Tomorrow I’ll be giving a talk to Northeastern alumni at the Burlington campus as part of the NU@Noon series. My topic will be “Social Media: The Connective Tissue Between News Outlets and Their Communities.” I’ve prepared some slides and plan to riff on them a bit before turning it over to questions. If you’d like a sneak preview, here you go.
Now, here is an interesting ethical dilemma.
Last Friday morning, the New Haven Independent posted its final revision of a story reporting that the city’s police union had approved a “no confidence” vote in Chief Frank Limon by a margin of 246-21.
The New Haven Police Department has been beset by controversy since Limon’s arrival last spring over accusations of police brutality and over incidents involving officers’ confiscating cameras from people trying to record their actions. Last week, a group of African-American activists demonstrated in favor of Limon, claiming that the chief is working to reform a troubled department.
But I digress. The story closes with a quote from and a photo of a custodian who works at police headquarters. The custodian, Michele Kearney, says:
There’s been a lot of tension ever since he’s [Limon] been here. There is not a lot of morale here. The last chief [James Lewis] was more understanding of what needs to be done. From what I have seen he wanted to hear their opinions and try to work with them. This one here [Limon] seems like he is working against them and not with them.
The story drew 108 comments — a very high number for the Independent. On Thursday at 3:23 p.m. (in response to an earlier version of the story) a commenter who goes by “da hill” criticized the Independent for quoting “unrelated entities” such as Kearney. Editor and publisher Paul Bass responded:
Thanks for the input. Our feeling was that someone who’s in the building cleaning the floors every day, talking to officers, and watching what’s going on, does in fact have a valid perspective to offer on morale and the overall feeling in the building.
At 5:21 p.m., “NO CONFIDENCE” wrote: “I am so happy to see a civilian like Michele, pictured above, tell the citizens of New Haven how Chief Limon treats his officers. She works in the police department and is definitely well qualified to make those statements.”
A short time later, “Our Town” posted this: “I sure hope ole Michele is in a union, becuase I have a feeling she might not have a job tomorrow for speaking up.”
Then, at 11:06 p.m., there was this, from “Ken”:
The maintenance girl was fired immediately and we heard it came from, you guessed it, the chief. This is his MO if don’t agree with or lie for him you’re in trouble. City Hall has demanded she be re-hired by O,R&L. I guess the The Chief never heard of the First Amendment. OR&L should be questioned about it and if they lie they should lose the city contracts. If it came from the Chief he should be terminated.
O,R&L is a private contractor hired by the city to maintain its buildings.
On Friday at 3:49 a.m., “unbelievable” wrote: “She was FIRED and escorted out of the building like a CRIMINAL! and you talk about wanting to do your best for this city!? … Well New Haven Independent, what are you going to do now??”
What the Independent did was post a story by Bass reporting on Kearney’s situation. The events of the day were convoluted. Kearney was fired; no, she’d been placed on leave. Mayor John DeStefano’s outgoing spokeswoman said the mayor had asked O,R&L to reinstate her. DeStefano said he’d done no such thing. The mayor’s incoming spokesman then said the company had informed the city that Kearney had been reinstated.
And, most controversially, the Independent posted the cell-phone number of the O,R&L supervisor assigned to police headquarters, urging readers to make their feelings known. “Members of the public can call him there if they want to express their opinions on the matter directly,” Bass wrote. Continue reading
SeeClickFix is an interactive website that lets users report problems in their communities and plot them on a Google map. Because it’s an open forum, local officials can check in to see where trouble spots are, and news organizations can track them as well. The New Haven Independent is one of many news sites that posts the RSS feed for its community. The interactive pothole map at Boston.com is powered by SeeClickFix as well.
On May 18 I had a chance to sit down with SeeClickFix co-founder and chief executive Ben Berkowitz in his second-floor office in downtown New Haven. Berkowitz, a hyperkinetic 31-year-old, had forgotten we were supposed to meet, but he graciously agreed to a video interview despite having a full agenda.
Berkowitz describes SeeClickFix as “citizens working collectively,” and explains that he started it three years ago when he was trying to get graffiti cleaned up in his neighborhood. The site has been growing rapidly since the New York Times published a feature story on it in January.
Today, the company has some 400 media partners and employs five people thanks to a $25,000 We Media prize and several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of venture capital. Although the basic service is free, SeeClickFix charges media sites for certain premium services, and posts advertising as well.
One aspect of Berkowitz’s philosophy that I found particularly interesting was his insistence that SeeClickFix is not just for holding government accountable — citizens, too, should take responsibility. As an example, he pointed to a similar project, the British website FixMyStreet — a great name that he nevertheless doesn’t like, he says, because it removes accountability from citizens and places it entirely on the government.
Does Berkowitz, who previously worked as a Web designer, consider himself a journalist? He pauses before answering. “I think SeeClickFix is a tool for journalists,” he replies. “I don’t think that I am a journalist. I don’t think of us as a news organization.”
For a good example of how journalists can use SeeClickFix as a reporting tool, see this story on “the ugliest storefront on Chapel Street” in the New Haven Independent.
Thinking about it always hurts worse than doing it. This afternoon I finished my book proposal — that is, I put a wrapper on the cover letter, the first chapter and the actual proposal, PDF’d them, stuck them in a ZIP file and sent the file off to a couple of people for their comments. Now I just need to find a publisher. And do the research and reporting. And write the book.
Sorry to be coy, but I’m not ready to tell all just yet. I can say that it’s about the new generation of community news sites, with a major emphasis on one in particular.
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.
Thomas MacMillan writes in the New Haven Independent:
Michael Chaves was a “lumper”: He worked as a laborer for long-haul truckers and slept in their trailers. Dale Anderson was a lumper too. One night they were hanging out at a truck stop when Anderson, drunk, urinated on the spot where Chaves slept. They argued, and Chaves beat him to death with a bat.
That’s the story Chaves told to police in Phoenix, Arizona.
And that’s one hell of a good way to begin.