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September 05 2012

13:43

Why Fact-Checking Has Taken Root in This Year's Election

We are all fact-checkers now.

For years, Americans' political press has been stuck in a fact-free model of neutrality, often covering even the most obvious lies as "one side" of a dispute. From Swift Boats and global warming to Iraq's nonexistent WMDs, this coverage shrouds even rudimentary empirical claims in a fog of truthiness. But that may be changing.

As this year's presidential campaign enters the homestretch after Labor Day, a new, aggressive model of fact-checking appears to be taking root. It is fast, aggressive and sometimes even outraged about falsehoods on the campaign trail.

Take Paul Ryan's convention address last week. Ryan offered several misleading statements and a few obvious lies -- falsehoods that he had to know were false -- although there's nothing new about politicians lying. Just look at Ryan's fellow running mates: Sarah Palin lied about the Bridge to Nowhere in her convention address, for example, while during a nationally televised debate, Dick Cheney falsely said he had never met John Edwards, and Edwards falsely charged that the Bush administration lobbied to cut combat pay. They faced mild corrections and very little collateral damage for those high-profile statements.

This time, however, reporters did not let Ryan off the hook by noncommittally airing criticism ("opponents disagreed with his claims"), or reducing corrections to one of those stand-alone sidebars evaluating distortions ("three Pinocchios for the deficit commission history"). Instead, several authoritative accounts of Ryan's address decided that his falsehoods were a key part of the news Ryan made, as these headlines show:

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Mr. Ryan's Misleading Speech (Washington Post)
Deficit Vow Lacks Specifics (A.P.)

Paul Ryan Address: Convention Speech Built On Demonstrably Misleading Assertions (Huffington Post)

Opinionated commenters were even harsher, focusing more on factual failure than ideological differences. Taken together, the overwhelming verdict on Ryan's speech was that he should not be believed. (By one online measurement, on the day after the speech, the most widely cited convention articles led with the falsehoods.)

The Ryan-Romney campaign's misleading welfare ads have drawn similar media condemnation. Ditto for the false claims that Obama raised taxes on middle-class Americans and, more darkly, the recurring, false suggestion that he was born abroad.

This newfound vigor for reporting facts over false equivalency -- the very "truth vigilantism" that a New York Times public editor once presented as an optional challenge for today's press -- looks like a mainstay on the campaign trail.

Yet after years of complaints from media critics and ridicule from the media's unofficial ombudsmen on Comedy Central, why is this happening now? A few interlocking trends suggest the reasons are both structural -- campaigning in a digital era -- and parochial, given the strengths of the two nominees.

Fact-Checking Has Gone Viral

This is the first national race in which Twitter is fundamentally altering campaign coverage. The message-sharing platform has upended how most political reporters watch the campaign.

Newt Gingrich used to deride Washington conventional wisdom as the product of what 500 people said to each other over lunch -- nowadays, it's more like what those people retweet. The pack mentality remains, but the backchannel is more visible and more subject to pushback. For reporters, that means fact-checking is not only faster, but it draws from a wider array of sources.

Returning to Ryan's speech, for example, many of the most retweeted items from that night were not jokes or partisan attacks. They were simple messages about fact-checking. "Factory mentioned by Paul Ryan actually announced it's closing before Obama took office," declared a typical example from the Washington Post.

When that kind of information goes viral, it instantly stokes press and public attention on the politician's fibs, and crowdsources part of a reporter's homework. Separating exaggeration from dissembling takes time, but reporters can draw on credible Twitter sources for a head start. That makes it easier to instantly report the "news" of the candidate's statements and a factual counternarrative.

The Press Oligopoly is Ending

While bloggers have been nipping at reporters for several campaign cycles, they have now fully arrived as credentialed colleagues. Some of today's most successful campaign "bloggers," like Nate Silver, promoted to the New York Times from the open-source user diaries of Daily Kos, or Ezra Klein, who joined the Washington Post after an impressive stint blogging for the American Prospect, specialize in providing quantifiable facts at breakneck speed. The interpretative emphasis is on evidence over opinion: Charts rule and canards are usually debunked _ before_ the regurgitation that politicians take for granted. It's a different orientation than conventional campaign coverage, which often celebrates the horse race and prizes direct access to the principals, no matter what they are saying. And as empiricist blogging is integrated into the elite press, it provides credentialed competition that can both impact and supplant the conventional model.

"The fact-checking franchise has grown from a handful of specialists," Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor, told MediaShift via email, "to something that every full-service news operation should do." The contribution from sites and bloggers devoted to fact-checking, he said, "probably accounts for some of the intensity" of online fact-checking this cycle.

But still, you can't fact-check much unless the facts are routinely in danger.

Romney, Obama and the Truth War

Finally, beyond any structural shifts, this year's campaign also features two nominees with message strategies that have now been specifically honed to address today's fact-checkers.

Romney is icing them out while Obama is cultivating them.

Faced with nearly unanimous rebukes for its welfare attack, the Romney campaign doubled down, making several more ads with the same claim. Then, its pollster flatly told the press that the campaign would not have its strategy "dictated by fact checkers." That gambit -- call it honesty about dishonesty or "cynical postmodernism" -- may have taunted some reporters into even more assertive truth-squading. According to one source familiar with the White House's thinking, Team Romney's strategic mistake was not the lying, but offending the press.

For its part, the Obama campaign is now invested in veracity as a core attack. The president has plenty of impact over what issues are newsworthy, and his campaign is arguing that spin, lies and exaggerations show that the Romney-Ryan ticket can't be trusted. As Buzzfeed's Ben Smith recently argued, this "pants on fire politics" aims to bend the premium on accuracy into a political advantage. Smith said reporters should be wary of attempts to referee larger policy disagreements as if they were mere factual disputes. That's not going to be easy.

Ari Melber is an attorney, correspondent for The Nation magazine, and contributing columnist to Politico. During the 2008 presidential election, Melber traveled with the Obama Campaign on special assignment for The Washington Independent. In 2010, he authored a 74-page special report for techPresident analyzing the first year of Organizing for America, the 13-million person network that grew out of the 2008 presidential campaign, which Northwestern political scientist Daniel Galvin called "the most comprehensive and insightful account of Obama's 'Organizing for America' to date." Melber has contributed chapters to the books "America Now," (St. Martins, 2009) and "At Issue: Affirmative Action," (Cengage, 2009), and has been a featured speaker at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Columbia and NYU, among other institutions. Melber has also served as a Legislative Aide in the U.S. Senate and as a national staff member of the 2004 John Kerry Presidential Campaign. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a J.D. from Cornell Law School, where he was an editor of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Contact via www.arimelber.com).

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April 26 2012

13:12

How 'Screenularity' Will Destroy Television as We Know It

Yesterday I announced the next project I'm going to work on which will focus on mobile news consumption. As a result, I've been thinking a lot about screens.

In the future, consumers will not make a distinction between their television, phone or computer screens. The only difference will be the size of each screen, its placement and, therefore, what you most likely do with it. 

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But one will not call the handheld-sized screen their "mobile phone." That you might use it to make phone calls will be happenstance. You will just as easily make a call on the 15-inch screen at your desk or the 40-inch screen in the living room.

Let's call this future moment the "Screenularity." It is the moment in the future when, as a consumer, there's no distinction in functionality between the various screens we interact with. Much like Matt Thompson's "Speakularity," this will be a watershed moment for how we consume information and, therefore, journalism.

THE DEATH KNELL OF TELEVISION

For the entire television industry as we know it, this will be a back-breaking moment. It's not a question of "if" but "when." We see early signs of it in Netflix and Hulu, but the cracks in the dam haven't even started to show. For national broadcast journalism organizations like CNN, Fox and MSNBC, it will create a lot of disruption. For local broadcast journalism, it will leave them utterly decimated. 

Local broadcast journalism simply has no added value when compared with the wealth of information on the Internet. They rely on personality-less hosts that talk at you (not with you). Combine this with high overhead to do local reporting about topics many people simply don't care about, and you can start to see how this looks bleak for local broadcast affiliates. Breaking news is broken. Local broadcast websites are offensively bad and nowhere near competing on the open web. Their continued existence relies on the fact that the majority of people still get their news from television. But once the Screenularity hits, that will no longer be the case. There won't be a "television" just various screens. People will get their "lean back" information from the same screen they can engage with. Dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria!

THEY'RE NOT HAVING THIS CONVERSATION

Whether you love or hate the "future of news" crowd, we should admit that it's painfully devoid of broadcast journalism. I am not 100 percent sure why. I've heard Jay Rosen give a decent explanation, and it can be summarized as: "They just don't care, it's not in their interest."

I'm not saying there aren't any folks within broadcast who are forward-thinking. But considering the disproportionate size of their organizations/budgets/audience to more traditional print mediums, they are painfully absent from conversations about the future of the industry. From what I can observe, the television journalism world has no interest in the future-of-news conversation, and their websites speak louder about this than any defense they could possibly make. This is dangerous, because the majority of people still get their news from local broadcast networks. There is no plan b. There is no fallout shelter.

A DANGEROUS IDEA

For this month's Carnival of Journalism the question is: "What's a dangerous idea to save journalism." Mine is the Screenularity. Local broadcast outfits need to operate as if it's here. I recognize this is dangerous, because it assumes that an industry will disrupt itself. That inherently means there will be danger involved. People will lose their jobs. Organizations will falter and crumble. But others will come out the other end and reinvent an industry on their own terms.

Media companies must become technology companies so they can create the platforms that define the type of media they produce. If they're the ones who create the platforms, they will continue to create media on their own terms.

If local news broadcasters don't embrace the Screenularity and create the platforms themselves, they'd better hope that somebody else does it for them. And "hope" is a horrible strategy. That's what leads to complaints about "Google" or "Craigslist" killing journalism. All they did was create platforms that define the type of media produced. If you aren't creating those platforms then you have no excuse to complain about the terms those organizations create.

February 28 2012

17:00

What Will Bring More Attention to the Civic Value of Journalism?

For this month's Carnival of Journalism I am going to invoke the rule of "no apologies" and change the question a bit. Host Steve Outing asks: "What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?"

I don't think it will be a technology, but an experience. And what will "save" journalism might not be the experience of consuming journalism.

This is an ongoing thought that comes from the second (or third) time I met Michael Maness when he was at Gannett and he talked about human-centered design and the way people relate to their communities. In short -- people relate more to the local businesses they frequent than they do the civic institutions nearby.

If you asked me where I lived in Oakland, I would tell you, "I live across the street from Bakesale Betty's." If you lived anywhere in Oakland then you knew exactly where I lived based on this reference. Everybody knows Bakesale Betty's.

The irony, however, is that I also lived across the street from the Temescal Library. Not just any library, but a Carnegie library. This is a building designed to be communal and civic. I tested this: If I told you I lived by the Temescal library, I'd get stares and a request for further information. "You know, right by Bakesale Betty's" --_ AHHH, I know where you live_, they'd respond.

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This is not a good or bad thing. It's just the thing. But this has consequences. I suspect if Bakesale Betty and the library had competing fundraisers, Betty would outperform the library tenfold.*

A few years later, I've moved to Berkeley.

I now live by a Thai Temple. One would think this would suffer the same fate of the library. It is a communal building, a civic building. Its appeal is seemingly narrow.

But every Sunday the Thai Temple serves brunch. Not just a lame brunch. We are talking a four-star Yelp brunch (474 reviews!). The first sentence of the first review nails it: "There are no words to describe the sense of community you feel when you go to the Thai Buddhist temple for brunch." Come for the brunch -- be nourished by the sense of community. Civic mission accomplished!

When I tell people I live by the Thai Temple they know exactly where I live (although I often have to say "Thai Brunch" for them to really know what I'm talking about).

What is saving the Thai Temple isn't the "Temple" but the experience the community has with it that centers around purchasing food. If that Thai Temple were in peril, people would rally behind it, Buddhist or otherwise.

Local news organizations need to find their Thai Brunch -- so do libraries. In fact, libraries have their "brunch." What I neglected to mention is that the Temescal library (and the new library I live by in Berkeley) both have extensions that are "tool lending libraries." In my experiments telling people I lived by the library, if I focused on the "tool lending" library, people were more likely to know where I lived. It might not be serving their direct "library" mission -- but by creating a tool lending center, both libraries are more central in the community.

So back to Steve's question: "What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?"

Journalism has a value just as libraries do. But that inherent value doesn't have mass appeal. The question is: Can we find something, a game, an experience, a product whose value proposition draws people in and, as a result, brings more attention to the civic value of journalism? Meanwhile -- can that game/experience/product create money both to sustain itself and perhaps flow into the journalism?

We are still in the early stages of the Spot.Us/Public Insight Network merger, but increasingly this is on my mind. It's great that people will contribute to specific reporting endeavors. But those who are doing this are perhaps narrow. They are the same people who might give to NPR or any other nonprofit news organization. We want to create an experience that draws people in for something different.

It's an experience that will have a significant impact on journalism. That experience will be enabled by technology, true, but that's not what people will remember or why they'll get hooked. I don't know if it'll come in the next two years, and I don't know 100% what it will look like. But I do think that's how we'll define it.

*This is not to pick on Betty who everyone knows is awesome, lets people sell the Street Sheet and/or panhandle right in front of her store. She also gives away free ice lemonade sometimes. So don't think I'm trying to pick on you, Betty -- and please continue to hook it up!

A version of this post first appeared here.

February 03 2012

14:00

Video Volunteers Makes an Impact in India with Incentives for Media Makers

As part of a 4-part series, Video Volunteers is sharing what we've done over the last year, our experiences, and what we've learned. Part 1, which you can read here, was a basic introduction to IndiaUnheard, our flagship rural feature service.

Part 2 outlines new ideas we implemented into our training programs in 2011. For instance, we set incentives for our community correspondents in India. This triggered a series of valuable positive changes for the communities concerned.

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Incentives work

In October, we held an advanced training session for our strongest community correspondents which focused on activism and getting "impact." (To us, "impact" means that the community correspondent is able to resolve the problem the video addresses.) We told them we had decided to incentivize impact.

They would be paid 5,000 rupees (approximately $100) -- more than twice the regular stipend -- for an "impact video," which means they would make a video; show it locally to get the issue solved; and make another documenting that process and proving the impact actually took place -- and for that second video, they would get the 5,000 rupees.

Some amazing impacts happened this year: In Orissa, illegal timber smugglers were stopped by local villagers. In Mumbai, a factory was forced to clean its pollution. In Assam, politicians released desperately needed water to villagers. Rather than be turned away, Dalit children got help in village child centers. Expectant mothers received folic acid which had previously been withheld. And, in one area, some 600 women for the first time were paid minimum wage.

These are just some of our stories. You can watch our impact videos here.

Recruitment is challenging

Our goal is to have 645 community correspondents, or one in every district of India. We had to think hard about how we could quickly scale up if we needed to.

Our first two rounds of recruitment for IndiaUnheard was through our existing network. We sent emails asking people to nominate someone from the villages they work in and then to help them fill out the online application. We got a few hundred applications that way and thought we could keep doing it like that. But when we tried for the third round, the number of eligible applications was low (though the overall applications were higher than previous years). Maybe we had tapped out our existing network.

So how could we quickly scale up? Possibly through big non-profit institutions (like microfinance). We are reaching out to them now.

Choose the right geographies

For our first two rounds, our goal was to get one or two people in every state. Now that we've almost done that, we're going to focus on key regions we feel are "unheard."

Last month, we took about 20 new community correspondents from Jharkhand. We chose Jharkhand because it is part of the so-called Red Corridor where there is a Maoist insurgency taking place. In the future, we'll look at the North East where other separatist movements are taking place, and Kashmir. (Those two areas were out of our budget this year.)

My colleagues Kamini Menon and Stalin K. spent two weeks traveling around this area meeting the activists and doing the recruitment; this live recruitment is making recruitment easier and will also make retention higher because the 13 new correspondents, each representing one district in the same state, can support each other.

Partnerships are challenging

Two years ago, when our Community Video Units were our primary focus, we felt that we could scale this network through investments from NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We've realized that co-ownership is very difficult and can at times be a hindrance to innovation.

We now feel that we can scale better through partnerships with the mainstream media, rather than NGOs, and so for that reason, a huge focus this year has been on ensuring the content can work for both a local community and outside audience.

From our Community Video Units, we've learned a few other things: One is that a model where people are paid only when they perform is better than the Community Video Units model, in which the six or seven people who work together on a film are given a monthly wage.

Women produce more

Two observations we are thrilled to see: Women produce more, and retention is higher with the underprivileged. It suggests that journalism really is an appropriate livelihood for the poor. We started to see that with online recruitment, we had selected certain people whose incomes were clearly higher than they had told us on the phone. Live recruitment in extremely remote areas of Jharkhand will help get the correct balance.

The amount they can produce is low

We ask correspondents to produce two videos a month. They produce on average one or less. One reason is that being a journalist is difficult; it takes a lot of personal courage to confront officials and ask people private questions. They can spend a whole day on a bus getting to an official who then won't see them. They have to take care of their families, too.

I learned this year about the concept of "businesses in a box" and franchises, such as rural women selling solar lamps or soap sachets, and I discovered that we should make the process as simple and step-by-step as possible.

But journalism is simply harder than selling soap. We also ask them to produce tough stories that they have to research and which take time, unlike stringers, who are told to "go film this event and send us the footage." This means that our "cost per story" is higher than we would like. But we also aren't taking huge steps to increase their productivity right now, because we don't yet have enough buyers to support a huge level of production.

Choose the right people to train

The fact that we put such effort in selecting interesting people to train is a huge asset for us. Our new batch of correspondents includes people whose personal stories are, in some ways, the story. We have two boys from Kashmir who have seen the insurgency; a young man whose sister was the first dowry death in his state; women who have experienced sexual violence and have the courage to speak about it; and a good representation from the North East, including one young man who got the first footage of a particular insurgent camp because he's from that area.

In our training, we teach them that their power as a community correspondent will come through using their personal experiences and connections to the issues. This is what they have that no professional, no outsider, can ever replicate. They learn that they themselves must speak out, and speak personally, if they want their communities to do so, too.

Good training is not necessarily scalable. (That's another thing that we learned in 2011 -- that the training aspects of our work will always be expensive because education doesn't have a lot of economies of scale.) But it is the most valuable investment.

You can watch a video from our trainings here:

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, which will focus on our modes of online and offline distribution and our experience with earning income from partners and the mainstream media.

December 30 2011

15:20

The 5 Tenets of Open Journalism

I'm not a middle-of-the-roader and wasn't aiming for a compromise position with my discussion paper, "The Case for Open Journalism Now: A new framework for informing communities," published early this month by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Innovation Lab. Instead, I sought to identify and propel a culture shift that might build a healthier relationship among those who produce journalism and others who consume news and information.

Yet the values and emerging practices I call open journalism stand apart from the polarizing intramural debate on whether quality journalism in the future will come from institutions, information networks or individuals. (Answer: yes.) This intermittent fight, which broke out again following a recent Dean Starkman piece in CJR, forces people into corners. After a recent USC Annenberg event at the National Press Club where I gave a talk on this paper, a young journalism academic told me he hadn't read "The Case for Open Journalism Now" but added, "I'm probably against it -- the whole thing."

Open journalism should be up for debate, like any idea, but it's built squarely on some of the traditional journalism values we're so quick to protect. "Open journalism" just gives it a name and now, a better roadmap for two-way journalism in the digital era (see the five tenets below).

My open journalism idea sees journalism as acts that provide service in the larger context of Internet-era communication. It recognizes that communities gain from skilled and expert journalism (there never has been enough) and that such work has the best hope of success through robust connections to sources, citizens and other contributors in a networked information universe.

Public affairs journalism, especially the time-consuming work of investigative reporting and accountability coverage that relies on accumulated knowledge and expertise, is indeed a public good and must be responsive to those it serves. Those who provide it need to build trust as well as tangible support such as digital subscriptions, e-book payments, organizational alliances, donations or philanthropic grants. In 2012 and beyond, in the communication age that has blossomed post-Internet, such support involves not blind faith but open and active connection.

Explore transparency

Consider the new "Explore Sources" tool unveiled by ProPublica last week as part of a story by Marshall Allen on a Texas woman's efforts to learn how her husband had died. Explore Sources (which readers can turn on or off) allows web viewers to click on highlighted information and view primary source material. News applications developer Al Shaw's blog post explained both the function of the tool and how it was built, concluding: "While Explore Sources is just an experiment, we look forward to finding new ways to use it to make our reporting process more transparent and accountable, and when we can we'll open-source the code so other newsrooms can show their work, too."

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I began my work at USC Annenberg in June intending to focus on how journalism contributes to community engagement in public life and to spotlight experiments that seemed to be working. I quickly learned that Joy Mayer, a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, was finishing an academic year's work on this topic and that many interesting experiments were too young to assess in any fair way.

Rather than repeat Mayer's work and other recent explorations, I wanted to build on it. Away from the front lines of most mainstream news flow, I found a web-influenced culture responding in new ways to journalism values of serving community needs and making a difference. Peer-level collaboration was sparking invention and problem-solving, especially involving data journalism and investigative methods. Social media tools were enabling more direct dialogue among news providers and their sources, contributors and customers.

In a small but significant number of exceptions to the norm, and in the ideas of a number of writers and practitioners, I glimpsed a nascent but potentially transformative approach to journalism that could build trust and support (moral and practical) for informing communities in key ways amid media upheaval. Alan Rusbridger and The Guardian called their strategy "open journalism on the web."

Open journalism struck me as the right headline for framing journalism as a true public endeavor: accountable, responsible and accessible, like open government or an open kitchen or "Open Leadership," the title of a book by social media consultant Charlene Li.

My experience leading newsrooms in North Carolina and California taught me that ideas need both support and structure to turn into improvements. I wanted not just to argue for direction, but to offer useful guidance to practitioners -- in any size of newsroom, nonprofit or commercial, and to individuals -- on how open journalism can and does work for quality as well as relevance. I highlighted journalism action, not theories, demonstrating creative and often effective new approaches to the core mission of providing timely, accessible and high-quality coverage.

You can find examples and references linked throughout the discussion paper and highlighted in a sidebar element called "100 Ideas, Arguments and Illustrations for Open Journalism." Additionally, I offered "Action Steps for News People" in the five key categories I identified for open journalism to emphasize:

5 tenets of open journalism

  • Transparency: Buzzword or not, this is a contemporary cultural value that connects deeply to journalism tradition. Yet it's a value news providers must more openly embrace in the processes and the presentation of news coverage. For instance, established media sites rest on "brand" and rarely explain their missions or practices. New information and news sites, perhaps because they're introducing themselves and working to build brands, routinely tell users who they are, what their editorial mission is, and how they're funded. The best of them provide easy links to staff at all levels and take the next steps to embracing "show your work" tactics such as posting original data, using blogging to explain how journalism is made, and inviting others to make use of resources. News organizations here and there are opening up or webstreaming news meetings, sharing working story lists, soliciting questions and input, and explaining how corrections are handled.
  • Responsiveness and engagement as central functions rather than add-ons: Open journalism makes newsgathering and dissemination two-way practices that ask and answer questions and invest trust even while expecting to be trusted. This matters for community value but also has benefits as business practice. The Internet has changed the expectations of viewers and readers -- more broadly, customers. Companies learn the hard way about failing to monitor or respond to user input, which now often happens via social media. In this environment, providers of news and information suffer when lines of communication are unmonitored (online story comments being the case in point) or miss opportunities when these lines operate as one-way channels (e.g., here's our story, what do you think?) By seeing engagement as part of newsgathering rather than as link promotion, journalists can pick up on news tips and promising sources and, in turn, make their work more useful by delivering on requests for certain information.
  • Substantive and mutually rewarding participation: The interplay among news providers and others who exchange and supply information gets more attention than other aspects of open journalism and fuels the most debate (over citizen journalism, for instance, a term almost no one likes). Yet notable experiments such as HuffingtonPost's OffTheBus presidential campaign crowdsourcing effort in 2008 (back for 2012) are being joined by a rapidly expanding menu of ways that news and community information sites are tapping contributions and knowledge. On most news sites "user generated content" gets little respect or attention, and again the vandals who troll online comment sites consume far too much of the resources newsrooms have for interaction. We're ready for the next steps in understanding that people want to participate in life, not news sites. Some news sites are improving interaction tools, using forms and other mechanisms to streamline participation and engaging in more active social media dialogue with contributors.
  • Collaboration: This is an overused word, perhaps, because true collaboration is less common than an expanding list of cross-promotion and content sharing. Yet the open-source ideas infecting some newsrooms via the influence of programmers and technology have produced direct benefits for some kinds of journalism. Practitioners working to analyze data and to map and graphically display their findings regularly share knowledge and software via traditional channels (such as Investigative Reporters and Editors) and new ones including the GitHub software website.
  • Networked presence: Information-sharing happens online through many crisscrossing networks, from fan communities and social media to highly specialized knowledge blogs and discussion forums. It also happens in person, often in conjunction with digital community-building. News sites may be where most people, in one way or another, pick up headlines and traditional news, but other networks supply a vastly greater variety and style of information. By understanding the greater context and looking for ways to carry out their service missions, news providers can make an important leap forward from the gatekeeper role that defined journalism for so long. The next conceptual leap involves community-level collaboration around the goals of information as a service.

"The Case for Open Journalism Now" is one of the first "Future of Journalism" efforts by the Annenberg Innovation Lab, built as a simple website with a response function. Please add your thoughts, criticism and links. However far the Internet has taken us already, those who believe in quality journalism as public service have only begun to comprehend the opportunities ahead.

The only thing certain is that we're building journalism's future now through our actions and our omissions. I prefer the former.

Melanie Sill is the Executive in Residence at the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. Before joining USC Annenberg Sill was senior vice president and top editor at the Sacramento Bee in California and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Raised in Hawaii, Sill earned her journalism degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1993-94.

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December 28 2011

15:20

Top 10 Media Stories of 2011: Arab Spring; R.I.P. Steve Jobs; Phone Hacking

Yes, 2011 was another year of massive change in the American media landscape, with newspapers struggling, radio and TV trying to sharpen digital strategies, and magazines prettying themselves for tablets. But more often than expected, we turned our eyes overseas, to the role of social media in organizing protests and revolutions in the Arab world. To the spread of Facebook and freer speech in places like Egypt and Libya. And to the shocking phone-hacking scandal that brought the News Corp. empire to its knees, shuttering its most popular tabloid, the News of the World (published since 1843).

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As smartphones and tablets proliferated, the reality of mobile news (and advertising) finally came into focus after years of failed promises. News orgs big and small tried to cash in on mobile editions, with mixed success. While Apple and its dominant iPad platform demanded a 30% cut of digital subscriptions -- and the customer data -- publishers fought back with "web apps" that went around the App Store and its restrictions. As more Android tablets, including the popular Kindle Fire, got into the hands of consumers, the chance that more people would ditch print editions for digital grew.

So here's our annual list of the Top 10 media stories that mattered most in 2011, and some predictions of where those stories are headed in 2012.

Top 10 Media Stories of 2011

1. The Arab Spring and the "Facebook revolutions."

What started as protests in December 2010 in Tunisia, after a college graduate set himself on fire, turned into a Middle East-wide revolution of people rising up against totalitarian regimes. In Tunisia and Egypt, the ruling governments fell, and in Libya a long civil war led to a rebel victory (aided by NATO). What many of these revolutions had in common was organizing done with social networks, especially Facebook, and news spreading virally over Twitter and YouTube. And that formula was repeated in protest movements outside of the Middle East, including in the Occupy Wall Street protests here in the U.S.

While social media played a crucial role in organizing protests and spreading the word to people in the outside world, the revolutions were not dependent upon them. When the Egyptian authorities shut down Internet access, that didn't stop people from human networking and organizing person-to-person to keep protests alive. As Miller-McCune's Philip Howard wrote:

Overemphasizing the role of information technology diminishes the personal risks that individual protesters took in heading out onto the streets to face tear gas and rubber bullets. While it is true that the dynamics of collective action are different in a digital world, we need to move beyond punditry about digital media, simple claims that technology is good or bad for democracy, and a few favored examples of how this can be so.

Prediction: Social media will continue to be vital cogs in any protest movement around the world, even as the targets of those protests learn to become more savvy in using social media in response to them. The days of closing off society to the outside world are numbered as more people use online platforms to communicate with the rest of the world.

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2. Steve Jobs dies, and the tech world mourns.

Love him or hate him, Apple co-founder and visionary Steve Jobs did make a dent in the universe. He was there at the birth of so many innovations, from the personal computer, desktop publishing, the iPod, iPhone and iPad (the holy trinity of gadgets). But one thing he couldn't conquer was cancer, and he finally succumbed and died in October at the age of 56. Not long after that, an in-depth biography of Jobs was published, written by Walter Isaacson, detailing his many triumphs as well as his hard-driving, caustic personality.

While Jobs made a huge contribution to helping salvage the music business with iTunes (while taking his cut), he has had mixed success in helping the news business with mobile subscriptions. And his take on revolutionizing the TV business had yet to be realized at his death. One quote that stands out from Jobs is this one from his Stanford commencement address in 2005:

"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Prediction: The legend of Steve Jobs and what he accomplished will only grow bigger over the coming years, as his legacy as a media visionary is cemented and the rougher parts of his personality are downplayed.

3. The phone-hacking scandal shutters the News of the World.

Tabloid journalists have always gone to great lengths to get scoops, but nothing compares to the breathtaking deceit at the U.K.'s News of the World, which hacked into the voice-mail messages of celebrities, politicians and even a murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. What was originally deemed to be a few bad apples turned out to be widespread misdeeds that led to numerous arrests, resignations and firings at News International, the parent company of the tabloid. Even more surprising was the decision by News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch to close down the News of the World after 168 years of publication.

The "hackgate" scandal has led to resignations in the British government, at Scotland Yard and at various News Corp. publications (including Dow Jones publisher Les Hinton). Here's how MediaShift correspondent Tristan Stewart-Robertson summed it up:

Ultimately, we have a clash of what my retired philosophy professor father refers to as the "social duty to provide as much information as possible," and the duty of "non-injury to others." So which trumps which? ... The conflicting appetites for information and privacy are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Prediction: The scandal will continue to unearth more villains as government inquiries and lawsuits continue into the new year. More people will use stronger passwords for their voice-mail, and tabloid journalists will need to ratchet back their "black ops" to get scoops.

4. Bubbly IPOs return for a few startups.

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No one would mistake 2011 for 1999, the last year of the dot-com bubble, when IPOs were popping like champagne corks. The initial public offering was the most conspicuous way that investors and startup employees with stock options could cash in on their around-the-clock hard work. But still, some echoes of the late '90s seeped in this year, with successful IPOs for startups such as LinkedIn, Groupon and Zynga. In May, LinkedIn was priced at $45 per share, and jumped 109% to close at $94.25. As a Reuters story explained, the IPO was "evoking memories of the investor love affair with Internet stocks during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s."

The hottest startups of 2011 fell into the SoLoMo category: social, local and mobile. And Groupon was right at the sweet spot of SoLoMo, as the biggest player in the hot "daily deals" market. Despite the fact that Groupon was not profitable and its growth was slowing down, the company's IPO raised $700 million, the biggest public offering since Google. While social gaming startup Zynga raised even more money, $1 billion, its IPO actually ended its first day of trading below its initial price of $10 per share. While a few Internet companies did well going public, most are still waiting in the wings. As USA Today put it, overall IPOs have had a dismal 2011.

Prediction: With so much stock market instability, it will be tough for many companies to go public in the coming months. More likely, the exit for startups will be to get acquired, except for the big fish like Facebook and Twitter, which could have huge IPOs next year.

5. New York Times finds success with metered pay wall; others try their luck.

Why won't people pay a fair price for news content online? So many news orgs simply put up their content for free online that this is what most people expect to pay: nothing. But some exceptions like WSJ.com (leaky wall) and FT.com (metered wall) found success with a mix of free and paid content. Then came the biggest experiment of them all, the metered pay wall at NYTimes.com, where you get 20 free articles per month (or via Google search or social media) and then you have to pay anywhere from $15 per month to $35 per month for full access on the web and with mobile apps. The price seemed steep and the Times was targeting the people who use its content the most. And yet there were exceptions: Car maker Lincoln subsidized free access for many users, and a recent "special offer" gave full digital access for just 99 cents for 8 weeks.

The metered wall has been a smashing success so far for NYTimes.com, garnering 324,000 paying subscribers by the end of the third quarter, just six months after the start of the wall. Plus, the Times has 1.2 million users with full digital access. (Many have print subscriptions that give them digital access.) But where does that leave the other, smaller papers that are trying out pay walls? Gannett newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Boston Globe all have begun testing pay strategies and it's unclear if they will be as successful as the Times. But as PaidContent's Staci Kramer wrote in a year-end review, "2011 is the hands-down winner when it comes to people paying for digital content. The numbers aren't all in yet and some of it will be hard to quantify given the lack of complete transparency but it's clear that more people are willing to pay for digital access to music, news, movies, TV, games, books and magazines."

Prediction: More online newspapers will try to charge for their content with mixed success. Not everyone has the strong brand (and followers) of the New York Times, and many folks are happy to try out other free sites for news if they are forced to pay too much.

6. The battle over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in Congress.

No one likes piracy, but the two bills in Congress to fight online piracy, SOPA and PIPA, are seen as flawed and overreaching by various tech companies and online pundits. The two bills are supported by most big media companies, music publishers and Hollywood, and are opposed by big tech and online companies and organizations.

While Congress expected to pass some version of these two bills into law with little friction, online organizers have wreaked havoc with political protests that haven't been seen at this depth before. Tumblr created a slick "Call Congress" tool that popped up on its home page, and 6,000 websites participated in an online protest against what they considered to be possible censorship under the new law, with 1 million emails sent to members of Congress. As Congress adjourns for its holiday recess, the fight continues, with so many people pulling their domains from Go Daddy (a supporter of SOPA), that the domain company changed course and withdrew support for the bill.

Prediction: The bills will still likely make it through Congress in some form, but if the online protests continue apace, there might well be amendments to make the bills less overreaching when it comes to piracy enforcement.

7. Kindle Fire tablet is an affordable alternative to iPad.

Here come the low-cost Android tablets. While Apple has done such a good job with its iPad tablet in dominating the market, there was still an opening for a lower-cost, smaller tablet to steal away market share. And this Christmas season, Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet ($199) and to a lesser extent the Nook Tablet ($250) have stolen Apple's thunder with cheaper alternatives. Some leaked data to Cult of Android showed that the Fire was racking up 50,000 pre-orders per day, which could mean 2.5 million sales before it even went on sale Nov. 15!

Those are impressive numbers for Amazon, which has created quite the backlash for its bullying in the book industry, becoming a book publisher on its own and sending people as spies into bookstores to compare prices. And yet, Apple will still continue to dominate tablet sales this holiday season, according to researchers at IDC, with the Kindle and Nook tablet sales coming at the expense of higher-priced Android tablets. "I fully expect Apple to have its best-ever quarter in 4Q11," IDC's Tom Mainelli told the Washington Post, "and in 2012 I think we'll see Apple's product begin to gain more traction outside of the consumer market, specifically with enterprise and education markets."

Prediction: Apple will have to work harder at keeping its dominant lead in tablets, and will need to consider selling a cheaper, smaller tablet to compete on the low end. While the Kindle Fire will be popular as a cheap alternative, it will need to offer more than a closed Amazon environment to satisfy gadget geeks.

8. Netflix stumbles with huge price hike, poor Qwikster idea.

2011 was another strong year for people cutting the cord to cable and satellite TV. The cable industry finally acknowledged there was a slight drop-off in subscriptions, and for the first time U.S. households with TV sets declined. But one reason people were willing to cut the cord was the proliferation of "over the top" streaming TV services such as Netflix and Hulu. But after years of growth and profits, Netflix stumbled badly in 2011. The company announced it was unbundling its DVD-by-mail service and charging higher rates for DVDs and for streaming, with a spin-off company for DVDs called Qwikster.

Those moves were largely panned by pundits, and Netflix started bleeding customers, with 800,000 of them leaving the service by the end of the third quarter. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had to apologize to customers in a blog post and in a video address:

Prediction: Netflix will need a two-pronged strategy to gain back customers: aggressive pricing and promotions; better selection of streaming content. It might be tough to pull it off, but without doing anything, Netflix will find a very difficult road ahead.

9. Publishers rebel against Apple with HTML5 web apps.

Apple could only push publishers so far. While the tech giant came hat in hand to media companies promising to prop up the news business with digital subscriptions for the iPad, its terms were onerous: a 30% cut of all revenues; Apple keeps the data on customers; no links to subscriptions outside of Apple's App Store from within apps. Some publishers decided that enough was enough, and created "web apps" that worked on the iPad without going through Apple and its App Store. The most prominent web app came from FT.com, which decided to create its own HTML5 app to go around Apple's control.

When I spoke to FT.com's managing director, Rob Grimshaw, he shared these figures about their success:

> 20% of all page views for FT.com come from mobile devices
> 30% of all page views seen by paid subscribers to FT.com are on mobile devices

> More than 1 million downloads for the FT apps for iPhone and iPad

> More than 500,000 visits to the web app over the past 3 months

> 15% to 20% of new paid subscribers come from mobile devices

Apple eventually blinked and set better terms for publishers, allowing them to sell subscriptions at discounted prices. However, Apple still gets a huge 30% cut and keeps the customer data.

Prediction: More publishers will watch FT.com and others' web apps very closely, and will consider ways to get around Apple's walled garden.

10. Rise of Google+ as an alternative to Facebook, Twitter.

After several false starts (including Google Buzz, Orkut, Wave), Google finally got social networking right with its Google+ network launch in 2011. While the service quickly brought on millions of new users and was integrated tightly into Google search results and Gmail, some folks were unimpressed and felt like it was a ghost town because their friends remained entrenched on Facebook.

So what was the big deal with Google+? The service let people set up "Circles" so that status updates could be sent to discrete groups, and the "Hangouts" let you do group video chat like never before. One enterprising TV station in Columbia, Mo., even started putting Google+ Hangouts on the air. My experience was typical for the more plugged-in tech media crowd: Within a couple months on Google+, I had more people following me there than on Twitter, where I'd been active since 2008.

Prediction: Google+ will continue to be an attractive option for interactivity and higher level conversations among the more tech-insider crowd, but most people will continue their presence on Twitter and Facebook.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other stories that didn't quite make the cut but are worth mentioning:

> Digital First takes over newspapers at the Journal Register Co. and Media News, and launches an investment company for digital news innovation.

> AOL buys Huffington Post and TechCrunch, and TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington is eventually pushed out after trying to run both TechCrunch and a new VC fund.

> #OccupyWallStreet organizes hundreds of protests around the U.S. and world to demand that money is removed from politics.

> News aggregators proliferate, with the rise of Flipboard, Zite (bought by CNN), Trove, Livestand, News.me and many more.

What do you think? What media stories were the biggest ones this year? Did we miss any key ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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. and Circle him on Google+

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December 27 2011

15:20

If We Were Starting NPR's Project Argo in 2012

For the past two years, I've been working on Project Argo -- a collaboration among NPR and 12 member stations in which the stations launched 12 niche websites on a platform we developed (built on WordPress), each putting their own spin on a common editorial model. As the pilot phase of Argo comes to a close, and we turn our attention to spreading and operationalizing what we've learned more broadly throughout the public media system, the question I get more than any other is, "If you were to start back at the beginning, what would you do differently?"
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I'd reframe the question slightly. If you work in digital media, you know how much this world is still in flux. The pace of change means that trends, tenets and ideas can spring up, calcify into conventional wisdom, and fade away all in the span of two years or less. So instead, I'll lay out a few things we might change if we were starting the pilot in January 2012, and some of the ideas that we hope to push on in our work with stations over the next year.

1. PLAY MORE WITH LENGTH AND FREQUENCY

Although we emphasized the importance of a considered take from the get-go with Argo, we also stressed that the bread-and-butter of blogging is writing short and often. But as many have remarked, the quickest of quick takes have migrated into status updates on Facebook and Twitter, or blips on Tumblr. And alongside that migration, we've seen blogs become less about the instant and more about the Instapaper. A steady rise in popularity for Argo's highest-trafficked site, MindShift, accompanied its move to less-frequent, longer-form blogging. CommonHealth, another of the network's most popular sites, has scored some of its biggest audience hits with 4,000-word opuses like this one.

2. FIND PARTNERS AND BUILD TEAMS

Part of the Argo team's aim was to replicate a pattern we'd seen again and again in our combined decades of working in independent and commercial news organizations: A single person with a singular vision builds a sizable community around a topic from the ground up. And we saw plenty of that this year. But several of our stations also tweaked the model of the single, full-time blogger that we began with, splitting the position between two part-time bloggers, or augmenting the site with contributions from freelancers. And by and large, this has worked quite well for the stations that have taken this approach. In the meantime, we've seen several popular veteran bloggers expand their operations into teams. Ezra Klein's eponymous one-man operation at the Washington Post became the four-person micro-site Wonkblog. Politico's legendary Ben Smith added Dylan Byers to his roster (very shortly before announcing a move to Buzzfeed). And, of course, "Andrew Sullivan" has been the euphemism for a multi-headed team of collaborators for some years now.

That single person with a singular vision can still make a hell of a splash, of course. (Obligatory year-end reflection shoutout to my colleague @acarvin and my daily inspiration, Maria Popova.) And it's easy to convince yourself you're actually collaborating when all you're doing is sharing one another's widgets. But among the things we'll be looking for in 2012 are opportunities to foment genuine, effective partnerships.

3. LOOK FOR EDITORS

When we were hiring our set of reporter-bloggers for Argo, we stressed that it was vital to hire rock stars to helm these sites. In their quest to find rock stars, hiring managers asked variants on one question over and over -- "Is it more important to hire someone with strong, proven reporting chops, or native bloggers who live and breathe the medium?" (Understanding, of course, that it's not a dichotomy. Plenty of folks have both traits.) Today, though, the advice I'd give is, "Find folks who could be awesome editors." As I told Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Journalism Lab, I shifted from calling our site hosts "reporter-bloggers" at the outset of the project to calling them "reporter-editors."* They do have to be strong, speedy writers. And they must be able to report. But the qualities that lift the best blogs to a higher plane are news judgment, pattern recognition, and an instinct for planning and programming -- the hallmarks, in short, of terrific editors.

When I look at the amazing strides the Atlantic has accomplished online over the last few years, I suspect that much of it comes from having a masthead of double-threats who edit as well as they write -- folks like Alexis Madrigal (and very soon -- permit me a squeal -- Megan Garber).**

4. TREAT CONTEXT AS CONTENT

The three people who paid attention to what I was writing and thinking about just before I started working on Argo probably got some severe whiplash as I took on this role. One of my passions in journalism as far back as I can remember -- the thing I spent a year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute studying -- has been context. For years, I'd been writing about the need to invent a timeless journalism, deeply embedded in context, that eschewed the hyperactive, short-term-obsessed imperatives of news and took advantage of the web's capacity to unite episodic and systemic information. Suddenly, these lofty thoughts gave way to paeans to the listicle and headline-writing tips. I'm happy to trace for you how this effort relates to that larger quest, but I can't deny that the future-of-context mantra has been on the back burner during this effort to build successful niche communities.

This is why it makes me so thrilled to see Argo's sister project, StateImpact, double down on context in their approach to blogging. They are proving that marrying well-tended topic page overviews with regular blog posts can be a formula for success. While Argo's prominent "skybox" promotion modules highlight blog posts, a similar convention in the StateImpact design is engineered to highlight topic pages instead. StateImpact reporters take care in producing these pages, writing authoritative, attention-grabbing headlines for them, promoting them with strong thumbnail images, and treating them, generally, as content (not merely as archives, sidebars, or after-matter for users who want to know more). Partly as a result, the topic pages have become some of the most popular material on the StateImpact sites. And instead of fading away once the initial rush of interest in a story is over, these pages grow more valuable over time.

StateImpact joins sites like Salon and SBNation in starting to blur the line between stories and topic pages. And I like it. I don't think we have a silver-bullet successor to "the article" yet, but I'm eager to move this vein of experimentation forward.

5. THINK BEYOND THE RIGHT RAIL

The "right rail" or "sidebar" has been a mainstay of the news story page for years. Often-automated, haphazardly programmed, it tends to be the dumping ground for material that organizational politics and wishful thinking deem to be essential. Over the years, that space has gotten freighted with more and more stuff -- random widgets, text ads, house promos -- further subdividing the thin trickle of attention that usually accrues to it.

When we started the Argo sites, we tried to keep the right rail on our pages fairly tight. But as time went on, that space began to sprawl (as it's wont to do on every website). We stuck widgets there; stations added their own widgets; partnerships yielded new widgets; all despite scant evidence that the space was capturing much user interest.

Now, with mobile devices on the uptick, we can no longer take for granted that the right rail gets even a token eye fixation from users. And designers have been quietly snuffing it out. When NPR redesigned its Shots blog earlier in 2011, the right rail became a much more minimalist enterprise, both on the front page and on story pages. (The redesign has correlated with a healthy uptick in all our favorite metrics for the blog.) Adweek's gorgeous story page design integrates sidebar material much more organically throughout the page. Recently launched tech site The Verge is doing something altogether different with the concept of the story page, and the right rail is not a part of it.

CONCLUSION

Again, not all of these thoughts would have led us down a different path in 2010, when we launched Argo. But they point towards some differences in the type of project we'd launch today. I ran this list by my confreres Joel Sucherman and Wes Lindamood, and they liked it, but I'm sure they'd each pick a different set of points.

A consistently astonishing aspect of working in digital journalism is that you always feel like you're at the beginning of something. And in a way, you always are. May our world shift even more in the year to come.

* Yes. I know. And I agree. "Reporter-bloggers" pains me as a term; it risks reinforcing the false dichotomy between "bloggers" and "journalists" that drives all sensible people crazy. But many folks still need reassurances that even we Micro-Aggregated Cyberpeople place great value on reporting, and if a little hyphenation can spare me from having to engage with a 12-year-old stereotype involving pajamas, so be it.

** Alexis himself reminds us all once a week on Twitter that the secret sauce behind the Atlantic's steady march of awesomeness online is actually J.J. Gould and Bob Cohn.

December 07 2011

15:20

Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial!

For too long, reporters and editors have been unaware, even hostile to the business sides of their organizations. Those attitudes have helped push the news industry into its current dire state.

And that's why I say: Tear down the wall between business and editorial.

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out.

I'm not proposing a free-for-all money-grab that destroys journalistic imperatives. I am calling for those who make the "product" to learn how it's sold so they can better do their jobs and contribute to the bottom line.

If editorial staff is the first to be pared in news organizations, perhaps that's in part because they haven't known enough to make a strong business case for what they contribute.

Jim Brady, the former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, and now the editor in chief of Journal Register Company, seems to agree that journalists need to learn the business ropes.

Jim Brady

"We don't want to see people sent out into the world slaughtered by the wolves because they don't know anything about the business side," he said at this year's Online News Association conference when I asked his thoughts on journalists learning business principles.

MediaShift managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill, co-founder and former editor in chief of the now-defunct New West, was also encouraging. She told me that while she and others were building their sites, they were stymied while trying to get advice on how to support the news businesses while maintaining proper standards.

"Friends in similar startup situations were struggling with how to blur the lines in an intelligent and ethical way," she said. "There was nobody to help us with that. They were all just saying, 'No, no. Don't do it.' We all need a roadmap for how to do it, a good guide on how to do that ethically, intelligently and efficiently."

Here, I hope, is a start.

Remember: It's a Business

One place to start is attitude.

Can you name another business in which the people who make the key product are allowed, even encouraged, to be ignorant of how they make money?

I've found many journalists to be uncomfortable with money. But money is lifeblood. As much as you might labor to get a story in before deadline, you'll sweat bullets when you're responsible for payroll and the money isn't there.

A for-profit business is just that. That profit is what lets you not only continue another day, but also gives you the freedom to determine your own mission.

Yes, the news business is special, and has a special trust. But many businesses are, and some of them -- such as health care and food -- deal much more literally with issues of life and death. They, too, must juggle ethical and commercial imperatives while doing their work.

Keeping the public trust, even one protected by the Constitution, is not contradictory with the the idea of making your enterprise financially self-sustaining.

The more revenue you have, the more creative ways you can use it to produce a better product, and the more diverse the revenue is, the less beholden you will be to any single source.

Know the Business

The more you know about the business workings, the better arguments you'll be able to make to gain resources to do good work. You can point out the profits one section you're handling brings in that can support another effort you believe in.

You may be able to make a case that something that seems like a cost center will, over time, create new efficiencies or revenue-enhancements. You can note that an investigative story may not bring in advertising, but it could bring in page views that you can show lead to new advertising or subscription revenues.

Even better is if you can back up your case in a way a business person can understand, by using data to make a cogent case that applies to the bottom line.

Understand the Finances

The more literate you are about the finances, not just income, assets and depreciation, but also cost of capital and market conditions, the better you'll understand the reasoning behind some decisions.

The better grounding you have in the finances, the more respect you'll have for the business on both the income and expense sides -- and the more you'll want to control costs, or spend appropriately to get the job done.

You'll be able to see the company through a business lens. You'll put yourself in a cooperative, collegial position, rather than going begging to the money people with hand out.

If you're running your own operation, the better you'll know how close you are to meeting payroll, or how creative you can be to raise some funds.

If Sales Influences Editorial, It's OK

Do you think newspapers run separate real estate, car or fashion sections for editorial reasons? Or could it be because those sections generate healthy profits?

It's fine if commercial reasoning influences editorial projects, as long as the projects fit into your overall mission. Let me give an example from MediaShift.

We have sometimes adjusted timing on stories or special series if there was no good reason not to in order to accommodate a client who wanted to sponsor them.

Sometimes we've even extended a series by a couple more stories than we might have without the added funds. Producing that extra content can be additive and contribute to the richness of the site.

If we can serve our community and earn revenue at the same time, that's a home run.

We are mindful of the danger of working so hard to serve sponsors that we neglect the needs of the larger community. That's very important.

Create Things That Make Money

Sometimes, you'll package material in a way that garners interest from viewers and sponsors. Packaging and repackaging can be a great device.

It's easy to demean "link bait" such as "Top 10" or "How To" lists, but if your users like and share them, and they generate profitable page views, is there really harm? If there's sponsor interest, all the better.

You can also launch efforts to make money in order to support other operations that don't. I'll later be writing a column about news companies that have done everything from sell web consulting services to hand out sponsor postcards at local gatherings.

Try to Get to 'Yes'

A former managing editor at Newsweek (where I used to work) once told me proudly of throwing a salesperson for the magazine out of his office with harsh words.

Perhaps, instead, he could have worked to help craft a solution that met the advertiser's needs without violating Newsweek's core principles.newsweek_headroom_max4aa.jpg

There were times at ABCNews.com, where I was a liaison between the sales and editorial sides after having been a managing editor, when I created products the editorial team accepted while explaining justifiable limits to the sales team.

I have, as a journalist doing business deals, sometimes had to fight the urge to give a sponsor an outright "no" to one of their ideas, and instead tried to glean their ultimate goals and worked together to find an acceptable way to meet them.

Be Willing to Say "No"

You also have to be willing for the long-term health of the business to say "no." You may be asked to do things you consider unsavory. You have to have the spine to make a sponsor uncomfortable, as MediaTwits podcast co-host Rafat Ali did at his former site, PaidContent, when he reported on a sponsor in a way they didn't appreciate.

Advertisers rooted in your community (whether that's a community of professionals, of like-minded individuals, or of geographic proximity) will usually understand if you explain that a request they're making could damage the operation's credibility. That damage will also damage their ability to have their message in front of a happily engaged community you've worked hard to amass.

You do need core principles that can't be bent -- even if that means the business doesn't meet payroll. Remember the point above about diversified revenue streams? The more there are, the less any one sponsor can damage you.

Be Prepared for Uncomfortable Conversations

In smaller communities, the people who sponsor a news operation can be the ones being reported on. They'll ask for favors. You and people you work with have to be able to explain, even in the midst of reporting, what can and can't be done on their behalf.

At the risk of repeating: The more profit your company makes, the more leeway it has to do its work, to remain independent of government or other interference, and the more freedom to do good work.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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October 07 2011

21:21

TrueTies.Org Wants to Increase Transparency on the Op-Ed Page

The following is a guest opinion from Gabe Elsner of The Checks and Balances Project, which recently launched a new project aimed at increasing transparency at news outlets.

Every day, Americans read the opinion and commentary of seemingly impartial "experts" from think tanks on critical subjects in the pages of the nation's newspapers.

What these readers don't know is that the authors of these opinion pieces work for think tanks and organizations funded by the same industries they are "impartially" writing about. Rarely -- if ever -- are readers informed that the so-called expert has received money from the industry he or she is championing or defending.

Why? All too often, top news outlets don't ask pundits about these conflicts, and so readers don't get the whole story.

That's why, starting Oct. 6, The Checks and Balances Project launched an online petition at TrueTies.org.

As the recession has ground on, many news media outlets went out of business or fled quality journalism. Fortunately, the New York Times did the opposite -- it doubled down. That's why we're asking the Times, as our nation's paper of record, to increase transparency on the opinion pages by beginning a practice of asking one basic question of every op-ed submission finalist: "Do you have direct or indirect ties to the industries you are writing about?" And, if the answer is yes, to tell their readers at the time the piece is published.

The case of the "senior fellow"

The Checks and Balances Project -- a startup watchdog organization committed to holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public -- decided to launch True Ties after reading a June 2011 op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Bryce.

Bryce, using the title "senior fellow" at the Manhattan Institute, claimed that renewable energy was bad for the environment and that natural gas was far preferable, despite widespread concerns about the gas industry's potential contamination of public drinking water supplies. What readers weren't told, while reading his argument in favor of fossil fuels, is that his host organization, the Manhattan Institute, received nearly $3 million from fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.

Wouldn't it have been better if someone from the Times' opinion page staff asked Bryce one question about his financial ties? Don't readers deserve to know that this columnist's paycheck is funded in part by fossil fuel-tied groups?

Sadly, the New York Times piece by Bryce is not an isolated incident. This problem is widespread -- in newspapers, cable television, radio and beyond. Bryce points out that his work has been seen by millions of Americans through "publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Counterpunch and Atlantic Monthly to Oklahoma Stripper." In addition, he's appeared on television shows ranging from the PBS "Newshour" to Fox News to "Energy Now."

Bryce is just one example in a growing industry of front groups and industry-sponsored pundits. These organizations are functionally serving as industry public relations firms, while carrying neutral-sounding names such as the Mercatus Center, Institute for Energy Research and the Cato Institute. They provide a platform not just for Bryce, but for other "experts," such as the Mercatus Center's Andrew P. Morriss, to spread fossil-fuel industry talking points while taking fossil-fuel money. Much of the funding for the Mercatus Center comes from the Koch Family Foundations, while the Institute for Energy Research is essentially a joint project of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. And, similar to Bryce, Morriss, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, works for organizations with sponsors who remain hidden from readers and viewers.

These pundits have the right to be heard, but they shouldn't get to hide their industry funding. The New York Times, as the standard bearer of journalism, has a responsibility to ensure consumers know all the facts.

What do we do about it?

The clearest step forward is simple: The New York Times and other important media outlets can ask a basic question of anyone publishing opinions on their pages regarding financial conflicts of interest -- and then tell readers about the conflicts.

Full disclosure of these ties will increase transparency. More importantly, it will ensure that readers have the relevant information they need to put commentaries into proper context, and ultimately, help inform their opinions on vital issues. By asking contributors like Bryce to answer a short set of disclosure questions, the New York Times can set the industry standard and help their readers get the full story.

Gabe Elsner is a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates. Gabe understands that citizens need to stand up for true American values to restore democracy and to overcome the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups. He joined the Checks and Balances Project in June 2011 to help increase transparency and inform the public on critical issues, especially related to energy.

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September 19 2011

21:30

Google+: Social Media Upstart 'Worse Than a Ghost Town'

I wanted to log on to Google+. I swear I did. But the thought of it made me tired.

I recently wrote a piece for MediaShift on the perils of tweeting interview requests. Like I've done for past pieces and many of the posts on my blog College Media Matters, I carried out all the expected social media promotion.

I retweeted the MediaShift tweet that announced the piece's premiere on the site. I posted the link on my Facebook profile page as a status update. I dropped it onto Digg and recommended it on StumbleUpon. I placed a chunk of it on my blog with a referral link. I responded to some comments. I even emailed a few friends and colleagues with a heads-up and accompanying bitly link. And then there was G+.

A few hours after the post went up, I received an email confirming MediaShift executive editor Mark Glaser had hyped the piece in a note on Google+. Moments later, someone responded to it. It was a great motivation to respond or post something on there myself.

An Internal Enough-is-Enough Battle

But then something funny happened. I sighed out loud. I got the dreary feeling that often comes midday when my body begs for a catnap. I simply couldn't bring myself to sign on to the service. I let it go, shrugging, thinking I'd get to it later. But I never followed up.

On one level, the response continues to strike me as silly. I'm sure the promo-post would have taken a moment or two tops. And I have nothing against G+. On the contrary, I signed up like every other wannabe tech geek when Google first rolled it out.

I played with the whole Circles thing. I invited a few family members, colleagues, and even students -- something I've avoided on Facebook. I created a profile I must now have floating in cyberspace in at least a dozen slightly different iterations. And I have been on the service here and there, mostly just to see what's what.

But as much as I want to really dive into Google+, I admit I am fighting an internal enough-is-enough battle. As Glaser mentioned on a recent Mediatwits podcast, "There are a few things that are slightly better [than Facebook and other existing social media platforms], but what's really making a huge difference? You know, that's the problem. There's nothing really groundbreaking."

A Social Media Step Too Far?

In that respect, is it possible that G+, at the moment, is simply a social media step too far? Are there only so many daily destination-and-connection sites a person can invest time and effort overseeing?

As Forbes.com contributor Paul Tassi wrote last month within a column doubling as a eulogy for the service, "The fact is, very few people have room to manage many multiple social networks ... since there is only so much time in the day to waste on the Internet. Add in Google+, effectively a duplicate of Facebook, and there just isn't space for it."

I am writing to second Tassi's declaration: Google+ is dead. At worst, in the coming months, it will literally fade away to nothing or exist as Internet plankton. At best, it will be to social networking what Microsoft's Bing is to online search: perfectly adequate; fun to stumble onto once in awhile; and completely irrelevant to the mainstream web.

To be clear, I do not buy the beta argument anymore. G+ still being in beta is like Broadway's "Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark" still being in previews. It has premiered. Months have passed. Audiences have tried it. Critics have weighed in. It is a show -- just not a very entertaining one.

Worse Than a Ghost Town

As it stands, my Circles are sparse. The stream of updates has basically run dry -- reduced to one buddy who regularly writes. My initial excitement about signing on and inviting people to join me has waned. Nowadays, I apparently get tired just thinking about it.

Take my recent MediaShift piece. Less than a week after its posting, more than 300 tweets and retweets linked to it. Between my blog teaser and its MediaShift placement, it got hyped on Facebook by dozens of users. Close to 50 people StumbledUpon it on my blog. On Google+, meanwhile, it was mentioned five times.

Omaha World-Herald columnist Rainbow Russell says it best, noting, "It's a not-vicious-enough-to-be-interesting circle: Nobody posts on Google+ because nobody posts on Google+. My Google+ home page is worse than a ghost town. It doesn't even feel haunted."

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published in fall 2010 by Rutgers University Press.

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July 20 2011

15:48

July 05 2011

16:11

The New News Paradigm: 'Pivot or Perish'

At the recent MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, I had the pleasure of speaking to 16 of the most promising thinkers in the area of digital news. Culled together from myriad of disciplines and backgrounds, some had already established themselves as pioneers in the digital space.Others had come from legacy newsrooms. A few had found their voices in the field.

But regardless of their backgrounds, they all were united by a drive to innovate, inform and empower. In short, these 16 new news entrepreneurs had come to Cambridge, Mass., with a plan: Reinvent the news business.

But if I had just one takeaway I wanted to impart in my talk to the newly knighted 2011 News Challenge winners, it was this: Those carefully crafted plans are about to change.

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Being Open to Change

There's an old axiom in entrepreneurship, and it goes something like this: Pivot or perish.

"Pivoting" -- the ability (and perhaps more importantly, the willingness) to change your course of action when you realize the ground beneath you is shifting -- isn't just the essence of entrepreneurship, it's the only way you'll survive.

Trust me, we've been at it for just a little over a year now with Stroome, and in that time we've had to pivot plenty.

Now let me be clear -- having a plan for the future is just as important as a good, solid pivot. Looking two, three, even five years down the road is critical, not just because it places your idea in a larger context, but because it forces you to realize that no one really knows what the future has in store. In the end, the best we can do is play the hand that's dealt us. And this is precisely where the concept of pivoting comes in.

When we set out last June to build the next iteration of Stroome, a collaborative online video editing platform to simplify the production of news and video, we sat down and diligently drew up a list of goals. The exact number was just short of a dozen or so, but the three key ones included: increase adoption in journalism schools, forge strategic allegiances, remain open to unforeseen uses.

It didn't take long before those goals started to come to fruition. Within four months of receiving our grant, Stroome was being used by a class of aspiring digital journalists at Columbia College Chicago to comment on the importance of voter registration during the highly anticipated mayoral election. In April, we partnered with USC Stevens Institution, relaunching the site at the third annual TEDxUSC conference.

And who could have possibly foreseen that we'd have found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Egyptian revolution? But that's exactly what happened this past January when protesters began using Stroome to get their video out of the country when the government shut down Twitter and Facebook.

More than a 'to-do' list

Remarkably, in less than a year we had accomplished nearly every goal we had set for ourselves. But our goals had became more than just a list of "to-dos'' to be ticked off one-by-one. Instead, they became "listening posts." And by listening to our users, we were able to gain valuable insight into what is truly important to them.

In most instances, their revelations were consistent with our expectations. Yet at times, what we heard was completely incongruous with what we thought we should be building. And when that happened, we had to evaluate which comments to implement, which to set aside for the time being, and which to dismiss altogether. Said another way, we had to pivot.

Because while we may have had many goals, at the end of the day we only had one objective: Create the most intuitive user experience possible. But without those pivots, that objective would never have been achieved.

And as I looked out across the room and into the faces of this year's Knight News Challenge winners, I could see an unmistakable determination, an undaunted doggedness, an unrelenting sense of resolve. There was no mistaking it: Reinvention of an industry many have written off as outdated, archaic and obsolete is a goal well within their grasp.

They're just going to have to pivot to get there.

If you're interested, Los Angeles angel investor Mark Suster has written a great post on the importance of pivoting. Read it here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Stacy Lynn Baum.

May 19 2011

18:45

In Lithuania, an Overdue Crackdown on Online Hate Speech

Online hate speech is becoming more and more widespread in Lithuania and until recently, comments like, "The world needs Hitler again to do the cleansing job," which was posted on a website called Delfi, or "Expel dirty Roma people out of Lithuania" would have gone unheeded by criminal justice.

"Although the Lithuanian Criminal Codex includes sufficient law provisions to prosecute instigators of hate and enmity, these provisions have been largely ignored by criminal judges," Vitoldas Maslauskas, former Vilnius County prosecutor, said last month.

Most law enforcement officials, Maslauskas said, ranging from high-level prosecutors to ordinary investigators, turn a blind eye to the practice of web hate speech for one simple reason: Criminal judges are swamped under real-life infringements and don't have time to chase down Internet bashers who, as a result, go untouched online.

Combatting Hate Speech

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One non-governmental organization though, the Tolerant Youth Association (TJA), is slowly but surely helping to harness the hate speech, with and without help from criminal justice.

"Although we have been actively carrying out various tolerance-inducing projects since the establishment of our association in 2005, it is only in recent years that we have been fighting against the practice of online hate speech," said Arturas Rudomanskis, chairman of TJA.

The association has initiated 58 pre-trial investigations this year into cases instigating hate and enmity: "It represents a rise of nearly double compared to last year's figure of 30-plus-something cases," Rudomanskis said.

"Until last year, we would pinpoint online hate-mongers to prosecutors. This year, however, we changed our tactics by creating an autonomous system allowing people to file complaints against online bashers directly to the prosecutor's office. This has undoubtedly worked out well, as conscious people extensively report hate cases to prosecutors," Rudomanskis said.

Thanks to the efforts of the Tolerant Youth Association, the online slanderers mentioned at the beginning of this article have been traced, prosecuted and punished.

Only a few years ago, it is likely that they would have escaped the law.

Bringing online slanderers to justice

The man instigating hate against Roma people turned out to be a 28-year-old manager of a company in the city of Utena in northeast Lithuania.

The District Court of Utena ruled that the man incited hate against Roma people and instigated to discriminate against them on the basis of their ethnicity. In his affidavit, the manager admitted the wrongdoing and justified his act by arguing that he had only voiced his opinion. He received a fine of LTL 1,300, which is roughly the equivalent of $535.

In such cases, local courts often seize the offenders' computers as the tools of crime. However, the Utena District Court decided not to confiscate the manager's computer.

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A 36-year-old inhabitant of the town of Anyksciai, who had urged to have "all gays" slain in an online response to an article about the first-ever Lithuanian gay pride parade, whimpered at the District Court of Anyksciai, explaining that he had merely intended to express his discontent against the gay march.

The judge was not impressed and punished him with a fine of nearly 400 euros ($570). District prosecutor Vigandas Jurevicius admitted the case was the first of its kind in his career.

"I launched the investigation following a complaint by the Tolerant Youth Association. To be honest, had it not been for the complaint, I would have not sought prosecution, as it is simply impossible to keep track of the post flow on the Internet," the prosecutor acknowledged.

Just starting the fight

In the meantime, TJA chairman Arturas Rudomanskis notes that the number of Internet surfers who report online slanderers is increasing and calls for a "more substantial" involvement of Lithuanian criminal justices against online hate speech.

"Actually, we have just started the fight," he said. "We are far away from seeing any major breakthrough just yet. However, I see much more support in Lithuanian society and in the media for online perpetrators of hate to be addressed in full force by the law."

According to Rudomanskis, online hate speech cases that reach court break down as follows: 70 percent of the cases are related to hate against homosexuals, and the rest is equally split between anti-Semitic and xenophobic abuse.

"Obviously, Lithuania remains one of the most homophobic countries in the European Union. This is directly reflected in Internet posts," Rudomanskis said.

TJA has succeeded in shutting down a gay hate-laden website set up by a member of an ultranationalist Lithuanian organization, as well as its Facebook page filled with anti-gay slurs.

The role of journalists in tackling online hate

"We have to admit that there are many angry people in Lithuania," said Zita Zamzickiene, the Lithuanian ombudsman for Journalism Ethics. "This is partly due to our recent heritage that goes back to the Soviet era. Homosexuals and ethnic minorities, unfortunately, fall in the category of people who most often become a punching bag. We can tackle the intolerance by educating our people and carrying out prevention programs."

Obviously, Lithuanian journalists can play a key role in curbing Internet slanderers by educating the population and promoting universal human values such as tolerance. For a small country like Lithuania that is still suffering from the post-Soviet syndrome, it may be an issue of utmost priority.

Linas Jegelevicius, 40, Lithuanian, obtained his master's degree in journalism at the Vilnius University Institute of Journalism. Between 1994 and 2004, he lived in New York and Miami, where he contributed to the Miami newspaper Wire. From 2001 until 2003, he edited and published his own newspaper, South Beach AXIS. Jegelevicius currently works as an editor for the regional newspaper Palangos tiltas, in the resort town of Palanga in the west of Lithuania. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times and Ooskanews.com. He has published two books, and his interests include politics, economics, journalism, literature, the English language (particularly urban English), psychology, traveling and human rights.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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April 21 2011

14:28

Notifying Next of Kin in the Age of Facebook

When she picked up the phone, I could tell from the sound of her voice that she didn't know yet.

"I'm sorry to tell you this -- but I wanted you to hear from a friend, not Facebook. Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. Chris Hondros too. I'm really sorry."

There's a nauseating absurdity to those words, but it's the conversation I had yesterday morning with a friend.

I'd been getting "pings" for an hour, mostly by Facebook IM, asking if I knew anything about the tweets coming out of Libya. I wasn't taking them especially seriously at first, having spent most of the last decade in the swashbuckling photojournalist's world of close calls, near-misses, slight embellishments, and wild exaggerations. In this very foggy realm of war and disaster, epic tales abound -- of firefights, explosions, abductions and the like -- but today's hype turned out to be real.

Contacting Next of Kin

As I began reading the SMS messages on my mobile, the phone rang. A friend in a newsroom, choking out words through tears that Tim was dead. Chris badly wounded. Another friend unaccounted for. Attempts were being made to reach Tim's girlfriend. Chris had just gotten engaged, and it was unknown if his fiancée had been contacted yet. No idea about their families.

By the time I got off the phone with her, and turned back to my laptop, conversation threads were spilling across Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Prayers, questions, doubts, and speculation were spreading at digital speed.

I've been an embedded photographer, inserted with soldiers or Marines in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I've often signed a contract known as the Embedded Media Ground Rules -- one of the most basic terms of the contract is that news of casualties is withheld, until such time as the next of kin have received official notice. When troops are killed, that process of notification means real, live, human messengers are dispatched to the doorsteps of mothers and wives - sometimes in a complex maneuver where multiple family members, spread out across different and distant locations must receive a coordinated, simultaneous knock on their doors.

In the forward "area of operation" controlled by the military, a communication blackout is usually imposed, with Internet and phone service, if they even exist, shut down until the next of kin have been contacted. It's one of the conditions that few journalists object to - most of us agree that no mother should have to learn of her son's death in the pages of a newspaper.

In the Facebook and Twitter age, the time delay of the print news cycle seems positively quaint. I thought about that as I watched real-time updates stream across my monitor and mobile screens -- and I wondered if Tim and Chris had family and close friends who hadn't even woken up yet in whatever time zone they were in.

News Spreads on the Social Network

For Tim and Chris, there weren't any media ground rules, and in rebel controlled territory in Libya, there was no Internet blackout. News of their deaths was transmitted across a personal social network that happened to be composed of professional communicators.

By mid-day, I'd learned that two other photographers had been wounded in the same incident. One of them was my friend Mike Brown, the other was a British photographer named Guy Martin who I've never met. The good news, at least, was that Mike had taken shrapnel to the shoulder, but was non-critical. The missing photographer, my friend Moises Saman, had made contact, and was safe, already in another country.

Conflicting reports kept coming about Chris - some said he's dead, others indicated that he suffered catastrophic head injuries but was clinging to life. There have been some angry comments about another photographer who first broke the news via Twitter or Facebook, and others of gratitude to him for assistance during the aftermath of the attack, as the wounded photographers received medical treatment.

Personally, I doubt that Tim and Chris probably would begrudge anyone for tweeting their deaths. In an information age, they lived and died by the sword, but it still feels kind of twisted.

If they could, my guess is that they'd both be advocating for a few whiskeys on their behalf. And that's where I'm headed.

Below is a photo I took of Tim Hetherington (left) and Basetrack's Balazs Gardi (right) in Brooklyn the night before Tim left for Libya.

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April 13 2011

15:30

Newsgames Can Raise the Bar for News, Not Dumb It Down

Earlier this month a group of journalists, game designers, and academics gathered at the University of Minnesota for a workshop on newsgames. I was there, as was fellow Knight News Challenge winner and San Jose Mercury News tech business writer Chris O'Brien. After the event, Chris wrote a a recap of the meeting here on Idea Lab. TechCrunch's Paul Carr penned a grouchy reply, and O'Brien responded in turn.

As an early advocate and creator of newsgames who has spent the last several years researching and writing about the subject, I'm encouraged to see debate flaring up on the subject. But it's important to note that there's not one sole position for or against newsgames. For my part, I can't embrace either Carr's critique or O'Brien's defense.

Carr's riposte boils down to this: If people can't process news without having it turned into a game for them, something's tragically wrong. That's not the position I advocate, of course, so it's heartening to see O'Brien respond so quickly with objection.

But O'Brien's response isn't right either. His retort amounts to: Games are an increasingly popular medium that can keep people engaged; since news doesn't seem to be doing so, why not try something that does?

He's not fundamentally wrong, of course. Games are becoming increasingly popular, and they can capture people's interest differently and sometimes more effectively than other media.

How Games Engage

But vague ideas like popularity and engagement aren't the interesting aspects of games.

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In fact, there are many different sides to newsgames. My co-authors and I identify seven different approaches to the form in our book "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," including current events, infographics, documentary, literacy, puzzles, community, and platforms.

But the most interesting aspect of games in the context of news is their unique features as a medium. Games communicate differently than other media: They simulate processes rather than telling stories. For this reason, games are great at characterizing the complex behavior of systems.

While traditional methods of newsmaking like writing and broadcasting may seem more sophisticated and respectable than videogames in theory, the opposite is true in practice. In fact, the type of knee-jerk, ad hominem rejoinder and rapid-fire retort that Carr's and O'Brien's posts represent offer a superb example of precisely what's wrong with news today -- online or off. Personality and gossip reigns, while deliberation and synthesis falter.

Because complex characterizations of the dynamics underlying events and situations are already scarce in the news, to accuse games of trivializing civic engagement risks hypocrisy. But it's more than that: The forms of traditional storytelling common to written and broadcast journalism just can't get at the heart of systemic issues. They focus instead on events and individuals, not on the convoluted interconnections between global and local dynamics.

Yet, systemic issues are the most important ones for us to understand today: economics, energy, climate, health, education—all of these are big, messy systems with lots of complex interrelations. As we put it in "Newsgames": "Games offer journalists an opportunity to stop short of the final rendering of a typical news story, and instead to share the raw behaviors and dynamics that describe a situation as the journalistic content."

Intoxication with Games

Despite their recent dispute, O'Brien and Carr share something in common: an affiliation with Silicon Valley-oriented publications. Over the past year, the Valley tech sector has become intoxicated with games, particularly the runaway growth of social network games and the promise of "gamification," the application of arbitrary extrinsic rewards for desired actions on websites or smartphones.

In championing newsgames, I'm advocating something different and more sophisticated than low-effort user acquisition, blind trend-hopping, or crass incentives. It is a value completely at odds with both Carr's critique, and one that O'Brien's defense doesn't adequately capture.

Newsgames don't make news easier and more palatable; that's the negative trend the media industry has embraced for three decades, from USA Today to Twitter.

Instead, newsgames make the news harder and more complex. We shouldn't embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, nor because they dumb down the news, but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it.

February 10 2011

19:42

Basetrack in Limbo as Embeds Removed Due to Map Concerns

Over the weekend we learned that someone, somewhere, decided that Basetrack's journalists would have to go. So after we posted up the letter, we scratched our heads and wondered why. Actually, we're still wondering, especially since we received this note from the Marine Corps public affairs office in Afghanistan:

Teru,

Good chatting with you.  As discussed, we very much appreciate the Knight Foundation's efforts in highlighting the important work of our Marines and Sailors of First Battalion, Eighth Marines over the past six months in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  Your team has not been disembedded; media ground rules were not violated.  Instead, the unit made the decision to not entertain the next team of Basetrack.org members, since many of the Marines and Sailors were beginning turnover preparation for redeployment.  There had been concerns by a number of individuals on the use of online maps to portray service members' positions.  I understand that you deliberately off-set actual locations in order to safeguard force protection.  Additionally, First Battalion, Eight Marines' Executive Officer (Maj Ansel) verified each post to basetrack.org. 

This close partnership between the command's leadership and Knight Foundation members is important to note.  While most media embeds last only two weeks, this unit committed to assisting with this project in order to better connect the public to what their service members are doing each day in Afghanistan. 

I think the project was incredibly worthwhile and the relationships you forged with our Marines and Sailors impressive; I heard nothing but positive things from the unit. 

Please know that the unit is hoping you will attend their homecoming.  Also, we welcome you back to Regional Command Southwest and Helmand Province in the future. 
 
Regards,
Gabrielle M. Chapin
Major, U.S. Marine Corps
Director, Regional Command Southwest Public Affairs
First Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD)
Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

Not Sure of Next Steps

The public head-scratching continued on our Facebook page and through interviews with PRI's The World and elsewhere.

Some of the comments were touching:

To be honest not sure what y'all do..but I do know that my brother is in the Marines and we haven't seen him in a very long time...and I see my mother posting on here and even called me when you did a wonderful piece on him...since you make my mother smile and bring those happy tears to her eyes I thank you...We love you Nenish..come home safe to us and my prayers go out to the basetrack family and all those involved...

Some were heated, particularly when discussing Operational Security and legitimate safety concerns.

Some were just confused. The most interesting thing about the project is watching the audience -- a very small, but committed and diverse group of people -- grapple with the complexities and nuances of a very difficult subject, war, that is also incredibly personal. If you had told me a year ago that I would be discussing the The Hidden War: a Russian journalist's account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan with a group of civilians, who asked probing, complex questions about the policy in Afghanistan that puts most of the public debate I've seen on television or read in a newspaper or heard on the radio to shame, I wouldn't have believed you.

Yet now, here we are, planning the next stage. I wonder where it will go.

January 12 2011

16:04

The War After the War Plays Out for Veterans in Psych Ward

Basetrack is following the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 1-8, for their tour in Musa Qala, Helmand, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous and strategically important locations. The goal is to tell a small fragment of their story in real time, as it unfolds. We aim to create a connection between the Marine strapping on his helmet and heading out on patrol and the public who have little or no personal stake in the war. For the Marines and their families, there is a perception that no one cares, that no one even remembers there is a war going on.

(For more on this project, read this previous blog post.)

War stories are frustrating -- especially the true ones. They've been told a million different ways since Homer. Each one is unique, each one the same. Cruelness and beauty, savagery and charity, shame and pride, cowardice and valor, idiocy and genius are in full bloom in war. War is full of life's extremities compressed in tiny explosive packets, full of experiences that defy expression. Firefights and bombings and their aftermath -- a tongue can't contort those sights to language, a brain can't take full measure of them even long after the fact. 

Explaining it to an audience half a world away, desensitized and bored after 10 years of war is even more difficult.

Attracted to Risk-Taking

The Marines are halfway through their tour now. For many, this isn't their first and for many, it won't be their last. It has been a difficult tour. We communicate directly with people interested in the project and the Marines' families through our Facebook page, and the ebb and flow of emotion and strain of this deployment on the families is digitally palpable. 

(Note that out of respect for very real concerns about operational security and safety for all involved, there is a delay between the time a photograph or an audio interview or a story is composed and when it is posted on our site, which allows for redactions.)

I can't say for sure, because I haven't spent any time with the Marines yet, but if my past combat experience is any indication, many will come home with war still in them. They will have stories they are unable to tell -- stories that reside in limbic systems that were remapped for combat and now strain to adjust to life back in the States.

A footnote in the Army's report [PDF file] about the ever-increasing suicide rate within its ranks said, "The all-volunteer Army attracts and recruits individuals who enlist knowing they will be sent into harm's way. A segment of this population is not only aware of the risk but may be attracted to risk-taking."

Shared Commitment

I fought in Afghanistan and I miss it. I miss the risk, the bonding and the sense of purpose, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to Basetrack after I got out of the Army. I served 16 months in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division.  

In Sebastian Junger's book about an infantry company's experience in the Korengal Valley, he wrote about the thing infantrymen miss most when they come home: The sense that someone has your back.

"The Army might screw you and the girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time," Junger wrote.

This bond cuts both ways, however -- especially after a tough deployment when the absolute single-mindedness of combat action is replaced with the mind-numbing and often frustrating kaleidoscope of experience in the real world. The strain of combat presented itself in different ways when members of my battalion came home. Some of the more extreme examples: 

  • Drunk out of his mind, one soldier walked up to a police station with a pellet gun, threatening the cops. The officers said that he was trying to commit suicide-by-cop -- to let someone else have the responsibility of pulling the trigger for once. 
  • A friend's wife stole $4,000 from him and spent it all on heroin, the irony not lost on anyone. He divorced her, but not his emotions, and put himself into an early grave. 
  • The MPs went to a house on post to investigate a 911 hang-up call. By the time they came to the door, the Staff Sergeant was a bottle of vodka deep. He told them there was nothing wrong. They wanted to investigate more. He invited them in, produced a concealed pistol, forced them on their knees and took their weapons away. When their backup arrived and tried to talk the Staff Sergeant down, he fired two shots at them.  They shot him in the neck and the face and killed him dead in the house where he lived with his wife and three children. 

Of course, there were also divorces, fights, drinking, drug use, arrests, and other expressions of frustration with life after war.

These stories aren't unique; they're representative of the things that happen after war, when the bill for the psychic debt incurred after months of sustained tension comes due. It happens after every war.

Ward 1A

inuse.jpg

My story isn't unique. I spent my last two years in the Army back in the U.S., in a good job, with a wonderful girlfriend and the promise of better days ahead. Still, something was wrong. I couldn't sleep. I was depressed. Morose. Bitter. Angry. Drinking.

I took anti-depressants. I saw counselors. I spent 12 days in an in-patient psychiatric ward at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, after I took matters into my own hands. I was not a happy patient. Here's a note from my art therapist:  

"Patient did attend and participate in art therapy group. He was agitated and attempted throughout the session to instigate and provoke arguments with other group members. This patient eventually calmed down...the graphic conversation and commented that 'I can draw bullshit all day!' He was loud and confrontational. He was not able to receive feedback and was not able to provide meaningful feedback to others. He was resistant to even hearing about others' assessments of their own work. During this session, the patient's mood was agitated and was congruent with his affect. The patient was challenging and distracting to others."

Getting out of the Army last summer didn't change much except my health care.

Less than a month ago, on the day after Christmas, I checked into Ward 1A of the Veteran's Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas -- the psych ward. The staff called it the "VA Spa," a place where a bunch of seriously messed up vets check in to chill out. Another patient, a Navy guy, called it the "flight deck" because it's where vets crashed and then had short take-offs, often to return or transition to another form of treatment.

"1A ain't spittin' out winners," he said.

On the ward, in plastic chairs molded around heavy weights to prevent throwing, sat combat vets from Korea and Vietnam, along with other veterans who had no combat experience, just serious mental conditions. All were clad in sterile hospital scrubs color-coded by size.

Blogging From Hell

I was the only one from Iraq or Afghanistan, but it was a slow time, the doctors assured me. Plus, most of the Vietnam vets hadn't started to show up at the VA until five or ten years after their combat tours. All of us were on potent cocktails of medications. Pretty much everyone in there had some sort of dual psychiatric diagnosis. PTSD. Drug addiction. Depression. Suicidal thoughts. Homicidal thoughts. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Delusional. Actively psychotic. Alcoholism. Pretty much anything in the DSM-IV

You could put all those conditions up on a bulletin board, throw a couple of darts and come up with someone's condition. Darts, of course, weren't allowed in Ward 1A.

For many on the ward, the war never ended. Many, like me, had been there before. I talked to Teru Kuwayama, who leads Basetrack, and we decided there was value in covering the way the war continues in individuals, long after deployment ends. 

So here I am, blogging from a VA psych ward now that I've transitioned to an intensive outpatient program. Kuwayama and I couldn't have written a script like this, but here it is, and it's important. If people can ignore a public war in it's 10th year, they will certainly ignore the private war that continues long after.

At the end of my first day in 1A, a nurse introduced another veteran in-patient, prompting him with standard questions -- name, hometown, current place of residence, that sort of thing. The man, a Vietnam Special Forces combat veteran whose father was one of the first 100 Americans killed in Vietnam, answered. 

"Where do I come from? I come from my mother. Where do I live? I live in hell."

January 05 2011

17:33

Are People of Color Missing in New Media? A #MediaDiversity Chat

How many times have you been to a technology or media conference and noticed the dominance of white male speakers at the podium or the room? That's what Arizona State University professor and media veteran Retha Hill saw when she attended the recent NewsFoo conference in Phoenix and the ONA conference in Washington, DC.

She wrote about the diversity problem at new media conferences, as well as some possible solutions, in a post on Idea Lab last week. Quickly, the response on social media and in the comments showed that it was a hot topic, and something that resonated with a lot of people in the industry.

So the next day, I organized a Twitter chat at the #mediadiversity hashtag, and invited Retha Hill, Doug Mitchell of New U (and former NPR), and Rafat Ali (founder of PaidContent) to participate. I threw out some questions and thought it was an excellent chat. Not only did we talk about the problems in the industry, but we talked about solutions and what we could do to make conferences -- and newsrooms -- more diverse.

Below is an edited version of the tweets from that conversation last week on Twitter, as culled via KeepStream. You can see a longer version of the chat here.

Plus, Robert Hernandez had a very personal take on this in OJR, and here's his conclusion:

If we don't invest in recruiting and training members of diverse groups to help us do and advanced journalism ... we are royally screwed.

My New Year's resolution is to harness my access and network to improve diversity across the board for web journalism. But I need your help. I need your ideas.

More importantly, in your newsrooms, your communities (and those you are not a part of) need your help. Reach out, connect, participate, preach and downright fight to ensure your news org's journalism reflects the diverse community it covers. Help it stay relevant.

It's hard to argue with his resolution.

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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December 13 2010

17:40

Why I Want a Hulu for Sports (And Why It Won't Happen Soon)

When it comes to television shows and events, we the people have been taking more and more control of what we see and on what medium. The rise of everything from DVRs to streaming Netflix to mobile TV means that we get to decide when we want to watch our favorite shows. More people have taken the plunge and cut the cord to expensive cable and satellite TV services in order to watch shows exclusively online or on services such as Roku, Boxee or Google TV.

boxee_box_by_dlink_white.jpg

But one of the big hurdles to getting people to cut the cord is sports. While you can watch many local sports teams play by accessing free digital broadcast signals (which includes the major broadcast networks), there's very limited selection online when it comes to watching major sports teams play. (Note: There are a variety of overseas gray market sites that offer streams of big games for a price, but their legality is muddy, at best.)

What sports fans need to cut the cord is a potential new service that I call "Hulu for Sports," a way for us to watch the games we want online or streamed to our TV. Hulu currently offers TV shows, movies and some sports highlight shows, with some provided advertising-supported and free, and others coming in a premium offering called Hulu Plus. Why not add in live sporting events, with the less prominent games at the free level (e.g. the Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Milwaukee Bucks) and higher interest games at the premium level (e.g. the Miami Heat vs. the Los Angeles Lakers)?

Below is a breakdown of what I'd like to have in a Hulu for Sports, and below that is the inevitable reality check from new media strategist Seth Shapiro, who explains in gory detail why my fantasy will not be realized anytime soon.

What I Want

All Sports, All the Time
I want to have access online to all the major sports from around the world, from real football (a.k.a. soccer) to cricket to basketball to extreme sports. Maybe some of the major leagues could create a joint venture, similar to Hulu, where they each would get a cut of the revenues generated. They would make sure in all future TV contracts to allow this new site to stream sporting events as well.

Freemium Model
So how would this site make money? It would use all the current online video ad formats, from overlays to pre-roll ads to surround-ads that go around the video player. The vast majority of sporting events would be shown for free. A minority of sporting events would be available in a premium offering where you pay a monthly fee. And an even smaller minority of events would be available as pay-per-view streams. So these events might be broken down like so:

> College women's volleyball game: free
> Major league baseball game in May: free

> Regular season NBA game between top teams: premium

> Super Bowl: pay-per-view

Interactive Experience
If I'm going to watch most of my sports online or on my TV through streaming, I want to have more interactive features. I want to chat with others online during the game, share feeds with friends through social media, forward along highlight clips, pick camera angles, and more. Once sporting events are shifted online, the possibilities are endless for features like instant polls, live chats with experts, and a stream of star athletes' tweets (before or after games when allowed).

Play on Demand on All Platforms
Now that I'm used to having a DVR, I want to be able to watch sporting events on my own time, fast-forward through slow parts, replay the best parts and generally decide when to watch what. That means giving me replay controls similar to TV but online. And not only do I want to be able to watch the games on the web in my browser -- I want to see them on all my devices, including smartphone, iPad or Internet-enabled TV. Hulu for Sports needs to be multi-platform and on demand.

Great Archives
Gosh, I'd really like to see a replay of the Giants/Rangers World Series. Or maybe a college football game I missed earlier this year, such as when the Missouri Tigers beat the Oklahoma Sooners? Or maybe a string of old boxing matches when Mike Tyson knocked out various opponents in the first round? The Hulu for Sports service would need to have a robust series of archives available, supported by ads or pay-per-view depending on the popularity of the event.

Why It Won't Happen

Now that I've envisioned the perfect sports-on-demand online service, I'll pull my head out of the clouds for a reality check. Not surprisingly, my bubble is easily burst in a world where massive TV sports contracts restrict leagues from offering up all these games online. In a few cases, such as CBS March Madness on Demand during the NCAA basketball tournament, the networks are able to show full games online supported by ads. But with TV contracts in leagues like the National Football League, the chance for watching games online is severely limited.

nfl game rewind.jpg

With the NFL's online offerings, you can watch NFL games in HD online with full DVR functionality, but you have to live outside the U.S. If you want to watch games inside the U.S., you can do so after the game is long over. Watching live games online isn't possible, even for a price.

Seth Shapiro, the digital media strategist at New Amsterdam Media, has worked with Comcast, DirecTV, Universal, Showtime and Disney in the past. He explained why a Hulu for Sports is highly unlikely at this time.

"The sports leagues have been the biggest defenders and exploiters of rights, period," Shapiro told me. "When looking at sports licensing fees [paid by cable providers], they really explode. Sports is really expensive to the consumer and the distributor ... And they have a pretty good deal as it is. In the case of Apple doing a [possible] subscriber service for Apple TV at a $30 price point, once you factor into account that ESPN is $4 per month per subscriber, that's a lot of money. It's hard to picture a situation where the premier stuff -- NFL, NBA and MLB -- giving their games away for free. Even as a loss-leader to build a new service."

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Shapiro explains that the pricey TV contracts with leagues put them under pressure to restrict what they can offer online. Any move to cable-cutting by sports enthusiasts would hurt TV viewership and by extension those multi-billion-dollar contracts with the leagues.

"The place it comes to roost is the master affiliation deals between league and distributor," Shapiro said. "The rights over who can put things online become very contentious. The distributor can say they don't like the idea of a league offering the same content elsewhere, undercutting their exclusivity. The home games are available in market. But out-of-market rights, the argument is, 'Look we're paying you a lot for these games, so you can't sell it to anyone else.' That's where Hulu finds itself. You can put some things there, but not sports, which is the most expensive stuff and the least likely to be offered there. If there's a game on Monday Night Football, ESPN would say, 'that's our game! You're not going to give that away!'"

Fair enough. But what if the leagues got together to form a joint venture, the same way that TV networks got together to form Hulu? Couldn't their combined power force the networks to let them put games online too? Shapiro is doubtful.

"If you've got a Comcast with 26 million households or a DirecTV with 20 million households, that's direct revenue to whoever owns those rights," Shapiro said. "If you're a league it's very hard to figure out how you're going to come up with that kind of money by going direct to the consumer. If the ad market were really strong, then maybe you could do it ... You're forgoing a real and predictable revenue stream for something that might be a lot bigger but no one has really cracked yet."

And yet, I still hold out hope for my vision of Hulu for Sports. Perhaps when a big TV contract is up next time a league will consider holding some rights for online distribution and new models. And perhaps, just perhaps, the cord-cutters will have an option to watch the sports they want on their own time on the platforms they enjoy most.

*****

What do you think? Would you cut the cable TV cord if you could watch sporting events live online? How would your own Hulu for Sports work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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December 08 2010

18:27

Philosophy with John Searle: Three Free Courses

You can’t dabble in the world of philosophy very long without encountering John Searle. One of America’s most respected philosophers, Searle did important work on “speech act” theory during the 1960s, then later turned to consciousness and artificial intelligence, out of which came his famous “Chinese room” thought experiment. Searle has taught philosophy at UC-Berkeley since 1959, and, until recently, his courses were only available to matriculated students. But this fall semester, the good folks at Berkeley recorded three courses taught by Searle, and made them available online. We have added them to the Philosophy section of our big collection of Free Online Courses. Or, you can simply access the courses below, using your computer or your smart phone.

Reminder: we recently launched a mobile version of Open Culture. Just point your smartphone browser to OpenCulture.com, and you can then access our intelligent media on the go!

  • Philosophy of Language – iTunesFeedWeb Site
  • Philosophy of Mind iTunesFeedWeb Site
  • Philosophy of Society – iTunesFeedWeb Site
  • Special Deal: The Teaching Company is now offering up to 70% OFF audio downloads of their Great Courses. Time is limited.

    Philosophy with John Searle: Three Free Courses is a post from: Open Culture. Visit us at www.openculture.com

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