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:

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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 Bell, 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

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

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.

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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

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

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

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

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