J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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

The future of news in 4 dimensions: How real news orgs fit in the model

Posted by chanders on September 9, 2009

[…] Here’s a application of the model I proposed in the last post, picking a few new and old media organizations out at random. There’s Gawker, which I mentioned last week. It sits near the middle of the “institutionalized–deinstitutionalized axis,” and is of moderate size and moderate openness. (It relies upon and integrates its commenters, but doesn’t do much “citizen journalism” per se.) Gawker tends to be further toward the commentary/link-gathering end of the spectrum than the reporting end (though not entirely).

But where this starts to make sense is when we add other organizations — because now we’re not talking about absolute qualities of an organization but relational qualities. (The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once argued that “the relational is the real.”) [Read More at Nieman Lab]

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The Future of News in Four Dimensions

Posted by chanders on September 1, 2009

[…] If we wanted to plot a new journalism timeline on a nice little graph, we would emphasize dynamic organizational movement along four axes: (a) the type of work predominant in your organization, (b) how traditionally “institutionalized” your organization is, (c) your institutional resources, and (d) how open or closed your organization is to non-affiliated members (volunteers, etc). And when we talk about the history of online journalism, we can trace the movements of different people, or organizations, or wide-scale “centers of gravity,” across all four of these axes. […] [Read Full Post at Nieman Lab]

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A New Digital Neighborhood: Nieman Lab at Harvard

Posted by chanders on August 30, 2009

Folks who have been reading this blog for a long time — which isn’t many of you, but I think there are a few of you out there– know that I’ve had several homes for my online writing since 2001 or so. Between 2001 and 2008, I wrote a lot for the NYC Independent Media Center and the Indypendent, mostly media analysis pieces and “traditional” reporting for a pioneer citizen’s journalism project. From 2005 until 2007, I blogged about issues more related to my academic research at “Unpacking My Library.” And since then, I’ve been writing over here at the J-School blog. Now, I’ve got two announcements.

The first is that I have a new academic webpage, http://www.cwanderson.org/ [still under construction]. This is a largely static site, but its meant to be a one-stop repository for my entire digital persona: syllabi, classes I teach at CSI, news articles and op-eds, academic articles, and links to my Twitter feed, my de.lio.cious tags, and  to my blog posts.

That takes me to my second, bigger announcement: starting today I’ll be blogging for the Nieman Lab at Harvard University. Someone once said that the Nieman Lab blog is the CJR for the 21st century, and I’m inclined to agree (though, I like CJR a lot for other reasons, and, in fact, will be having an article come out in it this fall) … so I’m obviously thrilled at the chance to contribute to what they are doing there.

What this basically means for this blog is this: I’ll still be updating it, though generally speaking, my heavy-duty journalism posts will appear over at Nieman. You can more or less expect posts of the same length  (long) and time between posts (intermittent) as here. And I’ll make sure to post a very small excerpt and link of whatever I contribute there onto this blog, so folks can still get a general sense of the entire drift of what I’ve been thinking since 2005.

So, like I said, if you’re interested in what I think is happening in the worlds of journalists and geeks, journalism education, or journalism and public policy issues, point your browsers and RSS readers to the Nieman Lab blog. Thanks to everybody, especially long time readers, for giving me the chance to really stretch my blogging muscles, improve my thinking, and the chance to take my public writing to the next level.

See y’all soon.


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The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNBC

Posted by chanders on August 18, 2009

[note: much of the insight into this post came from Gabriella Coleman and the commenters on her blog. I think that one of the major developments in journalism has already been, and will continue to be, the integration of journalism and computer programming (indeed, see http://www.holovaty.com/writing/fundamental-change/ for a perfect example) and I’m hoping to build my next big research project on these types of questions. For journalists who are interested in this topic, I’d recommend regular reading Biella’s blog and the blog Hacker Visions. I’d also rec’ the book Two Bits, by Christopher Kelty, which you can read for free here.]

Yesterday, a big piece of news hit the “future-of-journalism community”– Everyblock, a “microlocal” news project started by web developer and former online newspaper employee Adrian Holovaty, had been purchased by msnbc.com for an undisclosed sum (speculation and rumors ran somewhere in the low 7  6-figures). Everyblock began as a 2-year funded project of the Knight News Challenge, and when its funding period expired, Holovaty was openly musing on what the next steps in the project would be, and how it could be sustained without the grant. (This is a big question facing nearly all the grant-supported journalism projects that have emerged in the last two years.) So the purchase of Everyblock looked like a win-win-win all around; the project could go on, it would “infect” the wider news ecosystem with its forward thinking energy; the creators would receive a monetary reward for their work. And best of all, the original code of Everyblock, under the terms of the Knight Challenge Grant, was available to the world because it was required to be open source.

The only sticking point– perhaps only to me, though I saw that Brian Boyer and a few other folks on Twitter mention things along similar lines– was that all future versions of the code (including versions compiled by the developers after June 30 before the msnbc.com sale) were not required to be open. In fact, as was made clear in an interview with Paid Content on the day of the sale:

The future of the code: EveryBlock’s platform is open source, meaning it can potentially be replicated by competing sites. But Holovaty and Tillinghast say that others will only have access to the code as it existed on June 30—when it was initially released—meaning MSNBC.com will likely have an edge over any competitors. “What happens after that we’re not obligated to make that open source,” Holovaty says, adding that so far only a handful of sites have actually adopted the code.

As I tweeted earlier in the day, this seemed like something of a reappropriation of “common work” by “capital” (two loaded terms, but hey, whats Twitter for?)– in which grant money was basically used to fund the beta development of a piece of software that was (once it was far enough along) bought-up and locked-up by a very large media and software company. Of course, this happens all the time in the digital world, but it seemed contradictory to Knight’s original goals of making the code open source in the first place; or so I assumed, knowing nothing at all about what Knight really wanted.

As I started investigating what was legal and what was ethical surrounding the Everyblock sale, I once again realized how little journalists (and most communications professors) know about the world of Free and Open-Source Software (and how little, in some ways, the residents of that world know about journalism). There’s a lot that journalists, coders, and (in particular) foundations like Knight can learn from this, the first big acquisition of a Challenge project by “big media.”

The gist is this: Under the terms of their initial GPL, Holovaty and the other developers can do whatever they want with their code (after fulfilling the Knight requirement) because they hold copyright. There’s additional nuance brought about by the fact that Everyblock is a web service and not and piece of “software” per se. The is a difference— and thus some confusion to me– between a “BSD” license and a GPL license (confusion because Knight required Everyblock to be released under GPL v 3.o. This initial requirement also raises the question– to me– about how closely Everyblock is following the spirit, if not the letter, of the original Knight grant by allowing MSNBC to claim proprietary rights over future versions Everblock). I also learned that not everyone in the “Free and Open Source Software” community agrees with everyone else, and some people probably wont agree with anything I’ve just said. There’s even a debate (a big one) about the difference between “Free” and “Open” software.

Thats the gist. If you want to get into details, click below. Also below, I dispense some unasked for advice to the Knight Foundation about how they can signal their code intentions more clearly going forward.

One more thing: What would I like to see? I’d like to see all future versions of code devloped under the Knight grant remain open, whoever buys them. I think this is an ethical use of Knight grant money — and a good business strategy as well.

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“Silly Season” Summer Roundup: Squeezing the Value From Online Content

Posted by chanders on August 12, 2009

ACAP, hNews, CircLabs, the Information Valet, Attributor … this summer, a number of initiatives designed to squeeze one last  drop of value from the well-juiced orange of news have been breathlessly announced. If you’re like me, most of these plans eventually start to blur together into one big “they want to charge for content” miasma. But, they’re actually different enough that I think it would be valuable to break them all down into a few general categories. It seems clear that, by the winter of 2010, many if not most online news products will have launched a variety of payment initiatives, so it might not be a bad idea to get an idea of what could be coming down the road.

I want to be clear: this is a limited overview of some of the ways people are talking about funding journalism in the online era. I don’t get into some of the more forward-looking projects, like Spot.us or Kaiser Health News. I’m not even getting into what I think is the only real question about journalism worth asking: what are news organizations going to add to what they already do in order to generate new revenue? The title of this post sums up, I think, the gist plans outlined here: squeezing value from traditional online content.

Finally, you’ll notice that I don’t discuss the Steven Brill venture “Journalism Online.” To be honest, while Journalism Online was first out of the “create value by charging” box, I have had trouble figuring out exactly what it is they’re planning to do. At best, they want to do a little but of everything I outline here, but it seems like, at least for now, they are primarily a consortium empowered by struggling newspapers to “figure it out,” rather than an entity possessing any actual plan.

I divide the numerous “value from content” plans into four general categories: (a) the paywall, (b) tracking users for ads (c) tracking content for extraction (d) reinstate online scarcity via legal doctrine.

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What Would Fair Use Look Like in an Online Era?

Posted by chanders on July 24, 2009

Summary: this would be a new four-part test to add to the already existing four-part “fair use” test.

  1. The presence and quality of the link.
  2. Does the new format provide the opportunity for democratic engagement that is unavailable at the original provider?
  3. Courts should consider this balance: between the added value of information (provided by the so-called appropriator) and amount of appropriation of the “original” work.
  4. What is the overall purpose  and character of the appropriating organization?

I’m not a lawyer, though I have spent a lot of time thinking about copyright law, fair-use, the so-called “hot news doctrine,” and other related matters over the last few months. Much of this reflection has been occasioned by a growing argument in some (but only some) segments of the news industry that was best summed up by the AP’s Tom Curley in today’s New York Times: “If someone can build multibillion-dollar businesses out of keywords, we can build multihundred-million businesses out of headlines, and we’re going to do that.”

The argument over this has gotten so ridiculously stupid, its difficult to recap all the recent back and forth without this turning into a very long blog post. But the nadir of the argument was summed up in the New York Times article mentioned above:

Tom Curley, The A.P.’s president and chief executive, said the company’s position was that even minimal use of a news article online required a licensing agreement with the news organization that produced it. In an interview, he specifically cited references that include a headline and a link to an article.

The difficulty of Curley’s own position is put into sharp relief by what he doesn’t want to discuss with the Times; “Mr. Curley declined to address the fair use question.”

The legal concept of fair use is ably summed up, not surprisingly, in a really great Wikipedia article. The concept of fair use is not hard and fast law per se, but rather consists of a four part “balancing test” in which the various circumstances that lie behind an alleged infringement are weighed from case to case. The four part criteria for claiming fair use is:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

I think its generally agreed that arguments  fair use and the so-called “hot news doctrine” work better in the analog world than they do in the digital. So, here’s the question: what would fair use look like in the digital era?

I think something a lot of lawyers and media executives often forget is that the digital information world has its own ethical standards and best practices, practices that may not be written down but have emerged out of the internet’s own practices and history. And even people who are very friendly to the basic web-way of doing things will get angry when these practices are deliberately flaunted; take concepts like “hot linking,” as well as others. I think that the internet’s own culture and best practices should form the bedrock starting for thinking about how fair use should opperate in the digital era. And the fact that the AP’s own FAQ about its proposed micro-tagging system doesn’t include a single link tells me they still haven’t got a clue about what these practices are.

So below, I list a few ideas, drawn from the culture of the web, that could go into a revised understanding of fair use. I see them as primarily additive, not substitutional, though their incorporation into fair-use doctrine might change the overall tenor of the concept. I want to emphasize  that I’m not a lawyer, that this is a very off the top of my head kind of list, and I’m largely putting it up for discussion and push back, especially by people who have devoted their lives to thinking about these sorts of issues. So I’m hoping this can be the a jumping off point for an intelligent and continued discussion.

If we wanted to think about what fair use would look like in an online era, what should we consider? In the list below, I refer to two kind of articles or blog posts: the “originating” entity, and the appropriating entity. In this blog post, for instance, the New York Times would be the originating entity, and Wordyard would be the appropriating entity. (For the record, even originating entities are appropriating entities– the entire notion of journalism is grounded on a form of appropriation– though I am going to bracket that argument for now and pretend we can make a meaningful distinction here.)

1. The quality of link. It should, by 2009, go without saying that any article making use of information read, cited, discussed, or originated elsewhere should clearly link back to that information. This is kindergarten-level internet protocol. If an article appropriated content from elsewhere, either directly, as a source, or in the form of a rewrite, and didn’t link back to the original source, this would be a big strike against the appropriating entity. (I should note, at this point, that this would probably do more to show traditional, non-linking news orgs are violation of fair use than bloggers, but, hey, you get what you ask for if you open this can of worms.)

If we set linking as a baseline, we can go one step further: of what quality is the link? There’s a big difference between an article that links to its source five paragraphs in, for example, and those that do so in the first paragraph. And online entities, I can tell you for a fact, make these kind of decisions all the time.

2. Does the new format provide the opportunity for democratic engagement that is unavailable at the original provider? If you want to know why I think the HuffPo is eating the AP’s lunch, it has less to do with the fact that they are supposedly “stealing” AP content than the fact that all their articles include spaces for passionate conversing, remixing, tagging, and other web 2.0 activities, options that still aren’t available at many news orgs. Deliberation, of course, is just as democratic an activity as news-gathering is.

Now, simply tossing up the content of an entire article and adding a space for comments wouldn’t give you a “get out of jail free” card. Obviously, this is just one of a larger series of factors. But, it should be a factor.

3. Courts should consider this balance: between the added value of information (provided by the appropriator) and level of appropriation of the original work. Or in other words: sites that add value to the original content, either in the form of other links, extended commentary, new information or facts, etc, should be allowed a greater amount of freedom in order to draw upon the work of originating content. Sites that do nothing with the original content, other than rewrite it or collect it in a running series of links, should get less leeway to excerpt (though this doesn’t mean they should get no leeway at all).

4. What is the overall purpose  and character of the appropriating organization? This would take us out the realm of individual peces of online content, and force courts to consider the overarching character and mission of the appropriating entity (something I don’t think they do already, though maybe I’m wrong). To do this, you’d look at the history and content of the organization. Is it something like Talking Points Memo, which serves a noble public mission? Or is it a spam website? Obviously, this matters a lot. Google, for instance, could make a (very) strong argument that its linking and excerpting serves the purpose of organizing the content of the entire world-wide web.I’d defer to that if I was a judge.  A website than consisted of nothing more than a series of headlines and links to a few newspapers, on the other hand, would have a harder argument to make.

I want to be clear that I don’t think this list is exclusive. I also don’t think, though, that we can continue pretending that these issues dont exist and we can remain at the level of just screaming “fair use” and “copyright” back and forth at each other. If this issue is litigated, it has huge implications for our communicative futures; lets no be digital ignoramouses and screw it up.

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Another Perspective on How “News” “Diffuses”: The Francisville 4 from Inside the Newsroom

Posted by chanders on July 13, 2009

20080617_dn_0k2ky04lToday, Jon Kleinberg, Jure Leskovec, and Lars Backstrom probably experienced every serious scholar’s fondest wish and worst nightmare — their path-breaking article, “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle,” [pdf] was written up in the New York Times. The Times article was pretty good, as these things go, but I imagine that the authors are now in the process, as Scott Rosenberg put it, of watching their nuanced and complex scholarship become a meme itself … a “the news media leads the blogs by 2.5 hours in reporting news” meme.

The best thing to do is read the report itself, though the Rosenberg post is a great summary with some cogent criticisms, and the New York Times article is, all and all, a good summary. Rather than rehashing the discussion sor far, I want to talk a little bit about some of my own findings which I think complicate the Cornell research.

This May, I presented my own research on news diffusion and the new news cycle at the International Communications Association (ICA) conference in Chicago. The research comes out of my dissertation fieldwork, and I’m quite proud of it. It’s also as different from the Leskovec et. al. research as it is possible to be when you’re addressing the same subject matter.  The paper is also, as luck wold have it, in peer-review hell, which means that (as far as I’m concerned) while its publishable and public, put the powers that be haven’t decided that yet.

But after reading the paper, the New York Times article, and some caveats about the paper, I wanted to weigh in with a summary my own findings, which I feel stand toe to toe with the “Meme-Tacking” paper — even though you may not think so, because there were no computers involved.

I so I want to talk a little bit about what I did and what I found, and then talk a bit about quantitative and qualitative research.

What I Looked At

My case study was the first (to the best of my knowledge) academic study to analyze the diffusion of a single news story from the moment it was reported to the moment that it died, from within the newsroom itself in the context of the new media ecosystem. In other words, I followed the diffusion of the fairly small story of the Francisville Four, a few left-leaning Philadelphia homeowners who were illegally evicted from their home after posting “anti-surveillance” fliers in their neighborhood.

What did I find? Several things, all of which I think add complexity to the Cornell study.

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Boiled Down Response to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer Inanity

Posted by chanders on July 6, 2009

… and also a response to Connie Schultz, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reader rep, and the estimable Judge Richard Posner:

  • Pure content theft (an example of which can be found here, and here) is already illegal under existing copyright law. No further legal change is needed. Sue away.
  • Connie Schultz is so deliberately vague about what laws she would actually change (she wants to be able to “sue Web aggregators who post such significant rewrites or summaries that readers to their sites lose any interest in reading the original stories”) that, given that laws to prevent the theft of online material already exist, one can only assume she wants to be able to selectively sue people who discuss, add value to, comment on or link to other news stories. Indeed, its arguable that Josh Marshall and TPM regularly do what Schultz decries — “post significant rewrites or summaries” of news stories. The fact that he is beloved by the chattering classes and would never be sued demonstrates the perils of selective enforcement.
  • In short, Schultz, Posner, and others want to dramatically narrow the definition of fair use.
  • The reporting of news, insofar as it serves a public function, has a higher standard of acceptable fair use than non-public content (like music, or art.) News is only “publicly valuable” insofar as it becomes part of the stream of actions, debates, and discussions that are necessary for democracy to function. Therefore …
  • The standards governing the fair use of news content should, if anything, be broader than they are now, not narrower. But its perfectly fine for them to remain just as they are. Original reporting should not be built on the back of stifling conversation.

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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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