Category Archives: Media business

Using money from public notice advertising as a digital dividend to help bridge the digital divide

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

People from Pew Research, Google Fiber, and the Charlotte community met on a Friday night at Queens University in Charlotte to talk about the digital divide and the potential transformation from Google Fiber.

I heard some of the talk because Scott Lundgren streamed it on Meerkat. I could listen in because I have broadband access at home.

Not everyone in Charlotte does. The city has pockets where broadband penetration is only 40%.

One tiny mention during the Q&A after the formal presentations at Queens intrigued me – the idea of  a “digital dividend.” Migration to digital tools can save money for businesses and government, and that dividend could be used to help bridge the digital divide.

Try applying that idea to a longstanding digital issue affecting N.C. businesses and governments – required public notices that historically have run in selected newspapers. Local governments want to stop spending the money to advertise public notices in newspapers and simply post the notices on their own sites. Newspapers and the N.C. Press Association propose a compromise this year, in which governments get a 15% discount for repeat advertising and the notices get posted online for free. They rightly argue that most newspaper sites generate more traffic than government websites. They also have at least one lobbyist in Raleigh as well as their own editorial pages to share the benefits of their compromise.

But they’re not the only sites delivering information. Choosing who gets the government contract for advertising public notes can be a political game, and in some small towns, that contract has had the power to kill small news organizations and feed the growth of others. It falls into the “picking winners and losers” category of state and local government law.

So let’s return to that concept of a digital dividend. What if the money currently going to public notice advertising in print was considered a potential digital dividend designated specifically for helping bridge the digital divide?

Use that money to make the notices more accessible to everyone. (And yes, that means everyone, regardless of political leanings, association membership, or ability to fund lobbyists in Raleigh.)

That money could go to one or more of these things:

  • local library support for computers, wi-fi, broadband and community outreach so people can access information online.
  • internal local government work to make the public notices more useful, granular, searchable by topic, and available to all through something like a simple RSS feed. (The state of Utah does this, with a site run by the state archives. I bet others do too.)  As they stand now, the notices are unstructured text blobs, unsearchable on a granular level, like for company names, specific addresses, or type of notice.
  • nonprofits specifically working on bridging the digital divide, like Pangaea in Polk and Rutherford counties, which is a 501(c)3 building out broadband. It has received Facebook grants to help broaden digital access in its rural area.
  • outreach work to lawyers and others who also must post certain kinds of notices but do so behind paywalls. Convene some meetings to discuss how to open that information to all.
  • a fund for unconnected communities in Charlotte and Raleigh, to help pay the $300 initial fee for Google Fiber.
  • the local government’s general fund, to help keep property taxes from rising (yes, this bullet point acknowledges political realities. It also helps longtime property owners on small fixed incomes as well as the big property owners. It doesn’t directly help the many newcomers and millennials who are renting, and it does nothing to help bridge the divide.)

Admittedly, the public-notice advertising money isn’t huge compared to the millions that the N.C. General Assembly manages. A 2009 survey by the N.C. League of Municipalities mentioned price tags of $10,500 for Monroe and $42,000 for Charlotte. But it adds up. A 2011 poll by the Associated Press came up with an estimate that local governments in North Carolina alone spent about $6 million in 2010 on legal ads and public notices.

And admittedly, any solution is complicated by differing media circumstances in each N.C. town. If you want to reach people in Davidson or Cornelius, Davidson News or Cornelius News are good bets, but a local paper in Fayetteville might have bigger reach today than a Fayetteville blogger. RSS feeds that reach any site are the best future-proofed solution to that problem.

This issue has been cussed and discussed in Raleigh and in local governments for at least four years now. It’s a bit arcane, not sexy, so proposed solutions generally reflect what Raleigh lobbyists or a few informed legislators want. But the Queens University discussion stemming from Google Fiber’s arrival raised the idea of a digital dividend. Let’s start thinking how that could work for something concrete like government’s public notices.

Advertisements

The FCC releases its argument supporting municipal broadband in North Carolina

Map of broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC's ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.

Broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC’s ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.


Here it is: 116 pages in PDF.
fccmunibroadband

Here’s the FCC’s full page with statements from all FCC commissioners on the issue.

Here’s the Times Free Press in Tennessee on their part of the issue.

Here’s Multichannel News on what happens next for muni broadband.

Short version: North Carolina’s law limiting town broadband expansion is bad law (it was House Bill 129 from 2011).

And arguments that criticize existing muni broadband in Davidson, Morganton, and Salisbury as examples of the dangers of muni broadband are hogwash. See pages 34-36 in the PDF.

Crossing the streams: N.C. politics (and sometimes media) on Flipboard

Flipboard screenshotFor an easy way to see curated stories on N.C. politics and civics, check out my Flipboard magazine.
Frequency of posts is fairly high, almost every day.

For less-frequent media curation, see my Flipboard magazine on that topic, ranging from net neutrality and drone journalism to N.C. media moves.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and U.S. Rep Mel Watt

Rep. Watt on Youtube

Rep. Mel Watt during SOPA hearings.

Congress is considering a bill that would place restrictions on the Internet, and Charlotte’s Rep. Mel Watt is one of the co-sponsors. Industry heavyweights like Google have lined up against the bill, which has other heavyweights like the Motion Picture Association of America on the other side.

Watt’s coming under some heat because of his statements during discussions about the bill, which could resurface Dec. 21. He has said, “It’s not worthy for us to be talking about who got bought off by whom.” That statement, of course, sent people to look at his political contributors. Here’s a summary.

From Phoenix Woman at Fire Dog Lake:
“Mel Watt Has Over 130,000 Reasons to Like SOPA.”

Alex Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, reported in real time from the markup hearings on Dec. 15 for the bill. Here are two tweets of his from his @digiphile account, with more than 110,000 followers:

Alex Howard tweet 1

Alex Howard tweet 2

Others responded to Watt’s “I am not a nerd” statement during hearings:
“Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.”

Here’s Watt saying, “I am not a nerd,” on Youtube, with reaction.

What the bill does: Lifehacker’s quick version: “All About SOPA: The bill that wants to cripple your Internet, very soon.”

The deep dive on the bill, from Zack Carter at the Huffington Post.

Discussions about the bill could resurface as early as Dec. 21. Here’s where it stands.

Current contributors to Watt’s future campaign efforts include the Communications Workers of America, Microsoft, Cisco, the Motion Picture Association of America, News Corp., Qualcomm, and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Here’s more from OpenSecrets.org on Watt’s campaign finance numbers.

Privacy, sunshine and the electronic frontier: That slippery slope in North Carolina

Electronic Frontier logo

N.C. legislators have introduced a bill that would allow local governments across the state to opt out of providing copies of email lists they maintain.

Several other local bills specifically allow the governments of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Greenville to opt out of providing the copies. The contents of the list would still be open to public inspection.

The statewide bill says this, in part:

“AN ACT to make effective statewide a local act providing that a list of the email addresses of persons subscribing to local government email lists is open to public inspection but is not required to be provided, and to provide that the local government may use that list only for the purpose that it was subscribed to.”

Under North Carolina’s open records law, governments must provide copies of the records they maintain. But in the Charlotte area, some people have expressed concerns about how copies of email addresses can be used for marketing.

Specifically, the Charlotte Observer came under fire after an open-records request for email lists maintained by the city of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson. Editor Rick Thames wrote a column responding to the criticisms.

It’s no wonder email lists and marketing nowadays make people nervous. The most recent visible case happened when hackers obtained names and emails from the marketing company Epsilon. Thousands of consumers had their email addresses stolen. Organizations affected included the College Board and Target.

But that’s just the most recent case. Consumer concern about the privacy of their data has been growing for years. They’ve joined email lists for one purpose and watched their addresses be used for a different purpose. And as political battles heat up for 2012, partisan groups are collecting email addresses as fast as they can, without clear direction on how those emails will be used in the future.

Still, the proposed N.C. bills and any move to greater secrecy should cause concern among citizens. Exceptions to open records have a tendency to grow, with open records statutes adding clauses for government agencies that feel they need to do their work in the dark.

Open government data gives everyone a chance to watch how government is spending money and time. And sometimes, that data also can serve to grow new, independent businesses, like the crime mapping company already used by the town of Cornelius. Access to that kind of data needs to be available to everyone on an equal footing, not only to specific firms that cut deals with local governments.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has wrestled with the balancing of privacy and sunshine for years. Formed in 1990, the foundation’s mission is to defend free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights.

In 2004, the foundation issued a white paper about email. The title: “Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam.”

Much of the paper deals with the technical issues some email list owners face with spam filters, but it also includes strong recommendations for best practices for those owners.

It also highlights an important principle:

“Individual recipients should have ultimate control over whether they receive the messages they wish to receive. They can be assisted by software or anti-spam services, but knowledge of and control over receipt of email should remain with recipients and end users.”

The most relevant best-practice recommendation in this case: Allow the consumers a chance to opt in to email lists. That’s a basic principle of good marketing firms that work to protect the reputation of the companies they represent.

The specific words:

Senders must ensure that recipients have taken positive action indicating that they wish to be signed up for a mailing list.

More from the paper:

“While this problem is less of an issue with noncommercial lists, recipients do report that they have been added to noncommercial mailing lists without their consent. Sometimes this happens after they participated in a single call-to-action or responded to an issue online. Other times, organizers use or purchase a mailing list set up for one purpose as a ‘starter list’ for another, with the incorrect assumption that the people on the first list are likely to be interested in the second.”

The paper from EFF is worth reading for anyone owning and using email lists and anyone who signs up for a list. But the best practices aren’t law, and they won’t stop marketers, politicians or community organizers from using open records laws to obtain email lists when they can.

So should North Carolina limit access to copies of email lists compiled by local governments?

If so, N.C. legislators should proceed cautiously and choose the law’s words narrowly to avoid shutting off access to information that doesn’t threaten personal privacy. The proposed laws do take a step in the right direction by limiting government’s use of email lists for purposes different than initially intended.

But the contents of emails sent to subscribers of government lists should remain public and should be able to be copied electronically for data analysis.

Also, the number of subscribers to the government email lists should be easily available and easily duplicated. Any other data about the data that the government collects and that does not threaten privacy should be available electronically. As technology evolves, the value of that data about the data can grow in ways that are unclear now.

Any law to protect privacy that affects sunshine should be written narrowly to allow the value of information in the future to grow. Legislators should also proceed cautiously with granting exceptions to the N.C. open records law. Exceptions have a tendency to grow as well.

Sources:
Statewide bill: House Bill 544, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson, Tricia Cotham, Frank Iler and Joe Tolson.
Local bills:
Charlotte: House Bill 543, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson and Tricia Cotham.
Huntersville: Senate Bill 270, sponsored by Sen. Malcolm Graham.
Cornelius: House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Tim Moore.
Greenville: Senate Bill 182, sponsored by Sen. Clark Jenkins, Louis Pate and Richard Stevens.

Disclosure: I work at the Charlotte Observer as a community editor covering an area that includes Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and parts of the city of Charlotte. Opinions here are my own and were written on my own time.

Strengthening North Carolina’s media ecosystem, from the ground up

weeds

Fiona Morgan and Ryan Thornburg issued a call to arms for citizens to become the media in today’s Raleigh News and Observer. Thornburg expanded the idea with a list of steps that communities can take to fill the gaps in news as legacy institutions operate with smaller staffs.

The call to action is remarkable in these respects: It comes from two people in academia, without financial interest in seeing more citizen participation in the media, and it calls for journalistic thinking from ordinary people. It also focuses on North Carolina and local civic news.

When news organizations, local governments or new marketing websites ask for participation from ordinary people these days, many folks react with cynicism:

“Oh, they just want free content.”

And for coders who can help parse data, the cynicism is even greater. These folks get paid to code, and we’re asking them to work for free?

But the call to action from people outside the media shows the civic pain at a time when distrust of institutions runs high. Morgan and Thornburg also bring theory down to specifics.

Their ideas echo projects proposed through the Knight News Challenge as well as the mission of the newly named Knight School of Communication at Queens University in Charlotte.

What I don’t want to see from their call to action: Yet another conference. We have plenty, even in North Carolina, planned for 2011.

What I would like to see: Specific projects or small meetups, with cross-discipline teams, aimed at small slices of the news ecosystem that are uncovered now.

Demos, not memos. Or even blog posts.

At the same time, we have to find ways to pay ourselves for the work. Foundations and nonprofits can jump-start projects, but finding business models is part of the challenge.

Background:
Fiona Morgan’s study of the news ecosystem in the Triangle. The report is long, but worth at least skimming for an understanding that news comes from a complex system rather than one place.

How to share news photos: A guide for anyone who finds themselves with a camera amid news events

Mamiya camera

Thousands marched in Montpellier, France, this weekend to protest pension law changes. My daughter was there studying abroad, camera in hand, but a bit stumped about whether her images had commercial value and how she could share her images with possible paying clients. She uses Tumblr and sometimes Facebook to share images with family and friends, but this case was different and she was seeking a broader audience.

We now have the capabilities to share images from around the world, while traditional news organizations have fewer staffers capturing images. Thousands of students are studying abroad, gathering thousands of images, but knowing how to get that work seen and possibly bought is still tricky. Establishing connections and getting good work found remains as hard as it ever was, and perhaps even harder with information overload.

Quick phone images can be shared immediately with the world through services like Twitpic, but controls on use and the ability to caption and tag well are limited. Sharing on Facebook can be fast too, but the terms of service can disturb anyone who wants to maintain control of their images.

Flickr offers the best ability to be seen, to share and to protect ownership.

To start, here are a few steps that will prove valuable for anyone who finds themselves amid news events with camera in hand. I’d love more tips, corrections or alternative advice from others who have found themselves in similar situations.

First, understand that speed is crucial. If it’s a big news events, its primary value comes in the first few hours after an event. Share quickly.

Sign on to Flickr. Go to the You menu. Upload photos and videos. Tag photos liberally, thinking about the keywords that people would use to find photos. Use all languages that are appropriate.

Be brutal in self editing your work, only adding three to five of your photos from an event, mix of vertical and horizontal. Be brutal in length and quality of videos. Upload speeds can be slow; make sure size is large enough for print but not so large it makes upload time unbearable:
Resolution: minimum of 200 pixels/inch, 300 pixels/inch is better
Pixel dimensions: width of at least 1000 pixels, up to about 1600 pixels

If you think you have enough quality photos for a slideshow, you can upload more photos: 10 to 15. Flickr can make an automatic slideshow and give you a link to it that you can share. But keep in mind that each of those photos needs an accurate, unique caption, and that’s likely to take much of your time.

Captions must include who, what, when, where, maybe why, maybe how much. If the photos are taken in public places, groups of five or more people don’t require individual identification. If fewer than five people are in the photo, get names. If it’s a news event and you can’t get names, you can still upload the photo, but it might not get used. Be honest about what you don’t know. Photos taken on private property are a different matter: Did you have permission to be there? Did the people in the photos give permission? Then you’re covered. Otherwise, legal issues could get sticky.

Include your name and e-mail (a real e-mail that you will check for any questions or queries later) in the caption information. It should be an e-mail that you’re OK with being public and that you do check. If it’s an e-mail address that’s almost not functional because it’s too overloaded, use some other method of contact: public, permanent phone number, unique Facebook name, something that will find you.

Doublecheck the licensing of the photo after upload to make sure it’s some rights reserved, with noncommercial use. With that license, people who want to use it commercially should contact you and offer to pay. You could also mark it “All rights reserved.” People can still offer to pay for it, but it won’t get reused by noncommercial sites.

Consider using social media to link to that Flickr account to get the word out.

Ahead of time:
Check the default licensing on your account for noncommercial use or all rights reserved.
Check your contact settings to make sure people can get in touch with you.
Have a Flickr account, either free or pro, spend some time becoming familiar with it, check settings such as the “license through Getty” setting and remember how to sign in to it.

More ideas? Let me know.