting $570,000 to run ProPublica, it invites questions about what are appropriate salaries for a nonprofit.

But let’s set those aside for now, and let’s appreciate the news about the hiring of NewWest.net founder Jonathan Weber as editor-in-chief of BANP.

A year ago, Weber authored a thoughtful and well-argued, if withering, critique of the nonprofit model as a solution to the financial problems plaguing newspapers and journalism more generally.

Weber’s essay, entitled “The Trouble with Nonprofit Journalism,” dismisses the nonprofit model as an ill-suited to define what is newsworthy and unlikely to be sustainable. Here’s a passage:

[W]hen I started NewWest.Net in 2005 I considered going the non-profit route, but decided against it for what I still think are good reasons. I had to raise investment capital, which was arduous and way, way more time-consuming than I anticipated, but with luck I won’t have to do it again. Even more importantly, we are held to the brutal discipline of the market, which is very unpleasant a lot of the time but I think is ultimately a healthy thing. For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy. In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse. Managers at good companies can think for the long term and the greater good — and in fact there is clearly a market for thoughtful journalism — but as the VCs like to say, eventually the dogs have to eat the dog food. It keeps you honest. In a non-profit, either the board or the employees decide what is worthy — and why them?

Think Weber included the essay when he sent his resume to BANP founder Warren Hellman? Me, neither.

But this is not the place or time for told-you-so’s or questions about how much Weber’s being paid to run BANP. Rather, I take Weber’s conversion as validation of the nonprofit model as a place “to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive,” as University of North Carolina professor Philip Meyer said in 2004.

In his own way, Weber said as much in the paidContent article when asked how a nonprofit differs from his work at NewWest:

In terms of profit versus non-profit, I’ve certainly been an advocate of the for-profit model. I do think there are for-profit models that work, but at the same time, the reality these days is that investment capital is not going into for-profit companies where the primary use of proceeds of that capital is to pay journalists. For whatever reasons, investors have not seen that as a big opportunity to date. There may be a few exceptions in narrow niches but certainly for general news there’s been very little investment of that type.

But I think there’s more to it than where the capital is flowing.

Since Weber wrote his essay just a year ago, the nonprofit model in journalism has undergone a full generation of transformation and growth. It used to be that nonprofits were oddities and one-offs, however successful financially or journalistically. ProPublica was really the only grand experiment anybody could name. But now, there are any number of start-ups that are using nonprofit status and the IRS 501(c)3 tax designation as a tool to create new business models that can sustain socially responsible journalism. In addition to BANP, we now have examples in Texas Tribune and the Chicago News Cooperative. And some of the early, community-based experiments such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego seem to have held their own through the downturn in the economy while finding new ways to attract readers and donors.

It is said that converts become evangelists. I’m looking forward to seeing what Weber will do at BANP — and what role he will play within the nonprofit sector. As a co-founder of the now-defunct magazine The Industry Standard, Weber has a distinguished track record as an innovator, and I think he’ll find his new environs will be a hospitable place for his creativity.

Welcome aboard, Jonathan.

November 20 2009

14:00

The FTC should give nonprofit news a closer look

You know the old saying about how we’re from the government and we’re here to help you? That’s what came to mind as I read the Federal Trade Commission’s notice for its workshop on journalism in the digital age.

The notice makes the case that “news organizations,” which it notably does not attempt to define, are suffering at the hands of aggregators and other online actors that have drained the fun and profit from news gathering. Among the solutions the FTC wants to examine are some that would seem to support nonprofits — tax treatment and greater public funding, for example.

Memo to the FTC: No thanks.

It’s not that the FTC’s proposed solution are so bad, though I don’t much like the idea of government funding non-broadcast news operations. It’s that they provide fresh fodder for misinformed critics who have come to the conclusion that nonprofits pose a threat to for-profit news sites and journalism generally.

Mention “nonprofit” to some of these folks, and you’re likely get an allergic reaction. No sooner had San Francisco investor Warren Hellman ponied up $5 million for the Bay Area News Project than somebody complained errantly that the new venture would rely on unpaid college students, forcing other media to cut staff to remain competitive. News flash: Old media aren’t competitive in the online age, and that isn’t the fault of Warren Hellman or any nonprofit. Others fretted that donated money like Hellman’s comes with agendas and strings attached. And advertising dollars don’t?

But I digress. Nonprofits offer a viable solution to the decline of socially responsible journalism. By design, they put mission ahead of profit. And as a result, they will live or die based on their commitment to transparency. When the government gets involved, it introduces the appearance of special favors and the potential for political interference. That’s the death of transparency.

To be clear, I don’t object to the notion of government oversight. A little can go a long way — witness the FTC’s late-1990s antitrust investigation of Intel Corp. At the time, Intel dominated the computer chip market and, along with Microsoft Corp., seemed capable of devouring anything in its path, much as Google appears today. But just before trial began in 1999, Intel signed a settlement with the FTC in which it admitted no guilt and essentially agreed to be nicer to the smaller kids in the technology sandbox.

Based on this experience, we can assume that what the FTC workshop really hopes to accomplish is to once again nudge the bullies into being nicer. I would submit that there are better ways to accomplish this goal. One might be to bring in witnesses who can explain how the nonprofit model works and how it complements the work of for-profits in journalism and other sectors.

My nomination would go to Duke’s Jay Hamilton, author of All the News That’s Fit to Sell, which is cited in the FTC notice. In the book, Hamilton makes the case that journalism is becoming a public good. He writes:

The point here is that since individuals do not calculate the full benefit to society of their learning about politics, they will express less than optimal levels of interest in public affairs coverage and generate less than desirable demands for news about government.

I do agree with the FTC that the stakes are high because unlike the great oil and steel trusts of old, the big powerhouses of the Internet are in the business of ideas. As Bill Kovacic, then a law professor at George Washington University and now an FTC commissioner, told me during the Intel case: “I think the impact is so important because its impact on information services affects everything we do.”

The FTC workshop will be held in Washington Dec. 1-2.

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