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August 30 2012


The Rise of Ad-Hoc Journalist Support Networks

Journalistic collaboration isn't just something that happens between newsrooms. Increasingly, journalists working outside of traditional news organizations are coming together to support each other in a range of ways, from offering safety advice when covering protests to sharing news tips, local resource recommendations and more.

Safety in Numbers

"When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse," Clay Shirky wrote in a post on his blog, "their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to." In the news industry, an ecosystem is emerging that's fueled by independent and citizen reporters, along with a new generation of small non-profit news sites. These new journalistic entities are putting themselves on the line without the kind of legal, administrative or technological support of major newsrooms.

"Journalists who work for big institutions will continue to have better protections," Rebecca Rosen noted in The Atlantic almost a year ago, "not because of laws that protect them but because of the legal power their companies can buy." That means journalists outside such institutions need networks of support to provide protection for them, and for the work they do.

The lack of support and protection for journalists has made this one of the most deadly and dangerous times to be an independent journalist. The International News Safety Institute lists almost 90 journalists and media staff who have been killed in 2012 alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists found that of the 179 journalists imprisoned worldwide in 2011, 86 were digital journalists and 78 were freelancers. Here in the U.S. nearly 90 journalists have been arrested or detained in the past year, and in state after state citizens have scuffled with police over their right to record. As these statistics make clear, in journalism's changing ecosystem, networks that provide protections for journalists are essential.

Emerging Networks

reporters-protest.jpgIn my work tracking press suppression and journalist arrests I'm beginning to see some of those networks emerging. For example, in the week leading up to the NATO summit, a group of independent journalists organized a Google Group email list to share information and connect on the ground in Chicago. Roughly 50 journalists from all over the world joined the list, and in the days leading up to the protests they used it to plan their coverage, share local tips (like this map of places to buy camera equipment in a pinch), and socialize. As the protests swung into high gear, the list was alive with posts from people comparing notes, sharing where the action was, and helping each other confirm details or track down sources.

Joe Macera, a local Chicago journalist who works with Truthout and the Occupied Chicago Tribune, set up the NATO email list in hopes of connecting journalists around the nation to local Chicago independent media. One member of the list, Aaron Cynic, said via email that he found it useful for journalistic support and collaboration, but also for legal support. He said the list was helpful for "creating solidarity between us, fostering relationships, sharing information and photos, and also, getting information to the NLG [National Lawyers Guild] to help with people that had been arrested." Another member of the list, Ryan Williams, lamented via email the lack of diversity on the list, but acknowledged that "the list was great ... as a networking resource, and as a good early warning system for developing stories."

Journalists used the list for everything from meeting up for dinner to providing information on movements of marches and protests. Kevin Gosztola, another list member, pointed out via email, "You could run questions by others, ask what to do next if you hit a roadblock, inform others of something that happened that you think is an abuse of power, etc." After NATO, the members decided to keep it going as a forum and network for journalists who are covering protests, Occupy and a related set of issues. (Disclosure: I have been on the email list since before the NATO summit, using it to monitor reports of press suppression at protests.)

Rising Solidarity

The NATO email list was unique as it merged online and offline components and was truly ad-hoc in nature. Other networks that have emerged tend to occupy either an online or offline space, but rarely both. The local meet-ups by Hacks/Hackers and Online News Association chapters that have developed and spread quickly across the country (and world) are great examples of how local journalists are connecting and collaborating in person to support their work. Online, Twitter chats like #WJCHAT and the email and blog network Carnival of Journalism represent the digital equivalent of such collaboration where journalists are debating critical issues about the field, sharing lessons about their work, and supporting each other.

Both online and off, these new networks are designed to provide something the journalism ecosystem is largely lacking: solidarity. In a passionate post, Bryan Westfall, an independent journalist in the Bay Area, writes, "The work we do in these circles is up against something violent, self serving, and relentless ... we need each other in a way that must be personal in a way no version of simple 'networking' could ever be."

Many independent and freelance journalists I talk to describe feeling isolated in their work. "We need to continue to foster that solidarity," Cynic told me. "We don't have the same resources or protections as corporate media -- all we have is each other."

Networking with the Audience

During a recent Free Press webinar Pool, one of the best-known livestream journalists who has covered Occupy protests for the last year, said, "The Internet is my fixer." He was referring to the way his audience would step up during his coverage to help get him out of a bind, whether it was to get him food or water or a spare battery. Indeed, the webinar itself was designed less as a formal panel and more as an open conversation, drawing on the legal and safety expertise of the panelists but complementing that with personal stories and advice from the audience. The event helped connect independent journalists before the Republican and Democratic national conventions and foster more ad-hoc networks of support. This highlights the potential of new networks that enable audience members to become media allies -- both part of the journalistic process and advocates or defenders for that process.

More is Needed

To remake journalism, we need to build new networks of resiliency for the future of news. When we talk about the journalistic resources we have lost in recent years we tend to focus almost exclusively on the number of jobs lost, not on the capacity of the entire field to fight for the First Amendment, protect each other and our reporting, and support experimentation and eventually sustainability. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no comprehensive effort to map the needs of the new journalism ecosystem in these terms. Perhaps now is the time.

Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of "Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy," "Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules," and "On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media." Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Photo above by Flickr user Paul Weiskel.

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November 11 2011


Cartoonist Prototype Tackles the Most Visible News

At a recent demo day hosted by a Georgia Tech research center, our studio showed a working prototype of the Cartoonist engine for the first time. The whiz kids at UCSC's Expressive Intelligence Studio have been working overtime on the guts of our system in order to link together our user interface, the tool that converts user input into machine-readable form, the library of action verbs that drive each game, and a playable output.

While still in incredibly rough form, we can now generate a large number of games based on a small amount of information drawn from a current event. (We've capped that output at nine games for testing.)

Generating Occupations

One of my first demonstrations of the system was to see whether it could handle the most visible news event of the past few months: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I plotted a fairly simple relationship between protesters, riot police, and public awareness. Protesters were set to "grow" public awareness, police to "attack" protesters, and public awareness to "watch" police. At this time, all of these entities are represented by colored orbs. (We just hired an artist for the project, NY freelancer Rachel Morris.) From this tiny mapping of objects and actions, the system generated nine potential games. While many of them were broken in ways that showed where more coding is needed to flesh out verbs, a few of the results showed the exciting potential of our project.

In one generated game, protesters spawned randomly along an edge of the screen. Players controlled a bubble labeled "riot police," and could move in four directions while firing projectiles at the protesters. (These could later be skinned to look like gas canisters or rubble bullets.) On the other side of the screen, a "line of sight" marker inside a bubble labeled "public awareness" followed the movements of the player/police. Whenever a new protester appeared, the public awareness bubble became larger; whenever a projectile hit a protester, that protester entity was removed from the game. It was a rudimentary, playable editorial cartoon, and I'd generated eight others with just 15 seconds of work.

Some of the logic desirable for an "OWS: Oakland" game was clearly missing, because only a fraction of our action verbs have been fully articulated in the system. One obvious exemption here is the role of embedded journalists in the documenting and relaying of such events -- and, if we'd had a good verb for these, we could easily have more than three actor types on the screen.

Something about the system, about which we had no clue whether it would work or not, stood out to me: Player control is non-arbitrarily assigned to different actor-types in each of the nine game builds. Sometimes I controlled the protesters, dodging projectiles or the tackles of police; sometimes I was the police; and sometimes I simply moved around as public awareness, my line of sight trained on the police.

The View From Everywhere

The fact that we haven't yet been able to come up with a finalized name for our project testifies to the grayness of the territory that it occupies -- for those who haven't been following the project's development, we hope to replace the name "Cartoonist" out of respect for the work of political cartoonists.

An important aspect of this platform is that it's agnostic to ideological bent, the user's professional status, and the type of journalism that it is used to convey. While it would be possible to use the system for objective, professional reportage, anyone will be free to operate and modify it. The feature noted above -- the assignment of player control to different entities in each game build -- is actually one of many powerful devices for interrogating the view from nowhere.

Coverage of Occupy Wall Street (and similar events around the world) has foregrounded the rising importance of alternative media and new forms of journalism. Participants and supporters of Occupy are wary of a mainstream media ecology that has either ignored them or subjected them to exaggerated skepticism. A story of the firing of WNYC reporter Caitlin Curran for participating in an OWS rally stands in stark contrast to firsthand coverage of arrests in Oakland by graphic journalist Susie Cagle.

While traditional forms of news media have stuck to an outmoded concept of objectivity, alternative sources have delved into and personalized the Occupy movement to great effect.

There are a number of reasons why videogames about the news lend themselves so well to editorializing. First is the amount of time and expertise required to produce them: In a market where returns on political videogames are sadly minimal, developers tend to make their work an expression of their personal opinions and passions. Second, and slightly more theoretical, is the idea of the simulation gap: It is incredibly difficult to accurately model a real-world system in a playable form, so developers will naturally pick and choose the aspects of, and problems with, that system that they personally see as relevant (consciously or unconsciously). Finally, there's the strong, expressive power of role-playing.


Because most games work best when the player has a clearly identified role, they lend themselves to explorations of hero and anti-hero viewpoints on a story or issue. So in Occupy: The Game, players control a protester seeking to collect money and supplies while dodging tear gas and garbage, while in Clear the Park the mindset of a greedy "1%er" will be satirically explored through a mix of tycoon sim and improvised siege warfare.

Research isn't conclusive on which points-of-view and camera angles create the most empathy or opinionated-ness during play, which is why our system is open in this regard. Our expectation is that users of the Cartoonist engine will be pleasantly surprised by control schemes and POVs that they hadn't predicted when they sat down to generate their games.

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