Is this the democratization of media or a Media Republic?

A massive new report from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University takes on some of the most important questions about change in the world of journalism — and to be more precise, change in the world of information distribution, consumption, and participation.

I talked with project leader Persephone Miel during a Knight Foundation conference at MIT this summer.  She worked on this report for a year, thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

What was most striking about her attitude then, and what stands out now in the chapters of this report, is a refreshing purity of cause.  This is not a report about what newspapers are doing wrong and how to fix it; this is a real live report on how well New Media appears to be informing the citizens of the world on themselves.

It’s not about whether or not new tools for communication are successfully replacing or supplanting the old ones, it’s about whether or not we’re getting the information we need to make educated decisions about our lives.

So, take a look at the menu of PDFs, and choose a few to crack open over the weekend.

I’m going to take a closer look at Ethan Zuckerman’s report on International News, having been blown away by the work of Global Voices since I started reading blogs four-plus years ago.  Why am I so interested in international news when I spend 40-96 hours a week working with small-town-America newspapers?

Well, the quality of international news coming out of wire services and national news organizations was one of the big reasons I decided to get into journalism in the first place.  As I’ve learned more about reporting and reporters, I think in most situations, it is extremely difficult for an objective outside observer to understand what’s really going on in a town, a neighborhood, a favela, a rancho, a barrio — there are barriers of language, class, nationality, culture, attitude, wealth — the same way we talk about newspapers being “on the Web” or “of the Web,” well, you can be “in the neighborhood” all you want, but if you’re not “of the neighborhood,” you’re not getting the whole story.

That’s what keeps me so interested in projects like Rising Voices and other small-town versions in the U.S. that aim to empower people “of the neighborhood” to do their own reporting.  That’s the difference, from my point of view, between a media republic, where we entrust a limited number of experts to provide us with information, and a true democratization of media, wherein we take up the cameras and notepads and laptops ourselves and tell the stories of our neighborhood.

Notes from Sergey Brin and Chris Anderson on building participatory systems to scale

Chris Anderson takes notes on the Long Tail at a Sergey Brin talk that turns to participation and scale.  It turns out, Brin through no one would show up to populate Wikipedia with articles:

“But he was wrong, he says, because he–even he!–had underestimated the way scale can change the game. Sure, the experts say only 1% of Wikipedia’s users actually contribute to making it better. Indeed, if you do the math, it’s even worse than that: probably closer to 0.01% (today, Wikipedia has 75,000 active contributors out of 684 million visitors). But that 0.01% have created 10 million articles.”

OK, so let’s do the math: If 75,000 passionate users can create 10 million collections of facts and data, what could 75 do? How about 7?

Would it really only take seven users of a local community information database to populate it with 931 entries?  There should probably be a flattening of that curve as the scale shrinks, but keep in mind, as you build systems for a (relatively) large number of people to participate in publishing community news and information, that you can’t expect many to jump in and push the buttons.

See also: Jakob Nielsen on participation “inequality” and the 90-9-1 rule.

Everybody’s Talking Heads

I’ve seen David Byrne’s blog post about a visit to the New York Times in too many places today to figure out where I saw it first.

Here’s my favorite graf:

“At present, it is mostly the ads in the Style section, and the glossy Sunday and T magazines that pay for a disproportionate amount of the newspaper’s running costs. Without the income from Gucci and Rolex, there probably wouldn’t be a Baghdad bureau. (That’s an exaggeration, but that’s the idea.)”

This would make great fodder for any number of grad classes I took at SJSU, especially Bill Briggs’ International Communications class.

Such a hard question. In theory, advertising for the luxury goods at the heart of the darkest corners of the American Dream is what’s paying for the continued survival of some of the most influential pieces of free press in the world.

Interesting little cycle.

I dreamt I was in a social media class…

…and the textbook was the Henry Jenkins book which has been sitting relatively uncracked on my bedside shelf for a couple months now.

Does that mean I’m supposed to read it, or that the Mass Communications program at school should have a social media class?

Luckily, I don’t have time to think about that. I have a new job title starting today, so I should try to get to work on time. Wish me luck.

(Jenkins’ blog is here. )

Your newspaper isn’t MySpace. Should it be?

I’ve often heard conversations about launching a social networking site at a newspaper start with the words “Not that we’re trying to be the next MySpace, but…”

And it always begs the question, well, should we? Should a newspaper-hosted site be the social networking spot for your geographical area?

Here’s a few variations on an answer:

Lucas Grindley says:

“All of us need to take a breath and recognize that newspapers are not the social network. Never have been. Newspapers benefit from the network, but we are not the network. The way it has always worked, and works best, is when newspapers write something so provocative or important that readers tell their friends. And those friends tell someone else. And so on. The newspaper lights up the social network by inserting valuable news.”

A good point, but it sounds a lot like the “blogs couldn’t get by without the source material from big media” argument, if you’re familiar with that thread. I don’t think the newspaper has to *be* the network, but I’m sure the newspaper can host the network and turn a tidy profit.

Mark Potts debunks the “blogs couldn’t get by…” argument by pointing to the active community sites (some hosted by newspapers) in places like Bakersfield and Westport, but then he looks a few years months ahead:

“I firmly believe we’re going to see rise of independent, high-quality journalism sites, undoubtedly created and run by professionals being cast off in the wave of newspaper buyouts and layoffs, that take an I.F. Stone-like approach to doing muckraking reporting on important subjects. We’re also going to see many more entrepreneurial journalistic efforts that use a small staff, unencumbered by high costs of traditional media, to cover communities and subjects.”

Think of Sunlight Foundation and the work New Assignment aspires to do, then think about what your newspaper can do to develop news content that bubbles up from a social networking site the paper hosts. Should we start building a wall between the news and the conversation? The short answer is No; the longer answer involves some consideration of how you’re branding this thing: Is it News? Is it Community?

Mindy McAdams points out some of the theory behind the answers to the News/Community question, bringing Uses & Gratifications into play via a paper on Incentives and Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks:

“We should not ignore social relations as a form of “payment.” If I gain face (or social standing) by doing something, then that might motivate me to do it. If I lose face (or social standing), then that might motivate me to avoid doing it. There are probably some things you will only do for free.”

And that’s an important point: What does a member of a newspaper-hosted social networking site want? Attention? Discussion? A feeling of community? A sense of ownership? That last one appeals to me. Who wouldn’t want to feel like they told the New York Times something it didn’t know?

If you’re still wondering whether the social networking business is worth getting into, check out this tidbit: McClatchy Buys Citizen Journalism Site Fresno Famous.

This is the smart play if you’re operating in an area with a thriving community site: Buy the thing, and bring the users a little closer to your newspaper brand. Now, how are you going to monetize that investment? Is it just a matter of selling some local ads, or are there other values to the body of regular readers you just picked up?

Think about what the value of an online community member is, and drop your idea in the comments… Let’s figure out how to both give and get value out of online conversation.

Comment trouble at the Arizona Daily Star

Danny Sanchez points out an explainer from the Executive Editor of the Arizona Daily Star on why comments were deleted from some stories:

“While we created the reader comments feature to give readers a place to talk, StarNet is still our house. And our editors and staff simply do not want guests who make vulgar, abusive, obscene, defamatory and hateful comments. If you want to live in that kind of neighborhood, go create your own online forum.”

First things first, if you’re going to edit individual comments and threads, chances are you’ll have a harder time defending your paper against libel and defamation suits regarding statements made in those comments.

Second things second, that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on? E-mail me if you don’t want to, er, comment publicly.

Third of all, I’m betting this robust commenting system has a function where you can check a box for each story in the system Comments On or Comments Off. Use it.

Cases where comments-on is probably an inappropriate choice:

Cases where comments-on makes perfect sense:

  • every single opinion and editorial piece published in your paper
  • any feature story
  • any enterprise story
  • anything on style, tech, food, arts, entertainment, media, business, sports

What am I missing? What’s a Comments-On story and what’s a Comments-Off story?

Cast your vote…in the comments on this post.

…a bonus point for everyone who knows why the comments thread on that Daily Star note is exactly 255 comments long…