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

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

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

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

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

From Journalism’s Five W’s to Journalism’s Five C’s

The five W’s of journalism remain a cornerstone of newsgathering today, but I have been increasingly thinking about five C’s as well: Context, Conversation, Curation, Community and Collaboration.

Below I try to define each, with particular attention to how they intersect, and I link to one good piece of writing on the topic.

Nothing about this is supposed to be comprehensive, nor is it particularly original, it’s just a list of the things I’m thinking about right now and an invitation for you to add your thoughts.  Continue reading

Community Engagement and Press Freedom: Building More Resilient and Sustainable Journalism

Next week I’ll be speaking at the Reynolds Journalism Institute for its five-year anniversary, which will focus on the next steps we need to take to sustain journalism.

The event organizers have outlined five critical areas for exploration, but there are two that I’ll focus the most attention on: press freedom and community engagement. For me, these two issues are deeply woven together in a participatory, networked fourth estate, and both are in a moment of terrific flux.

I have written previously that regardless of whether your business model relies on ads, paywalls or donors, journalism will rise and fall with its communities. Editor Melanie Sill argues that “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities.”

We need our communities to invest, fund and support our work, to share it and help it make an impact on the world. We need our communities to be sources, to give feedback, to help us report.

But we also need our communities to fight for our rights to gather and disseminate news, to access information, to assemble and speak freely. This has never been truer than it is now, when the threats to journalism are not just economic, but legal. Continue reading

Introducing Verification Junkie

I am a verification junkie.

For the last three years I have been exploring and experimenting with how we can verify social media during breaking news. Today I’m launching a new site, Verification Junkie, as a growing directory of apps, tools, sites and strategies for verifying, fact checking and assessing the validity of social media and user-generated content.

Verification Junkie SlideAs breaking news moves from news bulletins to news feeds, and social media becomes an invaluable tool for citizens and journalists alike, it also presents unique challenges. In his piece, Twitter, Credibility and The Watertown Manhunt, Hong Qu argues that “Tools and processes for assessing source credibility need to catch up with ever evolving social media technology and culture.”

As Qu points out, there are two key forces we need to contend with as we think about social media and user-generated content verification: technology and culture. The new Verification Junkie site is aimed at the first half of that equation, the technology. On the site I will profile and link to useful, interesting and emerging tools and apps that citizens, journalists or newsrooms can use in their day-to-day work. The emphasis here is on the useful, concrete tools people are building to help assess the validity and accuracy of social media content – text, video and photos.

Verification Junkie is a work in progress and you can submit tips and ideas for the site via Twitter @jcstearns. Continue reading

Google Maps, Sense of Place and the Algorithms of Our Heart

At their big developer conference this week Google introduced a slew of new features for Google Maps, but one caught my eye more than any other. Google suggested that the future of maps would be personalized. On their blog they asked, “What if we told you that during your lifetime, Google could create millions of custom maps…each one just for you?” They expand on the idea:

“In the past, such a notion would have been unbelievable: a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”

Image via Google

This led Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities to wonder if Google’s new maps might take the “filer bubble” experience into the physical world, “We may never know what we are not seeing.” While, I share Badger’s concern, I also think that we are always already rewriting the maps we use to navigate the swiftly changing world around us. The question we should ask is do we trust the maps made by Google’s algorithm more or less than we trust those made by our hearts and minds.

In the fall of 2006 Rebecca Solnit  published an essay called “Maps for the Year Ahead” in Orion Magazine. The piece offers a number of striking observations about space, place, and land in the wake of tragedy. Looking at events like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Solnit draws a connection between urban sprawl and the power of natural disasters to make us feel disoriented and, in a very real sense, ungrounded.

This reminded me of a friend of mine who led rafting trips. He once told me that each year, and after big rain storms, river guides have to re-learn the river because the river bed changes so dramatically. Solnit’s discussion of displacement and mapping made me wonder how often we have to re-learn our landscape and how quickly it can change. Continue reading

“Rap Quotes,” Placemaking and the Geography of Hip Hop

Animal, one of the great new online art, news and culture sites covering New York City, has a tremendous video up on their site profiling Jay Shells’ most recent public art project – “Rap Quotes.”

Shells has created a series of official-looking street signs quoting rap lyrics that mention parts of the city – intersections, buildings, parks and other landmarks. He then posts the quotes at those locations, grounding the lyrics in the place that inspired them and creating a hip-hop geography of the city. Continue reading

Strengthening the Civic Core of Journalism and Technology

Three new funding opportunities for journalists and media makers shine a spotlight on the role of media in community engagement and civic health. This comes at a critical moment when, across the journalism landscape we are finally seeing deep reciprocal collaborations between journalists and technologists. Journalism schools are combining forces with computer science programs, the Knight Mozilla fellows just placed their third round of developers in newsrooms and every week there seems to be another hack-a-thon for journalists.

turningoutwardJournalists and technologists working together is a good thing for journalism, but also for local communities. It is notable that this era of collaboration is coming as trends are pushing both professions deeper into the public. Borrowing a phrase from Rich Harwood, they are “turning outward,” a process that emphasizes “making the community and the people the reference point for getting things done.”

In journalism this is embodied by the rise of community engagement efforts within newsrooms. It is part of a growing recognition that journalism will rise and fall with its community. Whether it is a paywalled newspaper that depends on subscriptions or a public broadcaster who depends on memberships, building community around the news on and offline is one of the critical challenges facing journalists today.

At the same time in technology we’ve seen incredible and inventive projects that focus on how technology can be brought to bear on community issues. This civic innovation takes many forms, from public health hack-a-thons to crisis mapping. Pair this with a rise in Gov 2.0 and transparency efforts and we see people working inside and outside government to better connect technology to civic life. Continue reading

Three Media Issues We Can’t Ignore in 2013

I’m not one to make predictions about the future of our media. I’m much more interested in prescriptions. Rather than talking about what we think might happen, let’s discuss what we agree needs to happen and how we might get there. The media isn’t just something that happens to us — it is something we can and must be part of creating and reshaping ourselves. Here are three critical issues we must tackle in the coming year. Continue reading