New website and comments via Watershed Media Project

Check out the new website and research blog for the Watershed Media Project, with a focus on democratization and equity in journalism funding and practice.

It’s on the baseline Word Press 2015 theme — nice minimalist design with big fonts, one big column of text and images and a simple left-rail menu.

Some new and classic postings include:


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Print clips now online

Built out my CV a bit with a bulked-up portfolio of my editing and writing clips. It’s mostly online material, but I just scanned and uploaded a bunch of newspaper print clips that aren’t available digitally — articles from the SJ Mercury News and SF Bay Guardian.

Still much more to come, but here’s a start.

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“Future of Journalism” got ya down? New Watershed post

New post over at the Watershed Media Project explores “the Future of Journalism” as a techno-industrial metaphor that perpetuates the crisis of journalism by deepening the funding drought for news production in neglected communities. Check it out:

“The crisis of journalism as metaphor: Or, why not just pay more journalists?”
Watershed Media Project, January 29, 2013

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Introducing: The Watershed Media Project

The Watershed Media Project is a new initiative to research and develop grassroots funding, production and promotional models for independent, public-interest journalism and media.

Watershed is a nonprofit, fiscally sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media; it is also a slow-media project that will eschew the frantic pace and expectations of today’s digital startup culture in favor of small, simple, incremental goals achieved over longer periods of time.

My intent is to cultivate Watershed as a venue for research, analysis and related blogging; it also will encompass and manage and as test platforms for its overarching hypothesis, to wit:

Grassroots funding and production models for journalism can more effectively serve key public-interest needs than institutional news media and monetized news products.

Call it a hypothesis-in-progress; maybe it’s a little too confrontational. We’ll be picking it apart with gusto over the coming months; meanwhile, please consider two jumping-off points.

The first iwatersheds a link to “Post -Industrial Journalism,” a crucial 2012 manifesto by Emily Bell, C.W. Anderson and Clay Shirky, in which they memorably declare that “there’s no such thing as the news industry anymore,” and call for “new forms of organization” within which to develop and drive the practice of journalism in our democracy.

The second point is this excerpt from a forthcoming essay of mine written for Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that advocates for designing communities that are radically adaptive to the conditions of unique local “bioregions” and watersheds. It’s a veritable gusher of metaphor that can hardly be stemmed:

Information is like water. Our survival depends on it. It’s harmful or healthful depending on its origin, and on what people do to it before it gets in your system. Its use and availability is enormously profitable, and of the highest humanitarian and social concern.

From the community meeting hall and the local-news blog on up, the free flow of information is the water cycle of democracy, sustaining entire ecosystems of civic discourse and cultural exchange.

Just as estuaries and watersheds are vulnerable to industrial activity and unsustainable development, democratic institutions and processes are deeply influenced by commercial and financial interests. Mass media is a toxic mess, awash with false memes, fear mongering, destructive double-standards and routine ethical compromise. Media equivalents of Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima happen all the time. Pollution accumulates in the mental environment like mercury and PCBS in the water tables.

My first significant publishing gig, back in 1992, was as editor of Planet Drum’s annual journal Raise the Stakes — issue No. 22, which in retrospect was a somewhat prescient edition. We dug deep on topics such as cultivating native food crops, seed saving for diversity, permaculture “food forests” that bear diversely all year long, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA farms), organic and least-toxic farming — topics that would in subsequent decades end up inspiring marketing and political campaigns alike.

That linkage between ecology, sustainability, culture and history has stayed with me over the years, and when Judy Goldhaft from Planet Drum asked me this past summer to write something for their print newsletter, the dots began to connect up.

Having just returned from the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver, I was impressed by how Planet Drum’s vision of sustainability had so much resonance with commonplace media-reform and future-of-journalism metaphors such as “information ecosystem” and “news ecology.”

These are easy metaphors, even seductive, and yet taking them seriously begins to compel questions. What, for example, are the funding watersheds that sustain these media-based ecosystems? How does one measure and ensure their health and sustainability?

The questions run deep, the terrain they open up is broad. Watershed Media Project will serve as home base for a few hopeful expeditions and surveys.

In the coming months you can expect a standalone home page plus regular project updates, and your comments and feedback are most welcome throughout.

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Noted: “A third kind of freedom inherent in open-source systems”

The freedom to audit. In addition to being free and forkable, open-source systems also have to be accountable:

“The open-source movement champions an approach to product development in which there is universal access to a blueprint, as well as universal ability to modify and redistribute the blueprint. Wikipedia is perhaps the best-known example of a product inspired by the movement. Open-source advocates typically emphasize two kinds of freedom that their products afford: they are available free of charge, and they can be used and manipulated free of restrictions.

“But there is a third kind of freedom inherent in open-source systems: the freedom to audit. With open-source software, independent security experts can scrutinize the code for vulnerabilities — whether accidentally or intentionally introduced. The more auditing by the programming masses, the better the security. As the open-source software advocate Eric S. Raymond has put it, ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.'”

Source: “Let’s build a more secure Internet,” NYTimes, Oct. 9, 2013.

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Do Knight’s regrets inspire charity?

News of the Knight Foundation’s $20K speaker fee to exposed plagiarist Jonah Lehrer moved quickly through the media web, provoking negative press and, ultimately, an expression of regret by the foundation itself.

This alone, however, has not inspired critics of the foundation, who, in a series of comments on the Knight Foundation apology, raise pointed questions about the decision-making process that led to the payment in the first place:

  • “What most astounds me about this whole affair is that no one, not a single person at the Knight Foundation raised their hand to say, hey guys, this might be a bad idea. Such an egregious lack of judgment. Makes you wonder who’s running the show over there.”
  • “You are reacting to the negative press you received. Your apology is worse than the original ideia [sic.] to give Lehrer an Oprah-like platform.”
  • “$20,000 ‘was not unusual for a well-known author.’ Is this The Onion? I thought I was on a journalism site. This “well-known author” talks about the possibility of never being published again because his ethical breaches have alienated all his previous outlets. Would you pay $20,000 — for many in this country a year’s salary – to a ‘well-known attorney’ who’s been disbarred?”

And so on.

Self-examination is generally a good thing, and Knight’s contrition is most welcome. Yet the commentators have some important points that still must be received and processed by the foundation. My own concern is whether the incidental and bureaucratic nature of the expenditure (described as “not unusual for a well-known author to address a large conference”) represents the foundation’s systemic disassociation from the actual needs and actual struggles of working journalists.

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Noted: “Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”

Tom Stites, an accomplished and indeed storied news hound (and a mentor and great inspiration to me), has produced this important article about the continuing decline in civic investment and recognized value of journalism, and original reporting in particular.

Read it, share it. You already live it.

“Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”
By Tom Stites

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable.

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur ….

Read the whole essay at Harvard’s Neiman Lab Dot Org.

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Delivery matters.

So you produce some top-shelf coverage, but the target population — the people who need to see it — are not connecting. Why not? More to the point: How do you solve that?

Enter California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Turns out they have an on-staff Public Engagement Manager, who made this cool thing happen:

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

A fine example of nonprofit journalism making itself matter.

Source: “California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want,” Poynter Online, June 23, 2011

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KUSF is dead. Long live KUSF!

The public outcry following the University of San Francisco’s secretive and unilateral shutdown of the legendary KUSF-FM was enormous. A planned public meeting staged by USF on January 20 changed location three times to accommodate the anticipated crowds.

Ultimately, the KUSF postmortem meeting/protest/public hearing was staged at USF’s Presentation Theater, on Turk Street at Masonic. With 470 seats the place was packed from the main floor to balcony. There was a large pot-banging protest stretching several blocks outside, which got the place up to capacity and left crowds milling around outside. There were SFPD inside, parked outside by the theater, and on the side streets. says 6 police cruisers and 20 officers were on the scene.

The actual meeting was contentious, with USF presenting it as a fait accompli, apparently holding all the cards with the papers signed and awaiting only the FCC’s rubber stamp. Media people who know the topic think it’s highly unlikely the FCC will derail the sale.

But the situation is definitely in motion. That was a darn big crowd of really motivated, talented, diverse and networked people. Who knows what they can pull off? They’re going after this from every angle.

Contingencies swirl … lawyers with advice are accreting around the volunteers … Doc Searles at Harvard sez the volunteers should angle for 87.7 FM, which the FCC just opened up, a frequency that merges into the low end of the TV spectrum, but still counts as FM radio …. notable public figures are being recruited, the legal angles are being dissected … And there seems to be a large, large effort coming together to shake up the FCC case — exploring apparently novel ideas around community access, as opposed to the usual, failed effort to protest a ‘format change,’ which the FCC doesn’t care about.

Independent Arts & Media was mentioned in the Bay Citizen for our official statement on the sale (the reference starts at paragraph 7).

The SF Weekly also filed a good, bloggy overview of the whole meeting yesterday, with great pix.

As for the temper and tone of USF, many, many other commentators have spoken of this, and they all seem on point. All I can add is that there are plenty of contradictions and doubtful assertions in the official line offered last night, and declarations about a lack of student involvement and a lack of other suitors which I personally know to be not at all accurate.

The volunteers are meeting again for more planning as I type this — and there will be many more meetings, and much more activity before this business is concluded.

If you are interested in this issue, one of the best places to get your data and plug in your energy is the Save KUSF Facebook page. I know Facebook sux, but it has its uses, and this one seems to be poppin’. Two days in and they already have over 4,000 fans. Pile on and let’s change the world AGAIN!

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Noted: “New F.D.A.: Transparence and Flexibility”

A NYTimes article about the changing culture of the FDA illustrates the power of quality public information and an engaged citizenry:

During the Bush administration, the Food and Drug Administration was mostly a place of black-and-white decisions. Drugs were approved for sale or they were not, and the agency’s staff was expected to publicly support those decisions.

But as Thursday’s landmark decision on the controversial diabetes medicine Avandia makes clear, things have changed under the Obama administration.

. . .

Some of the changes have been driven by people like Dr. Steven Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic whose 2007 analysis of Avandia’s heart risks stunned doctors, patients and legislators, who asked why the F.D.A. had not done anything similar. When the agency revealed it had done an almost identical analysis a year earlier and found the same result, the controversy intensified.

“You have these third-party analysts setting the agenda for the agency in ways that never happened before,” said Daniel Carpenter, an F.D.A. historian at Harvard.

For the F.D.A., the Nissen analysis presented major challenges. It demonstrated that the agency no longer had a monopoly on the information needed to make drug and device safety decisions. Data from crucial clinical trials are increasingly being posted on public Web sites. And academics are using sophisticated techniques to test whether popular medicines are safe.

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