Monthly Archives: August 2010

Locking down information in a time of abundance

In Charlotte, in 1968 and 1969, a couple of high school students and their buddies created a newspaper using a donated mimeograph machine from a church, in a garage.

In “The Inquisition,” they wrote about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and poetry, and the powers that existed tried to shut them down using zoning laws.

The students found an ACLU lawyer who agreed to take their case, and they won.

The newspaper’s poet, Paul Jones, went on to become director of ibiblio, a large contributor-run digital library. Today, he teaches students at the University of North Carolina about society, library science and journalism. (Paul would be quick to say he was only the newspaper’s poet, not one of the editors, says researcher Suzanne Sink.)

The harder that institutions try to suppress, the more people find a way to communicate.

So when I read a call to arms for high-school journalism education by Esther Wojcicki, director of Palo Alto [Calif.] High School’s journalism program, this line blew me away:

“Far too many of our future journalists, citizens and leaders unquestioningly accept that school administrators — government officials — should have the authority to dictate what they read, write and talk about. “

She was quoting the Student Press Law Center, talking about the 20-year-old Hazelwood court decision, which allows high schools in some cases to censor student publications.

But the more I thought about my own 20-year-old daughter and others who grew up in those 20 years, I came to a different conclusion. This court ruling and institutional climate of the past 20 years have instead led to an erosion of respect for those institutions that try to stifle free discussion and speech.

Your place of business locks down social media? No problem, use your own phone and perhaps a pseudonym. Your high school locks down computers or confiscates phones? Just hack your way around the firewall or be craftier about the phone use. Even your mom says the phone is OK.

This emerging generation is the one that took cell phones to school because parents wanted to be able to reach them after 9/11. Some of their teachers refused to turn off class TVs that day despite what the main office said. Knowledge and communication bring power, safety and self-preservation.

The idea that communication has been locked down and is becoming more controlled might seem bizarre given the daily overload of information we face. But consider:

  • Mecklenburg County officials in February considered taking down the ability to search online by name for property owners;

  • Records of real-time 911 calls for service have been removed from the redesigned Charlotte Mecklenburg government website;
  • Some large private businesses, especially in a bank town like Charlotte, lock down employee access to social media, and sports stars from Denny Hamlin in NASCAR to Marcus Austin at the University of North Carolina have faced consequences because of their words on social media. In most individual cases, education would serve better than blanket policies.

Still, we’re social creatures and technical problem solvers. Some of our most established institutions have become the technical problems. Institutional obstacles to free communication have taught people to disrespect the institutions and that it’s OK to seek ways around barriers and institutions that impose them. Not all of us know the ways around the barriers, but we reward those who do.

Wojcicki’s words are strong when she calls for high-school journalism education:

“Sometimes it’s good to just remind ourselves that there were people who risked their lives and gave up their homes to come here seeking the freedom to pursue the American dream, which includes freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

and…

“Most schools do not allow their students access to an uncensored Web; this is a trait we usually ascribe to China and rarely acknowledge about ourselves.”

Clearly, with growing technical tools for social interaction, institutions haven’t stopped us from talking to teach each other, and the ease and speed of that communication in many cases have increased. Some big names have made mistakes in how they talked broadly to the world, and institutions have reacted.

Along the way, some of those institutions have damaged themselves by going too far to try to lock down information and communication. Individuals learn to disrespect the institutions that prevent them from finding valuable information and being the social creatures that they are. That’s a strong call for more education, more information and more open and engaged institutions, from government to media.

Wojcicki wrote:

“That drive for independence and freedom is alive and well in our teenagers today; if we enable it in our schools, students will respond.”

As, I suspect, will we all.

Acknowledgements: Researcher Suzanne Sink is the expert on “The Inquisition” and its role in Charlotte. Thanks to her for providing background and clarifications. Revised post on Sept. 6 because of her thoughts.

Asking “Who’s a journalist?” is so 2007

Dan Gillmor asks in a Salon piece, “Who’s a journalist?” Commenters are weighing in.

But Dan, please pardon me for this reaction.

This question is so 2007.

Howard Weaver raised it in his old blog, Etaoin Shrdlu, that year. I wrote a paper that year for a UNC class that addressed the question.

Why are we still dealing with it?

Perhaps the question still draws reaction because many journalists are finding that others are co-opting the name, or they’re unsure whether they can still use the label for themselves if they’re not getting paid by organizations anymore to do journalism.

Either way, the question resembles discussion of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, and I’d love to see us move on to other questions.

How should society pay for journalism? What can we learn from history and current experiments like Spot.Us?

How can individuals finance their journalism? Which old ethical rules should we keep?

How can experienced journalists spread the ethics, values and ideals that are worth keeping to the new creators who call themselves journalists?

Is a sports marketing company that solicits and broadcasts high school football scores through text and Twitter a journalism company? Not unless they build a system that adds verification of the information, making it bulletproof from spammers and bots who will no doubt find it.

Is a site that scrapes content from local newspapers and repurposes it without attribution on “hyperlocal” WordPress blogs journalism? No, but how do you teach small local advertisers and readers to tell the difference?

Those are the questions that matter now. People describing themselves as journalists will be best judged by what they produce. Librarians and others working with academic papers are polishing systems that assign rankings to people based on their published works. Others like Spot.Us and Publish2 are experimenting with new funding models.

How can we make new forms work? Let’s get to it.

Move beyond 2007.

The local news and ad battle: A dispatch from the front

competition bike race photo

“As usual, competition lifts the whole game.’’
Rick Daniels, chief executive of GateHouse Media New England, talking about AOL Patch at Boston.com

Or maybe not.

Polly Kreisman, founder of The Loop in Westchester County, N.Y., has written a post over at Lost Remote about how AOL’s Patches are popping up in her territory. And she, as an embedded resident and journalist, is fighting back with her own site against all competitors.

AOL Patch is launching local news sites across the country, and it appears to be aiming at the same territory sought after by legacy media and other companies seeking local advertising dollars: well-off towns and suburbs. Those areas are filled with what Carll Tucker, the founder of Main Street Connect, calls “Main Street moms.”

Those moms are the economic engine of retail, Tucker says, and they draw advertising that supports media. If you’ve had children or have them now, you know it’s true: No matter your best intentions, you accumulate and consume lots of stuff. Retailers and their ads love you.

I’ve seen this kind of hyper-competition for ads in the past, and in some markets, it continues in print to this day. I worked at a newspaper when large news companies tried to knock out suburban competitors by pouring in tons of resources to local news (and I still work in niche local news at a newspaper now.)

We swapped ‘til we dropped, adding lots of weight in our news judgment to local datelines. The editor and the publisher delivered newspapers personally. The local papers responded by accusing us of being out-of-town carpetbaggers.

So we have been through local advertising battles before, and the local news competition fueled by it. I’m hoping that we’ve learned enough, this time, not to waste precious resources.

I was lucky to meet Polly in person at the Knight Digital Media Center’s news entrepreneur boot camp in May, and I wouldn’t want to tangle with her in a business fight. She has the commitment and courage to fight for her local news site, The Loop.

But I wish it wasn’t a fight.

Journalists have long sought work in towns with news competition, because resources pour in. And competition makes us all better at our craft. Many journalists pour their souls and lives into the battle, working 70-hour weeks for little pay, without the time to lift their heads and find a better, sustainable way.

But I worry about the journalists long term, and about the many different kinds of businesses and organizations fighting over one small piece of the market: the Main Street mom, leaving many in society without adequate news sources while news organizations bleed money into certain ZIP codes.

I wish news organizations of all kinds could find ways to spread resources and not be dependent solely on advertising, so that people in markets that are less attractive to advertisers could get the information they need.

And I wish the journalists in those markets could lift their heads and see the long view and perhaps find ways to make sustainable commitments to local news.

People like Polly don’t just face competition for local ad dollars from Patch and Main Street Media.

Competitors include sites run by visitors bureaus that sell ads and are financed by government taxes paid on hotel rooms.
Competitors include sites that offer shopping deals, unbundled from news or information beyond press releases.
Competition comes from new niche experiments or recommitments from national legacy media companies (raises hand).
Competition comes from local television websites, using people far away to take phones calls placing ads from local businesses, meanwhile cranking out stories based on datelines, swapping ‘til they drop.

The pie, based on local advertising dollars just isn’t big enough. So the competition becomes a fight unto death. And I suspect tons of local advertisers still aren’t being served well.

That other customer, the reader?

If they live in a ZIP code sought after by a retailer, they might have some options for local news. If they live elsewhere, though, they might be stuck in a local news desert.

We have to find better ways to work together and to finance news and information. I think it’s way too early to vilify Patch, or Main Street Media, or the other big competitors. They’re putting journalists to work, and maybe they’ll find business models and serve readers and advertisers well.

And maybe, just maybe, we can think long term, to find sustainable ways to deliver local news to everyone.

Background:
Hard times working the Patch

The Jersey Tomato Press on Patch

Leaders of AOL Patch and Main Street Connect talk at MediaShift

Photo credit: tj.blackwell, licensed through Creative Commons