J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Archive for June, 2009

Google, and the Problem of “Two Democracies”

Posted by chanders on June 26, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about Google over the past few weeks, partly because I’m working on a project this summer on the future of news reporting, and partly just because there has been a lot of stupid crap said and written recently about the role of Google and the “link economy” in the production and dissemination of news. And a lot of this, in turn, ties into issues of public policy– specifically, the changes in laws and regulations that might reach down into the very guts of the web. In the next few paragraphs, I want to  examine the relationship between Google, linking, democracy, and gathering news by positing two principles, a proposition, a caveat, two (big) conundrums, and conclude by pointing the way to some of the best forward thinking on this topic.

Here we go:

Principle One: Google is not “the web” — but its complicated. Back in the days of the Ma Bell monopoly, was At&T the equivalent of the U.S. telephone system? Obviously not. The “system” was really a series of interconnected cables, phone lines, local utility offices, operator switches, headsets, and human beings (like operators and telephone repairmen) in which AT&T was a dominant player. That dominance, however, made things complicated; many of the rules, technologies, systems, and even the methods by which telephones were used stemmed, in large part, from the way that AT&T, over its history, interpreted the telephone system and what it was for. Obviously, there were limit cases — AT&T could not have unilaterally decided that telephones were really best used for hitting robbers over the head, and marketed themselves as a home protection service. But given those limit cases (what scholars of science and technology call “affordances“),  individuals, companies, scientists, and the government had a fair degree of room to shape the system they were operating on top of. At least for a while.

This isn’t a case, however, of “powerful companies determine how technologies get used, and it’s all a conspiracy.” Rather, there is a second principle at work here– what the same science and technology scholars call “black boxing.” The term actually comes out of computer science, and basically means that, at some point, a cluster of complex infrastructures become “black boxed.” They become seen as unproblematic and unified in a way in which they might not have been originally. Problematizing these unitary systems is called “opening the black box.” The example that has always made the most sense to me here is the idea of a car– for most of us, our car is a “black box”; it’s a unitary device that we ride to work and don’t think about much. Except, of course, when it breaks down; then we start to think very hard about the different objects that make up the black box, mostly so we can figure out how to fix them.

If we put these two concepts together– affordances and black boxing– and apply them to Google and them to the internet, here’s what we get. By deeply understanding and leveraging certain affordances of the internet, Google became the dominant company of the early 21st century digital economy. Along the way, partly because of its’ market and cultural dominance, and partly because it understood the world wide web so well, out notions of “the internet” and “Google” got packaged together in one black box. These days, its hard to disentangle the two; its hard to open that black box.

Newspaper executives are trying, though, and that’s what we’ve been watching over the past year or so. And that’s why it seems to frustrating, futile, and odd to so many people.

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This Moment in Media History …

Posted by chanders on June 22, 2009

Love it or hate it, this is what we’ve got.

Picture 5

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We’ve Been Living Through a Twitter Revolution for the Last 10 Years

Posted by chanders on June 18, 2009

[Josh Breitbart repointed me to this article, which I actually quoted in my dissertation. I got tired of wading through all the expired Indymedia.docs security certificates, so I just reposted it here. “It is a message that older media ignore at their own peril.” (December 1999)

One of the reasons I’ve grown so skeptical of hearing about a Twitter revolution is that I’ve been reading about it for 10 years. Differences in scale and general accessibility, sure, as well as smaller and better technologies. And obviously, whats going on in Iran has globe shaking consequences with the possibility of real death. So differences in drama, too perhaps.  But beyond that? Not much different in the underlying infrastructure. Or in the  way technology is being used. It’s past time we stopped talking about digital revolutions like they happened yesterday. We’ve been living though one for the past ten years. It’s time to stop trying either to hype it, or debunk it, and start trying to figure out what it means.]

News you can use from the little guys

Tom Regan

Christian Science Monitor

from the December 09, 1999 edition


– An amazing thing happened during the World Trade Organization meeting last week. In an end run around traditional media, the Internet became the key player in dispersing information to a world hungry for details about the events in Seattle.

Several dozen small organizations used the Internet to publish and broadcast “alternative” coverage of the week’s events.

As Dean Paton’s excellent piece in last Friday’s Christian Science Monitor (page 3) points out, while traditional media sources are often like slow-moving, ponderous “elephants,” these new broadcasters are more like “mosquitoes” – fast on their feet, they can swarm an event with dozens, if not hundreds, of “correspondents” with camcorders, digital cameras and voice recorders, often provoking those “elephants” to expand their coverage in order to keep up.

But the showdown between traditional media and the new media in Seattle also provided a glimpse of what lies ahead for journalism in the new century. It is a message that older media ignore at their own peril.

In a world where young people use the Internet as their primary news source, it’s no surprise to find that the servers at the Independent Media Center, which was set up to provide a working space for the “mosquitoes,” were straining to deal with the numbers of people visiting the center’s Web site (www.indymedia.org). And remember, the visitors to these sites were aware that the information being provided to them was coming from groups with a definite point of view.

But that leads to a further discussion of the word “alternative.” The fact of the matter is that people who really wanted to learn about the WTO, and why it upsets so many people, were far better served by these small independent sites than they were by the traditional media, particularly television.

While big broadcasters like CNN and Fox focused almost exclusively on the confrontation between protesters and police, especially the first couple of days, the independent sites provided in-depth papers and research about the WTO, not to mention some fascinating discussion groups where people from both sides of the issues argued the trade questions back and forth for days.

But even on the issue of covering the protests, the independent groups were often ahead of the elephants, providing edgy, fresh, dramatic video of the events, compared with repeated footage of a couple of incidents and interviews with establishment talking heads that the network and cable-news operations favored.

So what is the lesson in all this for traditional media?

Last month at Comdex in Las Vegas, one commentator talked about the need to DYOB – destroy your old business. Only companies who are prepared to DYOB will truly flourish in an increasingly digital age.

For traditional media, this doesn’t mean abandoning traditional principles like objectivity or researching a story. But it does mean learning to work in a new medium in a new way, even if it sometimes means abandoning the old medium.

If not, it wouldn’t be surprising for one or two of these “independent” media centers to develop into a major media source, especially if they continue to function on the sort of “open source” reporting model seen in Seattle.

After all, the open-source movement is reshaping the business world. Who says it couldn’t happen to us in the media as well.

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