Steal this story vs. please pay here: The coming debate about public service media

The re-emergence of “paid content” in the past couple of years, most aggressively marketed by Rupert Murdoch, has dominated media coverage. But in the shadow of The Times’ new paywall and the apps for Apple craze another development has taken hold — an approach to news publishing that has the potential to reinvent the idea of public service media. This is the idea of promoting (almost) unrestricted re-use, re-publication of your material, in order to achieve the greatest possible impact of your journalism. ProPublica is one of the news organizations to embrace this principle in their invitation to steal their stories. Logically, they use the established Creative Commons licensing system, but they implement it in an innovative way. Instead of just the discreet Creative Commons logo attached to stories, there is a “Republish” button that produces the text with html tags, ready for pasting into a publishing tool — exactly the kind of extra service that has always been needed to unleash the potential in Creative Commons.

The US startup ambitious journalism projects that have sprung up recently, wholly or partly funded by foundations, in essence share the “steal this story” approach:

Instead of planning how to get the story published before word of it leaked, the excited editors started throwing out ideas for how they could share Johnson’s reporting with a large array of competitive news outlets across the state and around the country. No one would get a scoop; rather, every outlet would run the story at around the same time, customized to resonate with its audience, be they newspaper subscribers, Web readers, television viewers, or radio listeners.

The quote describes California Watch, who also have case-studied themselves.

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“Goethe” and the WikiLeaks pact

John le Carrés “The Russia House” revolves around documents written by “Goethe”, a Soviet scientist deeply involved in the empire’s nuclear weapons programmes. By having the documents published in the West, “Goethe” aims to tell the truth about the deteriorating Soviet capabilities in the perestroika days of the late 1980s. Truth and transparency will translate into real peace, he thinks. The documents come into the hands of the British authorities, however, and publishing them proves more than difficult.

Today, it is more than likely that a new “Goethe” would submit the documents to WikiLeaks instead of contacting a book publisher or media organization. The recent strange and consequential case involving the arrest of Bradley Manning and his alleged involvement with leaking the Iraq helicopter attack video which was published by WikiLeaks demonstrates the potential of such a global whistleblower site, though we do not know all the details of Manning’s actions yet.

In April, I heard Daniel Schmitt of WikiLeaks present the concept and thinking behind the site at a conference in Berlin. WikiLeaks will factcheck all submitted material thoroughly in a verification process where they can draw on more than 1000 anonymous experts in different fields. If they conclude it is genuine and of public importance, it will be published — and crucially, all the material a source has sent in will be published, not only edited excerpts. This principle sets WikiLeaks apart and constitutes much of its appeal. A new “Goethe” would not have experienced the same as Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers — indeed, Ellsberg has said that today, he would have posted them on the internet.

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The welcome comeback of the image

The internet saved our culture of writing, it has often been claimed. The image saturation caused by television had, in this narrative, reached dangerous levels by the mid 1990s. Enter the commercial internet with email and the web. At the latest with web 2.0, everyone is writing all the time. Hurrah!

People like David McCandless bring a fresh approach to question this now received wisdom. By visualising data instead of just referring to them in text, modern infographics can be more enlightening than acres of text, not less:

I’ve spent the last year exploring the potential of information visualisation for my website and a book. I’ve taken loads of information and made it into simple, colourful and, hopefully, beautiful “visualisations” – bubble charts, concept maps, blueprints and diagrams – all with the minimum of text. I don’t just mean data and statistics. I love doing this with all kinds of information – ideas, issues, stories – and for all subjects from pop to philosophy to politics. Personally, I find visualisations great for helping me understand the world and for sifting the huge amounts of information that deluge me every day.

More of his visualisations can be enjoyed at his Flickr page.

Information and data visualisation has come to seem increasingly important to me as I in the past few months have spent a lot of time on the topic of opening up data in government (project blog in Norwegian). Clearly, it’s possible to do harm with data, as it is with all kinds of information. But the solution in an open society cannot be to lock down government data. That’s why it’s so important to have an ongoing discussion about how data can be used to promote better understanding of society, like McCandless does with his infographics. That he helps to improve journalism at the same time, isn’t actually a drawback these days.

Guardian hiring “beatbloggers” for local project

From the Guardian’s digital content blog:

Starting with Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh, is planning to launch a local news project in a small number of locations. At the moment is looking for bloggers – with journalistic qualifications “desirable” – to help cover community news, and report on local developments. The project will emphasise local political decision-making, and is scheduled to go live next year.

The job description for bloggers:

Working from your home, or anywhere with WiFi, as a ‘beatblogger’ you will lead the Guardian’s innovative approach to community news coverage in Leeds. This will include reporting on local meetings and events with an emphasis on local political decision making, identifying issues of importance to local residents and signposting information and news provided via other sources. You will be willing to collaborate with others to create a vital resource for the city.

Journalists against surveillance

Monday next week, editors and journalists meet in Hamburg to agree on (they use “ratify” in the press release, ok) a new European charter for press freedom:

The charter formulates principles for the freedom of the press/media from government interference – in particular for their right to safety from surveillance, electronic eavesdropping and searches of editorial departments and computers, and unimpeded access for journalists and citizens to all domestic and foreign sources of information.

After having researched various national and European plans for online surveillance and data retention lately, I have to support this — though I think the media should fight for all citizens’ rights at the same time.

Journalists have to start taking encryption techniques and anonymity online seriously, to protect themselves and above all their sources. I wonder how many media people and news organizations have even thought about this yet.

Apolitical resistance

Evgeny Morozov’s Net Effect blog has quickly become one of my favourites, but I don’t think he is right about this effect of the Pirate Bay verdict:

All in all, thanks to today’s verdict – which I do hope would be overturned in higher courts – we should expect piracy to emerge as a full-fledged political issue, at least in Europe. This is no longer a debate about entertainment. As of today, it’s a debate about digital liberties. I think that the record industry does not fully grasp the level of political resistance it’s going to face from the young people in Europe and elsewhere. They remain ignorant at their peril.

I don’t see the resistance to and anger over the verdict turning into meaningful political action. Those defending “digital liberties” are unorganized, a very loose coalition without practical political experience. Of course, I hope I’m wrong…

How to avoid being remixed

Virginia Heffernan identifies a surprising effect of digital media on political rhetoric and style:

We tend to assume that the proliferation of digital media must be coarsening American speech and behavior. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The threat posed by video parodists appears to have turned public figures watchful and cautious, like people who affect polite reserve in crowds for fear of being mocked or mugged. In the midst of so much digital chicanery, celebrity comportment may grow steadily more formal.

Hence, Barack Obama’s team floods the web with perfectly produced videos that are hard to parody. But is it really so devastating to be remixed? Does it matter that much?

Everyone can be Bildblogged

After almost five years of correcting and criticizing the Bild-Zeitung, and in the process becoming one of Germany’s most read blogs, Bildblog now announces a new policy: From now on the Bildbloggers will take on all German media.

Ideally there should be more media watchblogs of this kind, but I can see why they’re lacking. It takes a lot of time, effort and persistence to carry on such a demanding project for years. You can find some examples of what they’ve been doing in my previous posts about Bildblog.

The revolution itself

Clay Shirky on media technology revolutions, especially the current one:

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case. Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.