How To Get Your News From Poems

I came to journalism by way of poetry.

For a long time, poems were my workshop. Through poetry I experimented with language, learned how to make meaning and build empathy. Poetry, like so much good journalism, helped me see the world in new ways.

This week, the nation’s largest poetry festival kicks off in Newark, New Jersey. Over four days, on nine stages, more than 70 poets will take part in 120 events. In a preview of the festival, the New York Times called it “a literary bonanza.”

For me, the festival feels like a homecoming. Six months ago I began working as the Director for Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the hosts of the Dodge Poetry Festival. I’ll spend the weekend surrounded by some of the people whose poetry sparked my love of writing early on.

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” wrote American poet William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And yet, we are seeing more and more efforts to combine poetry and reporting. Recently, the Center for Investigative Journalism partnered with the literary nonprofit Youth Speaks to create the Off/Page project mix spoken word with investigative reporting. In 2009 Haaretz newspaper in Israel replaced its reporters with leading poets and authors for a day, and later in 2012 NPR invited poets into the newsroom to translate the day’s news into verse. Continue reading

Why Journalists Need to Take Reader Privacy More Seriously

(A version of this post originally appeared on Medium)

Last week longtime local publisher Howard Owens, founder of the online news site the Batavian, launched a new publication covering Wyoming County in upstate New York. Buried in a parenthetical within his welcome message to readers was a fascinating promise: “We’ll also respect your privacy by not gathering personal data to distribute to multinational media conglomerates for so-called ‘targeted advertising.’”

This kind of explicit promise regarding reader privacy is increasingly important and all too rare.

Even though stories about government surveillance, commercial tracking and financial data theft have become commonplace in the press over the last two years, news organizations are still loath to talk about their own practices in regards to reader privacy. It’s time for some real talk about what we owe our readers in the age of big data and mass surveillance.

Just last week this blog published an analysis of news organizations’ use of encrypted HTTPS connections. “Virtually none of the top news websites,” writes Kevin Gallagher, “including all those who have reported on the Snowden documents — have adopted the most basic of security measures to protect the integrity of their content and the privacy of their readers.” Without this encrypted connection it becomes possible to essentially eavesdrop on what people are reading online, as the NSA did with people who visited the Wikileaks website.

Earlier this year, in a report on the challenges of encrypting news websites, theWashington Post pointed out how much this kind of surveillance can reveal about someone. “Among the issues potentially illuminated by what you choose to read, advocates say, are your health concerns, financial anxieties, sexual orientation and political leanings.”

And yet, the use of encrypted connections on news websites is just one part of a much larger and more complex issue. Continue reading

What if Journalism Was Built for Inclusive Community Participation?

Larenellen McCann recently gave a terrific talk about community, technology and how we can and should build for “inclusive community participation.” As I watched the video, she kept talking about “civic tech” and “civic hacking” but I kept hearing “journalism” and “reporting.” The failures she is describing and the challenges she sets forth are as relevant for journalists and newsrooms as they are for technologists working in the public interest.

I have written before about the need to reorient journalism around community by building more reciprocal relationships between newsrooms and communities, relationships rooted in listening, empathy and creativity. McCann’s talk hits on similar themes but gets even more concrete about the steps we need to take to transform our work in collaboration with our communities. Be sure to read her longer, follow up blog post.

In the spirit of civic hacking, I asked McCann if I could “fork” her talk and replace her references to civic technology with journalism as an experiment in context. Below is the result. I think it captures a lot of what I’m working on with community news sites at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Continue reading

The Rise of Hands-On Journalism

Digital journalism has made possible some incredible storytelling in recent years. Visually stunning reports on issues as diverse as gun violence, environmental disasters, and surveillance have brought stories to life on the screen. Increasingly, however, journalists are experimenting with innovations that move journalism off the screen and into people’s hands.

This spring RadioLab did a story about an ancient skull and the questions it helped answer about the origins of human history. It is a fascinating story, but it revolved around minute details scientists discovered in the skull, details a radio audience couldn’t see. So the RadioLab team took a scan of the skull, printed it out with a 3D printer, and made the scan available online for others to print out. So, now you could hypothetically feel the groves and markings on the skull as the scientists discuss them, discovering new facets of the skull alongside the narrators.

I am fascinated by the potential for these sorts of journalism-objects to help engage communities around stories and foster empathy with audiences. So I began collecting examples of what I call, “hands on journalism.”

I see this hands-on journalism as a particular kind of community engagement, one that may involve collaboration with community, but puts an emphasis on discovery and learning. Specifically the kind of learning that comes from doing. Continue reading

Thirteen Questions About the Future of Participatory Journalism

At this year’s Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications conference I moderated a panel on legal, educational and practical debates about participatory journalism and citizen reporting. I had the good fortune to be joined by a terrific group of scholars and activists: Amanda Hickman of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Lisa Lynch of Concordia University, Madeleine Bair of Witness.org and Morgan Weiland of Stanford University.

I posted a preview of the discussion before the panel. But the panel itself was a lively and engaged debate where a number of important new issues were debated. Below are recordings of the panel’s opening remarks. You can listen to the entire half hour on Soundcloud, but below I’ve split it up into short three and four minute clips, highlighting a few key themes that emerged. Continue reading

Finding a Better Way to Track Journalist Arrests in the United States

I spent a large part of 2011 and 2012 compiling a day by day detailed report of journalists who had been arrested at Occupy protests. In each case, I tried to track down multiple sources for confirmation, sought to detail the circumstances and capture a bit of the story of how the arrest happen, and then from there track what happened to the journalist in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time I launched a series of campaigns with Free Press, calling for cities across the United States to drop charges against journalists and defend First Amendment protections for journalists covering protests.

So when three journalists were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, in the middle of August people began sending me tips. I was away from my computer and couldn’t track the breaking news as well as I would have liked, but thankfully as the week went on – and more reports of journalist arrests and press suppression poured in – others took up the charge and helped track these issues.

At the time of writing there are three lists tracking attacks on the press in and around Ferguson, Missouri. Each is taking a somewhat different approach and reports a different total number depending their definition of who is a journalist.

There is an important debate to be had here about who gets counted in these sorts of efforts, and who gets left out. I’ll save that debate for another post, but if you are interested I suggest reading this and this as a starting place.

After a year of tracking, I began to run up against the limitations of a tool like Storify for long-term on-going coverage. Even the lists above, with social media embedded in them, begin to get a bit long and unwieldy, after just a week or two.

Continue reading

From Washington to Ferguson and Back Again in a Night

I was on a family vacation in Washington, DC, last week on August 14. It was a lovely summer evening and on a whim my wife and I took our two young sons down to the Lincoln Memorial at sunset.

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As the last light of day lit up the sky around the monument I walked up the steps and heard a chorus of people reciting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The group of high school students knelt on the spot where Dr. King stood, pointing to the inscription there, and breathing new life into his words.

Half a nation away in Ferguson, Missouri, a different sound filled the night air. Just a few days earlier a young unarmed black teenager, not much older than those who stood before me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was killed by police. And on this night, protesters calling for justice met militarized police who were prepared for a fight.  Continue reading

Journalism’s Theory of Change

(Originally published at the LocalNewsLab)

In July we learned more about Jim Brady’s new local journalism start-up, Brother.ly, which is taking a networked approach to news in Philly. At USA Today Rem Rieder described the project as having a “strong civic impulse.”

For Brady and Chris Krewson, the site’s editor, community is the starting place. At theInnovate Local conference at Montclair State University earlier this year Brady said that increasingly he wants to effect “our communities through action not just providing information” and he describes Brother.ly not as a news site but as “a platform for a better Philly.”

At one time, this overt emphasis on civic action would have raised red flags for many journalists. But increasingly we are seeing some newsrooms frame their work as a springboard for action. There is evidence of this shift in both nonprofit and commercial newsrooms, as well as a growing number of journalism schools which are explicitly training more community driven and action oriented students.

Screenshot 2014-07-28 14.07.49The Christian Science Monitorjust redesigned their site with a major focus on helping people take action. The site features a “Take Action” section and on some stories the Christian Science Monitor offers “paths to action for readers who’ve been inspired by a story or something happening in the world.” My colleague Molly de Aguiar recently profiled Christian Science Monitor and two other publications that are using site design to invite more user engagement.

Also this month, the Knight Foundation awarded a Prototype Fund grant to Chicago’s Public Good Software for the development of a “Do Public Good” button and an outreach campaign designed to “work with bloggers and media organizations to include a capability to take action (‘Do Public Good’) in the context of news articles.” Continue reading

Debating Participatory Journalism: Newsrooms, Campuses, Courts and Congress

This week I’ll be at the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC) moderating a panel with some of my favorite people, on one of my favorite topics. (Click here to jump to the links and resources section)

The session is called, “Media Policy and Participatory Journalism: Teaching, Engaging and Protecting Acts of Journalism” (scheduled for Thursday at 11:45, location TBD) and will focus on big legal and ethical questions that are raised as more and more people are taking up the tools of journalism and covering the news in their communities and around the globe.

How do we understand press freedom when anyone can carry a press in their pocket? How are state and federal laws shaping people’s ability to participate in newsgathering? How are journalism schools welcoming more community participation and preparing journalists for that kind of engagement?

The session is based in part on my research paper from last year on acts of journalism and press freedom debates emerging in the digital age. However, the session also resonates with the work I am doing now around developing and supporting new local news networks which are deeply participatory, engaged with their communities and sustainable.

Continue reading

Defining Civic Action Beyond Institutions in Journalism and Politics

A few common themes have long animated my work in education, conservation and journalism. Collaborating with a range of national and local organizations across these sectors I focused on building community, mobilizing civic action, collaborative problem-solving, fostering new networks and grappling with institutions in moments of profound flux and change. As such, I’m keenly interested in how people engage with their communities and their government, and how those actions are facilitated or hindered by institutions in media, education and the nonprofit sector.

I’ve written before about these dynamics, and the tensions between networks and institutions in news and civic life. We are at a moment when many of the institutions of civic action and information, from advocacy groups to journalism organizations, are re-imagining themselves as networks. The Columbia University report on “post-industrial journalism” is one of the clearest descriptions of this moment. But the corporate and government institutions that are so often the targets of civic action are in many ways growing stronger and more monolithic. C.W. Anderson puts it this way “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere.”

One problem with institutional models is that they tend to define the norms of acceptable (or “real”) action. In politics, this is why voting and other electoral organizing is held up as most meaningful and legitimate. In news, this is part of the reason citizen journalism and blogging has long been treated as something less than traditional reporting. That is in part how institutions preserve themselves. And that preservation has both costs and benefits, as I’ve explored in the case of disaster and crisis response.

All of this is why I was so interested in the Twitter chat I have embedded below, in which Jonathan Stray, Anthea Watson Strong and Ted Han debate the intersection of legitimate civic action and the role of institutions. How do we understand the differences between community action and civic action? When do we need organizational action versus individual action? Can diffuse networks circumvent, replace or take on powerful systems? Continue reading

Video: Journalism Sustainability and Community Engagement

About one month ago I took the wraps off of the new project I had been developing with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. We called it “The Local News Lab” because we wanted to emphasize the sense of experimentation that animates much of the project. We are working with six local news sites in New Jersey and New York City to test new revenue models, new strategies for community engagement, and new collaborative projects to strengthen the journalism ecosystem.

The project is not only an experiment in supporting and expanding local journalism, but also an effort test new ideas in media funding and philanthropy. At Dodge we are testing how a place-based foundation can strengthen the infrastructure for local journalism in a way that encourages long-term sustainability and deep civic engagement. While Dodge does fund non-commercial journalism, this project focuses on mentoring six commercial news start-ups and helping build tools and resources that serve all journalists and newsrooms. We describe this as an ecosystem approach.

I wanted to come work at the Dodge Foundation because I was really excited about the approach they were taking, investing in networks and infrastructure and putting community and civic engagement at the center of their work. In the video below, an interview with Dan Kennedy, I talk more about the details of the project and how we will measure success. Continue reading

Why the SCOTUS Cellphone Decision is a Win for Press Freedom

According to the Supreme Court, police need a warrant to search the cellphones of people they arrest. The unanimous decision, which was handed down this week, is being heralded as a major victory for privacy rights and a landmark case with implications far beyond cellphones.

The New York Times reports, “The ruling almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.”

Many of the most important debates surrounding press freedom and privacy right now focus on how our fundamental freedoms, so long expressed and protected in the physical world, will translate to the digital age. The decision this week is an important recognition that advances in our technology shouldn’t result in erosions of our liberty.

Right to Record

I know a number of reporters and citizen journalists whose cellphones have been searched, and who have even had footage or photos erased. In 2012 I was part of a team at Free Press who launched a campaign fighting for people’s right-to-record, a shorthand we used to talk about both people’s First and Fourth Amendment rights to use their cellphones to gather and disseminate news. In a letter to the Justice Department that year, a diverse range of press freedom and digital rights groups wrote, “The right to record is an essential component of our rights at a time when so many of those witnessing public protests carry networked, camera-ready devices such as smartphones.”

Not long after that letter, the Justice Department released a set of guidelines for police departments reasserting the right to record as a First Amendment protected activity. Those guidelines cited the case of Simon Glik, who was arrested for recording police activity with his cellphone. First circuit Judge Kermit Lipez ruled in Glik’s favor, highlighting how mobile phones have fundamentally changed news-gathering:

[C]hanges in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw… Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.

While this week’s decision focuses on the Fourth Amendment, not the First, it also has clear implications for freedom of the press. Continue reading

John Oliver on Journalism and Comedy

John Oliver was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross this week, and it was a terrific interview. The first twenty minutes or so focused on the way Oliver uses satire to draw attention to complex, under-reported issues. Gross used Oliver’s amazing Net Neutrality clip as fodder, discussing how his call to action brought down the Federal Communication’s Commission website.

During that clip he takes a dig at Sting, to which Gross asks, what if Oliver and Sting find themselves at the same party some day? Oliver’s response became the headline for NPR’s coverage of the interview (“John Oliver Is No One’s Friend On His New HBO Show“), but what I found fascinating was how he shifts from talking about the role of comedians to discussing the role of journalists. Here is the roughly 60 seconds of audio:

Here is the transcript:

Continue reading

Fighting for Access: New Report on the State of Media Credentialing Practices in the United States

At the end of May, fifteen leading journalism organizations signed on to a letter calling for SCOTUSblog to be granted press credentials to cover the Supreme Court. A month earlier, not only was SCOTUSblog’s application for credential’s denied, but the committee who oversees press passes refused to renew Lyle Denniston’s credentials, even though he is a veteran Supreme Court reporter who worked for WBUR and wrote for SCOTUSblog.

A new report from the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Journalist’s Resource project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy puts the SCOTUSblog fight in a national perspective. What is happening to SCOTUSblog in Washington, DC, is happening to journalists around the country. As the landscape of news is changing, laws and guidelines that dictate who can get a press pass are causing problems and, at times, blocking access to important new journalism organizations and individuals.

In many cases, these challenges are arising in places where freelancers and new newsrooms are trying to cover old institutions, like courts and statehouses, places where journalistic capacity has been dwindling. Continue reading

The Ethics of Sensor Journalism: Community, Privacy and Control

Last week the Tow Center at Columbia University held its first research conference, Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation, where it released three major new reports on Data Journalism, User Generated Content and Sensors. All three reports are important additions to the conversation about technology, reporting and ethics, with some useful and at times provocative recommendations.

I contributed an essay to the report on Sensors and Journalism. The project was led by Fergus Pitt, whose research and case studies make up the bulk of the 200+ page book. But joining me in contributing essays were great scholars, lawyers and journalists whose work adds hugely to this emerging field.

My essay focused on the ethical considerations that arise as journalists engage their communities through the use of sensors. The piece looks at questions around the shifting nature of public and private information, and new privacy concerns that journalists have to contend with in the age of big data. I looked at how the use of sensors intersect with historic issues of discrimination, power and surveillance and describe concrete steps newsrooms can take to engage communities openly and honestly around these issues.   Continue reading