Tag Archives: Dan Gillmor

MuckRock.com and the potential power of crowdfunding

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 7.58.38 PMThis interview was previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The first time I heard of Michael Morisy and MuckRock.com was in 2010, after the site was targeted by a bureaucrat working for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

It seems that MuckRock, using the state’s open records law, had obtained information about how food stamps were being used in grocery stores. The data, which did not name any individual food-stamp recipients, had been lawfully requested and lawfully obtained. But that didn’t stop said bureaucrat from threatening Morisy and his tech partner, Mitchell Kotler, with fines and even imprisonment if they refused to remove the documents from their site.

They refused. And the bureaucrat said it had all been a mistake.

Now Morisy is preparing to expand MuckRock’s mission of filing freedom-of-information requests with various government agencies and posting them online for all to see. The just-launched Freedom of the Press Foundation has identified MuckRock as one of four news organizations that will benefit from its system of crowdsourced donations. The best-known of the four is WikiLeaks.

The foundation’s board is a who’s who of media activists, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, Josh Stearns of Free Press and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, now with the Guardian.

“The Freedom of the Press Foundation can be a first step away from the edge of a cliff,” writes Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media” and “Mediactive.” “But it needs to be recognized and used by as many people as possible, as fast as possible. And journalists, in particular, need to offer their support in every way. This is ultimately about their future, whether they recognize it or not. But it’s more fundamentally about all of us.”

What follows is a lightly edited email interview I conducted with Morisy about MuckRock, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and what comes next.

Q: Tell me a little bit about MuckRock and its origins.

A: I’d been really frustrated that we hadn’t seen much innovation in newsgathering generated by journalistic organizations. You see lots of innovations in how stories are told, but they’ve been generated by companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — all wonderful organizations, but ones which generate news as a byproduct, and where the journalistic function is by far secondary to business considerations. My co-founder and I wanted to create a startup where creating news was a core part of the business, and where the news was both user-generated and -directed as well as verified.

Since requests on MuckRock come from — and are paid for by — our users, we are able to align our business and editorial goals almost perfectly. We don’t sell advertising, we don’t put up paywalls. We just help people investigate the issues they want to, and then share those results with the world.

We’ve know been growing as a business and as an editorial operation for three years, with a part-time news editor and two fantastic interns.

Q: What sorts of projects are you involved in today?

A: Our biggest project to date is a partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called the Drone Census, which has broken a lot of major stories around the country. We let anyone submit an agency’s information and then we follow up with a public records request. So far we’ve submitted 263 requests to state, local, and federal agencies, the vast majority of which were suggested by the public. And it’s helped shed more light on a program that police departments and drone manufacturers are very purposefully keeping quiet.

We’ve also gotten to cover some really interesting local stories, such as getting the late Boston mayor Kevin White’s FBI file and taking an inside look at the timing of a drug raid, as well as national stories.

Q: What is the nature of your relationship with the Boston Globe?

A: MuckRock was invited to be part of the Globe Lab‘s incubator program a little over a year ago. We’ve received free office space and, most important, a good mailbox to receive the dozens of responses we get back every day. It’s also given us a chance to bounce ideas back and forth with their technology and editorial teams, and we’re in the early stages of a collaborative project with them.

They also recently launched The Hive, a section focused on startups in the Boston area. Given my experience running one and my editorial background, when they were looking for someone to manage and report for that section, I was a natural fit and thrilled to be invited to cover startups in the area. It’s a dream job, and it means I now have two desks, and often wear two hats inside the same building.

Q: How did you get involved in the Freedom of the Press Foundation?

A: Trevor Timm has been our main point of contact with the EFF working on the drone project, and he’s been absolutely great to work with. He reached out to us about a week ago and said that he was working on a new venture to help crowdfund investigative journalism projects, and we were honored to be thought of. It turns out he is the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, so we got lucky to be working with the right people.

Q: Do you have a goal for how much money you’re hoping to raise through the foundation? What kinds of projects would you like to fund if you’re successful?

A: We’re kind of going into this with an open mind and a hopeful heart. Any amount raised is greatly appreciated, but this will help jumpstart several new projects similar in size and scope to the drone effort, which has had an amazing response, including nods from the New York Times and many other outlets. It may also give us the flexibility to fund important stories that maybe are not as sexy. We were really interested in funding an investigation into MBTA price jumps for the disabled, for example, but our crowdfunding efforts on Spot.us are essentially dead on arrival. Having a reserve will allow us to take gambles on stories like that without having to choose between making rent and breaking news.

Will HuffPo prove to be AOL’s MySpace?

Click for full cartoon at Politico

Does AOL have a MySpace problem?

You may recall that MySpace was a social-media phenomenon when Rupert Murdoch bought it back in 2005 for $580 million. It wasn’t long, though, before Facebook zoomed past it, rendering Murdoch’s new toy all but worthless. The site is now for sale. A large part of it may have been that Facebook was simply better technologically. But surely some of MySpace’s lost cachét was due to a perception among users that anything owned by Murdoch wasn’t cool anymore.

Which brings us to AOL and the Huffington Post. When AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong forked over $315 million for HuffPo, he no doubt thought he was acquiring, among other things, an army of unpaid bloggers. But not so fast.

AdBusters reports that there’s a boycott under way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.

Follow it on Twitter at #huffpuff.

Two old Boston Phoenix friends have weighed in as well.

Al Giordano writes that he cross-posted 26 of his stories on HuffPo between 2007 and 2009. He stopped, he says, because he “grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated.” Now he’s removed his posts, replacing them with this:

(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield – Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)

On Facebook, Barry Crimmins adds:

What Ariana Huffington sold for $315 mil was a lot of bloggers who work for free and all the eyeballs they attract to HuffPo. Feeling exploited? Stop working for free for HuffPo and stop providing HuffPo with the value of your visits. Believe me, there will be alternatives. True alternatives.

Dan Gillmor says that, at the very least, Huffington ought to start paying people.

It’s hard to know to what extent HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers fit into Armstrong’s plans. At the very least, though, it’s beginning to look like he did not get what he paid for. He could ask old Rupe about that.

Dan Gillmor on how to make the media serve us

With the publication of his 2004 book “We the Media,” Dan Gillmor established himself as one of the most important thinkers in digital journalism. Because of that book, Gillmor, a former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, is often described as the leading advocate for citizen journalism, though he would be the first to point out it’s more complicated than that.

When I asked him if he’d like to take part in an e-mail interview about his new book, “Mediactive,” he replied that it might take him a while. Yet, within hours, I received more than 1,500 words of carefully considered prose about the state of journalism and his hope that citizens would use the digital tools at their disposal to become better-educated media consumers — as well as producers.

This is not what you would call an arm’s-length interview. I’ve considered Gillmor a professional friend since profiling him for CommonWealth Magazine in 2006. He offered me some valuable advice on my own book-in-progress on the New Haven Independent and other hyperlocal news projects. I read “Mediactive” in galleys and wrote one of the blurbs. So it would be silly for me to write a review telling you that you should all read “Mediactive.”

Although, in fact, you should all read “Mediactive.” It’s edgier and less optimistic than “We the Media,” but Gillmor has lost none of his passion for urging readers, viewers and listeners — the “former audience,” as Gillmor dubbed them in his first book — to get up off their seats and demand that the media be held accountable.

Gillmor is currently director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He’s also a columnist for Salon and a faculty associate (and former fellow) at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Our e-mail conversation follows.

Q: Why did you write “Mediactive”?

A: As you know, I’ve been a cheerleader for democratized media for a long time now. But I’ve also been a cheerleader for quality. And it’s been clearer and clearer that people are not sure how to handle the flood of information that is swamping all of us.

So a couple of years ago, I started realizing that we have a number of issues to work on to make the possibilities for democratized media into realities that would, first of all, encourage creation of media by everyone; and, second, find ways to make what we all create trustworthy and reliable. This isn’t just a supply issue. It’s a demand issue as well.

Clay Shirky, who wrote the foreword for the book, put it particularly well. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said my goal was not solely to upgrade the journalism, but very much to upgrade us, the audience.

There’s a lot involved in doing something like this. It boils down essentially to a modern version of media literacy, one that looks much more at participation than traditional media literacy programs have done while building on the great work in that field when it comes to understanding what we read and see. The bottom line is, above all, persuading passive consumers to be active users of media, both in the reading (used in the broadest sense of the word) and in the creation process. Continue reading

Death, life and the future of news

Robert McChesney (left) and John Nichols

What role should the government have in preserving public-interest journalism? If you’re a First Amendment absolutist (and I consider myself to be pretty close), you might immediately respond with a resounding “none.” Yet such purity has never been the reality in American life.

Heavy postal subsidies from the earliest days of the republic helped create the most vibrant newspaper and magazine industry in the world. To bring matters up to the present, media corporations are now given virtually free use of the broadcast airwaves, theoretically owned by all of us, with little expectation that they will fulfill the public-interest obligations that were once required of them.

Earlier today, John Nichols and Robert McChesney visited Northeastern to promote their new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.” (You can read excerpts of it here and here.) I won’t pretend to write an objective account — I introduced them, and we all said nice things about each other. Rather, I want to discuss briefly their idea that at a time when journalism is in crisis, government ought to step in and prop it up to the tune of some $30 billion a year — a number they say correlates, in 2010 dollars, with what was spent on postal subsidies in the 1840s.

To their credit, they do not propose taking taxpayer funds and handing them to Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger. Instead, they would like to see a variety of initiatives that, properly implemented, would bolster journalism without raising the specter of government interference: greatly expanded support for public broadcasting with an arm’s-length funding mechanism; an AmeriCorps for young journalists; even a $200 tax credit for every family to spend on the news media of their choice.

And they are correct in asserting that other Western democracies, particularly the Scandinavian countries, subsidize their media to a far greater extent than we do without suffering any loss of freedom.

Yet I still worry that theirs is the wrong solution. Consider, for example, that non-profit organizations, including news operations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates — a ban on free speech that dates back to 1954, when then-Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson acted to silence the opposition back home in Texas. That underscores what I think is the real problem with government assistance: once you start relying on it, you are forever subject to the vagaries of the political moment.

Afterward I asked McChesney about an idea recently proposed by Dan Gillmor, best known as the author of “We the Media,” to emulate the original idea of postal subsidies by using government funds to pay for universal broadband access. As Gillmor sees it, that, combined with a guarantee of net neutrality, should be enough to allow market forces to do the rest.

“I think we need that no matter what,” McChesney replied. But he added there was “not a shred of evidence” that universal broadband access and net neutrality would be sufficient to guarantee a vibrant press.

Nichols and McChesney’s presentation combined gloom-and-doom with optimism for the future of journalism, if only the public can be mobilized. Like Clay Shirky, they think we have entered a post-advertising era in which it will prove impossible sustain journalism as a commercial enterprise. But whereas Shirky has called for a variety of commercial, non-profit and volunteer-driven experiments, Nichols and McChesney believe the public ought to pay more directly for what it needs to govern itself.

“We are at a 1776 moment,” Nichols said “It is your democracy that is threatened.”

Nichols and McChesney are co-founders of Free Press, an organization that is fighting the good fight on behalf of local ownership of radio and television stations and government guarantees for net neutrality. My reservations aside, Nichols and McChesney are making an important contribution to the discussion over paying for news, and I look forward to reading their book.

Dear Next Owner of the Boston Globe …

On the eve of what may be an announcement that the New York Times Co. is selling the Boston Globe, Boston.com editor David Beard weighs in with a smart piece for Poynter Online on “10 hopeful points about the future of journalism.”

Although perhaps Dave missed Dan Gillmor’s 11th rule.

A media optimist’s latest venture

Dan Gillmor, whose 2004 book “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism for the People, by the People” helped launch the citizen-media revolution, has unveiled his latest book project.

Titled “Mediactive,” the idea, Gillmor writes, is to make sense of the new-media ventures growing out of the rubble. He also hopes to address the demand for quality news, which he believes is running well behind the burgeoning supply. He writes:

We have raised several generations of passive consumers of news and information. That’s not good enough anymore.

The media of today and tomorrow require us to become active users. And that’s a prime focus of this new project …

Among other things, Gillmor is founder and director of the Center for Citizen Media, whose East Coast base is Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Back in 2006 I profiled him for CommonWealth Magazine. And earlier this year, I should say by way of full disclosure, he provided me with a valuable critique of my own book proposal.

Anyone interested in the future of journalism will want to pay close attention to Gillmor’s work-in-progress.

Arrogance and anger over newspapers’ decline

us dollar billsNewspapers executives have the right to charge whatever they want for their products, be it the print edition, Web-site access or speciality channels such as Kindle and mobile editions. The public, in turn, has the right to decide whether to buy or seek its news elsewhere.

What news organizations do not have a right to do is raise the price of what they produce by creating artificial scarcity through an illegal cartel.

Thus it was that Los Angeles Times media columnist Timothy Rutten’s latest commentary became the talk of the Twitterverse over the weekend. Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, Vin Crosbie and I were among those kicking Rutten’s column around.

Rutten, in calling for an exemption from federal law so that newspaper companies can collude on a plan to charge for online access, made some important points about government’s role in fostering a free and independent press. In particular, he singled out the favorable postal rates going back to the earliest days of the republic as a key factor in the rise of a vigorous Fourth Estate. (Paul Starr, in his 2006 book “The Creation of the Media,” traces those postal policies to Colonial times, and identifies them as an important reason that newspapers and magazines became a mass medium in the United States in a way that they never did in Europe.)

But Rutten undermines his argument with unwarranted arrogance, including flashes of anger, at what has happened to his business. Here is a particularly choice passage:

[I]f Congress acts as it should, it will do so not on behalf of newspapers but for their readers. The press, after all, does not assert 1st Amendment protections on its own behalf but as the custodian of such protections on behalf of the American people.

Stating that the press is the “custodian” of the First Amendment is breathtaking not only for its insular cluelessness, but also because it goes against basic constitutional principles. Rutten should re-read the Supreme Court’s landmark Branzburg v. Hayes decision of 1972, in which Justice Byron White explained in ringing language why it would be wrong to grant journalists a constitutional privilege to protect their anonymous sources:

[L]iberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.

I don’t think White got it entirely right — surely certain types of journalism could be protected, as opposed to a professional class of journalists. But he’s inspiring in his assertion that the First Amendment belongs to all of us, and that we the people, not the press alone, are its custodians. Today, of course, the pamphleteers are armed with computers; they are legion, and they are not lonely.

Like Rutten, I want to see the newspaper business find a way out of the mess it’s in. Outside of newspaper Web sites, sources of news that consumers do not have to pay for — principally television and radio stations and their Web sites — do a fine job with the basics of local coverage.

But let’s take the Boston Globe as an example of two entirely different dilemmas. Yesterday’s edition included two stories that required a considerable amount of journalistic enterprise — a deep analysis of Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s development record and an investigative feature into the death of 7-year-old Nathaniel Turner, whose father has been charged with his murder. Those are the types of stories that are too expensive to do in the world of fast, cheap Web journalism.

On the other hand, have you seen the new WBUR.org? Combining news from its local staff with reports from NPR, the station’s Web site has the makings of a high-quality online newspaper. If the Globe started charging for access to Boston.com, maybe the Boston Herald would follow suit. But WBUR (90.9 FM), as a public station with hundreds of thousands of listeners, is going to keep its Web access free — as will New England Cable News and the city’s broadcast television and radio stations. Given that there is a considerable amount of overlap in the Globe’s and WBUR’s audiences (affluent, well-educated, liberal), the Globe would charge for Web access at its peril.

Absolutely no one knows the way forward for the troubled newspaper business. My own hope is that, once the recession ends, newspapers can thrive through a combination of smaller-circulation but more-expensive print editions, subscription fees for non-Web speciality products for the Kindle, cell phones and the like, and a more imaginative approach to Web advertising.

What makes no sense whatsover is the Rutten plan: a backroom deal to charge for something that readers have made clear they are not willing to pay for.

How false becomes true

Dan Gillmor blasts the media for a recent New York Times/CBS News poll finding that one-third of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He writes:

The continuing scandal is that media organizations are doing so little to correct the record. Because it is not enough to run an occasional story debunking the lie.

I don’t disagree, but it’s also more complicated than that. Last Friday, NPR’s “On the Media” ran a fascinating interview with the Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam, whose reporting suggests that the harder you try to debunk a falsehood, the more people are likely to believe it. Here’s Vedantam, talking about what happened after the subjects of a University of Michigan study read a flier produced by the Centers for Disease Control debunking myths about vaccines:

[A]bout 30 minutes later, older people started to remember some of the false statements as true, and three days later, very large numbers of older people and significant numbers of younger people also started remembering increasing numbers of myths as true.

The true statements did not suffer the same kind of deterioration with time. In other words, over time we tend to remember false things as true but not true things as false.

This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t at least try to educate the public in an ongoing way. But it does mean that it’s likely a significant minority of Americans will continue to believe whatever they like, whether it’s about 9/11 or the (non)-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

After all, as Vedantam points out, majorities in Arab and Muslim countries continue to believe the United States and/or Israel were responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. You can only do so much to set the record straight.

Vedantam’s original Post story is online here.