Thinking about the future of local journalism

Recently I had a chance to interview three smart people about the future of local journalism:

  • Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who is studying six digital startups in New Jersey and New York. (You can see my full interview with Stearns by clicking here.)
  • Meg Heckman, a University of New Hampshire journalism professor whose master’s thesis at Northeastern University was on the role of women at digital startups — and why women are more likely to be involved in hyperlocal sites than in larger national projects.
  • Tim Coco, the president and general manager of WHAV Radio in Haverhill, a mostly online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) for which Coco is seeking a low-power FM license.

I don’t get to make videos that often, but I wanted to scrape some of the rust off my skills for the benefit of my graduate students, who are currently making their own videos. My philosophy is that every journalist needs to know how to make a decent video with the tools at hand — in my case, an iPhone 5S, a portable tripod that I bought five years ago for less than $20, and iMovie ’11, also known as iMovie 9. (The newer iMovie 10 strikes me as slow and kludgy, but maybe I just need a faster computer.)

The one luxury I indulged in was a Røde lapel mic (known in the trade as a lav mic), which I bought for well under $100 just before I started this project. It made a huge difference — the audio is of far better quality, with much less interference from outside noise, than in previous videos I’ve made.

What I should have done, but didn’t, was use a better app than Apple’s built-in Camera so that I could lock in brightness and contrast. That way I could have avoided the sudden shifts from dark to light and back that mar my interview with Stearns.

Still, it’s useful to know that you can shoot a decent video without spending many hundreds of dollars on a professional camera and Final Cut Pro. I think there’s a tendency at journalism schools to believe that we’re selling our students short if they don’t get to use the latest and greatest technology. And yes, they should have a chance to use the good stuff. But they also need to know that many news organizations, especially smaller ones, expect their journalists to make do with what’s available.

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City settles with man arrested for video-recording police

Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab has posted a useful round-up following the ACLU’s announcement that the city of Boston will pay $170,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who was arrested while attempting to video-record police activity.

The suit was filed by Simon Glik, a lawyer, after he was arrested while recording the arrest of a teenager on the Boston Common in October 2007. The settlement follows a ruling last fall by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that Glik was “exercising clearly established First Amendment rights.”

The Boston Police Department has since reversed its stance that such video-recording violated the state’s wiretapping law. Said Glik’s lawyer, Daniel Milton:

It is important that citizens be able to record police acting in public so that the police can be held accountable for their actions. As we see all around the country and world, images captured from people’s cellphones can have a remarkably important effect on public debate of public information. It is ultimately a tool of democracy.

As media observer Dan Gillmor noted on Twitter, “It’s not the city of Boston that will pay for violating 1st Amendment; it’s the taxpayers. Good result anyway.”

Here’s the full text of the ACLU press release:

BOSTON — Simon Glik, a Boston attorney wrongly arrested and prosecuted for using his cell phone to record police officers forcefully arresting a man on the Boston Common, has reached a settlement with the City of Boston on his civil rights claims. The settlement requires the City to pay Glik $170,000 for his damages and legal fees.

Mr. Glik was forced to defend himself against criminal charges of illegal wiretapping, aiding the escape of a prisoner, and disturbing the peace. After a judge threw out those charges, Glik filed a civil rights suit against the city and the arresting officers in federal court in Boston, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Boston attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton. This settlement resolves that case.

The settlement follows a landmark ruling last August by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, declaring that the First Amendment protects the right to record police carrying out their duties in a public place, Glik v. Cunniffe 655 F.3d 78 (2011). The First Circuit’s ruling is binding only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico, but its persuasive reasoning has been cited by courts and lawyers nationwide facing the recurrent issue of police arresting people for filming them.

The Massachusetts wiretap statute prohibits only secret recording of audio. The First Circuit in Glik’s case affirmed that an arrest under the statute for openly recording the police would violate not only the First Amendment right to gather information but also the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against false arrests.

“The law had been clear for years that openly recording a video is not a crime. It’s sad that it takes so much for police to learn the laws they were supposed to know in the first place. I hope Boston police officers will never again arrest someone for openly recording their public actions,” said Glik.

“The court’s opinion made clear that people cannot be arrested simply for documenting the actions of police officers in public. With this issue squarely resolved against it, it made sense for the City to settle the case rather than continuing to waste taxpayer money defending it,” said David Milton, one of the attorneys for Glik.

As part of the settlement, Glik agreed to withdraw his appeal to the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel. He had complained about the Internal Affairs Division’s investigation of his complaint and the way they treated him. IAD officers made fun of Glik for filing the complaint, telling him his only remedy was filing a civil lawsuit. After the City spent years in court defending the officers’ arrest of Glik as constitutional and reasonable, IAD reversed course after the First Circuit ruling and disciplined two of the officers for using “unreasonable judgment” in arresting Glik.

After Glik filed suit, the City of Boston appeared to change its policy of letting police officers arrest and charge people with illegal wiretapping for recording them with cameras or cellphones in plain sight. The City developed a training video based on facts similar to the Glik case, instructing police officers not to arrest people who openly record what they are doing in public.

“The First Amendment includes the freedom to observe and document the conduct of government officials, which is crucial to a democracy and a free society. We hope that police departments across the country will draw the right conclusions from this case,” said Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A consummate community journalist

Cathryn Keefe O'Hare

Best wishes to Cathryn Keefe O’Hare, who’s leaving the Danvers Herald, where she has been editor for the past 10 years. I can’t find her farewell editorial online, but in the print edition she writes:

It has been a privilege to work here. I have learned so much, and I have had so much fun through the years. I have helped some of you, I think. I hope I have explained some issues fairly well. In any case, I know you have enriched my life with patience when I’ve been obtuse and offered gracious acceptance of my nosy ways.

In 2008, Cathryn let me tag along and learn about Web video. You can see the results here. Cathryn is a consummate community journalist, and she will be missed by those of us who live in Danvers.

Bringing together citizens, government and media


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.

A video about blind kids making videos

If you didn’t have a chance to see this yesterday, you should. The Boston Globe’s Dina Rudick put together a terrific video to accompany Linda Matchan’s fine story on a video-making class for students at the Perkins School for the Blind.

The lost children of Haiti

If you see no other video today, you should watch this New York Times report on the difficulties of getting seriously injured children out of Haiti in the aftermath of the child-kidnapping arrests. Not only is it heartbreaking, but it’s a model of how a news organization, unbound by the conventions of television, can do video news better than 99 percent of what you’ll see on the tube.

Covering the Annie Le tragedy

annie_le_20090914The discovery of a body believed to be that of missing Yale student Annie Le occasions a check-in on one of the more interesting non-profit online news ventures — the New Haven Independent.

Both the Independent and the city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, lead with extensive coverage. The Register’s story, though, includes not a single link, either to its past coverage or to other resources. The Independent, on the other hand, features:

  • A link to a story Le wrote for a campus magazine earlier this year (above). The sadly ironic subject: how Yale students could protect themselves from crime.
  • A link to Le’s Facebook profile (protected, and thus of limited value).
  • Links to previous stories, including one by an affiliate site, CT News Junkie.
  • Videos of statements given yesterday by New Haven assistant police chief Pete Reichard and Yale president Richard Levin.

In addition, there are 13 comments appended to the Independent’s story and nine to the Register’s. I can’t say that either comment thread adds to anyone’s understanding of this tragedy, but comments are an important part of creating a community.

Both outlets did a good job with the basic journalism. The Independent, though, was much more effective at making its story more than that.

Earlier: “Non-profit journalism in New Haven” (video).

Howard Owens talks about The Batavian


My spring-and-summer video tour of innovative online news organizations continues with Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit news site in western New York state that he founded when he was director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media.

Owens left GateHouse earlier this year and took The Batavian with him. I visited him in late June and spent a few days interviewing him and other folks in Batavia. Owens, though, is the only one I captured on video.

Here are links to my earlier video interviews:

  • Christine Stuart, editor and publisher of CT News Junkie, which covers political and governmental news from the Connecticut State House, in Hartford.
  • Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices Online, whom I interviewed in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
  • Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices.
  • Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site.
  • Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, a for-profit community news site in Montclair, N.J.

Keeping the local conversation alive

The next stop on my online-journalism video tour is Montclair, N.J., where I recently interviewed Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, and Mark Porter, editor of the weekly Montclair Times.

Baristanet, founded five years ago, was among the first local blogs — and certainly one of the very first to be started by professional journalists with the goal of turning a profit.

Galant and I met at a local Panera; I interviewed Porter at his office.

Earlier:

Global Voices and worldwide citizen media


My online-journalism video tour continues with Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices Online, a project that tracks bloggers around the world. I interviewed Larsen on June 9 at her Brooklyn apartment.

On April 23 I interviewed Global Voices’ Central Asia editor, Adil Nurmakov, while I was attending the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.