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June 28 2013

15:00

This Week in Review: The backlash against Greenwald and Snowden, and RSS’s new wave

glenn-greenwald-cc

Greenwald, journalism, and advocacy: It’s been three weeks since the last review, and a particularly eventful three weeks at that. So this review will cover more than just the last week, but it’ll be weighted toward the most recent stuff. I’ll start with the U.S. National Security Agency spying revelations, covering first the reporter who broke them (Glenn Greenwald), then his source (Edward Snowden), and finally a few brief tech-oriented pieces of the news itself.

Nearly a month since the first stories on U.S. government data-gathering, Greenwald, who runs an opinionated and meticulously reported blog for the Guardian, continues to break news of further electronic surveillance, including widespread online metadata collection by the Obama administration that continues today, despite the official line that it ended in 2011. Greenwald’s been the object of scrutiny himself, with a thorough BuzzFeed profile on his past as an attorney and questions from reporters about old lawsuits, back taxes, and student loan debt.

The rhetoric directed toward Greenwald by other journalists was particularly fierce: The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin said on CNBC he’s “almost arrest” Greenwald (he later apologized), and most notably, NBC’s David Gregory asked Greenwald “to the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden,” why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple refuted Gregory’s line of questioning point-by-point and also examined the legal case for prosecuting Greenwald (there really isn’t one).

There were several other breakdowns of Gregory’s questions as a way of defending himself as a professional journalist by excluding Greenwald as one; of these, NYU professor Jay Rosen’s was the definitive take. The Los Angeles Times’ Benjamin Mueller seconded his point, arguing that by going after Greenwald’s journalistic credentials, “from behind the veil of impartiality, Gregory and his colleagues went to bat for those in power, hiding a dangerous case for tightening the journalistic circle.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm argued that Gregory is endangering himself by defining journalism based on absence of opinion, and The New York Times’ David Carr called for journalists to show some solidarity on behalf of transparency. PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram used the case to argue that the “bloggers vs. journalists” tension remains important, and Greenwald himself said it indicated the incestuous relationship between Washington journalists and those in power.

A few, like Salon’s David Sirota, turned the questions on Gregory, wondering why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime, since he too has disclosed classified information. Or why he should be considered a journalist, given his track record of subservience to politicians, as New York magazine’s Frank Rich argued.

Earlier, Rosen had attempted to mediate some of the criticism of Greenwald by arguing that there are two valid ways of approaching journalism — with or without politics — that are both necessary for a strong press. Former newspaper editor John L. Robinson added a call for passion in journalism, while CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi both went further and argued that all journalism is advocacy.

edward-snowden-stencil-cc

Snowden and leaking in public: The other major figure in the aftermath of this story has been Edward Snowden, the employee of a national security contractor who leaked the NSA information to Greenwald and revealed his identity shortly after the story broke. The U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage (about which Greenwald was understandably livid), as he waited in Hong Kong, not expecting to see home again.

The first 48 hours of this week were a bit of blur: Snowden applied for asylum in Ecuador (the country that’s been harboring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange), then reportedly left Hong Kong for Moscow. But Snowden wasn’t on a scheduled flight from Moscow to Cuba, creating confusion about where exactly he was — and whether he was ever in Moscow in the first place. He did all this with the apparent aid of WikiLeaks, whose leaders claimed that they know where Snowden is and that they could publish the rest of his NSA documents. It was a bit of a return to the spotlight for WikiLeaks, which has nonetheless remained on the FBI’s radar for the last several years, with the bureau even paying a WikiLeaks volunteer as an informant.

We got accounts from the three journalists Snowden contacted — Greenwald, The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, and filmmaker Laura Poitras — about their interactions with him, as well as a probe by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan into why he didn’t go to The Times. In a pair of posts, paidContent’s Mathew Ingram argued that the leak’s path showed that having a reputation as an alternative voice can be preferable to being in the mainstream when it comes to some newsgathering, and that news will flow to wherever it finds the least resistance. The Times’ David Carr similarly concluded that news stories aren’t as likely to follow established avenues of power as they used to.

As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple described, news organizations debated whether to call Snowden a “leaker,” “source,” or “whistleblower,” Several people, including The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta and Forbes’ Tom Watson, tried to explain why Snowden was garnering less popular support than might be expected, while The New Yorker’s John Cassidy detailed the backlash against Snowden in official circles, which, as Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post pointed out, was made largely with the aid of anonymity granted by journalists.

Numerous people, such as Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast, also decried that backlash, with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed making a particularly salient point: Journalists have long disregarded their sources’ personal motives and backgrounds in favor of the substance of the information they provide, and now that sources have become more public, the rest of us are going to have to get used to that, too. The New York Times’ David Carr also noted that “The age of the leaker as Web-enabled public figure has arrived.”

Finally the tech angle: The Prism program that Snowden leaked relied on data from tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, and those companies responded first by denying their direct involvement in the program, then by competing to show off their commitment to transparency, as Time’s Sam Gustin reported. First, Google asked the U.S. government for permission to reveal all their incoming government requests for information, followed quickly by Facebook and Microsoft. Then, starting with Facebook, those companies released the total number of government requests for data they’ve received, though Google and Twitter pushed to be able to release more specific numbers. Though there were early reports of special government access to those companies’ servers, Google reported that it uses secure FTP to transfer its data to the government.

Instagram’s bet on longer (but still short) video: Facebook’s Instagram moved into video last week, announcing 15-second videos, as TechCrunch reported in its good summary of the new feature. That number drew immediate comparisons to the six-second looping videos of Twitter’s Vine. As The New York Times noted, length is the primary difference between the two video services (though TechCrunch has a pretty comprehensive comparison), and Instagram is betting that longer videos will be better.

The reason isn’t aesthetics: As Quartz’s Christopher Mims pointed out, the ad-friendly 15-second length fits perfectly with Facebook’s ongoing move into video advertising. As soon as Instagram’s video service was released, critics started asking a question that would’ve seemed absurd just a few years ago: Is 15 seconds too long? Josh Wolford of WebProNews concluded that it is indeed too much, at least for the poorly produced amateur content that will dominate the service. At CNET, Danny Sullivan tried to make peace with the TL;DR culture behind Vine and Instagram Video.

Several tech writers dismissed it on sight: John Gruber of Daring Fireball gave it a terse kiss-off, while Mathew Ingram of GigaOM explained why he won’t use it — can’t be easily scanned, and a low signal-to-noise ratio — though he said it could be useful for advertisers and kids. PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott argued that Instagram’s video (like Instagram itself) is more about vanity-oriented presentation than useful communication. And both John Herrman of BuzzFeed and Farhad Manjoo of Slate lamented the idea that Instagram and Facebook seem out of ideas, with Manjoo called it symptomatic of the tech world in general. “Instead of invention, many in tech have fallen into the comfortable groove of reinvention,” Manjoo wrote.

Chris Gayomali of The Week, however, saw room for both Vine and Instagram to succeed. Meanwhile, Nick Statt of ReadWrite examined the way Instagram’s filters have changed the way photography is seen, even among professional photographers and photojournalists.

google-reader-mark-all-as-readThe post-Google Reader RSS rush: As Google Reader approaches its shutdown Monday, several other companies are taking the opportunity to jump into the suddenly reinvigorated RSS market. AOL launched its own Reader this week, and old favorite NetNewsWire relaunched a new reader as well.

Based on some API code, there was speculation that Facebook could be announcing its own RSS reader soon. That hasn’t happened, though The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is working on a Flipboard-like mobile aggregation device. GigaOM’s Eliza Kern explained why she wouldn’t want a Facebook RSS feed, while Fast Company’s Chris Dannen said a Facebook RSS reader could actually help solve the “filter bubble” like-minded information problem.

Sarah Perez of TechCrunch examined the alternatives to Google Reader, concluding disappointedly that there simply isn’t a replacement out there for it. Her colleague, Darrell Etherington, chided tech companies for their reactionary stance toward RSS development. Carol Kopp of Minyanville argued, however, that much of the rush toward RSS development is being driven just as much by a desire to crack the mobile-news nut, something she believed could be accomplished. RSS pioneer Dave Winer was also optimistic about its future, urging developers to think about “What would news do?” in order to reshape it for a new generation.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories you might have missed over the past couple of weeks:

— Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings, who had built up a reputation as a maverick through his stellar, incisive reporting on foreign affairs, was killed in a car accident last week at age 33. Several journalists — including BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, Slate’s David Weigel, and freelancer Corey Pein — wrote warm, inspiring remembrances of a fearless journalist and friend. Time’s James Poniewozik detected among reporters in general “maybe a little shame that more of us don’t always remember who our work is meant to serve” in their responses to Hastings’ death.

— Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism issued a study based on a survey of nonprofit news organizations that provided some valuable insights into the state of nonprofit journalism. The Lab’s Justin Ellis, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer explained the findings. Media analyst Alan Mutter urged nonprofit news orgs to put more focus on financial sustainability, while Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center called on their funders to do the same thing.

— Oxford’s Reuters Institute also issued a survey-based study whose findings focused on consumers’ willingness to pay for news. The Lab’s Sarah Darville and BBC News’ Leo Kelion summarized the findings, while paidContent’s Mathew Ingram gave an anti-paywall reading. The Press Gazette also highlighted a side point in the study — the popularity of live blogs.

— Texas state politics briefly grabbed a much broader spotlight this week with state Sen. Wendy Davis’ successful 13-hour filibuster of a controversial abortion bill. Many people noticed that coverage of the filibuster (and surrounding protest) was propelled by digital photo and video, rather than cable news. VentureBeat’s Meghan Kelly, Time’s James Poniewozik, and The Verge’s Carl Franzen offered explanations.

— Finally, a couple of reads from the folks at Digital First, one sobering and another inspiring: CEO John Paton made the case for the inadequacy of past-oriented models in sustaining newspapers, and digital editor Steve Buttry collected some fantastic advice for students on shaping the future of journalism.

Photos of Glenn Greenwald by Gage Skidmore and Edward Snowden stencil by Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license. Instagram video by @bakerbk.

June 17 2013

20:20

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote a insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practiced by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

August 01 2011

20:00

“A great story to tell to advertisers”: How TPM increased its ad sales revenue 88 percent from last year

This June, Talking Points Memo had the biggest ad sales month in its eleven-year history, closing out a half-year period that saw ad sales revenue grow 88 percent over the same period in 2010.

First of all: Yowza. Second of all, though: That number, while big, isn’t entirely out of left field. “We’ve been growing at double-digit — sometimes approaching triple-digit — growth ever since we started our direct-sales ad program,” TPM’s founder/editor/publisher, Josh Marshall, told me. So while the 88 percent stat is a record, and “we love that number,” he notes, it’s also “not dramatically different from what we’ve had in previous years.”

Still, though, it’s worth a moment of pause. Because here is a web-native news organization that started as, you know, Some Guy’s Blog and that is now able to sustain itself — actually, grow itself — based on digital ad revenue. At a time when many news publishers are struggling in a sea of digital dimes, TPM, it seems, is finding a way to turn those dimes into dollars.

Marshall attributes the success largely to TPM’s organizational double-down on direct ad sales. In 2009, as it expanded its presence in D.C., the site — which had previously relied on networks like Blogads to support its operations — began investing in in-house advertising efforts, bringing on a sales VP and taking advantage of TPM’s famously loyal user base to make a compelling pitch to advertisers. And at higher CPMs.

“The big thing is really talented people doing the sales,” Marshall says.

And another thing is time: Ad sales are about relationships, and cultivating them can’t happen overnight. The real growth of TPM’s ad sales numbers really “started to kick in after we’d had some time to tell the advertisers about the site, about the value proposition of advertising with us,” Marshall notes.

And a big part of that proposition is the thing that advertisers are actually buying when they sign on with TPM: the TPM audience, the collective of dedicated (and also, generally: affluent, educated, influential) people whose eyeballs advertisers generally want to reach. Advertisers so far have included big national brands like Toyota, BP, HBO, Goldman Sachs, and CVS; media outlets like Current TV, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; and organizations like Harvard Business School, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Association of American Railroads, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the Obama 2012 Re-Election Campaign. (That last group is a big part of TPM’s ad strategy, particularly for its D.C.-based audience. The advocacy market tends to have deep pockets — and “everybody wants to have their story told to the people who are calling the shots, who live in D.C.,” Marshall points out.)

But TPM’s readership isn’t limited to the District (indeed, this has been a pretty good month to remind us that Washington news is national news), and part of TPM’s pitch is that its audience nationwide is particularly engaged with its content and mission. (And also, again: affluent, educated, influential.)

And that’s evidenced in part by an annual reader survey that TPM conducts, consisting of over 30 questions, asking readers to send TPM data about themselves and their reading habits. TPM’s 2011 survey was introduced with a quick request for completion from Marshall; it was live for 24 hours; and it received, Marshall told me, some 26,000 completed results.

Again: Yowza.

So TPM offers not just a quality audience, in terms of the demographics advertisers like, but also a highly — even hyper- — engaged one. Readers often visit TPM multiple times a day. They trust it. They consider themselves, often quite literally, to be a part of it. Because of all that, Marshall says, “we have a great story to tell to advertisers.”

It’s a story, sure, that’s a fairly unique one in today’s news environment. Political coverage of the depth and intensity TPM offers may lend itself to reader engagement; it’s also hard to duplicate, though, especially at more general-interest publications. But as news outlets big and small, general-interest and niche, consider their futures, TPM’s experience can be instructive — not only editorially, but also financially. There are basically two TPMs: There’s TPM, the new media visionary and crowdsourcing pioneer and Polk Award winner and “prototype of what the successful Web-based news organization is likely to be in the future“; and then there’s TPM, the scrappy startup that is trying to make a viable business of web-native political reporting. TPM’s ad-sales success suggests the tantalizing possibility that, even in today’s murky media environment, TPM 1 and TPM 2 can actually be the same thing.

March 09 2011

20:09

goGIRLglobal - G(irls)20 Summit 2011 Paris

Today, as people around the world celebrate the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, The Belinda Stronach Foundation and 30 supporting businesses and organizations have announced the Second Annual G(irls)20 Summit 2011.  On October 18-20, a girl from each of the G20 countries, and the African Union, will come together to “debate, discuss and design innovative solutions for the economic challenges of our time.” The participants are all 18-20 year old young women and will be trained in business, media and public policy so that they can grow innovative solutions in their own communities. Together they will write recommendations for the G20 leaders to consider when they meet in November 2011. There are many ways for YOU to get involved. Are you, your sister, cousin or friend the next G(irls)20 Summit delegate from your country?

Go to www.girlsandwomen.com and participate.  You can apply to be a 2011 G(irls)20 Summit delegate.  BE THE VOICE OF CHANGE. Anyone can sign up and be counted in support of the 3.3 billion girls and women around the world and MAKE YOUR NUMBER COUNT by giving suggestions to the delegates. Help spread the message with your FacebookTwitterYoutubeand other social media.  BE THE FACE OF CHANGE.   

goGIRLglobal is investing in the power of girls, our next generation of amazing, smart women with a steady stream of information for bigger dreams and a better planet. Subscribe at www.gogirlglobal.com and join us!


 

December 07 2010

16:56

Video Volunteers Launches 'IndiaUnheard' for Rural Issues

Video Volunteers recently launched IndiaUnheard, a new project (and website) attempting to create a bridge, through community media, between disconnected rural communities and web audiences who are interested in news on issues of human rights, development and corruption. You can see the result and watch the community videos here. As this is a relatively new venture -- it's only about 4 to 5 months old -- I'd love feedback from the highly knowledgeable Knight and MediaShift Idea Lab community.

Here are some videos to show you what it's about: The village of Natpura, featured in this video below, in rural Uttar Pradesh has no women left in it. Every single one of them has been sold into prostitution rings in India and around the world by their families.

At the other side of the country, in another village, impoverished children featured in this video are not able to take their national exams because headmasters demand a bribe their families cannot afford to pay.

These two stories were broken not by mainstream journalists but by people living in these actual communities -- people who themselves experience these same kinds of exploitation and disadvantage. Because of that, the reporters (or community correspondent, as Video Volunteers calls them) have a vested interest in making sure something happens as a result of the video. They are de facto activists. In the case of the second video, the teacher in question school has been demoted. After seeing that result, the people in a neighboring village asked the correspondent to come make a video about their horrible school, and the teacher in that school was also suspended. Angry villagers mounted a rally led by our young, 19 year-old community correspondent, Mukesh Rajak, himself a young Dalit from the "lowest" caste in India. Mukesh went to the government official's office and showed her the video on his cell phone. The official was furious and took action against the bribe-taking teacher. This is the power of community media and the cascading effect of local media.

How it Works

Our 30 community correspondents (CCs) are stationed across India, nearly one in every state. They make us on average one video a month and we pay them about $30 a video. We are trying to set them up as entrepreneurs -- they make videos, they get paid. If they don't, they don't get paid. This is different from the more charitable model of most community media and is possible because we are working with adults, not youth or children.

The first 30 CCs were trained in March 2010, with support from the News Challenge. They had a two-week residential training in all manner of video journalism. In our primary program, dubbed the Community Video Units, we give them 18 months of full time training that we have felt is necessary when working with such rural communities, so a short intensive training was a departure for us. We plan to take in two new batches of Community Correspondents every year.

A Diverse Network

Community Correspondents are dalits, tribals, Muslims, rural women, among others. Our CC in Chhattisgarh is Sarwat. He is a member of his village council and feels that IndiaUnheard offers a better platform for tackling real issues than local government does. Rohini is our CC from Walhe village in Maharashtra. She was married off right after she finished her 10th grade. She is determined to change the condition of women in her community and her videos bear testimony to this. She's made video stories on devdasis (temple slaves/prostitutes), early marriage and anti-women customs like dowry. Christyraj is a transgender CC from Bangalore. He is one of the only transgender journalists in India and works tirelessly to bring the issues of his community to the fore.

Since May 1 (we launched on World Press Day) a new video report on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education is being released every day on the IndiaUnheard website. They are also further distributed through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online news portals like Ground Report. Though these communities in India don't have Internet access, they are speaking directly to a global web audience. The impact stories we have -- such as medical supplies being delivered to villages after an IndiaUnheard report, by a web viewer, and people getting their ration cards because of the pressure of exposure on corrupt officials -- are examples of something that is still very high tech in the developing world (cell phone video) actually seeping in to make an impact on corruption.

The people we work with are still totally unconnected, with only one cell phone shared between many family members, no computer skills and Internet cafes often hours away. We struggle with how to bring their media and their voices to a global audience when they themselves can't participate in the online dialog. We've designed some rather unusual solutions to this digital divide challenge-- such as maintaining Facebook and twitter accounts for them which we maintain on their behalf and call them on the phone when anyone asks them a question -- but the internet is still rather unreal and insignificant to them, though storytelling and the desire to be heard certainly is not.

IndiaUnheard fits with lots of efforts being made in India by the UN, the Indian government and NGOs to promote local democracy. IndiaUnheard's role is to promote democracy by enabling marginalized communities to represent themselves and their issues. Hyperlocal media models empower people with the tools to bring attention to their own issues and to come out from the shadows. India is the world's largest democracy; however, most people don't know their rights as information does not reach the poor majority. Simultaneously, government and the mainstream media cannot easily access the knowledge and perspectives of the poor. IndiaUnheard enables marginalized people to influence policies, highlight gross injustices and take a stand, so a better-informed nation can better tackle issues like rural corruption or failing rural schools or health systems.

A Business Model?

IndiaUnheard is an innovative business model for democratizing the media. I've written about this in other posts on MediaShift Idea Lab to make the point that India and other developing countries have a very small number of stringers in rural areas and those that exist are usually not professionally trained journalists. Video Volunteers believes the poor can be winners in the changing media landscape and that some community correspondents can, in time, support themselves in the market. It's not just that our community correspondents would be cheaper than other freelancers the mainstream could draw on. With the advent of citizen journalism and changing viewing habits thanks to the Internet, the world is hungry to see content they've never seen before. Our producers are in places that the mainstream media cannot or does not access so this is a window into the real India.

Mainstream journalists working in India tend to cover only a certain demographic, they do not dig deep to uncover the stories of the marginalized. Video Volunteers will be feeding IndiaUnheard stories to print and television media, giving journalists -- especially local media -- another source of interesting stories.

What Next?

Our ambition is to expand the program nationally to a point where there is one community correspondent in all 626 districts of India, and internationally, in partnership with NGOs, filmmakers and journalists. This is totally funding dependent, of course, but if we can find people to invest for a few years, I believe that eventually we can be earning a sizable chunk of our revenues from the mainstream media. The question is: is it 20 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? We are trying to work that out now.

In the longer term, this low cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

So, please go to IndiaUnheard and watch some of the videos. Write a comment, ask a question of the person who made the video. We'll get on the phone to them and post you an answer. In doing this, you'll help one isolated community in rural India feel a little bit more "heard."

September 27 2010

16:00

From Al Capone to Rod Blagojevich, how Chicago’s Better Government Association is reinventing itself

What should a good government organization with an investigative bent look like in 2010? That’s the question leaders of the Better Government Association, a Chicago institution that’s been battling city corruption since Al Capone, have been asking recently. The BGA is best known for its investigative partnerships with Chicago media, perhaps most famously the time it helped the Chicago Sun Times open and operate a bar called The Mirage Tavern. The 1977 investigation documented rampant city corruption, from kickbacks to tax skimming.

That type of investigative work is needed now more than ever, the BGA’s new executive director, Andy Shaw, told me. Shaw pointed to a combination of serious problems in city and state government (e.g. Rod Blagojevich) and the decline in the power of the state’s biggest traditional media outlets (e.g. the Chicago Tribune’s parent company currently being in bankruptcy proceedings). How does an institution like the BGA have impact in that kind of an environment?

Shaw, a veteran politics reporter for the ABC affiliate in Chicago, joined the BGA in June 2009. Since then, he’s quadrupled the BGA’s budget to $1.5 million, thanks to a number of foundation grants from places like the Knight Foundation and charitable arms of companies like Boeing. He’s ramped up the operation from a staff of two to a staff of 14. Shaw just announced the hire of three veteran Chicago reporters: Bob Reed, Bob Herguth and John Conroy (recently profiled in CJR). And he’s rethought how the BGA should operate in a new media age.

“All of this is made possible by the realization that we have a service that is critically necessary,” Shaw told me. “We know how to investigate.”

I spoke with Shaw about his specific plans for expansion. He was candid in his responses, saying he hopes other cities will start up their own BGA-style organizations — not unlike the boom we’ve seen recently in regional investigative nonprofits. “We’re trying to create a model for anti-corruption watchdogs to operate,” he told me. “There’s this desperate need for information and scrutiny.” Here are a few of the areas where the BGA is investing.

Partnerships

The rest of the journalism world seems to be catching up to the BGA when it comes to partnerships between nonprofits and news organizations. Shaw says now’s the time for BGA to diversify the kinds of partnerships it has. The group will still maintain relationships with traditional outlets like the Chicago Sun-Times and local television stations, but they’re also looking to online and niche publications, like Crain’s Chicago Business, and the education-focused Catalyst Chicago. One of its strongest partners is the Chicago News Cooperative, which provides The New York Times with content.

“The lifelong mission of this organization, which goes back to 1923, has become increasingly more important as legacy media is less able to do its old job,” Shaw said. “We have had an increasing number of partnerships with media in the pursuit of good stories. Over the last year, we’ve doubled the number of partnerships.”

Audience

Traditionally, the BGA reached an audience through its partner news organizations. Thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation, Shaw says they’re in the midst of a major overhaul of their site, which will begin rolling out in October. The site itself will become a destination for information, plus a place for users to submit content or tipsters to reach investigators.

“They’ll be able to report problems with government, ranging from potholes that don’t get fixed to snow that doesn’t get removed, to work sites where nothing gets done, to boards, commissions and agencies that don’t seem to be doing their jobs — or doing their jobs in a questionable way.”

BGA also wants to train locals to do reporting themselves, letting users contribute blog posts to the site. Shaw hopes that distributed effort will allow BGA to move into parts of Illinois outside Chicago. Their Watchdog program offers in-person training on filing Freedom of Information requests and other investigative basics.

Impact

Shaw is clear that BGA is an advocacy group, with a mission to stamp out corruption. That means a great story with no impact is of less value to BGA than it might be to a news organization. He wants readers contacting officials and pushing for change. “The biggest difference is we’ve begun to understand how important civic engagement is,” he said. “It’s not enough to disclose. We must propose solutions. Everything we uncover is matched with a source of remediation: cancel the contract; rebid the contract; revisit the salary structures. We are telling the subjects of our stories what we think they ought to be doing.”

Though BGA brings an advocate’s perspective, Shaw’s effort to double down on impact is right in line with what other nonprofit news organizations are facing. Nonprofit news organizations like the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica all talk about impact as an important part of their viability as nonprofits — results sell better to funders than stories alone.

September 24 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Apple’s subscription plan, the exodus from objectivity, and startup guides galore

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Is Apple giving publishers a raw deal?: The San Jose Mercury News’ report that Apple is moving toward a newspaper and magazine subscription plan via its App Store didn’t immediately generate much talk when it was published last week, but the story picked up quite a bit of steam this week. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal both confirmed the story over the weekend, reporting that Apple may introduce the service early next year along with a new iPad. The service, they said, will be similar to Apple’s iBook store, and Bloomberg reported that it will be separate from the App Store.

Those reports were met with near-universal skepticism — not of their accuracy, but of Apple’s motivations and trustworthiness within such a venture. Former journalist Steve Yelvington sounded the alarm most clearly: “Journalists and publishers, Apple is not your friend.” It’s a corporation, Yelvington said, and like all corporations, it will do anything — including ripping you apart — to pursue its own self-interest.

Several other observers fleshed out some of the details of Yelvington’s concern: EMarketer’s Paul Verna compared the situation to Apple’s treatment of the music industry with iTunes, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and TechCrunch’s MG Siegler wondered whether publishers would balk at giving up data about their subscribers to Apple or at Apple’s reported plans to take a 30% share of subscription revenue. Ingram predicted that publishers would play ball with Apple, but warned that they might wind up “sitting in a corner counting their digital pennies, while Apple builds the business that they should have built themselves.” Dovetailing with their worries was another story of Apple’s control over news content on its platform, as Network World reported that Apple was threatening to remove Newsday’s iPad app over a (quite innocuous) commercial by the newspaper that Apple allegedly found offensive.

Media analyst Ken Doctor broke down publishers’ potential reactions to Apple’s initiative, looking at the plan’s appeal to them (“It offers a do-over, the chance to redraw the pay/free lines of the open web”) and their possible responses (accept, negotiate with Apple, or look into “anti-competitive inquiries”). In a post at the Lab, Doctor also took a quick look at Apple’s potential subscription revenue through this arrangement, an amount he said could be “mind-bending.”

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka noted one indicator that publishers are in serious need of a subscription service on the iPad, pointing out that Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated can’t pay for the designers to make its iPad app viewable in two directions because, according to its digital head, it doesn’t have the money without an iPad subscription program. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan used the same situation to explain why iPad subscriptions would be so critical for publishers and readers.

A coup for journalism with a point of view: It hasn’t been unusual over the past year to read about big-name journalists jumping from legacy-media organizations to web-journalism outfits, but two of those moves this week seemed to mark a tipping point for a lot of the observers of the future-of-journalism world. Both were made by The Huffington Post, as it nabbed longtime Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman and top New York Times business writer Peter Goodman.

The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford looked at what Fineman’s departure means for Newsweek (he’s one of at least 10 Newsweek editorial staffers to leave since the magazine’s sale was announced last month), but what got most people talking was Goodman’s explanation of why he was leaving: “It’s a chance to write with a point of view,” he said. “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.”

That kind of reporting (as opposed to, as Goodman called it, “laundering my own views” by getting someone from a thinktank to express them in an article) is exactly what many new-media folks have been advocating, and hearing someone from The New York Times express it so clearly felt to them like a turning point. The tone of centrist detachment of mainstream journalism “has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent,” declared NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter. Others echoed that thought: Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan extolled the virtues of being “able to call bullshit bullshit,” and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said legacy news orgs like The Times need to find a way to allow its reporters more freedom to voice their perspective while maintaining their standards. Salon’s Dan Gillmor agreed with Rosenberg on the centrality of human voice within journalism and noted that this exodus to new media is also a sign of those sites’ financial strength.

Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver countered that while transparency and clear voice is preferable to traditional “objectivity,” freeing traditional journalists isn’t as simple as just spilling their biases. Advocacy journalism is not just giving an opinion, he said, it’s a “disciplined, ethical posture that tries to build truth out of evidence, regardless of the outcome.”

Getting journalism startups off the ground: If you’re interested in the journalism startup scene — for-profit or nonprofit — you got a gold mine of observations and insights this week. Over at PBS’ Idea Lab, Brad Flora, founder of the Chicago blog network Windy Citizen, examined five mistakes that kill local news blogs. Here’s how he summed his advice up: “You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. … You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business.” The post has some fantastic comments, including a great set of advice from The Batavian’s Howard Owens. On his own blog, Owens also gave some pretty thorough tips on developing advertising revenue at a local news startup.

On the nonprofit side, the Knight Citizen News Network went even deeper into startup how-to, providing a comprehensive 12-step guide to launching a nonprofit news organization. It may be the single best resource on the web for the practical work of starting a nonprofit news site. Voice of San Diego is one of the most successful examples of those sites, and its CEO, Scott Lewis told the story of his organization and the flame-out of the for-profit San Diego News Network as an example of the importance of what he calls “revenue promiscuity.”

David Cohn, founder of another nonprofit news startup, Spot.Us, also looked at six new journalism startups, leading off with Kommons, a question-answering site built around Twitter and co-founded by NYU Local founder Cody Brown. Rachel Sklar of Mediaite gave it a glowing review, describing it as “a community that seeks smart, conversation-furthering answers prompted by smart, probing questions — publicly.” She also said it sneakily lures users into giving it free content, though Brown responded that anyone who’s ever asked you to interview has been trying to do the same thing — only without giving you any control over how your words get used. (Kommons isn’t being sneaky, he said. You know you’re not getting paid going in.)

Three more future-oriented j-school programs: After last week’s discussion about the role of journalism schools in innovation, news of new j-school projects continued to roll in this week. City University of New York announced it’s expanding its graduate course in entrepreneurial journalism into the United States’ first master’s degree in that area. New-media guru Jeff Jarvis, who will direct the program, wrote that he wants CUNY to lead a movement to combine journalism and entrepreneurship skills at schools across the country.

Two nationwide news organizations are also developing new programs in partnership with j-schools: Journalism.co.uk reported that CNN is working on a mentoring initiative with journalism students called iReport University and has signed up City University London, and AOL announced that its large-scale hyperlocal project, Patch, is teaming up with 13 U.S. j-schools for a program called PatchU that will give students college credit for working on a local Patch site under the supervision of a Patch editor. Of course, using college students is a nice way to get content for cheap, something Ken Doctor noted as he also wondered what the extent of Patch’s mentoring would be.

Reading roundup: As always, there’s plenty of good stuff to get to. Here’s a quick glance:

— Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie gave a lecture in the U.K. Wednesday night that was, for the most part, a pretty standard rundown of what the U.S. journalism ecosystem looks like from a traditional-media perspective. What got the headlines, though, was Downie’s dismissal of online aggregators as “parasites living off journalism produced by others.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan gave it an eye-roll, and Terry Heaton pushed back at Downie, too. Earlier in the week, media analyst Frederic Filloux broke down the differences between the good guys and bad guys in online aggregation.

— The New York Times published an interesting story on the social news site Digg and its redesign to move some power out of the hands of its cadre of “power” users. The Next Web noted that Digg’s traffic has been dropping pretty significantly, and Drury University j-prof Jonathan Groves wondered whether Digg is still relevant.

— A couple of hyperlocal tidbits: A new Missouri j-school survey found that community news site users are more satisfied with those sites than their local mainstream media counterparts, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds posited that speed is less important than news orgs might think with hyperlocal news.

— Finally, a couple of follow-ups to Dean Starkman’s critique of the journalism “hamster wheel” last week: Here at the Lab, Nikki Usher looked at five ways newsrooms can encourage creativity despite increasing demands, and in a very smart response to Starkman, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that one of the biggest keys to finding meaning in an information-saturated online journalism landscape is teaching journalists to do more critical reading and curating.

August 31 2010

14:54

A Voter Participation Starter Kit for Nonprofits and Social Service Agencies

Nonprofit Vote has recently created a toolkit help you improve your organization's voter engagement activities. It's designed to help you get started in planning and carrying out simple, effective, and nonpartisan voter engagement  - and all of the content is free and available online. 

read more

June 07 2010

23:36

Barnett: Advocacy, Membership Groups to Push Non-Profit News

The erosion of the traditional business model for news has led many to go down the non-profit path. The result is a slew of new non-profit news websites. The Bay Citizen, which launched at the end of May, is the newest and joins the likes of ProPublica, MinnPost, and the Texas Tribune, to name just a few. But as the closing of the non-profit Chi-Town Daily News last year indicates, running a non-profit isn't easy.

Perhaps no one understands this as well as Jim Barnett. After almost two decades as a newspaper reporter, Barnett threw his efforts into launching his own non-profit news service in 2005. Managing a non-profit proved to be a major challenge and Barnett realized he'd need some new skills in order to be successful in this space. These days, he's pursuing a masters in non-profit management at George Washington University, working as an in-house adviser to AARP's publications group and doing some editing for the Washington Post News Service at night. He's also been expanding on his academic work on his blog, The Nonprofit Road, and more recently on Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab blog.

I spoke with Barnett to examine the outlook for non-profit journalism, the government's role in the future of news, quality indicators for good non-profit news sources, and more.

Q&A

You've been blogging about non-profit journalism since 2009. You're pursuing a non-profit management degree at GW and you even tried to launch your own journalism non-profit. It's fair to say you're pretty invested in the model. Are you concerned that the activity in the non-profit journalism space will slow down at all because of the drop in newspaper layoffs? How do you think non-profit journalism will evolve over the next five years?

Jim Barnett: While it is true that the bloodletting of the past couple of years has created a huge talent pool for non-profit startups, I think the model really is riding its own trajectory. What now seems like a flurry of interest I think is actually the result of a longer-term trend that I think will continue as the economy recovers and the newspaper industry stabilizes.

I think the recent uptick of interest in the non-profit model can be traced to events in 2004, as it was becoming painfully apparent to many in the news business that the newspaper model would not translate simply or easily into the digital age.

One was Louisiana State University's March 2004 symposium, "News in the Public Interest: A Free and Subsidized Press," which attracted thought leaders. The non-profit model was a major topic of discussion, and it soon began gaining traction within journalism circles.

In November 2004, Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Phil Meyer of UNC-Chapel Hill entitled "Saving Journalism." In it, Meyer talked about the non-profit model as a way 'to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today.'

After a lot of talk that year, things really started taking off. In 2005, the Voice of San Diego was launched. Two years later came ProPublica and MinnPost. Today, there are many more, small and large. And now, other non-profits that do advocacy and education are exploring how they can use the tools of journalism to help fill the void.

How will the non-profit model evolve over the next five years? I don't think anybody can say with any degree of certainty. We're in a period of great experimentation, and much will be up to luck and circumstance. But when you think about how much has happened since 2004, I do think it is clear that the sector has achieved a critical mass that will carry it for years to come.

I will risk two general predictions. I think you'll see a lot more advocacy non-profits (think Human Rights Watch or American Red Cross) doing more to fill the void in traditional journalism. And I think you'll see more journalism sponsored by membership groups (think Council on Foreign Relations) and online communities (Spot.Us) that function like membership groups in many ways.

You're no stranger to criticism of non-profit journalism. Do you believe the model has its limits or is it journalism's silver bullet?

Barnett: It's by no means a silver bullet. I'm always very careful to say that the non-profit model is an answer, not the answer. But the non-profit model is especially useful in certain areas, such as public affairs reporting from D.C. and state capitals that have been abandoned by many newspapers but that we need to function as a society.

This is not a new revelation. I like to remind people that the non-profit sector in journalism dates to 1846 when a group of New York newspapers formed a cooperative to cover the Mexican-American War. That cooperative serves us now as the non-profit Associated Press, and the economic forces that made it a good idea then remain in force today.

Is there anything non-profit journalism does better than traditional newspaper journalism in its heyday?

Barnett: That remains to be seen. But I do think the non-profit model does as good a job as any of matching newspapers' ability to take risks, throwing reporters and resources at a story without any promise of financial return. In most for-profit models of the digital age, news stories must serve two masters: Each must meet the standards of journalistic inquiry and each must carry some share of the freight by generating online advertising revenue. In the non-profit model, the case for philanthropy can be built around the pursuit of objective journalism without the same pressure to generate immediate readership and revenue.

You've written about the Newspaper Revitalization Act and the FCC's Future of Media project. What role should the government play in the future of journalism?


Barnett: First, we need to separate the concepts of journalism and the media -- in this case, newspapers -- that deliver it. I'm not a huge fan of the Cardin bill because it attempts to give newspapers -- not necessarily journalism -- a special place in line for government help. I think government creates problems in any industry when it starts picking favorites, no matter how noble the cause. If newspaper publishers really want to operate under non-profit status, they can do so under existing law. But the real problem is the economics: Publishers must serve shareholders first, and they generally do better by continuing to cut costs (read: news staff) even if they lose circulation and quality. The Cardin bill does nothing to reverse the newspaper death spiral.

Do you think public subsidies, such as the ones suggested by Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, are a good idea?


Barnett: Whether one thinks subsidies are good or bad, they are a fact of life for any major media enterprise. Earlier this year, David Westphal and Geoffrey Cowan at USC released a masterful report showing the pervasiveness of government subsidies to news media of all kinds, and they argued that this is exactly how the Founding Fathers intended it. I think their report enlightens the debate immensely. To oppose subsidies on principle is a bit like the health care reform protestor last July demanding, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" But what level or what form any subsidy should take is way beyond my little realm of expertise.

With so many different journalism non-profits sprouting up, earlier this year you blogged about the need for a 'Good Housekeeping seal of approval' for non-profit journalism and outlined some ideas for criteria. You said you'd be doing additional research on this and that it would be a topic of discussion at the We Media conference. So we're following up, any new insights?


Barnett: I've wrapped up my research and am working on a post for the Nieman Journalism Lab that I hope to publish soon. The question I tried to tackle was this: 'What steps can non-profits take if they want to be legitimate news providers?' There are some great examples out there, and not all come directly from within boundaries of traditional journalism. Some advocacy non-profits such as Human Rights Watch establish legitimacy as fact-finders and align their case for philanthropy with that mission. Other non-profits such as the American Red Cross use the tools of journalism as a means of accountability and transparency to donors. Stay tuned, my post should go live this week.

What's next for you? Any plans to expand your role in the non-profit journalism world?

Barnett: One thing's for sure -- I'll be wrapping up my academic career next year when I get my master's from GW. Beyond that, I hope to apply some of the things I've learned to my day job as a strategic analyst at AARP. We put out some high-quality publications, and I think we have a lot to contribute at a time of great change in the news business.

*****

What role do you see non-profit news organizations playing in the future of the press? Share your thoughts in the comments.

A writer, reporter and media consultant, Jaclyn Schiff is up at the crack of dawn to tackle the headlines of the day for her job at the non-profit Kaiser Health News. When she should be catching up on sleep, she can usually be found updating her Twitter feed or Tumblr blog, MEDIA Schiff (pun intended). Schiff covers non-profit news for MediaShift.

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November 29 2009

15:48

From advocacy to authority – how to create an open source documentary to help your cause

I recently wrote about the British documentary “Us Now” and what I thought about its content. In my latest blog entry I'm talking about what can be learned from the web site and why it provides an excellent lesson in how to make advocacy films that extend beyond the screening room: http://sm4good.com/2009/11/24/open-source-documentary-advocate

November 26 2009

20:17

Would you kiss this sexy tv-presenter?

I like well made advocacy videos - and the one that British Red Cross released today definitely falls into this category. It features Konnie Huq, a well know and very sexy tv-presenter (well known in the UK). The question is: "Would you still want to kiss her, if she was HIV positive?"

The reason this video was made is a survey that British Red Cross commissioned of 16-25-year-olds in the UK. The result:

Even though 85 per cent know you cannot catch HIV from a kiss, 69 per cent of respondents said they wouldn't kiss someone with HIV.

Or as British Red Cross puts it: "There is safety. And then there is stigma."

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