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.

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:

Non-profit journalism in New Haven


Last month I took two reporting trips for my book-in-progress about online journalism and community participation. I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot several video interviews, which I am now editing and posting on YouTube.

My first stop was in New Haven, where I spent some time with Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent. I also interviewed his managing editor, Melissa Bailey, and Mark Brackenbury, managing editor of the daily New Haven Register. If you don’t see my video (above), click here. I apologize for the sound quality; I should have interviewed Bass somewhere other than a loud coffee-and-bagel shop, but he’s a busy guy.

The Independent is a non-profit community news site that’s similar to Voices of San Diego and MinnPost. Bass, an award-winning New Haven journalist and former editor of the alternative New Haven Advocate, tools around the city on his bicycle with a notebook and a small video camera.

In March I interviewed Christine Stuart, whose state political site, CT News Junkie, serves as the Independent’s Statehouse bureau.

What would Google do?

With apologies to Jeff Jarvis. Google’s YouTube is on track to lose $470 million this year, notes Boston Globe reporter Emily Sweeney on her blog. Why can’t the New York Times Co. find geniuses like that to run the Globe?

A visit with CT News Junkie editor Christine Stuart

Find more videos like this on Wired Journalists

I spent last Wednesday with Christine Stuart, the editor of CT News Junkie, which covers Connecticut politics. Stuart, who’s based at the Statehouse in Hartford, posts two to four times a day, often covering hearings on important but secondary stories that the mainstream media ignore.

CT News Junkie is a media partner with the New Haven Independent, one of the more interesting experiments in non-profit, Web-based community journalism. Projects such as these are crucial as we seek to grope our way forward through the economic crisis that has befallen the news business. (CT News Junkie is technically a for-profit company, but Stuart is looking into ways of taking it non-profit.)

I visited Stuart as part of a long-range project. But while I was there, I shot some video and put together a six-minute documentary. I hope you’ll take a few moments and have a look.

Some technical notes. After spending about an hour trying to edit my video with iMovie ’08, I gave up and used iMovie 6 instead. The lack of precision for coordinating audio and B-roll with iMovie ’08 is a source of constant frustration, and I’ve finally given up. I can’t believe I subjected my students to it last semester. Maybe iMovie ’09 will be a better solution.

I also was unable to post the result to YouTube, even though the format (MP4), the length (well under 10 minutes) and the file size (under 100 MB) all meet YouTube’s guidlines. Vimeo didn’t work, either. I finally posted it successfully to Wired Journalists, which uses the Ning platform designed by Netscape founder Marc Andreesen.

If anyone out there has some thoughts as to why this proved to be YouTube-unfriendly, please drop me a line or post a comment. I’d still like to get this up on YouTube.

News from your computer, 1981 edition


For those of us who were actually messing around with stuff like this in the 1980s, this news report looks more nostalgic than startling. My favorite part of the story: It took two hours to download all the text in a newspaper, and access cost $5 an hour. (Via Romenesko.)

Social networking and the news

On Thursday I had a chance to take part in a panel on “Getting Started with Social Media: Lessons from the Front Lines,” sponsored by the Mass Technology Leadership Council.

It was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot from the other panelists — Perry Allison of EONS.com, Pam Johnston of Gather.com and Brian Halligan of HubSpot. The moderator was Debi Kleiman of Communispace in Watertown, whose Fenway Park-theme meeting room was where we held our presentation.

I’ve posted the slideshow that accompanied my talk. Slideshare appeared to choke on embedded links, so I’ve listed them below in case you’d like to check any of them out.

Old ethics and new media (VI)

Howard Owens, GateHouse Media’s director of digital publishing, has responded to YouTube’s decision to remove the Beverly Citizen’s controversial video of the “Horribles” parade.

According to Owens, YouTube acted after receiving a complaint from someone whose face was visible in the video. Apparently YouTube has a privacy policy under which it will take down a video at literally anyone’s request. Owens sums it up as follows:

We simply cannot allow YouTube, or any other business partner, to subvert our editorial independence. If YouTube wants to get in the game of hosting video for established news organizations — which it is doing — then it needs to respect the editorial judgment and independence of the news professionals in those organizations. If YouTube is unwilling be a true media partner, then, at least for GateHouse, we will need to seek alternative means of distribution of our videos.

Now, it’s easy enough to say that YouTube should act as a common carrier, similar to the phone company, and carry any traffic that comes its way, regardless of content. As a free-speech advocate, I would much prefer a policy like that.

But it’s not that simple. YouTube is successful in part because it does a good job of keeping out pornography and graphic violence. It’s the PG-13 nature of YouTube that makes it an attractive venue for media companies like GateHouse in the first place.

On the other hand, Owens is absolutely right that if the folks at YouTube are going to remove news videos arbitrarily, then there’s no way a news organization can do business with them.

I haven’t changed my mind about the video — I still would have edited it to remove the eight-foot-long penis and some of the more offensive signs. But that has to be the news organization’s call, not that of the service hosting the video.

I realize this post is entirely one-sided, and I hope YouTube has something to say. Soon.

Wednesday morning update: An unnamed YouTube spokeswoman tells the Boston Herald that the video was “inappropriate,” but leaves it at that.

Old ethics and new media (V)

Looks like GateHouse Media has taken matters into its own hands.

If you go to the Beverly Citizen’s “Horribles” parade story now, you’ll see that the video featuring the eight-foot-long water-spouting penis and the crude signs is back online.

The difference: The video is now hosted by Veoh Networks rather than YouTube.