WikiLeaks has changed everything.

The WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story is a watershed moment for journalism in the online era. It didn’t just recalibrate the official Afghan war narrative. It also exposed a raw nerve about the leadership role of legacy news media in serving democracy’s vital information needs.

While its headline-stealing panache offends some the news-world’s high priesthood, the entire imbroglio has only reinforced the value of traditional journalism as a formal, methodological and professional process of inquiry and publishing.

All this adds up to a truly new media ecology, one that has been struggling to be born, and which, if it survives and propagates, will change the conversation of democracy, the nature of self-governance, and the business of journalism.

No boundaries, no borders.

NYU media observer Jay Rosen notes that WikiLeaks is a “stateless news organization,” one that can “report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it.”

In doing so, Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers asserts, WikiLeaks is “changing the news power structure” in profound ways, even as it deepens the need for professional journalism as a practice:

“It has cracked open governments and corporations without apparent repercussions because it has no headquarters, no printing press or transmission tower, no physical address. It’s just a confederation of skilled volunteers and Web servers. In that sense, WikiLeaks is of the Internet.

“In inserting itself between source and publisher, WikiLeaks has shifted power away from the monoliths that once determined what is news and toward the people who, before the Web, would have been stopped in the newspaper lobby before they could see a reporter.

“WikiLeaks allowed The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel access to the Afghanistan war logs a month early as long as they kept quiet until WikiLeaks published them on its site. In striking that bargain, those news organizations found themselves not as gatekeepers of information, but as guests with VIP access.

“And yet WikiLeaks needed these titans of old media. It needed their reporting, their reach, their distribution networks, their reputation.”

Sources vs. partners.

This is an uneasy relationship and has fomented bitterness amongst press champions and critics alike.

As quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review’s hard-boiled retelling of how the war logs made the leap from a wiki to the traditional press, New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt takes pains to distance his work from Assange

“I’ve seen Julian Assange in the last couple of days kind of flouncing around talking about this collaboration like the four of us were working all this together,” says Schmitt. ”But we were not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him. This was a source relationship. He’s making it sound like this was some sort of journalistic enterprise between WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and that’s not what it was.”

In Myers’ Poynter column, Times editor Bill Keller also carefully (and more soberly) also defines it as a source relationship — one that is altogether seemly and responsible:

“Deep Throat had an agenda. Ellsberg had an agenda,” Keller told me by e-mail. “That doesn’t invalidate the information they provide us. If we refused to work with sources whose motivations we didn’t share, a lot of important stories would go untold.

“The critical thing is what we do with the material — check its authenticity, draw our own conclusions from it, put it in context, and lay it all out for readers on our terms, not the source’s terms.”

The difference between “source” and “partner” is a defining issue for journalism as a pragmatic industry and an idealistic practice, with implications for the power and legitimacy of both.

Press leadership or media innovation?

Consider the bitterness of marketing blogger Jordan Zimmerman, a non-journalist everyman who seems to suggest that if the Afghan war-logs story were left to legacy news media, it would never have even been investigated in the first place:

“The media has been censored over the years. It’s now made up a bunch of lackluster, lazy journalists who are afraid to go after a hard-core story. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Whatever the reason, it’s an outrage. No wonder newspaper readership is declining! It’s because journalists today lack the guts to write the stories that need to be written … WikiLeaks, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. They put it all on the line to talk about real issues… Whatever happened to free speech, and freedom of the press? These are fundamental principles on which this country was built. Don’t people deserve to know the truth? At the very least, don’t they deserve the opportunity to have all the information available and the freedom to draw their own conclusions?”

Leslie Griffith, an award-winning SF Bay Area TV news anchor, expresses the same bitterness even as she praises WikiLeaks as a serpent-slaying “Wiki-Tiki-Tavi”:

“Now, we have Pvt. Bradley Manning and the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, doing what reporters should have been doing all along [emphasis added]. Out of fear of being fatally scooped, and in the continued hope of keeping America dancing to their jingoism tune, the Pentagon and FOX News are now calling these whistleblowers traitors.”

WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum sounds a similar note in an interview with his longtime friend Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, that uniquely hacker-centric bucket of fascinations, cultural observation and anti-secrecy sentiment:

Boing Boing: What do you think of the White House reactions so far to the “Afghan War Diaries” leak?

Jacob Appelbaum: It’s clear that the White House is attempting to shoot the messenger. These documents provide concrete evidence of events that have occurred during the last six years of the Afghan war.

Boing Boing: The Department of Defense has called Wikileaks a “national security threat.”

Jacob Appelbaum: Wikileaks is not a national security threat; we are an international security promise.

Boing Boing: What do you mean by that?

Jacob Appelbaum: We promise our sources that we will get their information to the public. We have released information about what is actually happening in Afghanistan. We are telling you the facts as the US military saw fit to document them. We are telling you these facts because they document an important first-hand perception of everyday life in Afghanistan that our source felt important to show the world.

This new media-ecology is not yet mature nor even truly widespread. But it promises to be an extraordinary growth medium for true democracy — i.e. one not plagued by what Lawrence Lessig calls “the economy of influence.”

Meanwhile, journalists must learn to love, or at least live with, the hackers and open-society advocates who are at once their sources, their collaborators and their goads.

This comment was updated with light copy edits on July 7, 2011.

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Toward a Post-Privacy Society: The $1,500 Cell-Phone Tap

Tangential to the Wikileaks story is this fascinating AP news item.

Is a world without secrets a technological inevitability? Not without a fight, I reckon, but extrapolate a few human generations out, and the sociological consequences are fascinating:

Hacker builds $1,500 cell-phone tapping device
By Jordan Robertson, AP Technology Writer

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A computer security researcher has built a device for just $1,500 that can intercept some kinds of cell phone calls and record everything that’s said.

The significance of Chris Paget’s work is that it shows how cheaply such devices, which have been around for decades and are often used by law enforcement, can now be built by hobbyists with equipment easily found on the Internet …

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Amazon & E-Books: Inventing Their Own Trend?

Is this whole e-book thing a self-fulling prophecy of the mass-market, mass-media world? If so, what does it say about the quality of the text produced by the companies that service those markets, the role of such text in society, and the difference between a surplus of evanescent fascinations versus those vital works of prose and verse that one wishes to preserve and savor for the ages?

All the buzz about Amazon selling more e-books than hardcovers therefore seems curious. In terms of pure economics, I personally almost never purchase hardcovers because they’re too expensive, the ones I own are always used and cost less than $5 — or, on occasion, something I splurge on because it’s special and I want it to stick around.

Generally, I purchase paperbacks. Amazon’s press release neglected to note the number of paperbacks sold, which underscores the fact that while the phenomenon of e-books outselling hardcovers is “interesting,” it’s also a calculated effort to boost their own brand, their Kindle reader, and the cultural phenomenon they hope to make much hay out of.

Thus, one wonders whether the journalists and news outlets feverishly reprinting Amazon’s press release about the triumph of the e-book may be doing just that — reprinting a press release.

The New York Times did better than that, however, in noting that paperbacks were excluded from Amazon’s calculation, and that the press release itself is a volley in Kindle’s sales and psychological battle against the iPad:

“Amazon does not specify how paperback sales compare with e-book sales, but paperback sales are thought to still outnumber e-books …

“Analysts said Amazon’s announcement could assuage investors’ concerns that the iPad threatens Kindle sales. Amazon’s stock price is down about 16 percent in the last three months, in part because of those fears.”

What The Times doesn’t mention is what this cultural trend overall means. I know there’s plenty of prognostication about the death of bookstores and print books, but I think a lot of it is akin to feverish goading rather than actual cultural forecasting.

I spoke with a bookstore manager yesterday at an author reading, and asked how business was.

“We can barely keep up,” she said.

Does this boost her hopes about her shop surviving the Kindle?

“Remember,” she noted, “we only need to lose 25% of our customers to the Kindle to go under.”

It occurred to me that part of that phenomenon, however, was linked to the cost of their rent, for a shop centrally located on a chic and busy San Francisco thoroughfare.

One other thought — perhaps the boom in e-book sales is linked in part to what Clay Shirkey calls “Cognitive Surplus” … there’s lots of time, lots of ideas, lots concept,  text and easy-to-access, easy-to-create media in the world now. In his review on Shareable.net of Shirkey’s new book, Paul M. Davis notes that:

“It’s as easy to post a lolcat as it is to report breaking news; as immediate to share a photo with friends on the other side of the world as it is to show it to a neighbor.”

I will add a corollary to that relevant to e-books, to wit: Print books are complicated, expensive and in the mass-market context, quite disposable. They are in fact a form of cognitive surplus, and not necessarily a good form. Perhaps we have too many lousy books out there, pushed out too easily by commercial mills with profit, only profit, on their minds.

E-books are easy and a great place to dump the stuff that shouldn’t have been in print in the first place.

When something deserves to be in print, needs to be in print, the market and the means will remain. Perhaps not on the scale and with the profit margins that mass-market media corporations demand, but … so what?

As Ursula LeGuin pointed out in her Feb. 2008 Harper’s essay, “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading”:

“I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”

E-books, hardcovers, paperbacks … they’re all media with a place and a role in society. When something is important enough to end up in print, it certainly will. For the rest, the Internet is an accommodating host.

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Noted: “Uproar at Scienceblogs.com”

Columbia Journalism Review weighs in on a controversial Pepsi-sponsored nutrition blog at Scienceblogs.com. It’s a fascinating parable on the negative impacts of commercial sponsorship on information media:

“At least two well-respected science journalists and a handful of scientists have canceled their blogs at the popular and heretofore highly respected ScienceBlogs.com community, protesting Seed Media Group’s decision to give PepsiCo a nutrition blog … Scienceblogs.com has [since] taken down the Food Frontiers blog, writing, ‘We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.’”

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Net Architecture and the Future of Journalism

Our best hope for journalism is that it adapts to the Internet as a medium, by adopting a decentralized organizational structure, in sync with the Internet’s basic/essential architecture as a network.

In the network, power and access are distributed, everyone’s equally capable and embedded in a peer context. Thus the enterprise of journalism should focus on good process and good practice at the peer level: to facilitate collaboration, resource exchange, and the circulation of information/ideas/dialogue.

Check out this except from John Naughton’s essay in The Guardian, “The internet: Everything you ever need to know”:

“The answer lies deep in the network’s architecture. When it was being created in the 1970s, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, the lead designers, were faced with two difficult tasks: how to design a system that seamlessly links lots of other networks, and how to design a network that is future-proof. The answer they came up with was breathtakingly simple. It was based on two axioms. Firstly, there should be no central ownership or control – no institution which would decide who could join or what the network could be used for. Secondly, the network should not be optimised for any particular application. This led to the idea of a’ simple’ network that did only one thing – take in data packets at one end and do its best to deliver them to their destinations. The network would be neutral as to the content of those packets – they could be fragments of email, porn videos, phone conversations, images… The network didn’t care, and would treat them all equally.

“By implementing these twin protocols, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn created what was essentially a global machine for springing surprises. The implication of their design was that if you had an idea that could be implemented using data packets, then the internet would do it for you, no questions asked. And you didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”

Can you imagine? Journalists who don’t have to ask permission, working in a peer community. Democracy requires nothing less.

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Noted: NPR’s Vivian Schiller at the IRE conference

The speech by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas indicates that the wise teachings of the small, independent news nonprofit are going mainstream:

Partnerships=good. Competition’s in the blood, but teaming up multiplies impacts and extends limited resources.

Innovation=decentralized. Schiller doesn’t actually up and say this, but the revelation is there, waiting for its moment:

“[I]nvestigative reporting, often the most painstaking, labor intensive and sometimes solo form of journalism, has also been at the very forefront of experimentation and innovation.”

It makes sense that this “painstaking … and sometimes solo form of journalism” should spur innovation: Working on one’s own, or with a small team of collaborators, relieves, albeit temporarily, the news producer of the heavy hand of the vertical/institutional power structure.

Innovation happens in practice, in action, among the multitudes, in a massively parallel process of individual and small-group effort. A topheavy power structure just gums that process up.

Indeed, she notes the experience of NPR Executive Editor Dick Meyer’s “very first contact” with “the weird new thing called the Internet” at a similar IRE conference in the early 1990’s:

“At that early conference, he says he learned about ‘user groups’ to find sources and witnesses in disaster areas where phone and cell service might be out — what we now call crowdsourcing. IRE invented computer-assisted reporting and database reporting. You’ve been using social networks before they were called social networks — there were ‘gophers’, list serves, more user groups. Technology allowed reporters to use objective methods to develop and analyze empirical data — of campaign contributions and spending, of budgets, of pollution. Reporting about institutions could in this way move beyond the anecdotal, beyond personalities and even beyond conventional scandal. You — the people in this room — invented much of that.”

Precisely. Absolutely. Innovations in the use of technology do not happen in the board room. They happen in the lab, and in the field, where people are actively putting the tech to expedient usage.

Now perhaps I can shoehorn in a corollary to all this: The sooner that journalists can shake off centralized production and management models, the sooner the Fourth Estate will be able to live up to its idealized role in our democracy.

Investigations=fundability. About this, we shall see. While it is true that there’s a renewed interest among funders in supporting investigative work — a tacit recognition of the threat to democracy presented by what Tom Stites calls our “wildly corrupt” business/political milieu — the larger issue of philanthropic support for vital news and public-information projects and processes remains knotty. The need greatly outstrips the resource, at this time, for reasons that are far too complex for this brief discussion.

That stated, the renaissance that Schiller notes is indeed gathering steam.

However, it’s been a long time coming, and the work is hardly done. Indeed, it’s hardly begun. Much more infrastructure needs building, and much more systemic reform and reinvention awaits the courage and opportunity of those who care about the future of journalism and democracy.

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The case for New Public Media

It is a curious thing, in an era of revolutionary change in the media landscape, that journalists and editors have gained so little.

The Internet has been a boon for citizen media. It’s like Neal Postman’s pre-telegraph America, the original media convergence of spoken word and written text. The Lyceums and Chautauquas, the newspapers and pamphleteers — they’ve come full circle, virtually.

Corporations are also gaining ground. Rocked by layoffs, consolidation and cutbacks, they are nonetheless monetizing online media, and rather expediently.

Journalists and editors, however — the ones doing the actual work of producing and publishing news — have neither the editorial and topical freedom of the blogger, nor the economic opportunity of the corporations.

They are the ones getting laid off, consolidated and cut back, as journalism’s civic necessity is trumped by quarter-to-quarter financial expediency.

Speaking in September 2008 at the Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley forum on community information needs, Mike McGuire, a research VP at Gartner, asked: If content really is king, why are content producers getting the short end of the stick? Why not start cutting sales staff at failing media outlets instead of reporters and editors?

In fact, cutting ad revenue altogether would have an additional, significant benefit directly related to journalism’s situation: It would relieve the newsroom of outside economic pressures that impede the practice of journalism in the public interest.

This was precisely what motivated earlier rounds of public-media investment in the United States, producing such institutions as All Things Considered and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Yet for all their merits, these programs — highly centralized, capital intensive, grounded in Wall Street and Washington, D.C. — are not replicable, particularly not locally and regionally, where the need is so acute.

So what would constitute “New Public Media”?

In my own experience, for example, fiscal sponsorship is a great “platform service” to support community-focused media, arts and cultural ventures. The challenge we continually face is doing more than just providing sponsorship, which is a complex service involving multiple legal and financial considerations. To really be “new public media,” let’s set a few benchmarks:

  • Independently produced, using various sorts of network and nonprofit infrastructure (e.g. producer collaborations, crowdfunding, open-source and digital media, fiscal sponsorship).
  • Funded primarily or significantly by direct community and public donations, membership dues, or some other aggregated type of individual support.
  • Donor is investing a public service, not buying a private product, and in giving develops a higher level of engagement with with the content produced.
  • The media content is non-commercial, relevant to diverse, underserved communities, and unavailable in via legacy mass media.

New Public Media deepens the resources and independence of the journalist and media producer, giving them new autonomy to cover underserved communities and important but overlooked news.

However, investment in its infrastructure — “platform” services such as fiscal sponsorship (the subject of my own efforts with Independent Arts & Media) — is hard to come by.

Funders need to look at new ways to support productive capacity in underserved communities, by supporting platform services such as fiscal sponsorship. Individual producers need to explore ways to collaborate around “overlap” activities such as marketing, fundraising, and administration.

These are conditions, really, that can help new types of public media emerge.

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Newsdesk wins SPJ’s national Excellence in Journalism Award

I’m a bit dazzled to announce that Newsdesk.org won the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Excellence in Journalism for our multimedia series, “The Bay Area Toxic Tour: West Oakland.”

This is a national award given by the SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, which this year received over 1,300 entries from some of the biggest names in the business. We are honored, grateful and rather thrilled. Thank you to the SPJ selection committee for this wonderful acknowledgment of our work.

Hats off to the incredible Newsdesk.org team of reporter KWAN BOOTH and legendary photographer/multimedia-guy KIM KOMENICH! It was an honor to be your editor for this project. The awards ceremony is coming up in Las Vegas in October, where we will join other recipients, such as the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Associated Press and ProPublica.

Deep gratitude is also due two others who won’t be acknowledged by the award: our Saint of Patrons, DAVID COHN of Spot.Us, for helping us raise the money to pay Kim and Kwan; and Newsdesk.org adviser VIRGIL WARD PORTER, for dreaming up the Toxic Tour idea with me almost 10 years ago during our commercial-newsroom days.

It was precisely the lack of opportunity to do this kind of rich public-health reporting that prompted me to leave my commercial-news day job and start Newsdesk.org in the first place.

Toxic Tour: Next Stop?
The goal of The Toxic Tour is to document the impacts of pollution on communities. This award is exciting not just because it recognizes our existing work. It also advances the cause of developing Toxic Tour reporting projects in other communities around the Bay Area and around the nation.

Indeed, the first thing Kim did upon hearing the news was to express hope that we can use this to jump-start further Toxic Tour coverage in the SF Bay Area — such as in Bayview-Hunters Point, with its factory effluent and irradiated shipyard, or across the Bay in Richmond, home to numerous chemical refineries and low-income housing.

And what about West Oakland? The issues there have hardly gone away. Wouldn’t it be an accomplishment to hang up a shingle there and really cover the situation in depth, over time?

And what about where you live? The EPA estimates there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the United States. And how many communities nationwide are adjacent to active industrial sites?

We have much more work to do. The Toxic Tour documents pollution and communities, and there are many more stops around the SF Bay Area and around the nation in desperate need of journalistic attention. Please support our public-service mission by making a tax-deductible donation today.

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Noted: “Britain’s third party leader grabs spotlight”

This AP item on the Liberal Democrat party’s leader is remarkable for its “barely there” coverage of what the Liberal Democrat party actually stands for.

There’s lots on Clegg’s stage presence, though. Was the debate that shallow? Or did the journalist overlook the heart of the story?

“Britain’s third party leader grabs spotlight”
Associated Press, April 29, 2009

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Three Profiles from the WeMedia Conference

Here are three profiles I knocked out for the WeMedia folks. The occasion was their annual conference in Miami — and a fine affair it was, full of great folks and interesting, inspiring dialogue. (Also loved the push to expand ideas about innovation in media.)

“To The Rescue: The American Red Cross Online”
How does a classic “legacy” nonprofit with a mission as urgent as ever adapt to the emerging online medium? Just fine, thank you very much.

“Francois Ragnet Deconstructs the Document”
Francois is a fascinating individual, working at Xerox, with some great ideas about how documents are becoming at once dis-integrated and evergreen in the online medium.

“Tom Stites and the Banyan Project: The Forest for the Trees”
Stites is a colleague and mentor. Banyan is pushing forward an idea about a consumer co-op for journalism; may it sprout and effoliate!

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