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June 15 2011

16:00

Does a new report mean doom and gloom for local online news? Maybe, but here are a few balancing factors

Matthew Hindman’s new paper showing miserably low levels of local online news consumption is a terrific addition to research on how journalism gets produced and consumed online. He found, using panel data from comScore, that local news sites received, on average, only about three pageviews per person per week in their local markets.

And that’s in total, adding up all local news sites — individual sites fared even worse. The largest local news site in a typical market reached only about 17.8 percent of local web users in a given month, and it drew only about five minutes of the typical web user’s attention during that month.

Nikki Usher summarized the report’s findings for us in a separate post. But while Hindman’s research is a welcome reminder of local online news’ limitations and failings, I think there are a number of factors that complicate his findings a bit. Here are four reasons why I think the doom and gloom that I expect to circle around this report might not be spot on.

comScore’s dataset isn’t perfect

Among the various traffic-measurement firms, comScore has a very solid reputation. But it is also subject to some of the criticisms that have historically faced Nielsen’s TV ratings, most notably that their sample may not be a representative one. For example, comScore panel data doesn’t measure mobile traffic. And it likely undercounts web traffic from people at work, which Pablo Boczkowski and others have shown to be where a disproportionate amount of online news consumption occurs. (Hindman, to his credit, highlights these problems with comScore’s dataset.)

And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of person willing to install comScore’s traffic-recording tool on their computers isn’t perfectly representative of the web-using public. The biggest news nerds might be underrepresented.

But the reality is these are quibbles, and Hindman’s larger point remains. Even if comScore is undercounting by a factor of three or four, we’re still talking about a small-numbers showing for local online media.

Reach does not mean impact

If raw readership totals equaled impact — on political discussion, on democracy, on the culture — then USA Today would be more important than The New York Times and Reader’s Digest would be more important than The New Yorker. Reaching the “right” people — and by that I mean the people who have disproportionate influence in political discussion, democracy, or culture — can make an outlet’s reach more potent than traffic numbers would suggest.

So for sites like MinnPost or Voice of San Diego, which write extensively about politics and local government, it’s possible to be both a must-read in the corridors of City Hall or the statehouse and still reach an audience that’s disproportionately influential.

Take MinnPost, for instance. According to Hindman’s analysis, 0.61 percent of all pageviews in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area went to local news sites. And only about 0.001 percent of total pageviews went to MinnPost (varying slightly by month).

But MinnPost’s Joel Kramer told us in March that, in January and February, MinnPost.com had received 921,000 visits. Each of those generated at least one pageview. The site has 5,700 daily email newsletter subscribers, 2,500 weekly email subscribers, and over 10,000 followers on Twitter.

In other words, while MinnPost may look like a rounding error in the overall scheme of Twin Cities web traffic, it is reaching many thousands of people. And even if those people are a small subset of the area population, a site like MinnPost can still have a significant positive impact on public affairs.

In Hindman’s previous book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, he advanced a largely similar argument based around political blogs. Here’s the book’s promo copy from its publisher:

Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

You can see the DNA of that argument in the current paper. And I think Hindman’s right: If your goal for online media is to create a digital version of the New England town hall, then yes, you’re going to be disappointed that online media creates its own new class of media elites. But I’d argue that, if we’re judging online media’s value or worthiness to democracy, it’s important to do so through a lens that isn’t merely transposed from the days of big broadcast towers and giant metro newspapers.

I think, even taking Hindman’s facts on political blogs, that it’s impossible to argue that they haven’t had a significant impact on political discussion in America — despite their comparatively small readership and their power-law popularity structure. So I’d caution against anyone drawing similar conclusions based on this new paper about online media more broadly.

Local news does not equal “news”

It’s worth noting that, while the comScore data found little interest in local news, it did find substantially more interest in national and global outlets. Hindman’s analysis found that local news made up only about 19 percent of all pageviews to news sites measured. (The remainder is only defined as “nonlocal news sources,” but we can presume that a healthy chunk of that is made up of the big national news brands: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, etc.)

The numbers were even more lopsided when you look at minutes spent rather than pageviews. Only about 15 percent of all time spent consuming online news was spent on local news sites.

While that’s not great news for local sites, it does indicate that people’s interest in online news more broadly isn’t in the same state of disrepair as their interest in local news. And it perhaps speaks to the wisdom of strategies that try to inject local news into national news brands — for instance, what MSNBC.com is doing with EveryBlock, or what AOL is trying to do in marrying HuffPo to Patch and Outside.in.

Watch your comparison sphere

One final note: Be cautious about reading too much into any statistics that look at online news as a fraction of total time spent online. That’s putting online news in competition not just with other traditional content sources, but with Gmail, and Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, and all the other bazillion things we do all day on the Internet. In other words, as more and more activities that traditionally took place outside the browser move inside it, it only makes sense that online news’ share might not keep up — even if online news consumption were held constant. (For example, if online news reading went up 10 percent, but total online usage went up 100 percent, online news as a share of online activity would drop — even though people were consuming more online news. Time spent shopping for shoes at Zappos shouldn’t count against time spent reading local headlines.

Again, that’s not to invalidate (or even to argue against) Hindman’s findings; his raw numbers of minutes spent are plenty low enough on their own, even without any comparison to the rest of the web. But if we are going to judge online news consumption, let’s use the numbers that make the most sense.

Separately, because the FCC-funded research process is pleasantly open, you can read Hindman’s initial draft of his paper, a peer review of it by Iris Chyi at the University of Texas, Hindman’s response to Chyi’s remarks, and the final version. Probably only of interest to the nerdiest of news nerds, but Chyi raises some good points.

February 12 2011

14:13

Introduction - Nathan Koeshall - Balkan Trust for Democracy

I am Nathan Koeshall, Program Officer for the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of teh United States.  I am responsible for BTD's grantmaking in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.  I am based in Belgrade, Serbia.


The Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD) is a 10-year, $36-million grantmaking initiative created in 2003 that supports democracy, good governance, and Euroatlantic integration in Southeastern Europe through indigenous civil society organizations and institutions. Operating from its Belgrade, Serbia, office, BTD awards grants in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. BTD also gives regional grants to organizations promoting the benefits of a pan-Balkan network.


My interests in Contributor's Summit include understanding better the models that are used through the TechSoup Global Network and to see firsthand some of the best practices that have been put to use, with the eye to using BTD's funds to leverage against others to furtehr the spread of the TSG model in the Balkans.


http://www.gmfus.org/balkantrust

January 07 2011

16:45

What Would the Ideal Democracy-Enabling Tool Look Like?

Some say that the last place where true democracy existed were the city-states of Ancient Greece. They had it all: Direct communication between citizens and public officials, complete transparency, minimal corruption.

Time passed and the population increased dramatically, which in part meant that public officials fell out of touch with the people who put them in office. To alleviate this, over time and in other societies, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and various movements were started -- and democracy got more complicated.

Turns out, this is all backwards. In my view, modern people no longer identify themselves by any one characteristic. No longer do they self-identify primarily by a social class, or a particular way of thinking. Linear progression has been completely replaced by a parallel, simultaneous, multi-directional approach to life and all its aspects. Trade unions and NGOs are obsolete, or fast becoming so. Modern people detest inaccessibility and institutionalization; they crave trust and connection.

It is the second decade of 21st century! Technology pushes the boundaries of connection and communication. Old rules are re-written, social norms shift constantly, and the world is primed for a new playing field. We need the tools and structures of democracy to catch up. I think technology has a bigger role to play.

Digital Democracy

Imagine a tool that puts people back into the decision-making equation. Made by people for people. This would be a platform that clearly shows which ideas and initiatives aimed at improving the lives of citizens generate the most interest from society. A platform that allows you to enlist the support of your friends for the causes you deem most important. A place that shows how close projects and initiatives are to being implemented. A public forum where you have access to important government information without having to look for it elsewhere.

We are all interested in our friends' opinions. This platform shows them to you. Also, people with similar opinions on a given subject will be connected, thus making further communication easier. Democracy of the Ancient Greeks is long gone, but maximum transparency and public officials that listen to the people are just a step away.

The latest public elections in my country, Latvia, helped convince me that we need a platform like the one outlined above. My business partner and I have begun work on one, but I'd like to hear what you think the ideal democracy-enabling platform would look like. What's your vision? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

December 22 2010

22:49

September 27 2010

19:01

Local News Needs 'Bottom Up' Structure to Survive

This week Orkney Today announced it was closing. The paper, which served the small islands of Orkney just off the Scottish coast, was -- like countless other local papers -- battling against declining circulation and disappearing ad revenues. "Orkney Media Group management and the newspaper's excellent staff have tried a number of initiatives to reverse the fortunes of the newspaper," the paper reported, "but to no avail."

If the news industry as a whole isn't exactly the picture of good health, local news is in the emergency room. News problems at a national level -- falls in circulation, and collapse in classified and advertising revenues -- are acute at a local level.

This has serious political implications, particularly in terms of who acts as the democratic watchdog, which is why this concerns not only news bosses but also politicians.

"We are concerned that ... the problems in the local media industry are leading to a scrutiny gap," read a report, Future for Local and Regional News, from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport.

Defining Local

The problem is, when thinking about what to do about it, how do you define local? For Orkney Today this was pretty easy. It served a clearly defined geographic area -- the Orkney isles -- that is run by the Orkney local council, and that has a long established sense of community. But what about places that aren't surrounded by sea, that don't have a single local authority, and may not have such a long established sense of community?

This isn't an academic question. In political -- i.e. public policy -- terms how you define local will determine what you do and how you do it. How can a government, for example, even consider direct or indirect subsidies, for example, without knowing who to give them to and what parameters to set?

Boil it down and you can probably define "local" in three different ways: Politically, economically, or socially. (I'm deliberately ignoring random geographic boundaries even though that's how regional broadcast news appears to be defined right now). The way you choose to define local then has fundamental implications for the type of journalism you end up with.

If you're in government you're probably most worried about the health of democracy and so it makes logical sense to define "local" in political terms -- i.e. at the ward level, or the local authority or county council boundary, or the constituency. This way you highlight the watchdog role of journalism. You make clear that, as a society, you believe in the idea of a "Fourth Estate" -- a section of society whose role it is to scrutinize local politics, uncover corruption, and tell truth to power.

The problem with this is that political boundaries don't necessarily make economic sense or correspond to what people think of as local. Take my ward in England, called "Kingham, Rollright and Enstone." I don't live in Kingham, Rollright or Enstone, I live just outside Chipping Norton. So a news service called The Kingham, Rollright and Enstone Times wouldn't seem very relevant to me. On top of which my ward is pretty spread out (it's rural) and there are only about 4,000 people in it in total. That's too few for most professional news organizations to bother with, unless they can get costs close to nil.

Because if you're a news organization then while you're thinking about local politics you're also thinking economics. You have to be if you're going to survive. You have to think about how many eyeballs you need to make enough revenue via circulation, subscriptions, classifieds, etc. You're making a calculation that, say, you need to sell 10,000 print copies a week to get by. With 10 percent penetration that means you need to serve an area of about 100,000 people. Multiply the numbers considerably for bigger publications or for broadcast. But the problem with an economic definition of local is that it's unlikely to match the public's perception.

If you're a member of the public then local probably means your street, your neighborhood, your town. What the news industry likes to call hyper-local. As a participant in a recent Birmingham focus group said, "If it's not within a 10 mile radius, it's not local news as far as I'm concerned ... it might as well be national." That quote comes from "Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities," a research report released this month by Media Trust. News at this level is great for building community cohesion and for making people feel a part of a bigger society, but it's hard to imagine anyone but volunteers and non-profits providing it in a sustainable way.

Recipe for Success

That's why it's so hard for a government, or a news organization, to know what to do. You can't create this sort of genuine hyper-local news service from the top down. Neither the government nor a news organization can direct the public to produce news about where they live. This sort of news has to be from the ground up. It has to be participatory. It has to be by and for the local community.

Which is why the local news organizations/co-operatives/forums most likely to work are those that start from the bottom, and that build participation, collaboration, mutualization, and partnerships into their DNA. This is very hard indeed for legacy news organizations to do. And it means that the best a government can do is to create a framework in which people are able to fill the vacuum being left by the disappearance of local news, rather than trying to subsidize the existing industry or provide top-down direct support.

September 10 2010

08:19

50-Euro Discount for PdF Europe

Next month, Personal Democracy Forum will be hosting PdF Europe, a gathering of leaders in technology, government, and the social sector in Europe and around the world. The conference will happen October 4 and 5 in Barcelona. If you register with the code "TSG," you can get a €50 discount off the registration fee.

read more

August 25 2010

16:29

New Media Tools Play Pivotal Role in Kenya's Constitution-Making

Kenya is moving towards greater democracy and more transparent governance thanks to the recent constitutional referendum that received 70 percent "yes" votes.

The new constitution, which is scheduled to be signed into law on Friday, replaces the one drafted during Kenya's colonial era. It includes a Bill of Rights, which states that all Kenyans should have access to clean water, decent housing, basic sanitation and quality food. The new constitution aims to decentralize political power, increase government accountability, create more robust checks and balances against corruption, and foster a move towards fairer distribution of wealth.

President Mwai Kibaki said, "The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end." In reality, forming a new constitution is only the beginning of another long road which the country will need to travel.

However, at least Kenya is moving in the right direction. Here in Zimbabwe, our constitutional reform process is lagging behind. But I think there is a lot we can learn from the role that media played in the Kenyan process.

Lessons from Kenya

Zimbabwe's constitutional reform process should be an opportunity for meaningful public participation. Unfortunately, the process remains marred by intimidation and violence, including the alleged re-establishment of torture bases in farming communities where there are a high number of war veterans and youth militia.

I could not help but compare coverage of the Kenyan referendum to the Zimbabwean constitution-making process and reflect on what we can learn from Kenya. Although the countries' circumstances are not totally comparable, we certainly can't afford to let the Zimbabwean constitution-making process drag on for 20 years, as it did in Kenya!

The first factor that looms large is the fundamental role that a vigilant civil society plays in provoking public participation and debate, promoting state transparency and accountability, maintaining pressure and ultimately achieving change. A recent blog post on Pambazuka discusses the pivotal contributions that organizations such as the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa, Kenya Land Alliance, Kikuyus for Change and Kenyan Asian Forum made during the Kenyan constitution-making process.

The post, by Cottrell Ghai and Pal Ghai, also discusses the likelihood that civil organizations will continue to offer invaluable assistance, particularly "at a time when the capacity within the government is limited." This is further amplified because trade unions -- which uphold the constitution through their political and economic work -- are non-existent in Kenya.

The second factor is the role that a vibrant media has in driving reform. According to an opinion piece in the Washington Times, both civil society and the media have played a part in the constitution-making process in Kenya and will continue to do so.

"Kenya is blessed with free and vibrant media and a vigilant civil society that relentlessly shines light into all corners of government activity," it read. "This will heighten scrutiny in the use of public finances and resources by the executive and legislature."

Although it is unlikely that the Kenyan media are fully objective or free from political influence (which country's media is?), the Economist and the BBC have said that Kenya is more liberalized than most African countries. Various analysts have also stated that since independence the Kenyan media has been an important check on government power.

New Media Tools

New media tools were also used during the constitution-making process in Kenya. A customized version of Ushahidi, a Knight grantee, was developed for use in Kenya. Called Uchaguzi, which means decision in Kiswahili, the collaborative deployment was supported by the Constitution & Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), Social Development Network (SODNET), Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza. During the referendum, the shortcode 3018 received over 1,400 SMS messages from around the country that reported incidents of electoral irregularities, violence and peace activities.

Similarly, The Uwiano Peace Platform was established to prevent violence during the Kenyan referendum. The system took advantage of mobile technology to get up-to-date information "on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence" from citizens nationwide. The system allowed for free SMSes from the public to be sent to the Uwiano secretariat. Analysts then verified, mapped and relayed the data on to rapid response mechanisms for quick intervention. The public knew how to report incidents because the platform was advertised in the electronic media, print media and Electoral Commission materials.

It would have been interesting if a new media tool like Freedom Fone, our project, had been added to the mix to capture citizen reports in an audio format.

A vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools have played a pivotal role in Kenya's constitution-making process. We must not underestimate the value of these organizations and tools during our process in Zimbabwe as we continue to strive towards the formation of a new constitution and a more democratic nation.

16:29

New Media Tools Play Pivotal Role in Kenya's Constitution-Making

Kenya is moving towards greater democracy and more transparent governance thanks to the recent constitutional referendum that received 70 percent "yes" votes.

The new constitution, which is scheduled to be signed into law on Friday, replaces the one drafted during Kenya's colonial era. It includes a Bill of Rights, which states that all Kenyans should have access to clean water, decent housing, basic sanitation and quality food. The new constitution aims to decentralize political power, increase government accountability, create more robust checks and balances against corruption, and foster a move towards fairer distribution of wealth.

President Mwai Kibaki said, "The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end." In reality, forming a new constitution is only the beginning of another long road which the country will need to travel.

However, at least Kenya is moving in the right direction. Here in Zimbabwe, our constitutional reform process is lagging behind. But I think there is a lot we can learn from the role that media played in the Kenyan process.

Lessons from Kenya

Zimbabwe's constitutional reform process should be an opportunity for meaningful public participation. Unfortunately, the process remains marred by intimidation and violence, including the alleged re-establishment of torture bases in farming communities where there are a high number of war veterans and youth militia.

I could not help but compare coverage of the Kenyan referendum to the Zimbabwean constitution-making process and reflect on what we can learn from Kenya. Although the countries' circumstances are not totally comparable, we certainly can't afford to let the Zimbabwean constitution-making process drag on for 20 years, as it did in Kenya!

The first factor that looms large is the fundamental role that a vigilant civil society plays in provoking public participation and debate, promoting state transparency and accountability, maintaining pressure and ultimately achieving change. A recent blog post on Pambazuka discusses the pivotal contributions that organizations such as the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa, Kenya Land Alliance, Kikuyus for Change and Kenyan Asian Forum made during the Kenyan constitution-making process.

The post, by Cottrell Ghai and Pal Ghai, also discusses the likelihood that civil organizations will continue to offer invaluable assistance, particularly "at a time when the capacity within the government is limited." This is further amplified because trade unions -- which uphold the constitution through their political and economic work -- are non-existent in Kenya.

The second factor is the role that a vibrant media has in driving reform. According to an opinion piece in the Washington Times, both civil society and the media have played a part in the constitution-making process in Kenya and will continue to do so.

"Kenya is blessed with free and vibrant media and a vigilant civil society that relentlessly shines light into all corners of government activity," it read. "This will heighten scrutiny in the use of public finances and resources by the executive and legislature."

Although it is unlikely that the Kenyan media are fully objective or free from political influence (which country's media is?), the Economist and the BBC have said that Kenya is more liberalized than most African countries. Various analysts have also stated that since independence the Kenyan media has been an important check on government power.

New Media Tools

New media tools were also used during the constitution-making process in Kenya. A customized version of Ushahidi, a Knight grantee, was developed for use in Kenya. Called Uchaguzi, which means decision in Kiswahili, the collaborative deployment was supported by the Constitution & Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), Social Development Network (SODNET), Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza. During the referendum, the shortcode 3018 received over 1,400 SMS messages from around the country that reported incidents of electoral irregularities, violence and peace activities.

Similarly, The Uwiano Peace Platform was established to prevent violence during the Kenyan referendum. The system took advantage of mobile technology to get up-to-date information "on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence" from citizens nationwide. The system allowed for free SMSes from the public to be sent to the Uwiano secretariat. Analysts then verified, mapped and relayed the data on to rapid response mechanisms for quick intervention. The public knew how to report incidents because the platform was advertised in the electronic media, print media and Electoral Commission materials.

It would have been interesting if a new media tool like Freedom Fone, our project, had been added to the mix to capture citizen reports in an audio format.

A vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools have played a pivotal role in Kenya's constitution-making process. We must not underestimate the value of these organizations and tools during our process in Zimbabwe as we continue to strive towards the formation of a new constitution and a more democratic nation.

August 18 2010

19:00

The kids are alright: How news organizations can tap the vast potential of younger consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. Below is Part 1; we'll post Part 2 tomorrow. Ed.]

There are three “truths” the journalism world seems to acknowledge about the current generation of young people: They like cell phones, they use Facebook, and they never read newspapers. This is frequently interpreted to mean the end of the storied twentieth century tradition of reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, and, therefore, the end of democracy.

Perhaps it’s youthful naivete, but I’m fairly certain there are a few steps between reading the news on a mobile phone and the inability of a people to govern themselves. And this isn’t the first time a generation of young people has been accused of marching the world toward languid doom. The question that matters is this: What will replace the morning newspaper as the news habit of the first generation of Americans to grow up immersed in a digital culture? I recently finished a year of research and review in an attempt to find some answers to this question.

What I found was this:

With a few exceptions, the journalism world hasn’t been particularly effective at connecting its concern about young audiences to better understanding or better action. Which is an unfortunate failure, because young people have a lot to teach — both about themselves as current and future news consumers, and about the social and technological trends that shape the news ecosystem.

The broad summary is that most of today’s young people (the “millennials”) are interested in local, national, and international issues — and a strong majority are at least somewhat engaged with news media, predominantly online, through social networks and on television. Yet there is also great untapped potential resulting from the troublesome fact that most news outlets simply aren’t very good at reaching or serving young audiences.

Without significant changes and experimentation, news organizations are likely to miss the democratic, journalistic, and financial opportunities that are latent in the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. It is a common-sense but regrettably neglected point: If you care about the future of news, you need to care about (and understand) young people.

At the conclusion of my research, I compiled a list of the ten ideas I believe hold the most promise for getting more young people engaged with the news media. The general theme is that news organizations need to create a more usable, relevant, and explanatory experience and combine it with serious support for news literacy and news-in-schools programs that communicate to young people why they ought to use and support journalism. These aren’t complex or novel ideas individually, but if they’re to be effective, they’ll need collective attention.

I’ll explore a few of the most pertinent ideas in more detail in the next post, but I’ll conclude here with three points I think are vital to understanding young people’s relationship with the news.

1. The cliche that becomes the assumption. Too many stereotypes about young people get worked into news experiments aimed at them. One example: while it’s true that most young people feel more comfortable with technology and the Internet than their elders do, we don’t possess some sherpa-like, innate ability to navigate poorly designed, poorly organized information (as the Media Management Center’s excellent research demonstrates). Recreating an old experience in a new format is an ineffective way to reach young audiences.

2. Boring or fluffy. Most sectors of journalism thought have rejected the bimodal theory of news: either it’s inherently boring but deeply important (town council minutes) or entertaining but inane (Lindsey Lohan updates). Yet for some reason the assumption of bifurcation continues to pervade news outlets’ discussion of young people: Journalist types implore young people to eat more broccoli, while most news organizations’ efforts to reach young people assume they’re only interested in candy. (See Chicago’s RedEye or Denver’s failed 2005 experiment, Bias Magazine.) The potential is in the elusive middle ground — which I suppose, to follow my own analogy, would be “tasty vegetables.”

3. Why young people get the news. It’s an obvious, but often overlooked, point that the news needs to be designed with an awareness of how and why the audience experiences it. As for the latter, there are many theories about why young people read the news (and some excellent research, such as this ethnographic study [pdf] by the AP): the social capital theory (also known as “I want to seem smart by being able to talk about the oil spill’s effects on the brown pelican”); the democracy theory; the habit theory. The truth is probably a combination of these three, but they all point to the idea that news is both social and functional. Most news organizations do a poor job of providing an experience that, for young audiences who have a different level of knowledge and experience than older consumers is either of those things.

The point: Journalism needs to focus on young audiences and experiment with new approaches to engaging them. The results of that would be beneficial for everyone involved. Here, again, is my list of ten ideas for making it happen. What would you add?

Image of a paper-reader by foreverphoto, used under a Creative Commons license.

May 19 2010

15:30

Andrew Keen on why “the Internet is ideology”

Is the Internet technology or ideology? Is our media culture today really more meritocratic than it’s been in the past? And when we talk about the web fostering democracy, what kind of democracy, actually, are we talking about?

Worthy questions, I’d say. They’re ones that arose last night during a debate at the National Press Club — a debate sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, and centered on another question: Is democracy threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet?

Taking the “no” position in the debate were the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Taking the “yes” were Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist (and author of the homophily-focused True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur.

Unsurprisingly, given the topic, much of the discussion tread ground whose trail is, at this point, well defined. (As Sifry noted, “When I was asked to participate in this, I was astounded that there would be anybody who would defend the notion that democracy is threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet.”) Also unsurprisingly, while the participants’ contributions were uniformly smart, the most provocative comments came courtesy of Keen — gadfly, polemicist, “antichrist of Silicon Valley,” and, in this case, the debater who questioned the premise of the debate in the first place. (“I think the resolution is a little dodgy,” the Brit put it, British-ly.)

In that, Keen transformed what could have been an eloquent-but-musty debate — echo chambers, but, then again, diversity! homophily, but, then again, intensity! — into a lively exchange. And whether you agree with his perspective or (vehemently) oppose it, the ideas Keen discussed last night are worth consideration, as a countervailing presence if nothing else, as we navigate between the mass democratization of the web and the insistent particularities of American democracy. With that in mind, here’s a sampling of his commentary.

On the notion that the web can harm democracy:

It depends, of course, what you mean by democracy. Jimmy [Wales]’s definition of democracy was an anti-federalist position, a sort of an idealized, direct-democracy rhetoric which suggests (and I’m quoting him now) that “It’s all about the people deciding.” But of course at the foundation this country is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in which the federalists won over the anti-federalists.

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community. So I think Jimmy is falling into the old trap of appropriating democracy for his own ends.

On the notion that the Internet is, fundamentally, technology:

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise, on what Jimmy calls “the mainstream media,” which includes shows like this, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And the idea that representative democracy, experts — whether in media, in politics, in the arts, in legal affairs, in intellectual affairs — are unreliable and need to be replaced by what Jimmy calls “the people” is deeply dangerous.

What I most fear about the Internet — which…we all use; I’m as addicted as everybody else — is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy.

On the web’s facilitation of a mass meritocracy:

I think it’s one of the fundamental illusions — or delusions — about this critique of mainstream media: that somehow, before the Internet, it was just the rich, the privileged, who controlled the media — that it was a racket. And then the Internet came along, and suddenly the people had a voice. And that’s simply nonsense. I mean, we’re all — the four of us are all — part of an Internet elite, which is no more or less of an elite than in traditional media. But I am very troubled with this idea of the Internet replacing a flawed meritocracy. It’s simply wrong.

On the Internet’s need of a new social contract:

Many people see the Internet as a right and not a responsibility. Jeff Jarvis, who I think we’re all friendly with, said the Internet is the next society. And he may be right. In the 18th century, when we were figuring out modern industrial society, we came up with social contract theory about rights and responsibilities. I think the same is true of the Internet. It’s a reality, for better or for worse. It is perhaps the central fact of social and political life in the 21st century. And it needs to be understood not only in terms of rights — of taking, of stealing, of getting it for free, and all the other problems associated with the Internet — but also one of responsibility.

On the distinction between democracy and an informed citizenry:

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes and author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

March 29 2010

18:12

Competition in Internet, Mobile Services Boosts Democracy

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as the Internet and mobile phones are often recognized for their role in helping connect people and communities, and spread knowledge and information. People may be unaware, however, that they're also a powerful force for international development -- provided that they are not suffocated by regulation and censorship.

The ICT Development and Initiative Dossier from June 2002 [PDF file] stated that, "since the beginning of the 1980s almost all national telecom and information technology markets worldwide have been transformed by technological innovation, product diversification (especially the introduction of mobile/cellular telephony and Internet) and market restructuring (particularly privatization, liberalization and the introduction of independent regulators)."

This holds true in some countries more than others. In some instances, the levels of liberalization and regulation in the ICT sector seem to directly correlate with the health of the country's democracy.

Civil and Economic Benefits

Market liberalization and the adjustment of regulation levels for ICT industries results in a growing shift from state-owned monopolies to a more open market which allows for competition from various dynamic and privately driven entities. Some governments and national operators are threatened by the prospect of increased competition and decreased state control, but for civil society and the economy as a whole, there's an array of benefits.

Economic analyst Vlade Milićević argues that, by adjusting the legislative and regulatory mobile telephony frameworks, increased competition leads to improved customer choice, enhanced quality, more efficient services, reduced prices, faster product innovation and growing economic development for both the market and the relevant country. These positive impacts are notable in various case studies on Central Eastern European countries, where the sector has recently been liberalized.

Similar cost benefits patterns have occurred in various ICT sectors. Between 1998 and 2002, retail prices of the fixed telecommunications industry in the EU decreased by 8.2 percent due to liberalizing the regulatory framework. Likewise, the liberalization of Internet telephony, which includes the legalization of voice over IP (VoIP) services in various countries, resulted in a dramatic decrease in phone charges. For example, in the U.S. a few years ago, calls to India were 50 cents per minute -- now they are less than 5 cents per minute from fixed lines.

Other than decreasing costs, information and telecommunication technology liberalization has other benefits. The use of VoIP enabled the advent of outsourced call centers because it offers the possibility of routing a local number offshore. In the U.S. today, 80 percent of companies have call centers located offshore. This cuts costs for the American companies and generates employment and income for the offshore country. These employment and revenue benefits are significant for countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Kenya and South Africa.

Other examples of the benefits of this form of liberalization include community initiatives like Village Telco, "an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit." It uses open source software, VoIP and other technology to offer free local calls, cheap long distance, Internet access and other information services to previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa and other developing countries.

Lack of Liberalization

However, in some countries such as Zimbabwe, VoIP remains in a legal grey zone. According to a report commissioned by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, "African regulators have been reluctant to legalize VoIP, based on a largely misguided attempt to protect the revenue base of the incumbent fixed-line, and in some cases, mobile telcos." Unprogressive regulators can retard growth in the sector, stunt the country's revenue, create lost opportunities, constrict the adoption of new technologies, and leave communities isolated in information vacuums.

The World Bank recently stated that there is positive and direct correlation between growth in gross domestic product and ICT development. Despite this, two factors seem to be preventing some governments from liberalizing ICT markets: The threat of a decrease in revenues for state controlled monopolies, and the decrease in control of the content that is available to the public. ICTs -- and particularly the use of the Internet and mobile phones -- are making it difficult for undemocratic governments to control information and in this age of communication, information is power.

"Freedom of information is...the touchstone of all the freedoms," according to the 1948 UN Freedom of Information Conference. Similarly, the principles from the World Summit on Information Society of 2003 declared that: "We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers."

This sentiment was again reiterated in a recent poll by the BBC, which found that 80 percent of the 27,000 people surveyed around the world believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right. However, only about 25 percent of the world's population has access to the Internet, and various countries moderately to severely censor the information available.

Along with many other economic and technological benefits, a global shift to a more liberalized ICT market would honor fundamental human rights, and help create a more equitable and informed world.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

January 04 2010

06:48
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