Why Medium’s Ev Williams will fail at his quest to fix the internet

Ev Williams. Photo (cc) 2014 Christopher Michel.

Earlier this month The New York Times published a profile of Evan Williams, an internet entrepreneur who has done as much as anyone to promote the notion that each of us can and should have a digital voice. He founded Blogger, the first widespread blogging platform. He co-founded Twitter. And, in 2012, he launched Medium, a platform for writing that he hoped would become an alternative to the sociopathy that defines too much of the online world.

It hasn’t worked — not because the quality of Medium isn’t good; much of it is. Rather, he hasn’t been able to find a workable business model that attracts readers, rewards writers, and generates profits for his investors. In other words, Williams is dealing with the same problems as publishers everywhere, and his bona fides have proven to be of little help.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Williams told the Times’ David Streitfeld. “I was wrong about that.”

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The Boston Globe’s storytelling event reinforces community ties

The other day I was talking with a colleague about how our news-consumption habits had changed during the early months of the Trump presidency. The endless torrent of shocking developments from Washington had tied both of us to The Washington Post and The New York Times from the moment we got up and through much of the day. Local news, by comparison, had faded into the background.

Yet it’s local news that is essential to the civic glue that binds us together. Ultimately none of us as individuals can do much about what’s taking place nationally. We live in communities, and it’s at that level where each of us can have an effect, for better or for worse.

Last Friday evening The Boston Globe provided a vibrant reminder of that, packaging its local journalism not in print or on the web but, rather, through two and a half hours of live storytelling. Dubbed Globe Live, the event — held before nearly 600 people at the Emerson Paramount Center — featured nonfiction monologues, video, photography, music, and even some comedy.

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Breitbart’s gushy Trump book presents ‘alternative facts’ on the first 100 days

WGBH News photo illustration by Emily Judem

If you are a stereotypical Massachusetts liberal (I plead guilty, your honor), the story of President Trump’s first few months in office is one of incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, all playing out beneath the penumbra of the burgeoning Russia scandal.

But that’s not how it looks to Breitbart News, the right-wing nationalist website that has served as Trump’s most outspoken — and outrageous — media cheerleader. In a new e-book titled “The First 100 Days of Trump,” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak describes the president in glowing terms.

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Trump keeps threatening to weaken libel protections. It’s time to take him seriously.

The ad that sparked a libel revolution. See the original at the National Archives.

Among President Trump’s few animating principles is his deep and abiding belief that the libel laws were created for his personal enrichment. Thus it should have surprised no one when White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said over the weekend that Trump may seek to dismantle a vital protection against libel suits for journalists who report on matters of public interest.

“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at,” Priebus said on ABC News’ “This Week” in response to a question by Jonathan Karl. “How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.” Priebus added that news organizations must “be more responsible with how they report the news.”

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Yes, ‘S-Town’ is voyeuristic. It’s also a brilliantly insightful look at the human condition.

Photo via Pixabay.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Warning: The following commentary contains spoilers.

As I was pondering “S-Town,” the podcast from “This American Life” that tells the story of a small Alabama town and one of its more colorful residents, an old line by the writer Janet Malcolm leapt into my head: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Somehow I was not surprised that someone else had the same thought. But whereas Gay Alcorn, writing in The Guardian, uses Malcolm’s observation to condemn the makers of “S-Town,” I think it’s more complicated than that. Malcolm was writing nearly three decades ago about a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had no choice but to trust Joe McGinniss, the journalist-collaborator who betrayed him. Brian Reed, the host of “S-Town,” is operating in a far more egalitarian media environment, an age in which those who don’t like the way journalists tell their story will tell it themselves.

John B. McLemore, the brilliant, mentally ill protagonist of “S-Town,” may not have been entirely aware of what he was in for the day that he convinced Reed to investigate a murder that turned out not to have taken place. But McLemore never seems not to be in control of his own story — even after his suicide, even after Reed reveals some fairly shocking facts that McLemore himself had not been fully forthcoming about. Despite that, it is McLemore’s voice and sensibility that dominate. This is his story, even if it took Reed’s skill and nerve to tell it.

“S-Town” is the cleaned-up name for “Shit Town,” as McLemore called his hometown of Woodstock, Ala. McLemore is many things — a nationally recognized restorer of antique clocks; a highly intelligent liberal immersed in the right-wing culture of the white Deep South; a gay man whose sexual orientation is more or less an open secret. But it is his foul-mouthed, highly inventive monologues on subjects ranging from climate change to the alleged corruption of the local police department that capture our interest and draw us deeper into his damaged psyche.

Reed had pretty much set McLemore and Woodstock aside after his investigation of a murder evaporated amid a tangle of misunderstood facts and conspiratorial whispers. He returns after learning that McLemore had committed suicide in a particularly grotesque manner: he drank cyanide while ranting on the phone with the town clerk. Though McLemore obsessed over the details of global warming and the world financial system, and had long talked about killing himself, he’d given very little thought to what would happen after he died. He left no will, and he made no provisions for his elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia. Those oversights lead to the tensions that unfold over the final five hours of the seven-hour podcast.

“S-Town” isn’t really a story — or, rather, it is many stories, mostly unresolved. Mysteries fizzle. Plot lines lead nowhere. By the time it ends, we understand just how psychologically unbalanced McLemore was, especially during the last few years of his life. But Reed thumbs his nose at Chekhov’s rule that if a gun appears early in a story, then it must be fired before it ends. Did McLemore really bury a stash of gold out in the woods? Were the cousins up to no good or not? Why, after McLemore killed himself, did the town clerk not call his closest friends until after the funeral was over? Whatever became of McLemore’s “stepson,” Tyler Goodson? We never really learn.

But these are mere details. What makes “S-Town” riveting is the way Reed develops the characters of Woodstock, and especially of McLemore, peeling back more and more until there’s nothing left to show. It’s that unpeeling process that makes Gay Alcorn so uncomfortable. She writes:

Understanding another person is worthwhile; whether to make a seven-part podcast series about a person, when they never agreed to it, is another question, and one that Reed unfortunately does not address. The interviews, hours and hours of tapes left whirring away, were granted by a person who was not a public figure, a person Reed knew was mentally ill, and agreed to for an entirely different purpose. That requires an explanation.

Unlike Alcorn, I think “S-Town” is a lot more than a compulsively listenable story. Reed tells us something insightful about what it means to be a fully human, fully flawed person. Despite everything we find out about McLemore, some of it pretty disturbing, he is never stripped of his dignity. We are brought deeply into the life of another person and, in so doing, we learn something important about ourselves.

That is all the explanation needed. I think John McLemore would agree.

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The closing of the internet: Why online privacy and net neutrality matter to all of us

Jim Sensenbrenner. Photo (cc) 2008 by the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights.

It’s hard to imagine a less likely viral video sensation than Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But there he was last week, all 73 years of him, wagging his finger at a constituent concerned about online privacy and telling her, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.”

Sensenbrenner’s lecture was a clarifying moment in the debate over the future of online privacy and digital democracy. After eight years of the Obama administration, whose telecommunications policies were more often than not in the public interest, President Trump and his Republican allies are rushing headlong into a future that is of, by and for the telecom companies. It’s a debate that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should — and that could set the tone for how we communicate with one another for at least a generation.

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WGBH News publishes Northeastern students’ map project on indie coffee shops

My super Northeastern journalism students in Digital Storytelling and Social Media have reviewed and mapped their favorite independent coffee shops for WGBH News. You can find it here. A great job by everyone.