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

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 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

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

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.

Continue reading

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

From Audience to Allies: Building a Public Movement for Press Freedom

After British authorities detained the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald for nine hours and forced the Guardian, where Greenwald works, to destroy its computers, The Columbia Journalism Review declared this a “DEFCON 2 journalism event” — a reference to the code used when the country is one step away from nuclear war.

And they weren’t alone. A number of leading journalists have weighed in over the past week arguing that we have reached a crisis moment for global press freedom. Amy Davidson, in The New Yorker, writes that the events of this week remind us that we are “lucky in this country to have a press with a better shot at avoiding prior restraint.”

However, she argues, both the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases raise doubts about that “better shot.” Indeed, many saw Manning’s 35-year sentence, handed down this week, as yet another effort to chill the newsgathering process. All of this comes on the heels of a long string of press suppression and intimidation that came to light in the United States this summer. Taken together, argues Davidson, these cases show “why it’s worth pushing back, and fighting.”

That sentiment was echoed by Philip Bump at the Atlantic Wire: “In the battle with the security state, those who might commit acts of journalism have three choices: acquiesce, push back or step away.”

Continue reading

We Need a Golden Rule for Breaking News

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing one commenter called it a “watershed moment for social media” – but not in a good way. “Legions of Web sleuths cast suspicion on at least four innocent people, spread innumerable bad tips and heightened the sense of panic and paranoia,” wrote Ken Bensinger and Andrea Chang in the L.A. Times. In a similar post, Alan Mutter quipped that crowd reporting after the Boston Marathon went from critical mass to critical mess.

Recent events like Hurricane Sandy and the Boston marathon bombing have cast a harsh spotlight on the brave new world of breaking news and highlighted the critical need for better tools and techniques for verifying and making sense of the flood of information these events produce. This has all played into the ongoing debate about whether the Internet and new technology erode our standards and our trust in newsgathering.

I created my new site, Verification Junkie, because I believe the web can be a powerful tool in creating more trustworthy journalism. 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

Turning off NPR: Media, Crisis and Kids

NPR used to be a morning ritual for me. Wake up, make coffee, turn on NPR. But for the last few months I have vacated that part of the radio dial, tuning in only occasionally, often when I’m alone in my car.

I was at the Boston Children’s Museum with my family on December 14, when I learned about the Sandy Hook shooting. Checking Twitter absent-mindedly while waiting in line, I saw the first tweets and news reports filling my stream. I looked up from my phone to a cacophony of kids laughing and playing around me, many of whom were the same age as the kids who were killed just minutes earlier.

Image via Flickr user Duane Romanell

On the drive home that day my wife and I were careful not to turn on NPR in the car with our two boys in the back seat. Since then, we’ve listened to a lot less public radio in our house. The Sandy Hook shooting coincided with my son turning four. While I’m sure he’s been aware of the media and discussions around him up to this point, recently he’s been a sponge for everything he hears.

For a lot of us who have children around the age of the Sandy Hook victims, that tragedy shook us to the core. But the endless media coverage of the event created new challenges as we tried to shield our kids from news of the tragedy.

This morning when I woke up, I made coffee and turned on the radio – it was tuned to NPR. My son was already eating his breakfast in the kitchen and before I could reach the dial words like “explosion” and “dead” came tumbling out. The devastation of Boston was brought into our little house so quickly. I changed the channel, I don’t think he noticed, but I don’t know. When I went to get the newspaper on my front steps images of the Boston marathon tragedy filled the front page. I folded it up and hid it from view. Continue reading

Media Consolidation Won’t Save Journalism

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing a plan to gut its 30-year-old newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban. This proposal would allow one company to own a local paper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in a single market. Advocates of more media consolidation argue that allowing TV stations and newspapers to merge is critical to cutting costs and saving local journalism.

This is the same argument the Bush FCC used to try to push through the same bad rules in 2007. Back then, the Senate voted the rules down and the courts later threw them out. It’s time to put this argument to bed for good: More media consolidation won’t save journalism. 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