In 2005, intending to innovate, the Los Angeles Times published a “Wikitorial” — an editorial from the paper in a wiki that allowed readers to make changes. The idea was interesting. The execution was a classic in news organization stupidity, because after putting up the piece the news people went home for the night. Naturally, some bad folks took over, and early the next morning they’d thoroughly polluted the thing. One image that found its way onto the wikitorial was an infamously disgusting photograph. Down came the page, and that was that.

The LA Times learned the wrong lesson. Rather than giving up the experiment, it should have tried again.

The failed LA project comes to mind in the wake of the Wall Street Journal’s launch of a WikiLeaks-like experiment, a site called SafeHouse. The page pitches these bullet points:

  • Help The Wall Street Journal uncover fraud, abuse and other wrongdoing.
  • Send documents to us using a special system built to be secure.
  • Keep your identity anonymous or confidential, if needed.

Uh, not really, at least on the second and third points.

Security experts immediately poked holes in the site security. And the site’s Terms of Service contain what might be termed a “Get Into Jail Free Card” — reserving “the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others.”

Unlike the LA Times, the Journal isn’t abandoning the experiment and seems to be working to fix at least some of the site’s flaws. That’s good news, even though I’d still advise any whistleblower to steer clear of this for the moment, not least because the notion of trusting a company controlled by Rupert Murdoch is, well, problematic even if one might trust (as I would) many of the Journal’s lower-level editors.

Which raises the larger question in any case: While I tend to believe that every news organization should have a drop-off point for documents from whistleblowers, there’s always going to be a question of how much a leaker should trust any private company on which a government can exert pressure, apart the issue of whether the company itself can always be trusted. Remember, the New York Times has frequently felt obliged to ask permission from the U.S. government before publishing a variety of things.

Still, these experiments are worthwhile. But it’s going to take some time before we can call them successes in any respect.

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This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism, a monthly collection of blog posts on a related topic curated by David Cohn. Our assignment this month was to talk about a failure, in our personal or professional lives, for which we are responsible and from which we learned lessons.

Only one? There have been so many…

However, in this context — the emergence of a 21st Century journalism culture — this is a pretty easy call. I’m resurrecting a 2006 letter I wrote to an online community that didn’t work out. It was called Bayosphere, and its demise was a fairly high profile event at the time, for all kinds of reasons. (The site is off the air, though a friend and I are working to resurrect at least part of it, so that it exists for anyone who might want to see it even now.)

It was a difficult letter to write, but it had to be written. The main reason was that the people who’d been part of that project — almost all volunteers — deserved to know what had happened. The other main reason was the recognition that entrepreneurship is about many things, but above all, as my friend and colleague CJ Cornell says, it’s about owning the process and the outcome.

Here’s that letter, dated January 24, 2006 (with updates at the end):

A little over a year ago, I left the San Jose Mercury News to pursue my passion for what we’ve come to call “citizen media” — the idea that anyone with something to say could use increasingly powerful and decreasingly expensive tools to say it, potentially for a global audience.

I left what I considered one of the two or three best gigs in the entire newspaper industry. But having published We the Media — and seeing first-hand the application of bottom-up communications in all kinds of arenas, especially journalism — I knew it was time to devote my full energies to this emergent phenomenon.

I learned some things last year, about media, about citizens, about myself. Although citizen media, broadly defined, was taking the world by storm, the experiment with Bayosphere didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. Many fewer citizens participated, they were less interested in collaborating with one another, and the response to our initiatives was underwhelming. I would do things differently if I was starting over.

I erred, in retrospect, by taking the standard Silicon Valley route. I was trying to figure out how to make this new phenomenon pay its own way out of the gate, just as the traditional, still deep-pocketed media, super-energized entrepreneurs and legions of talented “amateurs” — a word I use in the most positive sense here — were starting to jump seriously into the fray.

In February, Michael Goff joined Grassroots Media as my business partner. Michael is smart, energetic and creative, and had a long track record in the media business including founding Out magazine, launching Microsoft’s Sidewalk city guides, leading MSN as general manager, and as CEO of a tech investment partnership and a wireless company. He’d just finished leading the volunteer team in Haiti for Bill Clinton’s AIDS Initiative.

We talked constantly about what might work with all the changes in the media sphere, and within the company’s specific mission to support citizen journalism as a viable business while providing for its investors and employees. We blocked out the options and considered, among other things:

  • Consulting for newspapers and media entities;
  • Trade publishing for journalists and editors making the transition;
  • Publishing our own citizen media-driven sites;
  • Running conferences and education programs;
  • Creating an advertising network;
  • Creating an affiliated network of blogs and bloggers;
  • Selling “picks and shovels” — a platform of tools for citizen journalist collaboration;
  • Creating a self-tagging system for bloggers to use in disclosing bias and tracking stories.

In the end, we opted for publishing. One reason was that I was keenest on the basic journalism mission. Another was that we figured we could best leverage our strengths, including my already successful blog. We decided to put up a site that would serve effectively as a test bed, to see if it would work and, perhaps, become a model for other things of its kind.

We envisioned Bayosphere as a place where people in the San Francisco Bay Area community could learn about and discuss the regional scene, with a focus on technology, the main economic driver. My tech and policy blogging would be an anchor, hopefully attracting some readers and, crucially, some self-selected citizen journalists who’d join a wider conversation.

The evidence strongly suggested early on that this was not likely to be a viable publishing venture for some considerable period without partnerships to bring in both readers and contributors. But long discussions with potential partners — including several whose participation would have been game-changing in a journalistic and business-model sense — didn’t pan out. (It will be an exciting day when one or more of those folks tries a citizen-driven media venture.)

Even so, Bayosphere attracted quite a bit of traffic, and some heartening effort on the part of some citizen journalists. I’m grateful to them for trying. But as is obvious to anyone who’s paid attention, the site didn’t take off — in large part, no question about it, because of my own miscues and shortcomings. My friend Esther Dyson says, wisely, “Always make new mistakes.” Did I ever. But I learned from them, and from what did work. Here are some of the lessons:

  • Citizen journalism is, in a significant way, about owning your own words. That implies responsibilities as well as freedom. We asked people to read and agree to a “pledge” that briefly explained what we believed it meant to be a citizen journalist — including principles such as thoroughness, fairness, accuracy and transparency. Although some cynics hooted that this was at best naive, we’re convinced it was at least useful.
  • Limiting participation is not necessarily a bad idea. By asking for a valid e-mail address simply in order to post comments, you reduce the pool of commenters considerably, but you increase the quality of the postings. And by asking for real names and contact information, as we did with the citizen journalists, you reduce the pool by several orders of magnitude. Again, however, there appears to be a correlation between willingness to stand behind one’s own words and the overall quality of what’s said.
  • Citizen journalists need and deserve active collaboration and assistance. They want some direction and a framework, including a clear understanding of what the site’s purpose is and what tasks are required. (I didn’t do nearly a good enough job in this area.)
  • A framework doesn’t mean a rigid structure, where the citizen journalist is only doing rote work such as filling in boxes.
  • The tools available today are interesting and surprisingly robust. But they remain largely aimed at people with serious technical skills — which means too ornate and frequently incomprehensible to almost everyone else. Our tech expert, Jay Campbell, did a heroic job of trying to wrestle the software into submission to our goals. We still felt frustrated by the missing links.
  • Tools matter, but they’re no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I’m only beginning to understand even now.)
  • Though not so much a lesson — we were very clear on this going in — it bears repeating that a business model can’t say, “You do all the work and we’ll take all the money, thank you very much.” There must be clear incentives for participation, and genuine incentives require resources.
  • On several occasions, PR people offered to brief me on upcoming products or events that they hoped I’d cover in my capacity as a tech journalist, but were happy to give the slot to our citizen journalists. This testifies to a growing recognition among more clued-in PR folks that citizen journalism is here to stay.
  • Although the participants — citizen journalists and commenters — are essential, it’s even more important to remember that publishing is about the audience in the end. Most people who come to the site are not participants. They’re looking for the proverbial “clean, well-lighted place” where they can learn or be entertained, or both.
  • If you don’t already have a thick skin, grow one.

A more personal lesson also emerged: As an entrepreneur, let’s just say I wasn’t in my element. The relentless focus on a single, limited project for long periods of time, combined with the inevitable compromises inherent in for-profit decision-making, turned out not to be my best skills. For almost 25 years I’d thrived on the constant deadlines and competition of journalism. So I assumed I’d easily handle the pressures of trying to create a business from scratch while also keeping my reporting and writing skills intact and helping other people join in. In reality, I was unprepared for what proved to be an entirely different kind of pressure, and didn’t handle it nearly as well as I’d expected. I allowed myself to get distracted, moreover, by matters that were not directly relevant to the project.

During the summer, Michael and I realized that it was unlikely that we would land a key distribution deal in the immediate future, and without that we weren’t finding the kind of business model for Bayosphere that justified raising more money beyond the seed financing. We had business ideas that might well have been funded, but they were not first and foremost aimed at boosting the citizen-journalism field, which was and remains my overriding goal. In September, we stopped spending our investors’ money, and sustained Bayosphere ourselves on a relatively bare-bones budget from our own funds, putting in our own time.

We’ve never lost sight of this, however: A more democratized media is crucial our common future — grassroots ideas, energy and talent. I believe this more than ever, as do Mitch Kapor and the folks at the Omidyar Network, who provided seed funding for the project. Their work is changing the world for the better, and I admire them.

As the Bayosphere project was playing out last fall, I concluded that I could do more for the citizen journalism movement by forming a nonprofit enterprise, a “Center for Citizen Media” where I could put my skills and passion for the genre to better use — looking at lots of disparate elements and connecting the dots. (And as a friend accurately remarked when I told him not long ago about my planned shift toward the nonprofit arena, “Well, you’ve always struck me a more of a dot-org kind of guy than the dot-com kind.”)

As mentioned, the dots I’m connecting include Bayosphere. We are talking with several folks who are interested in bringing the site under their own wings, as part of operations whose proprietors Michael and I respect. No promises here: But if we can keep Bayosphere going in a good way we’ll work hard to make that happen.

I share the disappointment of some of our citizen journalists. And I respect their skepticism; we encouraged it, after all. It’s definitely no fun to have disappointed folks (starting with Michael and our investors, and myself). Still, I owe those of you who participated and visited my thanks for being part of the experiment.

The shift in how we communicate and collaborate, how we learn what’s going on in our world, has barely begun. Predicting the future is for other people, but I’m optimistic that we’ll collectively figure this out. So now it’s back to work, with the help of old and new friends and colleagues. What could be better than that?

Looking back at this letter, I have several updates. First, the Center for Citizen Media existed primarily during my three-plus year fellowship at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. While I was there, and also teaching part-time at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, I understood that the citizen-media phenomenon was racing ahead in fabulous ways and that the real leaders of that movement should be the people doing it day to day.

Second, the tools are getting vastly better and easier to use. A startup in this arena is no longer as much as hostage to opaque software and technical skills; with many projects, you can do 90 percent of what you need with off-the-shelf tools. Still, even though you don’t need to be a programmer to work on a digital media startup, you absolutely need to know how to have a conversation with a programmer, because that last 10 percent can be the difference between things working or flopping.

Third, the value of community is even clearer now — and community building skills are one of the least common and most valuable assets for any startup in this space.

Most important in a personal sense, I didn’t end up forsaking entrepreneurship, after all. I’ve invested in and advised a number of new-media startups. I was a fortunate co-founder of another, Dopplr, which Nokia acquired several years ago. (Of course, the startup that failed is the one where I had direct operational responsibility, and the one that didn’t fail was run brilliantly by other co-founders; there may be, ahem, a correlation.) And, of course, I’ve been working to seed entrepreneurship into the academic world in an experiment at Arizona State University.

I count the failure of Bayosphere as one of the most important learning experiences in my life — so far, at any rate. It was not fun. But things turned out for the best, in all kinds of ways.

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We’d just finished watching a DVD of “The Social Network” on the evening of May 1. Routinely, we checked the news online before getting ready for bed — and learned that America had finally caught up with Osama bin Laden. Like every other American for whom Sept. 11, 2001 is seared into memory, I had a sense of relief and satisfaction that this epic murderer hadn’t died of old age in some sanctuary.

I also reflected, as I watched a streaming broadcast of BBC News on my computer, on the continuing evolution in news over the past decade — accelerating changes in the ways we experience and participate in the flow of news and information in a digital age.

What’s changed most since 2001 are the spread of wireless data communications and the rise of robust social networks, but the outlines of where we were headed were clear even then. The 9/11 attacks brought emerging possibilities fully to the surface, as I wrote in my 2004 book We the Media.

By the turn of the new century, the key building blocks of emer­gent, grassroots journalism were in place. The Web was already a place where established news organizations and newcomers were plying an old trade in updated ways, but the tools were making it easier for anyone to participate. We needed a catalyst to show how far we’d come. On September 11, 2001, we got that catalyst in a terrible way.

I was in South Africa. The news came to me and four other people in a van, on the way to an airport, via a mobile phone. Our driver’s wife called from Johannesburg, where she was watching TV, to say a plane had apparently hit the World Trade Center. She called again to say another plane had hit the other tower, and yet again to report the attack on the Pentagon. We arrived at the Port Elizabeth airport in time to watch, live and in horror, as the towers disintegrated.

Had I been there today, I’d have gotten more than a phone call. I’d have been pulling information from the Net via a mobile device that could provide everything from voice to video. And I’d have been checking my Twitter feed.

For plenty of people in 2011, the news of bin Laden’s death came via Twitter and Facebook, currently the most powerful social networks around. Indeed, rumors spread widely on Twitter before President Obama’s official announcement. But Twitter for me (and Facebook for many others) was a value-adding system once the basic facts were known. I relied, as I increasingly do in breaking news events, on the people I follow on Twitter to provide links to the best coverage from traditional media, as well as links to a variety of other sources.

The best traditional media organizations did their jobs in the usual way as the bin Laden story became the story of the day. They covered the immediate news, found compelling video — the crowds in front of the White House were a favorite — and interviewed experts for perspective.

Back to 2001:

The next day our party of journalists, which the Freedom Forum, a journalism foundation, had brought to Africa to give talks and workshops about journalism and the Internet, flew to Lusaka, Zambia. The BBC and CNN’s international edition were on the hotel television. The local newspapers ran consider­able news about the attacks, but they were more preoccupied with an upcoming election, charges of corruption, and other news that was simply more relevant to them at the moment.

What I could not do in those initial days was read my news­paper, the San Jose Mercury News, or the The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, or any of the other papers I normally scanned each morning at home. I could barely get to their web sites because the Net connection to Zambia was slow and trans-Atlantic data traffic was over­whelming as people everywhere went online for more informa­tion, or simply to talk with each other.

Now here’s real change. We no longer subscribe to those newspapers (apart from the Chronicle and Times on Sundays), because we get most of our newspaper journalism online. The reason is that broadband has become much more widespread and robust, even though it’s lagging in the U.S. compared to the rest of the developed world. The fiber backbones are reaching everywhere now.

I could retrieve my email, however, and my inbox over­flowed with useful news from Dave Farber, one of the new breed of editors.

Then a telecommunications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Farber had a mailing list called “Interesting People”30 that he’d run since the mid-1980s. Most of what he sent out had first been sent to him by correspondents he knew from around the nation and the world. If they saw something they thought he’d find interesting, they sent it along, and Farber relayed a portion of what he received, sometimes with his own commentary. In the wake of the attacks, his correspondents’ perspectives on issues ranging from national-security issues to critiques of religion became essential reading for their breadth and depth. Farber told me later he’d gone into overdrive, because this event obliged him to do so.

“I consider myself an editor in a real sense,” Farber explained. “This is a funny form of new newspaper, where the Net is sort of my wire service. My job is to decide what goes out and what doesn’t…Even though I don’t edit in the sense of real editing, I make the choices.”

Dave Farber still makes these choices on the IP list. It’s still a must-read source of news and wisdom for me and the legions of people who continue to follow this particular wire service.

The value of this service — we now tend to call it curation and aggregation — wasn’t as clear a decade ago as it is today, however. We are overwhelmed with information today, vastly more so than in 2001. As I discuss in my new book, Mediactive, one of our most pressing issues is how we deal with that flood of data. Dave Farber is a curator and aggregator. The people I follow on Twitter, especially in special lists I’ve created for people I consider experts in specific fields, are another curated and aggregated space.

One of the emails Farber sent, dated September 12, still stands out for me. It was an email from an unidentified sender who wrote: “SPOT infrared satellite image of Manhattan, acquired on September 11 at 11:55 AM ET. Image may be freely reproduced with ‘CNES/SPOT Image 2001’ copyright attribu­tion.” A web address, linking to the photo, followed. The picture showed an ugly brown-black cloud of dust and debris hanging over much of lower Manhattan. The image stayed with me.

Here was context.

It took almost no time for the Net to tell us about the various satellite images from Pakistan, showing the bin Laden compound and its surroundings.

Back in America, members of the then nascent weblog commu­nity had discovered the power of their publishing tool. They offered abundant links to articles from large and small news organizations, domestic and foreign. New York City bloggers posted personal views of what they’d seen, with photographs, providing more information and context to what the major media was providing.

“I’m okay. Everyone I know is okay,” Amy Phillips wrote September 11 on her blog, “The 50 Minute Hour.”31 A Brooklyn blogger named Gus wrote: “The wind just changed direction and now I know what a burning city smells like. It has the smell of burning plastic. It comes with acrid brown skies with jet fighters flying above them. The stuff I’m seeing on teevee is like some sort of bad Japanese Godzilla movie, with less convincing special effects. Then I’m outside, seeing it with my naked eyes.”

If Twitter and Facebook took on more of this function in 2011, that reflected the immediacy —  the ease of use and especially the social context — of these new services, which didn’t even exist in 2001.

In one sense, the rise of these social networks is a step back. Facebook and Twitter are private companies with their own agendas. While they are superbly engineered tools that provide users fantastic capabilities, what we put into those services is, in the end, owned by those services. Our words and pictures and videos are only part of what we put in; the social connections are even more important, and we don’t own those when we live in others’ universes.

We would have had a much different media experience a decade ago if AOL or Microsoft had succeeded in what they were trying to do in the 1990s: Make our online experience a universal walled garden. Facebook, more so than Twitter, aims to be precisely that in this new era. If we allow that to happen, we will literally be turning over a significant part of our history to a private company that operates in its own best interests, not ours.

The promise of the Internet was flowering in 2001. We saw only the possibilities and the immense freedom of this emerging sphere for communications and collaboration.

The vision we shared then is in some real jeopardy today. Governments and private companies scheme to wrest control from us at the edges of the networks and pull it back into the center, where it manifestly should not belong. They may win.

A decade from now, we’ll surely experience another major event with newer media we cannot even imagine today. I hope we’ll be using tools that renew the Internet’s promise — technologies and policies that honor a simple notion, of genuine freedom to learn, create and collaborate.

 

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Updated

I have a request for anyone who’s tempted to quote me about the no-pay-for-bloggers situation at the Huffington Post. Please don’t use my words as support for the notion that Arianna Huffington — or her investors or AOL, the new owner of this online media organization — has any legal obligation to pay the site’s op-ed bloggers even a thin dime.

Again and again, unfortunately, journalists and others discussing the matter have used what I wrote back in February, when AOL said it was buying HuffPost for more than $300 million, in ways that do not reflect what I actually believe. The latest example comes from the Miami Herald, where Edward Wasserman has a piece about an anti-Huffington lawsuit that demands payment for the bloggers who, by all accounts, helped bring the site to prominence but were never promised any payment for their work. Wasserman writes of the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff Jonathan Tasini:

He says HuffPost owes its success to the creative work of the unpaid and the unsung, an estimated 9,000 writers in all, and now that Arianna is putting an estimated $100 million of AOL’s money into her own pocketbook, they’re entitled to a little something in the tip jar.

Tasini has drawn some support. The Newspaper Guild, the journalists’ union, called on its 26,000 members not to perform any more free work for HuffPost. Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten likened HuffPost to “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.” Dan Gillmor, journalist and Internet theorist, said Huffington should “cut a bunch of checks to a bunch of the most productive contributors on whose work she’s built a significant part of her new fortune.”

The quote, taken from my instant-analysis reaction to the deal, is accurate. I strongly believed then, and still do, that Huffington should be wise and ethical enough to send a small percentage of her (and her investors’) big score to the people who helped her so much in the site’s early days.

But must she be required to do so? Absolutely not.

I do not support Tasini’s lawsuit. In fact, if this case doesn’t get laughed out of court by the first judge who hears it, I’ll be amazed. I’ll also be willing to testify on Huffington’s behalf. Her lawyers are surely smart enough not to call me, of course, because I’d hold my nose as I defended their client, and would explain why to anyone who asked. (I’m not sure whether the hapless Newspaper Guild backs the lawsuit, but as of Sunday, April 24, Wasserman’s column is prominently displayed on the Guild’s website.)

Note: I’m working on piece discussing networked-media creation and compensation. Look for that soon.

Update: Another analysis of the Tasini lawsuit, written by a law student, says I “demanded that Ms. Huffington share the wealth with the unpaid bloggers who helped create it.” That characterization is incorrect (in addition to misspelling my name), as even a casual reading of my original piece makes clear. For a site that says it “reports on the state of legal journalism and encourages conversation about the accuracy and felicity of reporting on law,” perhaps a conversation about accuracy would be useful.

 

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Business Insider’s Steve Kovach calls “nothing groundbreaking” the news that Dropbox — the big online storage company (which I use for some file backups) — has admitted it will decrypt your files and will hand them over to government agencies demand to see the files. Don’t worry about it, says Kovach — you only need to be concerned if you’re doing something wrong.

This is incorrect, on several levels. The latest terms of service flatly contradict Dropbox’s assurance elsewhere on the site that “Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files, and when troubleshooting an account they only have access to file metadata (filenames, file sizes, etc., not the file contents).” So some people inside the company (must be employees, right?) can access user files after all.

And if someone inside the company can do that, the files are vulnerable. As Miguel de Icaza points out on his blog:

This announcement means that Dropbox never had any mechanism to prevent employees from accessing your files, and it means that Dropbox never had the crypto smarts to ensure the privacy of your files and never had the smarts to only decrypt the files for you. It turns out, they keep their keys on their servers, and anyone with clearance at Dropbox or anyone that manages to hack into their servers would be able to get access to your files.

If companies with a very strict set of security policies and procedures like Google have had problems with employees that abused their privileges, one has to wonder what can happen at a startup like Dropbox where the security perimeter and the policies are likely going to be orders of magnitude laxer.

If you care about your security and use Dropbox, you should care about this. If you’re a journalist covering the company, maybe you should look further than the surface.

 

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I’ve finished two recent books on WikiLeaks, and can recommend them both.

The first is by Micah Sifry, whose work has long been at the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and policy. (Note: He’s a friend.) In his new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, he does a terrific journalistic service: He connects the dots and offers context.

The book, as the title suggests, is less about WikiLeaks — though there’s plenty of nuanced discussion about that controversial media innovator — than about the emerging information ecosystem. Transparency is being forced upon opaque institutions and practices. On balance this is a positive development, but the downsides are not trivial.

If you want to know why WikiLeaks matters so much, how it fits into that wider ecosystem and why these developments are so important to the future of politics and policy, you won’t find a better place to start than this book.

You’ll also do well to check out The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond) by the Nation magazine’s Greg Mitchell. Mitchell has been a relentless curator of all-things-WikiLeaks on his Nation blog for months now, and his knowledge of the operation is correspondingly encyclopedic.

This book is almost entirely about WikiLeaks and the site’s founder, Julian Assange. There’s plenty of meat and analysis, and not too much speculation. Mitchell gives us a straightforward and helpful look at a phenomenon that (among others) anyone involved in media needs to understand — especially the professional journalists who’ve been so ambivalent if not contemptuous about something that is part of their own ecosystem even if they don’t realize it.

One of the more interesting elements of Mitchell’s book is the way he’s publishing it. He’s a self-publisher, and has been experimenting with different prices with the Amazon Kindle version, and has already published a second edition. (He makes me feel almost slothful by comparison…)

When I come up for air on some work I have to finish, I plan to read the Guardian’s book on WikiLeaks as well as a volume by a former insider. Meanwhile, as I said at the top, I recommend these books for anyone who wants to go deep on WikiLeaks and what it means.

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No one who has followed media giant Gannett will be surprised by David Carr’s New York Times column this week, in which he makes clear that Gannett is just another big American company that overpays its top people while treating the workers as throwaway material. The piece explains how workers are pushed into furloughs while the bosses rake in millions for managing the shrinkage of a company that — despite some worthwhile digital initiatives — has poorly navigated the changing realities.

The piece should make your blood boil, given its portrayal of the greedy executives. Carr says he’s not talking about “incompetents feeding at the trough,” which is correct. The top people at Gannett are quite competent at what they do, namely guiding the decline with little creative response.

I can’t tell, at the end of the piece, whether he’s being ironic. He writes:

Jim Hopkins has been editing the Gannett Blog since he took a buyout from USA Today where he was a business reporter in 2008.

“It has become a case study in how a mature company facing sudden and tremendous pressure tries to save itself,” he said. “It’s been fascinating to watch in real time, but I think there have been terrible consequences. Gannett has a big footprint in 100 communities, and those places have less and less information.”

“I wouldn’t want their jobs,” he concedes. “But there is so little empathy for the employees and so little understanding of how these packages are perceived. I think they don’t realize how this looks.”

Obviously.

What’s much more likely — hence my uncertainty about whether he’s being ironic — is the opposite. What’s obvious to me is that these executives are cookie-cutter versions of so many of corporate America’s top dogs, whose pay has soared to new heights while almost 10 percent of the workforce remains idle.

Surely they know how it looks. They just don’t care.

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in his latest “Carnival of Journalism” roundup – blog posts by various folks ruminating on a journalism-related topic — our friend David Cohn wonders what the major foundations should do to push innovation in the field. His work at Spot.us is funded by one of them, the Knight Foundation, and he’s currently a Fellow in a program sponsored by the Reynolds Foundation at the University of Missouri, so he has a more than average interest in this topic. A few thoughts:

First, a disclosure: The Knight News Challenge has been a key funder of a major portion of my work in the past several years. I wasn’t the applicant for the grant that paid part of my salary, but as a two-time rejectee for ideas of my own that I’ve put into the News Challenge hopper, I feel safe to say that the program resembles a lot of startups: It’s ambitious, ambiguous, chaotic, and constantly evolving.

If I were to change any single element of the News Challenge it would be this: I’d put at least half of the money not into grants but into equity investments in for-profit companies. To make this happen, the foundation would partner with a small group of highly qualified angel investors — people who cared at least as much about the future of news as returns on investment. Together we’d raise a fund that could offer seed and angel capital to digital media entrepreneurs whose projects showed the kind of promise that could lead to serious returns.

Knight, Reynolds or any other foundation that cares about the future of journalism could also to more to make sense of the landscape, and to connect innovators with people who can use the innovations. Here’s what I believe we need in that regard, as I discussed in Chapter 11 of Mediactive: a small but highly targeted think tank.

Corporate R&D operations try to pick winners while making relatively “safe” bets. This is the inverse.

Imagine a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They’ll identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques—business models as well as editorial innovations. Then they’ll connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Where will these projects come from? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements, you and me.

Part of this is about connecting dots. I take it for granted—based on my own experiences and observations over three decades—that a large percentage of those journalistically valuable ideas, technologies and techniques will come from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world.

Who can help the connectors spread innovation into the larger ecosystem? Among others:

  • Traditional news organizations. This isn’t to suggest they should not invest in some internal R&D (though most do little, if any). However, I would suggest that they devote a bigger part of that spending to buy or license other people’s innovations.
  • Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that they are based on serious business models.
  • Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and non-profits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, so much the better.
  • Foundations. Some are spending a great deal of money now on new projects, but they’d get even more leverage by supporting the connectors.
  • Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use.

What distinguishes the connectors?

First, they’ll understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer, but it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people, b) recognize cool technology when they see it, and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

Second, they’ll need to appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing. This means understanding fundamental principles, of course, but also the need to turn journalism from the lecture mode of the past to the conversational mode it needs to become.

Third, they’ll need a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors—and the ability to have intelligent conversations with any of them.

Finally, they’ll need to be evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also the need to take risks in new areas.

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing, if we pull this off. It’ll require a team effort in the end, but it’s definitely worth the effort—because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

Note: I pitched this idea to Knight some years ago, and didn’t even get to first base.

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I’m heading to Singapore today for a week of workshops, talks and meetings about the book and other topics. One public event, to be held Tuesday, is a book talk at Nanyang Technological University, sponsored by the university’s libraries.

I’m hoping to hold a blogger/Twitter meetup on Thursday or Friday night, and will post more about that as plans get firmer.

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Google’s “open source” promises regarding its Android mobile operating system have always been a bit exaggerated. Yes, anyone can download and use that software, but to get Google’s official stamp of approval for using it in a mobile device, you have to add in some distinctly proprietary applications that Google alone controls.

Now comes the word, via BusinessWeek, that Google is delaying plans to open-source the OS — built on top of Android (itself a Linux variant) and called Honeycomb — that it wants tablet makers to use. The decision is disturbing for many reasons, but here’s the most important one: It erodes trust.

Google seems to be playing favorites in the rollout of Honeycomb tablets. It’s currently partnering with a relatively small number of manufacturers, such as Motorola, that are bringing out the first of what Google hopes will be many tablets in the next several years.

But the main reason to be excited Honeycomb, from my perspective, is that the OS will be widely in play in a number of form factors and devices by a wide variety of manufacturers. They need the code to experiment with all kinds of ideas, and they aren’t getting it in a timely way.

Google is still leagues ahead of other big tech companies in the openness arena. But people who want to believe in the company should remember that Google is, first and foremost, going to protect itself.

If the Honeycomb code release occurs soon, the impact of the delay will be minimal. No matter when it takes place, however, Google has cost itself a bit of the trust it’s earned in recent years — and that seems like a poor bargain for a company that in the end will live or die based on its users’ trust.

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