Tag Archives: Free Press

Josh Stearns on local journalism and sustainability

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Josh Stearns to talk about his new job as director of the Journalism and Sustainability Project at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Dodge has received a two-year, $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation to study new ways of paying for local journalism, with an emphasis on civic engagement.

After a long stint as policy director of Free Press, whose headquarters was just a bike ride away, Stearns is now commuting from Western Massachusetts to New Jersey, where the hyperlocal sites he is working with are located. We talked on July 15 at his home in Easthampton.

Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

How the IRS is killing nonprofit media

This article appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

Outrage over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other right-wing groups continues to boil — yet a potentially more consequential IRS practice has scarcely gained any attention.

Over the past few years the IRS has virtually stopped approving 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news organizations. Given the well-documented decline of traditional for-profit newspapers, nonprofit journalism can be a vital alternative, especially at the local and regional levels. But even when applications for 501(c)(3) status aren’t rejected outright, they are stacking up, unacted upon, for months and even years.

A recent Council on Foundations report titled “The IRS and Nonprofit Media: Toward Creating a More Informed Public” put it this way:

There is significant anecdotal evidence that the IRS has delayed the approval of nonprofit media, potentially slowed the development of those already created, and harmed communities by leaving them without essential coverage, due to the application of archaic standards.

Starting in the middle part of the last decade, a number of nonprofit entrepreneurs launched community websites that were built roughly on the public radio model, funded by grants, sponsorships and contributions from readers. Gaining 501(c)(3) status allowed donors to make make those contributions tax-exempt.

In researching “The Wired City,” my book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, I was struck that nearly all of the best-known nonprofits — the Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune, the Connecticut Mirror and others — had been started during the same time period, from 2004 to 2009.

“There was an initial bubble of nonprofit start-ups, but you haven’t seen that great wave spreading across the country,” Andrew Donohue, the then-editor of Voice of San Diego, told me in 2011. He saw that as potentially a good thing — a sign that journalists were trying a variety of models, for-profit as well as nonprofit. Since then, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the IRS is a principal agent in stifling that great wave.

Consider some of the consequences of the IRS’s actions and inaction:

• In February 2012, the Chicago News Cooperative went under, in part because of its inability to obtain 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, as Ryan Chittum reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

• Because the IRS does not consider journalism to be among the educational activities covered by the 501(c)(3) rules, the agency told the Investigative News Network to remove the word “journalism” from its articles of incorporation. The INN complied and won approval, according to an article about the Council on Foundations report by Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

• In a similar vein, according to the report, the Johnston Insider of Rhode Island received a message from the IRS telling it: “While most of your articles may be of interest to individuals residing in your community, they are not educational.” Because of that and other reasons, editor Elizabeth Wayland-Seal announced that she was suspending publication.

What adds to the absurdity of the IRS’s stance, as the report notes, is that we are already accustomed to relying on nonprofit, tax-exempt media for much of our news and information — not just from community news sites but from long-established outlets such as NPR and local public radio stations, “The PBS NewsHour” and magazines such as Mother Jones, Consumer Reports and National Geographic.

Here is how the media-reform organization Free Press, which has assembled a useful repository of information about the IRS and nonprofit news, describes the problem:

Nonprofit journalism is not a silver bullet for the future of journalism. But fostering a more diverse media system is. If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit. The problem is, the market has shown it will not support the full extent and diversity of news and perspectives we need.

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, proposed a bill that would have allowed newspapers to become nonprofit organizations. At the time it struck me as superfluous. Now it appears that it warrants another look — not just for newspapers, but for other forms of media as well.

Absent legislation, President Obama should appoint a new IRS commissioner who understands that providing quality local journalism is indeed the sort of educational activity that should be covered by the provisions of 501(c)(3).

At a historical moment when it has become increasingly difficult for the traditional media to provide the information we need to govern ourselves in a democracy, the IRS shouldn’t stand in the way of promising alternatives.

Breaking news, social media and verification

Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of Boston.com

Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of Boston.com

Last Saturday I had the privilege of moderating a panel on “Covering Chaos,” a look at how nontraditional journalism and social media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings and the aftermath.

Panelists were three people who covered the events as they were unfolding, Andrew Ba Tran of Boston.com and Northeastern University students Taylor Dobbs and Brian D’Amico; Boston.com producer Catherine Cloutier; and Josh Stearns of Free Press, an expert on social media and verification.

It was a terrific event. Everyone, including me, learned a lot about best practices in reporting from the scene, in aggregation and curation, and in verifying the accuracy of on-the-ground reports in real time.

Cambridge Community Television, which organized the event, has posted a Storify by Cambridge media activist Saul Tannenbaum on our panel and the three that preceded it, which dealt with alternative online media in Cambridge, legal issues and new forms of digital storytelling.

In addition, Stearns, the hardest-working man in media reform, has published his keynote address as well as a blog post on misinformation and verification following the marathon bombings.

Photo (cc) by Christian Herold and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Panel to discuss citizen media and the marathon

This Saturday, May 4, I’ll be moderating a panel at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library on how nontraditional journalism and citizen media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings. Titled “Covering Chaos,” the panel will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and will include:

  • Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for the media-reform organization Free Press and an expert on verification and trust with regard to citizen media.
  • Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student at Northeastern University whose coverage at the finish line and again in Watertown was featured on the website Medium. Dobbs wrote about what he learned in a recent guest post for Media Nation.
  • Catherine Cloutier, a producer for Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, which was a crucial source of information in the aftermath of the bombings. Cloutier was among those posting to the site’s live blog.

The panel will close an event being sponsored by Cambridge Community Television and other organizations called “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media.” It begins at 9 a.m. and looks like it should be well worth your time. More information here.

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.

Exposing the “‘pink slime’ journalism” of Journatic

If you care about local news, then you must listen to a report on “This American Life,” broadcast last weekend, that exposes a scandal whose importance can’t be overstated.

The story is about a company called Journatic, which produces local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who write articles under fake bylines.

And how great is it that “This American Life,” damaged earlier this year when it was victimized by fake journalism, has now exposed fake journalism elsewhere? Here is the Chicago Tribune — a major Journatic client — lecturing “TAL” on journalism ethics earlier this year.

After you listen, be sure to read the detailed back story, written by Anna Tarkov for Poynter.org.

Unfortunately, the broadcast aired just a few days before the Fourth of July, at a time when few people were paying much attention to the news. I hope it has the impact that it should.

The star of the “TAL” segment is a journalist named Ryan Smith, who kicks things off with a  killer anecdote. Smith tells producer Sarah Koenig that he drew an assignment to write a story about a “student of the week” for the Houston Chronicle. He called the principal, who suggested he swing by the school the next day.

Smith told him he’d rather do it by phone, but he didn’t tell him the reason: he was actually some 1,000 miles away.

Both Koenig and Tarkov interviewed Journatic chief executive Brian Timpone, who apologized for nothing and spewed forth a torrent of rationalizations and excuses: the fake bylines were to protect employees from lawyers; the Filipinos don’t actually write stories (they do); there’s no value to having reporters live in the community for routine local coverage such as police-blotter news and budget updates; and Journatic is providing coverage to communities that would otherwise have none.

Well, none might be preferable to the “‘pink slime’ journalism” (Smith’s felicitous description) that Journatic produces. Moreover, if the Chicago Tribune uses Journatic stories in its hyperlocal coverage in order to suck advertising money out of pizza shops, funeral homes and other businesses, it becomes that much harder for would-be entrepreneurs to start their own local news sites.

Since the “TAL” story broke, we’ve been learning more about who’s using Journatic material. The Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Sun-Times have all made use of Journatic, and are now in various degrees of renouncing it.

Of more local interest: so has GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts — mostly weeklies, but also some dailies, including the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton and the MetroWest Daily News.

According to a follow-up story by Tarkov, Journatic copy never made it into GateHouse’s Massachusetts properties. But the debt-ridden corporation is now setting up its own Journatic-like operations in Boston and in Rockford, Ill. Who knows where those honor rolls, obituaries and police logs will be coming from? (The blog post I’ve linked to suggests the centralized operations will be limited to design and layout. Tarkov’s story, though, references 10 “content providers” who will be based in Rockford.)

The media-reform group Free Press has mobilized over the Journatic revelations, with Libby Reinish summarizing the findings and Josh Stearns offering some advice on how to tell if what you’re reading is the real thing. Inevitably, Free Press has started a petition drive as well.

Unfortunately, the forces that make something like Journatic possible are very real. It’s expensive and labor-intensive to do local journalism right, and the crisis that has befallen the newspaper industry in recent years has made it that much harder. But this is truly beyond the pale. Even Patch, with its top-down, cookie-cutter approach, has journalists in each of its communities.

Ultimately, though, the solution will come from the bottom up, community by community, as is already the case with enterprises such as the New Haven Independent, the Batavian and dozens of others. Have a look at Authentically Local, an umbrella group of independent local sites organized by Debbie Galant, the co-founder of Baristanet in northern New Jersey.

Another potentially interesting experiment in local journalism will get under way later this year. The Banyan Project, begun by veteran journalist Tom Stites, will launch a test site in Haverhill to be called Haverhill Matters. The secret sauce is cooperative ownership, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. You’ll be reading more about Banyan at Media Nation in the weeks and months to come.

At one point in the “TAL” broadcast, Koenig says to Smith, “You are so fired.” It is perhaps a sign of how little the Journatic folks care about their reputation that, in fact, he hasn’t been. In an email to Jim Romenesko, Smith says it’s been business as usual, and that he’s received new assignments from his editor, who recently relocated from St. Louis to Brazil.

“I’m going to work the rest of the week,” Smith wrote, “and then resign.”

Tracking social media with Storify

Next semester, I plan to devote some time in my Reinventing the News course to using Storify, a tool that lets you search and pull together content from across a wide range of media — news stories, tweets, videos, photos and the like — in order to tell a story.

There’s an art to doing it well, so don’t take my first attempt (below) too seriously. Instead, you should have a look at Josh Stearns’ compilation on journalists who have been arrested at Occupied protests around the country. His piece was just recognized (and justly recognized) as the “Storify Story of the Year.”

I also think Storify works well for breaking news when there’s lots of citizen media to sift through. Here is an example from the Valley Independent Sentinel, in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, following a summer storm that moved through the area this past August.

For my first Storify story, I decided to take on the subpoena served on Twitter by the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, which could force the social network to reveal the identity of “Guido Fawkes,” whom the Boston police want to question in connection with something (what, exactly, is unclear) that took place in connection with Occupy Boston. Here’s what I came up with:

View the story “”Guido Fawkes” and the secret subpoena” on Storify]

Mapping the arrest of journalists at Occupy events


Josh Stearns of Free Press has been tracking the arrest of journalists at Occupy events for the past several months. Now he’s put together a Google map with names, places and, where available, video. An interesting project and a valuable resource.

Media-reform conference coming to Boston

My big disappointment of the week — of the year? — is that I will be missing the National Conference for Media Reform that’s being held in Boston this weekend. Originally I was supposed to moderate a panel, and I had hoped to hang out pretty much all weekend. But some important personal commitments arose that were beyond my control, and there you have it.

But enough about me. This should be a great event, featuring dozens of programs and top-flight speakers who will be of interest to anyone who cares about the future of journalism. The conference is being presented by the media-reform group Free Press, whose work I respect enormously.

If you are able to get over to the World Trade Center, I urge you to do so.