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.

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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

Verification Handbook Mixes Tools, Tips and Culture for Fact-Checking

Last week Twitter and CNN announced a major partnership with the data analysis startup Dataminr to shift the way journalists use Twitter as an early alert system for breaking news. Dataminr worked with CNN to fine-tune the algorithms they use, to help close the gap “between the eyewitness wanting to be heard and the journalist who wants to listen,” according Twitter’s head of news, Vivian Schiller, in a blog post. That gap is not just one of distance or time, but also one of trust.

Dataminr says its algorithms can not only identify emerging patterns and trends, but also help journalists focus in on the most relevant and reliable information. As an example of this, The Verge’s Ben Popper points out that “Dataminr told its financial clients that the AP tweet about an explosion at the White House was false five minutes before the AP itself corrected the facts.”

This is clearly a promising tool for newsrooms, but in breaking news, it is not just the tools, it is how you use them. It is not enough to have a great verification tool if the culture inside and outside the newsroom doesn’t value accuracy above all. To that end, last week also saw the release of an important new guide to verifying digital content. The Verification Handbook is free online, and was produced by the European Journalism Centre with contributions from an all-star cast of journalists. Continue reading

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bite-Sized News

Last week the BBC launched Instafax, a short-form video newswire designed for Instagram where videos are limited to 15 seconds. For now, the BBC is describing their project as an experiment, but the move is part of a much larger trend that, at one point, I scoffed at.

I have long complained about inch-deep media coverage of current events that provides little time for meaningful debate and focuses instead on sound bites. By all accounts I should hate news being delivered in 15 second Instagram videos. And yet, as organizations, old and new, develop new kinds of storytelling for new platforms the ultra short form factor is winning me over for some topics. Bite-sized news today goes beyond sound bites, but could go even further as an on-ramp to other coverage.

As a news junkie I was curious about NowThis News and started following them on Instagram late last year. I was soon hooked on their clever, punchy, well-produced videos. In a post on NowThis News’s Instagram strategy Caroline O’Donovan said “NowThis News is building video content that fits in where the audience lives.” She continued:

There’s a willing audience in people who would never think to turn on a TV to get their news, but refresh their Instagram feed multiple times a day. It’s not that these people aren’t interested in news — it’s that they’re accustomed to the big stories finding them rather than the other way around.

And indeed, editor-in-chief Ed O’Keefe says that they are “finding an appetite for hard news,” he says. “Not just soft, entertainment news — hard news on Instagram.” NowThis News recently split off their entertainment and sports coverage into separate Instagram accounts responding to feedback from their followers. Continue reading

Net Neutrality, Press Freedom and the Future of Journalism

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order and threatened the future of Net Neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71%. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet. Continue reading

What Do Kids’ Books Teach Us About the Future of Journalism?

I may read most of my news online, but I still get a print newspaper delivered to my doorstep everyday. I have lots of reasons for doing this but mostly I do it support local journalists and to have journalism be a visible presence for my kids.

At any given point we have a few days’ newspapers lying around the house, along with a few magazines we still subscribe to. The kids see an interesting picture or headline that captures their attention. It sparks conversation, makes them curious about their community and the world around us. We’ll often go from discussing an article in the paper, to looking up something on YouTube and reading more about it online. So I’m not opposed to screens in any way, but I do appreciate the serendipity and spontaneity the physical paper provides.

It is also a way for my kids to understand first-hand the work I do every day on press freedom and media policy.

I’m lucky that my kids are voracious readers and are drawn to anything that has words on it. In the piles of children’s books around our house I began noticing that a lot of them depicted newspapers. I decided to document representations of newspapers and journalism in kids’ books we owned.

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Ira Glass on Storytelling and Surprise

A few weeks ago I saw Ira Glass speak about This American Life and how he and his team think about storytelling. Looking back through my notes today, I discovered this little sextet of quotes that all seemed to flow together nicely. This is a bit like playing refrigerator poetry with Glass’s words since each of these lines had a lot of other context around them, but nonetheless, here they are:

Surprise is a remarkable weapon when telling a story.
Surprise brings hope.
Journalists need to be cunning.
Storytelling is highly inefficient.
We harness luck as an industrial tactic.
It is like wandering in the rain hoping lighting will strike.

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The Best Online Storytelling and Journalism of 2013

In 2012 I posted a round-up of the best online journalism of the year, which grew as others added their favorites. My list focused on journalism that could only be done online, the kind of storytelling that take advantage of the unique opportunities the Internet provides. This tended to be deeply visual reporting that wove together text, audio, images and videos.

As I created my 2013 list however, I saw much more data journalism and an increasing use of tools that engaged readers or rethought the basic flow of storytelling for a more participatory audience.

The ghosts of the New York Time’s “Snow Fall” article from 2012 haunted debates about online journalism in 2013 – it even became a verb. Joe Pompeo, the media reporter at Capital New York, defined “snowfalling” this way: “To execute the type of expensive, time-consuming, longform narrative multimedia storytelling that earned the Times’ ambitious ‘Snow Fall’ feature a Pulitzer last month.”

But 2013 also saw innovative journalists and newsroom developers taking interactive, multimedia storytelling in new directions too. And while I don’t cover them in-depth below, there were

Be sure to also check out the Online Journalism Award winners, which includes a number of amazing projects not listed here. And, in terms of a meta look at the field, I think Eric Newton’s “Searchlights and Sunglasses” is both a critical tool for rethinking journalism education and a model of online storytelling itself.

As in 2012, consider this list a provocation, a challenge to you to fill in the blanks and tell me what I missed. This list is by its nature biased around topics and people I followed this year, I don’t suggest it is comprehensive, so please take advantage of the comments section to add your favorites (or send me a note on Twitter). Continue reading

United We Stand. United We Encrypt.

At the end of October, as thousands of activists gathered in Washington, D.C., for the largest U.S. rally against domestic spying, the head of the National Security Agency sent a message to journalists reporting on surveillance and Edward Snowden’s revelations.

“I think it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents … and are selling them and giving them out,” NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told a Department of Defense blog. “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it.”

This statement mirrored comments from U.K. authorities who told Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger, “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

That message came just weeks before agents from the U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ came to theGuardian office and forced staff to destroy computers and hard drives that contained documents Snowden leaked.

Snowden’s leaks have exposed a largely secret and unaccountable surveillance state, ignited a new era of watchdog reporting on national security issues, and sparked protests in the streets.

Revelations about these surveillance programs have also highlighted an array of new threats and challenges to press freedom and basic newsgathering around the globe. We now know that all our communications are being collected, and increasingly are being used against journalists and their sources. Continue reading

Fighting for Our Rights to Connect and Communicate in 2014

In my first months on the job here at Free Press I traveled to Chicago and did a bunch of workshops all over the city about media consolidation. I was pretty new to media policy issues, and spent most of the time listening to community members talk about why the media was a life and death issue for them.

I listened to them talk about not hearing anyone who sounded like them on the radio, not seeing any issues that they were struggling with in the newspapers, and constantly seeing their community misrepresented on the evening news.

But I also heard from amazing organizers working in youth radio, journalists who were helping residents start their own newspaper, and digital activists working to connect more people to high-speed Internet access.

These are the stories that still motivate me today. These are the kinds of stories that inspire a lot of the work we do here at Free Press. And I’m lucky to work with an incredible team of people everyday, who inspire me with their passion, smarts and tireless work.

Free Press has been at this for ten years, and I believe this is a turning point. We’ve had one of our most successful years ever, but we have much bigger plans. Some of our biggest fights to defend press freedom and Internet freedom are ahead of us. Continue reading

FCC Moves to Beat Back Covert Consolidation

In a rare move, the Federal Communications Commission has thrown a wrench into a company’s plans to consolidate.

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FCC has intervened in the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plan to buy seven TV stations from Allbritton Communications. The agency asked Sinclair to “amend or withdraw” its plans to sidestep ownership rules that limit how many stations one company can own.

Earlier this fall, Free Press pushed the FCC to block this deal, citing Sinclair’s use of outsourcing agreements and shell companies to skirt the rules. In new research, we revealed how Sinclair and other companies are using all kinds of shady tactics to grow their empires at viewers’ expense.

In response to our report, Sinclair argued that it “completely complies” with the law. However, it would seem the FCC disagrees and is raising significant concerns about this kind of covert consolidation. Continue reading

On Press Freedom, Love of Country and Journalist Solidarity

This week the British Parliament held an anti-terrorism hearing and the main witness was a newspaper editor, Alan Rusbridger.

Rusbridger’s paper, the Guardian, has been under enormous pressure from U.K. authorities for its reporting on U.S. and U.K. mass surveillance programs. Indeed, the partner of former Guardianjournalist Glenn Greenwald was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport under a U.K. anti-terror law last summer for carrying documents related to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The hearing began with the committee chairman, Keith Vaz, asking Rusbridger if he “loved his country.” It only got more bizarre from there.

Another member of Parliament, Michael Ellis, suggested that publishing stories based on the Snowden leaks was akin to treason. He asked Rusbridger, “If you’d known about the Enigma Code during World War II, would you have transmitted that information to the Nazis?”

It would be easy to laugh at the implications of this line of questioning if the outcomes for press freedom were not so serious. Not long after the hearing, Reuters reported that Britain’s senior counter-terrorism officer and British police are “examining whether Guardian newspaper staff should be investigated for terrorism offenses over their handling of data leaked by Edward Snowden.” This isn’t that far off from the troubling suggestions the NSA chief made here in the U.S. a few weeks ago. Continue reading

Making Journalist Security Ubiquitous

One year ago I joined the Freedom of the Press Foundation to launch an effort to rethink how we fund and fight for hard-hitting journalism. In the last year the Foundation raised over $480,000 for nonprofit journalism projects focused on government transparency and accountability. The donations came from more than 6,000 people and supported critical investigations into drones, Guantanamo, Pentagon spending and funded a daily public transcript of the entire Manning trial for all journalists and the public to review and use.

Today, the Foundation is launching its next crowd-funding campaign. This time, however, we are not funding journalism directly but instead we are investing in the next generation of open-source encryption tools for journalists. Since the Foundation launched a year ago, the revelations about government surveillance and the US government’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers has raised new concerns from journalists and free expression advocates worldwide.

“Protecting the digital communications of journalists is turning into the press freedom fight of the 21st Century,” said Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm. “The Obama administration has been able to prosecute a record number of whistleblowers largely by subpoenaing emails and phone calls. It’s clear that journalists can’t protect their own sources by just refusing to testify anymore, so we need tools that will help them.” Continue reading

The Need for Listening and Empathy in Journalism

Two recent blog posts raise this question: Just how often do news organizations actually listen to their communities?

In his post, former News & Record editor John Robinson argues that his paper doesn’t dedicate time or resources to the issues he and many other readers face on a daily basis. And the News & Record isn’t unusual. In fact, Robinson says this problem isn’t limited to newspapers: “TV news has the same news diet,” he writes, “and it’s not in touch with mine.”

In a response to Robinson, Kevin Anderson notes that many newsrooms are “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life: crime, council meetings and planned events.” They’re spending much less time, Anderson says, on “the lived experience of their communities.”

Being Zoned Out of the News

This debate reminded me of a talk that longtime editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. “Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?” Stites asked.

Stites noted at the time that newspapers were increasingly aiming to serve the audiences that advertisers want to reach. “Is there any wonder that less affluent Americans have abandoned newspapers and are angry at the press?” Stites asked. “They’ve abandoned newspapers … because the newspapers have abandoned them.” Continue reading

Ethics for Anyone Who Commits Acts of Journalism

Right now there are three major efforts under way to rethink journalism ethics for our changed media landscape. The Online News Association and the Society for Professional Journalists have both launched ethics discussions with their members, and the Poynter Institute recently published a major book on “The New Ethics of Journalism.”

Poynter is using the occasion of the book to jump-start a broader conversation about truth and trust in the 21st century, the first event of which happened this week in New York City. Sponsored by PBS MediaShift, craigconnects, the Ford FoundationAmerican University’s School of Communication and NewsCred, the event featured a panel of journalists and academics from the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, NYU, AP, and the Seattle Times. There were some great discussions on sponsored content, the nature of truth versus facts, and the intersection of reporting, opinion and activism. But I won’t get into those here. Instead, I want to talk about the one theme that seemed to undergird the entire evening: journalism’s relationship with its community.

One of the most important points of the evening was made by Mark Glaser of PBS MediaShift in his opening remarks. He said, “These are not ethics for journalists, but ethics for anyone who commits acts of journalism.” And indeed, Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, the editors of the new Poynter book, have worked hard to think about an ethical framework that can be relevant and meaningful to the wide array of people who are participating in journalism today.

Rosenstiel echoed this point later in the evening when he argued that today ethics has to be embedded in every piece of journalism, not just a set of values ascribed to by a newsroom or organization. The way content spreads online means that journalism is often disconnected from its source so we can’t rely on brands to establish trust with the reader. Audiences need to see, within the journalism itself, why this piece is worthy of trust and how it reflects ethical reporting. This is why Rosenstiel and McBride put more emphasis in their new book on transparency over independence, a decision which itself has sparked some useful debate. Continue reading