Social Entrepreneurship: A False Promise?

Here’s an interesting parallel to the struggle to advance a new journalism practice: Energy research.

The status quo of both energy and journalism are recognized worldwide as desperately in need of innovation. Much, in both fields, is said of the power of the entrepreneur in advancing that innovation. Yet support for such innovation remains, it must be said, depressingly out of step with the rhetoric.

Social entrepreneurship is not something that a roll-up-your-sleeves/DIY type can simply set out and undertake, especially at the delicate R&D stage, where a little bit of cash can go a long way.

Lacking personal resources, but rich in ideas, the entrepreneur will, most of the time, get no support from the very establishment that lionizes her or his presumptive role as an innovator.

Today, social entrepreneurship is something that is selectively annointed and supported by status-quo organizations that by definition — by the very fact of their large-scale leadership roles — are unable to apprehend what is truly innovative.

To innovate, one must be able to break from the status quo — its assumptions, its dogma, its rituals and cultural/social expectations. How, then, can an interest vested in that status quo let go of it in order to support innovation?

Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times blog entry on how that plays out in the energy-research field:

… [T]he Department of Energy had to send out letters last week discouraging all but a handful of the 3,500 research teams and individuals seeking some of the $150 million available this year for pursuit of “ transformational” energy technologies.

One such rejection letter is posted above ( a pdf of the letter is here). The name of the rejected scientist is obscured. He sent it to me, he said, not because he was angry about being denied a shot at funding, but because the letter notes that “less than 2 percent” of such proposals are seen as likely to get support. It’s still early days, of course. But does this look like an energy quest to you?

The Future is NOW: The Networked News Nonprofit

Journalism’s true strength in the Internet era is decentralized. It’s all about reporters — and reporting teams — working solo, but linking up in parallel to coordinate on stories, cross-promote, and share resources.

Parallel processing! Peer-to-peer networks. A network model harnesses the inherent strength of the Web as a medium, by providing a shared back office and standards of affiliation. This is the thesis behind Independent Arts & Media and Newsdesk.org.

Now, on a significantly larger scale, a collaborative of nonprofit news agencies is teaming up to create a new entity, the Investigative News Network, to take up their collective burden of business operations, fund development, and marketing/promotions.

Driving this is the proliferation of small to mid-sized nonprofit news bureaus around the United States. They’re cropping up in big cities and small towns. They’re tackling diverse issues and beats at the local, regional and national level. They have a variety of business models, publishing methods and partnership policies.

A glorious ferment! But resources are sorely lacking. Individually, these projects don’t have the financial and promotional clout to routinely achieve the impacts that a commercial media corporation can muster — even in today’s bruised and contused news economy.

Working in concert, it’s a different story. Resources are multiplied, as the diverse talents and resources of each node in the network are brought to bear on common issues.

Chief among those issues are the enormous challenges of social entrepreneurship in news media. Remember, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Congressional charter is limited to broadcast. It’s the extremely low cost of publishing on the Web, rather than an abundance of charitable funding, that is driving the boom of professional, nonprofit journalism online.

Among these nonprofit bureaus, a sense of shared mission and challenge has at last caused some convergence on a larger scale. Yesterday, at the Rockefeller Fund’s Pocantico Conference Center in New York State, the attendees of the Building an Investigative News Network conference produced what I must say is rather thrilling document.

The future is NOW!

“The Pocantico Declaration: Creating a Nonprofit Investigative News Network”
July 1, 2009, Pocantico Conference Center, NY

“Resolved, that we, representatives of nonprofit news organizations, gather at a time when investigative reporting, so crucial to a functioning democracy, is under threat. There is an urgent need to nourish and sustain the emerging investigative journalism ecosystem to better serve the public.

“Recognizing, that there are many forms of potential collaboration …. “

Astonishment: The Tehran Rooftop

The ongoing flow citizen media coming out of Iran amidst the turmoil has staggered me. I am astonished and weeping at the incredible bravery that is being revealed, at the greed and cruelty of the state, at the power of media as an expression of will and desire.

Here is a video that overpowers me. The shouts and cries rising like waves far into the night, the narrator’s tiny, quavering voice … she is anonymous, but she contains all the hope for liberation, and all the sorrow for its betrayal, that any human has ever known.

Is it Finally Time for a Journalism Social Venture Fund?

This has been an idea that’s been percolating in my noggin for some time. Every time I hear about the latest journalism initiative or major donor, this idea returns:

It’s time to pool the resources and create a “Journalism Social Venture Fund” that can provide for the basic needs of the many new/emerging nonprofit journalism programs.

This entity would be non-elite and non-exclusive. It would not judge programs according to rarified criteria as to what’s a sustainable business model. No one has a freakin’ clue what a sustainable business model is right now. Sure there are plenty of ideas. But three-years of budget projections should not be the criteria. If a news site is up and running, and has a track record of publishing good material (see below for what “good material” means), it should be eligible for block grants to support its efforts.

The JSVF would distribute block grants for both Journalism Programming and Journalism Operations. That means, if you have a hot story you need to pursue, you go to the Journalism Social Venture Fund to help cover the costs. That means, if you are publishing great material but you need a grantwriter or a bookkeeper or an individual donor manager to help solidify your business model, you go to the Journalism Social Venture Fund to help cover the costs.

What kind of coverage is eligible? The Journalism Social Venture Fund would only support non-political/non-advocacy, public-interest reporting that can’t otherwise survive in a commercial context. No op-eds, no opinionating, no endoresements, no editorials, no signed columnists. The blogs have this covered already. Although funded news programming can support public discourse around the issues that may result in opinions being expressed or taking shape, please note that this is a meaningful outcome of the coverage, not the substance of it.

What kind of news outlets are eligible? This would be focused entirely on the emerging nonprofit sector. (While there are interesting for-profit variations out there, such as the L3C model, those are still nascent, and the opportunity is distinct.) Therefore: For news programming support, a solid track-record of continuous and high-quality news programming for no less than three to six months would be required. For operational support, a demonstrated track-record of one year of continuous news-programming operations would be required.

Who determines which news operations are eligible? Aha! That is indeed the most vital question of all, isn’t it? And worthy of extensive discourse as such. As a starting point, let me propose that the decisions must be made by, say, a nine-person Board of Advisers, elected annually by an open and inclusive process, with mandated and equal representation from: Local/regional journalism practitioners, members of the communities served, and social-venture advisers and practitioners. These individuals should, also, equally represent both the executive suite and the grassroots.

Obviously this is just an interesting idea right now … and only adjunct to Ted Glasser’s more ambitious notion of a National Endowment for Journalism. Consider it more of a local/regional take, funded by local philanthropists and community foundations who care about regional civic life.

Food for thought! I look forward to your feedback.

Suddenly it’s OK to say ‘Co-Op’

Last year I was advised (by wise and admired colleagues) that I shouldn’t use the phrase “producer’s co-op” to describe Independent Arts & Media and Newsdesk.org, because it sounded too, whaddyacall, commie.

It was advice I took, and generally it feels like a good rhetorical push away from the cliche. Nevertheless, as conversations about these projects deepen, I usually DO wind up referencing the term. It’s so darn practical and plainspoken.

So I finally look at the Phil Bronstein item in the Huffington Post about how the whole newspaper crash is his fault — well, kinda, though not exactly for the reasons he lists — and there, at the end, amidst the gleeful contrition, I am startled to discover the following, extremely tasty passage:

Cooperation is the underlying key, I’m pretty certain about that. And this is true to a degree that the once iconoclastic, individualist, and pugnaciously competitive world of newspaper publishing (think Joseph Pulitzer and W.R. Hearst) has not been so well prepped to handle.

Neither is the Justice Department Anti-Trust division, which itself has still been operating on a 1930s model. There are no threatening monopolies in a graveyard, except a conspiracy of silence, something appreciated only by people who abuse power.

But like the old hippie co-ops, everyone who needs cooperative help has to give something up — some individuality, some privacy, some ownership — in the spirit of a larger purpose.

This process will be even messier and more jarring than it already has been. But it’s necessary and should not end up in a cannibalistic frenzy where tears and angry spittle lubricate the jaws and an informed and curious public is the biggest loser.

Holy smokes! Phil, where ya been all my life?

Keep in mind that we do have a quasi-monopoly situation in the Bay Area w/ Mr. Singleton’s Bay Area News Group, and that by co-operation we certainly should not return to the dull old days of the Hearst/Chronicle Publishing Joint Operating Agreement.

For a co-op to really count as journalistically significant, it has to be geared towards supporting that type of reporting that is so important, yet so unprofitable in the Wall Street model — the public interest stuff. You don’t need a producer’s co-op to do lifestyle reporting, restaurant reviews or style sections.

For more info on a new producer’s co-op for journalists, media producers and culture-makers of all stripes, framed in the context of supporting dialogue in a democracy, check out the new Independent Arts & Media home page.

For more on a specific effort to apply a producer’s co-op model to journalism, check out the LOCAL.NEWSDESK.ORG proposal, which is a Changemakers finalist.

Inquiries, partners, advisers and donations welcome!

The Return of “Public Media 2.0”

I got a whole lotta heck from my colleagues last year for attempting to coin, or at least advance, the phrase “Public Media 2.0,” as part of my Mesa Refuge writing residency. Basically, the “2.0” concept had/has been played out, they said …

Well, the fact is, the “2.0” suffix may be overused (for myself, I prefer the phrase “New Public Media,” which is pleasingly ambiguous and thus quite accommodating) but such numerology is a useful way of identifying generational shifts in technology and ideas … and I’m glad to say that the standard is now being advanced by American University’s Center for Social Media.

Indeed, the new AUCSM report, “Public Media 2.0,” puts its authors, Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderhide, among the few scholars actively investigating and advancing new ideas about what public media is, can and should be in the Internet era.

In particular, I’m intrigued by the fact that their new report sees the same tension I’ve observed between public broadcasting’s legacy top-down organizational model vs. the Internet’s innately grassroots/bottom-up nature.

I’ll have to read the piece more closely to comment any further, but, an initial look-over indicates that they’re continuing to advance the idea of an engaged public as fundamental to next steps for public media in general. Previously, they’ve also proposed that new public media must be organized by any number of interested citizens (“publics,” in their terminology) specifically to address issues and take action.

I don’t necessarily embrace that last part — in my book, merely engaging with non-commercial media as an observer/audiencemember is significantly participatory in our world of pushbutton politics and passive-consumerist media culture — but it’s an exciting report overall, and I look forward to delving further in.

Stay tuned, also, for updates on my own public-media research, including some postings of extensive interviews I did last year on the topic of “New Public Media” with Clark, Charles Lewis, Persephone Miel, Geneva Overholser and Ted Glasser.

And thanks to the AUCSM folks for advancing this important work!

Knight Silicon Valley: Local Media Fault Lines

I want more from this panel. The fault lines and fragmentation of the Bay Area’s media ecology have been made clear, but I’m not sure the gaps can be bridged.

Linjun Fan of the Albany Today blog, and Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley De-Bug (a marvelous, youth-focused labor organizing project) — they both did a great job of defining and describing how new media has radically empowered disadvantaged or undercapitalized communities.

In the former case, Fan’s blog fills a vital community information needs in a town where, she says, there isn’t even a local paper of consequence.

I interviewed Jayadev’s colleagues Shana White and Edward Nieto myself many years ago on KUSF-FM, a San Francisco community radio station, about the underground tactics DeBug used to organize the janitors and assembly line workers in Silicon Valley’s software mills.

Those stories were amazing — I still have the audio somewhere, and will dig it up for the online archives — and his inclusion on the Knight panel was astute, given his connection to the needs of the starkly disenfranchised demographic of largely migrant laborers who do the bottom-rung work of the information economy.

He represented those themes on the Knight panel — and like Fan, he demonstrated how directly media can activate, engage and build communities for those previously cut off from the media circuitry.

At this point, however, the plate tectonics and fault lines come into play.

HOPING FOR A SHAKEUP

As Jim Bettinger of Stanford’s Knight Journalism Fellowship program noted, fears about the decline of the professional, commercial news industry remain justifiably acute.

And while new media is, clearly, a viable hope, its still hasn’t overcome one major challenge: Its inability to support journalism enterprises of the scale once expected of local daily papers.

Dave Satterfield, the managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News, affirmed that dismal trend on the print side, by noting the ongoing retreat of his paper’s reporting staff, as well as of the depth and comprehensiveness of his local coverage.

He concluded his comments by essentially calling out for help, restating the day’s oft-heard Dickens quotation that it is “the best of times and the worst of times” for media and democracy in the Bay Area.

His gloom was offset by George Sampson, the news and program director of the local radio station KLIV, and quite bullish in that role.

Perhaps more at home in the lower-budget world of local information radio, as opposed to the daily-print landscape of leveraged buyouts and massive accompanying debt, Sampson spoke enthusiastically of hiring reporters who grew up in the region, and who know all its quirks, crannies and regional pronunciations.

Indeed, his take on “hyperlocal” journalism anchored the tradition of extremely local coverage not in the still-emergent blogosphere, but in the old-fashioned world of radio carrier frequencies, which is a damn cheap medium that requires neither satellites nor fiber-optic and cable infrastructure to effectively reach diverse communities within very specific geographic regions.

MEDIA AND SOCIAL DIVISIONS

Linda O’Bryon, chief content office at KQED, spoke broadly about unmet information needs, about tapping the interesting and vital elements of the Bay Area, such as the scientific community, to educate and inspire the populace.

During the Q&A section she also asserted a deep interest in more effectively reaching broad cross-sections of the Bay Area as well as drilling down into those communities and their subgroups.

But can KQED fulfill this role? As a centralized, traditional public-media outlet, KQED is remarkable for its lower level of relevance to the breadth and depth of the Bay Area populace.

A scan of the nighty lineup on the TV station reveals little that could appeal beyond the stereotype of the public-media donor — Pete Seeger, Pavaroti, John Denver, a Robert Kennedy retrospective and Charlie Rose at midnight.

A spin through the radio dial to the KQED call letters reveals the classic array of wonky talk shows, some compelling indeed, but many simply recirculating a usual-suspect circuit of commentators, announcers and issues — and all anchored by the ubiquitous, authoritative but definitively remote, non-local and unaccountable voices of that NPR capital ship, All Things Considered.

It’s NOT that these programs are irredeemiably aloof or stodgy. You gotta have Michael Krasny on Forum, hosting vital conversation on local hot-button topics. You gotta admire a show like SPARK, with its focus on local arts.

But despite this, there’s a lack of stickiness to KQED’s programming that simply will not serve to pull in and keep around people who don’t already in the vicinity of the NPR/PBS archetype.

What will it take to get the Bay Area’s biggest public-media dinosaur to evolve? To reach beyond its traditional base and safe programming boundaries, and make itself as relevant to underserved communities as Fan’s and Jayadev’s projects have become?

This is more than an issue of funding or strategic planning. It’s about the orientation of the media enterprise itself.

In fact, I don’t actually know if KQED can evolve, and that perhaps the time is ripe for some fresh ideas about what exactly is meant by “public media” in the first place.

BRIDGING THE GAPS

One of the panelists noted that new media is essentially collaborative, and that the old, monopolist model of running a commercial news operation may not be possible online, on the same scale as the old print economy.

Bad news for the Merc!

And this may also be bad news for KQED. I’m told that of its $50 million annual budget, only $5 million is actually from donor pledges.

That funding gap is the embodiment of public media’s relevance challenge. It speaks to me of a profound disconnect between the organization and the bulk of the population it would serve.

It also represents a KQED’s opportunity — indeed, the opportunity for any large-scale media outlet:

Make yourself relevant. Know your communities. Respect their needs and take chances on them.

Look across the informational schisms in your culture that separate rich media from poor (or lower-budget) media. Learn how the communities represented by those media differ, and are similar.

The closing of that schism represents nothing less than civic enfranchisement across communities.

The big media, the rich media, even as it struggles for profit and relevance, needs to connect in meaningful ways to the producers of local media — like Fan, like Jayadev, like Sampson — who have a profound sense of place and demographic need.

As Jayadev noted, the Internet is a gateway drug for young people who are hungry for relevant information about their lives — but the technology itself is not the point. It’s just a tool.

The challenge before the Merc, before KQED, is to pay attention to these needs, and respond to them in an authentic fashion.

One audience member said that old media may need to simply absorb new media, to make the most of what’s working online — video, photo galleries, blogs, etc.

But it’s not just the tools and widgets of new media that are succeeding.

It’s the simple, unadulterated relevance of messages delivered by Albany Today, by Silicon Valley De-Bug, by the local commercial outlet KLIV-AM, by the savvy and enterprising vloggers and podcasters and suchlike.

You can’t get that with a focus group. Market research will only take you so far.

To really make the connection, you have to live in the communities, immerse yourself in this life on the ground, and respect/serve the information needs that don’t appeal as readily to your advertisers and big-ticket donors.

I just don’t know if traditional media can do that.

Knight Silicon Valley: Information Quality & Access

The other major theme in panel #1 was the problematic access to, and inconsistent quality and relevance of, information sources in the community.

Muhammad Chaudhry noted the “Lack of quality content for local information needs” as well as an opportunity for new “partnerships to disseminate info at a local level”

He also identified emerging social media — Facebook et. al. — as a vital means of that dissemination, and admitted that it was only because of his younger colleagues at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation that he knew about or was able to use such platforms in the first place.

Thus we are reminded of the impotance of those in established power positions to pay attention to what’s happening on the ground — paticularly among youth, in this case.

It’s happening at your workplace among the junior staffers, in your neighborhood playgrounds and romper rooms, in your schools. Kids are using new media, and what they’re doing with it and learning from it is instructive.

Gates & Gatekeepers

Judy Nadler of Santa Clara University reminded us of the importance of having trained, humble and engaged reporters and editors in place who understand civic issues, such as local government and bond measures, and who can explain these issues to the community in a meaningful way, rather than gloss over or dumb down their coverage.

But it’s about more than having better gatekeepers. There’s also a gaping need for improved venues for civic gathering and dialogue.

Indeed, the question of such venues is the question of access, and thus we return to the issue of fragmentation, which impedes dialogue across communities.

Nadler called for “New ways to engage people. They don’t know what’s in their community.”

Chaudhry spoke about organizing people around interest areas, and “pulling them in” to coordinated information sources related to those interest — something Walesh affirmed in her description of information hubs (such as the multi-city arts listing service Artsopolis.com) that can draw likeminded people to a central online location.

But is this true commnity?

Hammer of PACT says one major hurdle is that “there are very few informal associations between people,” and that “most people don’t know their neighbors.”

In other words, there are three major progress points to consider when addressing information quality and access:

  • Improved training and education services for the intermediaries who produce and present the information in question
  • Establishing, improving and coordinating/connecting outlets that are willing and able to publish and promote that information
  • Creating new dialogue and social habits around that information, so that people are not disparate consumers, but rather engaged participants.

Knight Foundation Silicon Valley: Set & Setting

It’s an overcast Monday morning in the Bay Area, even down here in one of the most economically upbeat corners of America — Google HQ, in Mountain View, Calif., not far from the Shoreline Amphitheater.

The famed Googleplex is like walking around a giant college quadrant. It hearkens back to visiting a pal at MIT once upon a time, the architecture open and breezy and brightly colored, the interiors done up like a series of playrooms for brilliant pre-teens gifted with the world’s biggest box of Lego or Tinker Toys.

On my way down to to this event, I am struck by the diverse information services and stark social contrasts I experience en route.

  • I logged on the night before to reserve a car through San Francisco City Carshare, and printed out directions via Google Maps.
  • That morning I scanned SFGate.com for updates on local news and issues, but learned little about where I live, or the South Bay communities I was headed towards. The headlines were all about Hollywood, and sports, and local sensational crime, and the evicted tree sitters over at Berkeley.
  • Cruising the highway as the morning rush hour flowed and pulsed, I listened to KFJC 89.7 FM, an LPFM radio station out of Foothills Junior College that specializing in unusual and noncommercial music, particularly of the local variety.
  • On the way, their public service announcements informed me about an art space in San Jose, Space 47, that besides sounding genuinely groovy, made me realize there is a thriving, self-starting cultural community in Silicon Valley that is largely cut off from the main information circuitry of the region.
  • My Google map is rife with wrong turns. I get stuck behind impatient commuters leaving the tree-lined boulevards of their Palo Alto suburban enclaves, make a few more wrong turns and like magic wind up the markedly lower-income city of East Palo Alto.
  • Here, the buildings are not shiny, nor new, and are usually concerned with cheap food and automobile repair rather than software development and online commerce. This transition is abrupt, approximately 30 seconds total of driving time. I do a u-turn and finally spot the Four Seasons hotel that is my primary landmark, perched exactly between the two cities, gleaming like a beacon, guiding me back to the information superhighway.

Localized information sources CAN serve community needs … but only up to a point.

Information on about that San Jose art space is probably not turning up too often in the Mercury News. Those local bands on KFJC are most likely not getting reviewed in the major metropolitan newspapers of the region.

Similarly, I found a disconnect between what the panelists brought together by Knight are asking for, and what local media are providing.

In the following posts, I’ll identify some of those specifics.

But the question remains:  What next?

Now, having learned specifically what communities — or at least some of the diverse communities of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area — are looking for, how will our media landscape change, here, to fulfill democracy’s articulated but unmet needs?

Newsdesk.org teams with Spot.Us

Newsdesk.org, The San Francisco Public Press and the Knight Foundation-supported SPOT.US “crowdfunding” project are teaming up to raise $2,500 to support investigative coverage and fact-checking of San Francisco-focused election advertisements. Your micro-donation will make a difference!

Pledge for SF Election Ad Fact-Checking

* THE NEED
Help shine a light on the murky world of election advertising! The ads, mailers, and phone calls are already trickling in, but soon you’ll be deluged by a flood of innuendo, deceptive messaging and dubious facts from a variety of special-interest front organizations, pumped at you via snail-mail, e-mail, the phone, TV and radio.

Can you trust what you’re being told? Can you count on local media to make sense of it all? Sadly, no. Far more money is being spent to influence your behavior than to help you make informed decisions at the voting booth.

In fact, GradeTheNews.org found in 2004 that Bay Area TV news averaged just 1 minute 24 seconds nightly covering ballot initiatives, but ran 2 minutes 41 seconds of paid advertising for those initiatives. We can do better than that!

Pledge Your Support for SF Election Ad Fact-Checking

* THE PROJECT
To help cut through the hype, Newsdesk.org is teaming up with SPOT.US to publish a weekly investigative report on San Francisco-focused campaign advertisements, running from Labor Day through Election Day.

Pledge Your Support for SF Election Ad Fact-Checking

If you are a San Francisco voter, your pledge of $25 will help us meet our funding goal, and hire a professional reporter to provide weekly investigative coverage and fact-checking of election ads, running from Labor Day through Election Day. These reports will run for free on Newsdesk.org, and will be made available for free to any media partners who wish to use them.

Our goal is to help SF residents sort out the barrage of influence advertising, and make truly informed decisions at the voting booth — from the candidates to the ballot initiatives and propositions.

* HOW IT WORKS *
Spot.Us is raising the funds, Newsdesk.org will be producing the coverage. Microphilanthropy uses social networks to aggregate a large amount of small donations to achieve a particular funding goal. Once the funding has been raised — we’re at 10% of our target — the money will be released to the reporter tapped for the job.

* ABOUT NEWSDESK.org *
Since 2000, Newsdesk.org has led commercial mass media with groundbreaking, nonpoliticized coverage of veterans’ health care and PTSD; the 2004 presidential election and the 2003 San Francisco mayoral runoff; the energy industry in the developing world; genetically engineered agriculture, and much more. Newsdesk also is the producer of News You Might Have Missed, a unique source for important but overlooked news from around the world, published every Wednesday since February 2002.

* ABOUT THE PUBLIC PRESS *
The San Francisco Public Press is a new nonprofit local news organization whose aim is to increase the coverage of important but under-covered news topics through a daily print newspaper and the Web. The paper will stress government and private-sector accountability, consumer protection and issues of social inequality. We are developing a business model unique in the newspaper world, balancing subscription revenue with public-broadcasting-style pledges and philanthropy.