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Why Journalists Need to Take Reader Privacy More Seriously

(A version of this post originally appeared on Medium)

Last week longtime local publisher Howard Owens, founder of the online news site the Batavian, launched a new publication covering Wyoming County in upstate New York. Buried in a parenthetical within his welcome message to readers was a fascinating promise: “We’ll also respect your privacy by not gathering personal data to distribute to multinational media conglomerates for so-called ‘targeted advertising.’”

This kind of explicit promise regarding reader privacy is increasingly important and all too rare.

Even though stories about government surveillance, commercial tracking and financial data theft have become commonplace in the press over the last two years, news organizations are still loath to talk about their own practices in regards to reader privacy. It’s time for some real talk about what we owe our readers in the age of big data and mass surveillance.

Just last week this blog published an analysis of news organizations’ use of encrypted HTTPS connections. “Virtually none of the top news websites,” writes Kevin Gallagher, “including all those who have reported on the Snowden documents — have adopted the most basic of security measures to protect the integrity of their content and the privacy of their readers.” Without this encrypted connection it becomes possible to essentially eavesdrop on what people are reading online, as the NSA did with people who visited the Wikileaks website.

Earlier this year, in a report on the challenges of encrypting news websites, theWashington Post pointed out how much this kind of surveillance can reveal about someone. “Among the issues potentially illuminated by what you choose to read, advocates say, are your health concerns, financial anxieties, sexual orientation and political leanings.”

And yet, the use of encrypted connections on news websites is just one part of a much larger and more complex issue. Continue reading

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Thirteen Questions About the Future of Participatory Journalism

At this year’s Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications conference I moderated a panel on legal, educational and practical debates about participatory journalism and citizen reporting. I had the good fortune to be joined by a terrific group of scholars and activists: Amanda Hickman of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Lisa Lynch of Concordia University, Madeleine Bair of Witness.org and Morgan Weiland of Stanford University.

I posted a preview of the discussion before the panel. But the panel itself was a lively and engaged debate where a number of important new issues were debated. Below are recordings of the panel’s opening remarks. You can listen to the entire half hour on Soundcloud, but below I’ve split it up into short three and four minute clips, highlighting a few key themes that emerged. Continue reading

Media Making as Participatory Democracy: Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street

“If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said,
then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” 
- The Port Huron Statement, 1962

 We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”
- Occupy Wall Street, 2012

Fifty years ago, the authors of the Port Huron Statement wrote that “Every generation inherits from the past a set of problems – personal and social – and a dominant set of insights and perspectives by which the problems are to be understood and, hopefully, managed.” 

Today, the generation that sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement has likewise inherited a distinctive set of problems and generated its own new insights and approaches to them. One of the most important characteristics of the Occupy movement is the expanding universe of media makers – citizen journalists, livestreamers, artists and others – who see their work as overtly political and a central part of the movement itself. 

New tools and technologies are empowering more and more people to commit acts of journalism – many for the first time – as their preferred mode of engaging with the movement. For many, grassroots media is not just a means to forward the goals of Occupy Wall Street. Creating media and telling a new story about our society is also an ends in and of itself. Media making is increasingly a political act as important as the occupations themselves. Continue reading

Covert Consolidation Undercuts Supposed Growth in TV News

Two recent reports paint a rosy picture of local TV news. Stations are launching new programs, jobs are coming back and revenues are up. Bolstering these reports are stats from the Radio Television Digital News Association, which called 2010 a record year for local news.

I just wish that were the whole picture. However, neither of these reports fully grapples with the impact covert consolidation — in which a station signs away control of its newsroom to a competitor — is having on the media ecosystem. Continue reading

An Architectural Framework for Public Life

I have been increasingly interested in the connection between the civic health and the information infrastructure of our communities. The intersection of these two ideas raises important questions about the role of journalists and news organizations in constructing civic discourse and civic spaces – both real and virtual.

For those interested in this line of thought, Megan Garber’s post “Energy-efficient journalism — urban planning for news” over at the Nieman Journalism Lab is a must read. She uses urban planning and architecture as a metaphor for how we might construct the future of journalism. One thing I found attractive about the vision she describes is the way in which it aspires to be comprehensive (she describes the project that inspired her approach as “An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.”).

With so much experimentation and so many emergent tools, models, and projects in the journalism space, it is often necessary – and useful – to focus in on one trend, one model, one question. To paraphrase from Garber’s post, this leaves us with a view of journalism and our communities that is full of small pieces, loosely joined. Continue reading

Imagined Communities and the Future of News

There’s a great blog post from Chris O’Brien over at Next Newsroom on the role of passion and community in the future of news.

In his post “How Passion For Newspapers Points To A Way Forward” O’Brien taps into a vital aspect of the work we are all doing in media reform and the future of journalism. Like so many current social movements we get bogged down in the stats, figures, and data and lose sight of the role of emotion in the fights we wage. It doesn’t just matter how people read the news or where advertisers spend their money – we also need to be concerned with how people feel about news organizations and why people read the news.

“Too often, we boil a newspaper down to the idea that it’s just about journalism. In fact, at their peak, a printed newspaper provided about 50 different services to readers, one of which was journalism. Taken together, these things created not just a product, but also an experience. This is where the emotional component kicks in.”

While it is easy to talk about the vital role of journalism in democracy, and we have to keep doing so. By focusing on such huge abstract issues, we risking missing the more local direct way that people experience the news and the immediate role journalism plays in our lives. As O’Brien notes, this role is not just about providing news and information. And its not just about creating a local marketplace. The sum is greater than its parts here. News orgs are vital civic orgs – they organize information (or help people organize information) and in so doing they help organize people themselves. This is the community building power of the media – that has for the most part been forgotten (or abandoned). This is what the best community newspapers, community radio stations, and community access TV still do. Continue reading

Journalism Policy in the Spotlight

Free Press created SaveTheNews.org to argue for the importance of public policy in discussions about the future of journalism. Last week, however, policy took center stage with three articles examining our government’s possible role in fostering a robust and diverse free press in America. The articles came from an array of sources – a scholar, a journalist and a pair of advocates – and appeared in newspapers across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. Continue reading