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

On Memorial Day, An Old Briefcase Reveals a Remarkable History

Roughly fifteen years ago I found a nondescript briefcase in the basement of my mom’s house with a sticker just under the handle that read, “My War.” 

Inside the briefcase was an amazingly well-preserved archive of letters, military paperwork, newspaper clipping, sketches and photos from my grandfather’s service in World War II. At the time, I spent months pouring over the collection, and carefully scanned in every page. 

My grandfather, Al Atkins, was shot down over Germany in November of 1944. He was able to parachute to safety before being taken as a prisoner of war. The collection of his military papers includes the original Western Union telegrams his wife received when his plane was shot down and when he was confirmed as a prisoner of war. Those two are dated three months apart.

Imagine what his family must have felt during those three months. The immense weight of the unknown.  Continue reading

Poem: I Circle Around but the Sky Changes

For National Poetry Month in April, Orion Magazine hosted a poetry exchange inspired by a collaboration between poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. The theme was “This Growing Season.” Orion put out a call for anyone who was interested and then matched people up randomly.

I was paired with Anastasia Andersen, who teaches poetry at the University of New Mexico (her full bio is below). Here is how she described the challenge we set forth for our poetry exchange:

We chose a writing game based on those of the French Surrealists. We agreed upon number of stanzas (6) and lines per stanza (5).  We also alternated writing stanzas, but only forwarded the final line, which would inform the next stanza. The “missing” lines of the stanzas were revealed after all 6 stanzas had been written.  We also chose a line from a poem by Robert Desnos as a title “I Circle Around but the Sky Changes.”

All we had was a shared theme and the last lines of each other’s stanzas and yet, the results were remarkably connected, with common themes interwoven throughout both our writing.

Here is the poem: Continue reading

The FCC’s Public Problem

Yesterday, Gigi Sohn, a senior advisor and legal counsel for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, took to Twitter for an extended Q&A with the public. And remarkably, by most accounts, the discussion was actually useful.

The Twitter chat was prompted by the enormous public outcry in recent weeks regarding Chairman Wheeler’s plans to implement a “pay for play” system on the Internet. That push back from the public has now forced Wheeler to revise his proposal, which would have dismantled the idea of net neutrality and undermined the level playing field of the Internet  (but even this rewrite may not solve the problem). As I have written before, this is particularly troubling in terms of people’s access to news, information and a diversity of voices and viewpoints online.

Sohn should be commended for her willingness to listen and talk honestly about these important issues, but it may have been too little too late.

In the past week more than 50 artists and entertainers have joined 50 investors, 10 senators and huge coalitions of public interest groups and tech companies in blasting Wheeler’s proposal. In a rare move, two of Wheeler’s democratic colleagues on the Commission released statements acknowledging their concerns.

This reversal is just the most recent in a long line of policy moves where the FCC has been caught off guard by public protest and broad-based pressure. For an agency that was established, in part, to protect the public interest, it has an enormous problem with the public. Continue reading

From Troll Whispering to Community Building: Practical Lessons in Engagement from ProPublica, WNYC and WFMU

Last month, as part of the Innovating Local News summit hosted by the NJ News Commons and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, I moderated a panel with Amanda Zamora of ProPublica, Jim Schachter of WNYC and Ken Freedman of WFMU, looking at how their organizations have sought to build community around the news.

The focus of the panel was on moving newsrooms beyond narrow definitions of both “community” and “engagement.” While social media is a core part of many outreach efforts, this panel focused on how we can move beyond Facebook and Twitter to engage people in deeper ways on and offline.

Here are some takeaways from the panel – with lots of links to tools and examples.

Why Invest in Community Engagement?

Community building is complex and resource intensive, so before newsrooms develop a project they should by clear about why they are engaging their community and what their goals are. The panelists described three overarching ways that community engagement can strengthen media and news organizations:

  • Build capacity: Your community can help you do things you can’t do yourself. Amanda Zamora pointed to projects like ProPublica’s Free the Files project which helped journalists scour more than 17,000 campaign finance PDFs for critical data. Jim Schachter talked about the WNYC Cicada Project which taught people to build soil temperature sensors and track the spread of the 17-year cicada across the North East. At WFMU the audience can annotate live-playlists adding their own images, facts and links to each song, building a vast knowledge base around the music they play.
  • Build value: By inviting people into your work, you also make your work more central to people’s lives. When people have invested in a story or project, it helps build “sweat equity” in the organization. WFMU actively asks their community to help them fundraise with embeddable fundraising widgets. WNYC is currently running a sleep project that is providing people a platform to track their sleep and advice on getting more rest. Finally, Zamora of ProPublica talked about the way people see their stories, values, contributions reflected in ProPublica’s reporting and how that helps build affinity.

In many cases, the goal of these engagement efforts was not to cultivate more donors or raise money, but in the end, building capacity, trust and value are all critical to developing sustainable newsrooms. No matter what your business model is, you need to cultivate a deep connection to your community if you are going to survive. Continue reading

We Make The Road By Walking: Local Journalism and Building Community

I’m excited to announce that I am joining the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as their Director for Journalism and Sustainability. After seven years working on journalism, media and technology issues at the national level I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and working with an emerging network of local news sites around New Jersey and New York City. We are going to be drawing on lessons from around the nation and launching a number of our own new experiments, helping newsrooms develop diverse, community-driven models for sustainability.

I’ve spent the last fifteen years working with a range of national nonprofits to transform institutions and build stronger networks in journalism, education and conservation. My last seven years have focused specifically on supporting public-service journalism and freedom of expression through research, organizing and public policy. This has been hugely rewarding, but I’ve been increasingly eager to work more directly with journalists and newsrooms.

The Dodge Foundation’s approach to supporting journalism in New Jersey has helped the state become a vibrant testing ground for meeting community information needs. New journalism start-ups are reinventing how reporting is done, but too often, journalists do not have the resources, flexibility, or support to bring that same level of creativity to building more sustainable newsrooms.

In a recent survey, Michele McLellan found that more than 60 percent of local news sites increased their revenues in 2013, but only one third actually reported a profit and half are scraping by with less than $50,000 in revenue. My hope, is to bring new capacity to these newsrooms, freeing them up to take risks, experiment with new ideas, build community and learn as we go. Continue reading

New Adventures

Today is my last day at Free Press.

After seven years fighting for more diverse, independent media, quality journalism and all people’s rights to connect and communicate, I’m moving on to a new adventure.

It’s a tough time to leave. The work Free Press does is profoundly important right now.

I started at Free Press the same month the first iPhone was released. In the seven years since, media has become interwoven into our lives in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Our computers have moved from our desktops to our pockets, and technology is far more personal and intimate today than ever before. Our movements, our politics, our news and our communities are being transformed by creative people and unexpected technology. And through these tools, people are creating, collaborating and participating in media and journalism every day in ways few of us imagined seven years ago.

However, at the same time we also face a range of new threats to freedom of expression and the open Internet. From net neutrality to mass surveillance and media diversity to mega mergers, Free Press has been fighting these fights for a decade. And I know the organization has big plans for the next decade, especially at the intersection of press freedom and Internet freedom.

The team at Free Press is second to none. They are some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable people I’ve ever worked with. I’ll miss the work, but I’ll miss the team more than anything.

Continue reading

“We’ll Never Be Rested” a New Video Parody of Lorde’s “Royals” for Overtired Parents

One of the amazing things about the Internet is the way an idea can spread and grow. When my wife and I wrote a parody of Lorde’s “Royals” rewritten in the voice of overtired parents, we had no idea how much it would resonate with people. We got a huge outpouring of messages from parents who saw themselves in those lyrics and appreciated the chance to laugh a bit amidst the chaos.

When my old college friend Lisa Hilary saw the lyrics on Facebook she offered to recorded a studio-version of it – that’s when it really went viral. In a few short weeks it got almost 1 million hits and was being played on radio talk shows and discussed in TV segments. You can see the full lyrics below and hear Lisa’s version here.

Now two more people have recorded their own versions of the song, using our lyrics. Atasha Marlee is a mom of three (4, 2 and 6 months) who somehow had time to get into a studio to record her version of the song and make this video:

I don’t know about you, but I recognized a few of those scenes all too well. Continue reading

Hacking Attention: Media, Technology and Crisis

On Monday at 5pm I’ll be moderating a session at SXSW that explores the way journalists, civic hackers, and local communities are using new technology and social networks to respond to crisis and conflict. What follows is a preview of some of the issues we’ll be grappling with.

What is your attention worth? Online publishers, advertisers and social networks are putting a price on your attention every day. The entire web metrics industry is built on the economy of attention – impressions, clicks, visits, time on site, RTs, likes, shares. These are the atomic elements of attention.

But there are also people who are working to hack attention, to use new networks, new connections and new tools to drive our hearts and minds towards the most important stories of our time. The hope is not that we can turn attention into dollars, but that we can turn attention into action.

Today, images of natural disasters, videos from protests, and reports from war zones reach us almost instantaneously. Carried over the air and across the wires, events around the globe are brought directly into our field of view. They show up in our Twitter feed, on our Facebook walls, or in our Tumblr dashboard.

From the heart of conflict and crisis people are taking to social media to bear witness, find information, and seek aid and assistance. Citizen and pro-journalists are reporting from the front lines, activists are pushing out creative media campaigns, crowds are mapping crises in real time, and governments are watching and tracking us online. Continue reading

Saying Goodbye to a Five Year Old

When I picked up my son after school a few days ago, he walked slowly to the door, head down and quiet. He normally bounds over to me when I show up at the end of the day. He got his hat and jacket on without saying much, and we walked out to the car.

When we got home I opened the car door, and he looked like he was about to cry. “I don’t want you to go on another trip,” he said.

That morning we had talked about the fact that I was leaving in a few days for a conference. I had only just returned home from another trip. “I just want some special time with you and me,” he said, reaching out and grabbing my hand. We decided that we’d go out for dinner together that night, and get ice cream afterwards.

An hour later we walked out the front door and he stopped in his tracks, looking up at the night sky. It was a clear, cold winter night, and the stars filled the sky. He smiled as he looked up at in awe. Usually we eat dinner around six, get ready for bed by seven and are reading books by eight. So he hasn’t had that many chances to see the night sky, so dark and deep and full.

I just watched him studying the stars, seeing the world through his eyes, feeling his wonder and thinking about how some goodbyes never become routine. I wanted to hold on to that moment. Continue reading

The New Geography of Freedom: Mapping Our Rights On and Offline

This month the Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual analysis of Attacks on the Press, including a “Risk List” of the places where press freedom suffered most in 2013. As you might expect, conflict areas filled much of the list – Syria, Egypt, Turkey – but the place on the top of the list was not a country. It was cyberspace.

In the past, the list has focused on highlighting nations where freedom of the press are under attack, but this year CPJ wrote, “We chose to add the supranational platform of cyberspace to the list because of the profound erosion of freedom on the Internet, a critical sphere for journalists worldwide.” Including cyberspace is a recognition that, at least in terms of press freedom and freedom of expression, the web is not virtual reality, it is reality.

CPJ makes clear that the Internet is a contested terrain, a space of conflict, and very much at risk. While volumes have been written about the future of digital journalism, we have not yet fully mapped the geography of emerging threats that face journalism online. This is due in part to the pace of change in journalism and technology, which presents new opportunities and reveals new threats at every turn.

Continue reading

Journalism Will Rise and Fall With Its Communities

Creating a sustainable future for journalism will demand an entirely new approach to building community around the news.

Two stories from the past week drive that point home.

First the Good News

Mathew Ingram at Gigaom has a great profile of the Dutch crowd-funded journalism site De Correspondent, which brings in almost $2 million a year in subscriptions. Drawing on a piece in Fast Company, Ingram highlights how De Correspondent builds community:

  • It considers reader comments as contributions and values them as part of an ongoing dialogue.
  • It holds editorial meetings in the community, reaching out to different demographics and stakeholders.
  • It encourages people to subscribe to individual authors, and creates opportunities for journalists and communities to debate and discuss the news, building personal relationships beyond the brand.

“One of the key principles behind De Correspondent,” Ingram writes, “is that the news outlet and its community of readers are two parts of one thing, not just a seller on one side and a consumer on the other.”

Now the Bad News

The nonprofit journalism world includes a few big newsrooms funded by a few wealthy individuals. This model works when a major donor gives a new journalism organization the stability and safety to experiment and develop new revenue streams. But it can also go wrong: The Global Mail, one of Australia’s great nonprofit experiments, may be closing its doors because its primary funder is bowing out.

It was only two years ago that Internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood pledged five years of support, totaling over $10 million, but his priorities shifted and he decided to support a different publication.  And while the Global Mail has a dedicated readership, it hasn’t been able to cultivate the community investment it needs to diversify its funding. Continue reading