New role at KALW

Over the past year, as the KALW News digital editor, I was constantly knocked out by the first-rate, frontline coverage produced here of communities and neighborhoods that are usually overlooked by local mass media.

I’m refocusing now on audience and community development via two new newsletter initiatives. One for the newsroom, and one for the station as a whole.

I’m thrilled to continue working with this incredible public-media outlet, helping to build their own engaged Internet audience beyond the grips of ad-saturated, data-gobbling social platforms.

On that note … If you are in the Bay Area and would like to get a different view of the news and issues of your home region, let me encourage you to sign up for our Friday newsletter wrapping up the week’s headlines from KALW News.

So go ahead and push the button …

Sign Up Now

Introducing: The Watershed Media Project

The Watershed Media Project is an initiative to research and develop grassroots funding, production and promotional models for independent, public-interest journalism and media.

Watershed is a nonprofit, fiscally sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media; it is also a slow-media project that will eschew the frantic pace and expectations of today’s digital startup culture in favor of small, simple, incremental goals achieved over longer periods of time.

The “watershed” metaphor is inspired by Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group that advocates for building human societies designed for sustainability at the watershed and “bioregional” level.

From an essay on mass media I wrote for their newsletter:

Information is like water. Our survival depends on it. It’s harmful or healthful depending on its origin, and on what people do to it before it gets in your system. Its use and availability is enormously profitable, and of the highest humanitarian and social concern.

From the community meeting hall and the local-news blog on up, the free flow of information is the water cycle of democracy, sustaining entire ecosystems of civic discourse and cultural exchange.

Just as estuaries and watersheds are vulnerable to industrial activity and unsustainable development, democratic institutions and processes are deeply influenced by commercial and financial interests. Mass media is a toxic mess, awash with false memes, fear mongering, destructive double-standards and routine ethical compromise. Media equivalents of Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima happen all the time. Pollution accumulates in the mental environment like mercury and PCBS in the water tables.

My first significant publishing gig, back in 1992, was as editor of Planet Drum’s annual journal Raise the Stakes — issue No. 22, which in retrospect was a somewhat prescient edition.

We dug deep on topics such as cultivating native food crops, seed saving for diversity, permaculture “food forests” that bear diversely all year long, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA farms), organic and least-toxic farming — topics that would in subsequent decades end up inspiring marketing and political campaigns alike.

That linkage — between ecology, sustainability, culture and history — has stayed with me over the years, and when Judy Goldhaft from Planet Drum asked me this past summer to write something for their print newsletter, the dots began to connect up.

Having just returned from the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver, I was impressed by how Planet Drum’s vision of sustainability had so much resonance with commonplace media-reform and future-of-journalism metaphors such as “information ecosystem” and “news ecology.”

These are easy metaphors, even seductive, and yet taking them seriously begins to compel questions. What, for example, are the funding watersheds that sustain these media-based ecosystems? How does one measure and ensure their health and sustainability?

The questions run deep, the terrain they open up is broad. Watershed Media will serve as home base for a few hopeful expeditions and surveys.

Newsdesk wins SPJ’s national Excellence in Journalism Award

I’m a bit dazzled to announce that Newsdesk.org won the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Excellence in Journalism for our multimedia series, “The Bay Area Toxic Tour: West Oakland.”

This is a national award given by the SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, which this year received over 1,300 entries from some of the biggest names in the business. We are honored, grateful and rather thrilled. Thank you to the SPJ selection committee for this wonderful acknowledgment of our work.

Hats off to the incredible Newsdesk.org team of reporter KWAN BOOTH and legendary photographer/multimedia-guy KIM KOMENICH! It was an honor to be your editor for this project. The awards ceremony is coming up in Las Vegas in October, where we will join other recipients, such as the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Associated Press and ProPublica.

Deep gratitude is also due two others who won’t be acknowledged by the award: our Saint of Patrons, DAVID COHN of Spot.Us, for helping us raise the money to pay Kim and Kwan; and Newsdesk.org adviser VIRGIL WARD PORTER, for dreaming up the Toxic Tour idea with me almost 10 years ago during our commercial-newsroom days.

It was precisely the lack of opportunity to do this kind of rich public-health reporting that prompted me to leave my commercial-news day job and start Newsdesk.org in the first place.

Toxic Tour: Next Stop?
The goal of The Toxic Tour is to document the impacts of pollution on communities. This award is exciting not just because it recognizes our existing work. It also advances the cause of developing Toxic Tour reporting projects in other communities around the Bay Area and around the nation.

Indeed, the first thing Kim did upon hearing the news was to express hope that we can use this to jump-start further Toxic Tour coverage in the SF Bay Area — such as in Bayview-Hunters Point, with its factory effluent and irradiated shipyard, or across the Bay in Richmond, home to numerous chemical refineries and low-income housing.

And what about West Oakland? The issues there have hardly gone away. Wouldn’t it be an accomplishment to hang up a shingle there and really cover the situation in depth, over time?

And what about where you live? The EPA estimates there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the United States. And how many communities nationwide are adjacent to active industrial sites?

We have much more work to do. The Toxic Tour documents pollution and communities, and there are many more stops around the SF Bay Area and around the nation in desperate need of journalistic attention. Please support our public-service mission by making a tax-deductible donation today.

Three Profiles from the WeMedia Conference

Here are three profiles I knocked out for the WeMedia folks. The occasion was their annual conference in Miami — and a fine affair it was, full of great folks and interesting, inspiring dialogue. (Also loved the push to expand ideas about innovation in media.)

“To The Rescue: The American Red Cross Online”
How does a classic “legacy” nonprofit with a mission as urgent as ever adapt to the emerging online medium? Just fine, thank you very much.

“Francois Ragnet Deconstructs the Document”
Francois is a fascinating individual, working at Xerox, with some great ideas about how documents are becoming at once dis-integrated and evergreen in the online medium.

“Tom Stites and the Banyan Project: The Forest for the Trees”
Stites is a colleague and mentor. Banyan is pushing forward an idea about a consumer co-op for journalism; may it sprout and effoliate!

Newsdesk.org Receives Major Grant

[Download a PDF of this press release]

Newsdesk.org, a program of Independent Arts & Media, has been selected by the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation to receive a $25,000 grant in support of the nonprofit, public-interest news service News You Might Have Missed (NYMHM).

The Foundation’s generous gift will be used to develop NYMHM as a daily service that can earn income through syndication; this will support the production and promotion of important but overlooked news, and help improve coverage of underserved communities.

A Vision for New Public Media
Syndication is at the heart of the LOCAL.NEWSDESK.ORG proposal to create new public-media infrastructure for local/regional journalism, at a time of crisis for the news industry.

Local.Newsdesk.Org is a 2009 finalist in the WeMedia/Changemakers “Pitch-It” contest. It envisions a network of independent but affiliated online news bureaus that put professional journalists to work, and connect them more effectively to their communities. The bureau network will function in some ways like a wire service, yet will also report and publish news at the community level, and add resources to the work of local and regional journalism partners.

Prototype: News You Might Have Missed
NYMHM has been published Wednesdays since February 2002, and examines national and global issues through the local and regional lens. Its rigorous, hard-news format drives an average of 25,000 unique visitors monthly to Newsdesk.org, on the strength of only one home-page update weekly.

With support from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Newsdesk.org will recruit and hire a full-time Staff Editor to turn NYMHM into a daily service — the first step in developing revenue through syndication, in support of the Local.Newsdesk.Org vision.

Financial oversight is provided by Independent Arts & Media, a 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor and “shared back office” for commercial-free media/culture programs and producers. Indy Arts services include operations and bookkeeping, promotions, networking events, and support with grant seeking, fundraising and strategic planning.

Contacts & Further Details:

Knight Foundation Silicon Valley: Innovation vs. “the Future”

(Roundtable #3: Technology & Innovation)

PART ONE: THE VIEW FROM TOMORROWLAND

We’re blogging to you live from the future, and it’s very exciting here!

I mean, we’re having this meeting at Google HQ, in the middle of Silicon Valley — the place embodies much of the hope and imagination for the future of our democracy, our economy and our world.

It is — or will be — better here in the future. As soon as we can figure out what it’s all about. As soon as we can figure out how and why people use information technology, we can build the perfect device that will seamlessly integrate their information needs with hyperpersonalized delivery mechanisms — speaking of which, can’t you wait until the iPhone costs as much as a transister radio?! — then everything will be fine.

The economy will grow robustly and sustainably, because in the future it will all be running on clean tech.

Deepening efficiencies will drive down costs — which means all the lower-rung workers who have been effectively organized by Raj Jayadev to join unions will be earning the wages necessary to fully engage with the immersive mediaweb through affordable wireless technology.

That’s the problem with the future. It’s look-at-the-stars solutions are indeed thrilling, but it’s ankle-deep in the mud of today.

PART TWO: A MOVING TARGET

Forget about the future. The future is not where it’s at. In the future, we are going to be in the exact same place that we are now — Planet Earth — but things are going to be worse. The climate is changing, the oil wells are drying up.

We can’t be living in the future, when there’s so much that needs innovation today.

Living in and for the future can bite you on the behind.

Panelist Chris O’Brien notes that the ambitious Mercury News project to “blow up the newsroom” and reinvent how a print paper navigates the new media economy was canceled in January.

Most of the folks guiding the project have, in fact, been let go, he told me over lunch.

Was this a vision of the future that simply didn’t match reality? Or did the great powers of the Merc’s parent company get cold feet? Was the approach too topheavy, too sweeping, or too half-hearted?

It would be fascinating to delve into the conflicted internal process that led to both the newsroom reinvention project and its cancellation.

The Merc’s misfire brings to mind the same sort generalized ambition but inadequate ground-level implementation that makes KQED — so well-financed and connected — paradoxically so out of step with the majority of the Bay Area’s diverse communities.

The problem is that these top-down enterprises, guided by the strategic goals and profit expectations of Wall Street and its satellites, may not be appropriate to the new media economy, which is massively decentralized, multisourced, and generally, from a content-production and -consumption perspective, non-cooperative with the monopoly production model.

PART THREE: INNOVATION DAY BY DAY

Chris also noted that news media thrives when it is a center of innovation — which demands the question of what, exactly, are the conditions that encourage innovation?

Independence, for one thing.

All of the successful strategies and scenarios described by the panelists emphasized the ability of media producers and consumers alike to post and access material spontaneously, without the barriers erected by the traditional gatekeepers.

This is not about technology — it’s how people use it. It’s about the social phenomenon of technology. And therein lies the keys to innovation.

Danah Boyd, one of the Knight commissioners, noted the amazing success of local blogging and text-messaging around Hurricane Gustav in New Orleans, an unmediated phenomenon that occurred in an open information architecture without interference from monopoly gatekeepers.

She further elucidated the point by noting advocacy campaigns around specific legislative issues, in which interest groups mobilize their constituencies via cellphones and text messaging to spark a flurry of calls, emails and faxes aimed at key elected officials.

Holmes Wilson of the Participatory Culture Foundation is singing a similar tune with his Miro project, an online video platform that aims to “eliminate gatekeepers” and make everyone a content producer.

We are already seeing what this can do on the blogosphere — the achievements of which are considerable, and matched only by its excess.

As Amra Tareen of AllVoices.com notes, most blogs don’t get read, which hearkens back to the initial panel’s concerns about the information glut — something that at once distracts from access to meaningful information, and fragments dialogue around it.

Her solution is to opportunistically merge media (Web, SMS, email, etc.) to produce up-to-the-minute coverage of news across the world.

Using some cool widgets, AllVoices.com triangulates on topics, pulls together a variety of coverage, and represents it dynamically on a world map on the site’s home page. Click on an indicator, and you’ll wind up with a cluster of related stories and blog postings

This approach places all its eggs in the crowdsourcing basket, and it’s good that they’re taking the chance on it.

Whether it’s the solution remains to be seen — but it’s encouraging to see the money behind the media warming up to the idea of empowering producers and audiences, and appreciating them as interchangeable.

PART FOUR: AD-MODEL INVERSION

This is a key concept — that producers and audiences together can successfully guide access to and creation of relevant community information.

The relationship between the audience and the media outlet has inverted, also, to the detriment of the ad-sales department.

Mike McGuire, a research VP at Gartner and a mainstream media guy, pointed out that content really is king, and if so, why are the content producers the ones getting the short end of the stick?

Why not start cutting sales staff at the failing media outlets instead of reporters and editors?

He asked this and grinned, and the audience laughed, as well they should.

But it’s a serious question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily.

The State of the News Media 2008 report noted that increasingly, the newsroom is the place recognized as the wellspring of innovation in media companies — and the ad-sales departments are the ones most bogged down by the failed assumptions of the past.

What sort of innovation is required to make a future we can all live in?

Knight Silicon Valley: Communities & Fragmentation

The initial panel was broadly focused on the topic of “unmet community information needs,” and showcased a diverse set of speakers, from local union and community organizers to city strategists, academics and community foundation leaders.

Chava Bustamante, a former SEIU coordinator, opened the discussion with a telling, if informal, experiment to identify where people are from.

“How many of you here were born in another country?” he asked. A handful of hands were raised — his own included.

“Howbout from another state?”

This time the response is overwhelming. Every hand, virtually, is raised.

“Now,” he says, with a bit of a grin, “How many of you are from here, from Mountain View, and went to the local high school?”

Not a hand was raised. Bustamante, a 40-year resident of the area, admitted that he himself was born in Mexico City, and came to America pursuing a dream of a better life.

“We are all strangers,” he said, and despite our individual and collective achievements as resettled natives of other places, his comment makes me wonder: Have we truly become natives of this new place, the San Francisco Bay Area, where we all live together, if we barely know each other?

This theme comes up again and again as all the other speakers take their turn.

There are neighborhoods, there are families, there are subgroups and subcultures and special interests — but what is it that brings us together?

More specifically, how can we engineer a communication infrastructure that can unite the divergent communities of Silicon Valley and the greater Bay Area ?

Emmet Carson of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation spoke frankly on the overabundance of information sources — “too many,” he says — that enables people to pick and choose news and information according to their interests, and in doing so cut themselves off from relevant information outside of their specific “personalized” daily news feed.

“What’s useful to the individual is not always good for the common good and for all of democracy,” he noted.

While he expressed fondness for the an earlier era, when there were fewer, more narrowly focused news sources that spoke to a more broad civic agenda, he acknowledged that the old information economy did systematically exclude so many voices, including women, immigrant communities, etc.

“How do we blend and link all these diverse information channels?” he asked.

Abundant information technology is fine, but it requires us to conceive of new ways to “validate it and create discussions around it.”

He notes that this conversation is not something that takes place solely in the virtual environment, but rather, “it’s a place of personal participation.”

This theme of non-virtual engagement — of people coming together directly, in real life and outside of the technological circuit, and crossing the fragmented boundaries of our self-selecting, self-segregating information society — came up repeatedly.

In other words, what’s needed are physical gathering places to anchor the diverse conversations and inquiries of the many communities that make up a city, a county, a neighborhood, an geographical region.

According to Judy Nadler, one of the Knight panelists and an ethics fellow at Santa Clara University, that gathering place is the public library, which she described as “the new community information center.”

It was a resonant comment that anchored the high-flying ideals of the technological utopians to an earlier ideal of the public sector as a wellspring of civic engagement.

Public libraries embody both local commitment to public participation and access to information, and, thanks to Mr. Andrew Carnegie, are rooted in older American tradition of philanthropy in support of civic engagement and information self-sufficiency.

It’s unlikely, however, that libraries alone can heal the fragmentation between and within our communities — but the panelists have plenty of ideas about what else will be required.

Matt Hammer of People Acting in Community Together (PACT) spoke of the importance of getting “understandable information in the hands of lots of regular people, to help seemingly intractable problems get resolved.”

Kim Walesh, the chief strategist for the City of San Jose, described a variety of innovative municipal programs focused on engaging the “under-35 set” … and “connect the dots between young people and civic issues.”

The conversation turned at one point between media that “pushes” at people — direct mailers, for example, or traditional broadcast — and one can’t help but wonder about the value of some of that push media, which is often focused on advertisements and commerce, rather than civic information needs.

That tension, between “pushing” information at people, and “pulling” them towards civic information they need to see, remains a strategic challenge.

Each speaker presented such a diverse array of needs, methods and ideas about building and serving community, one can’t help but recall Emmet Carson’s dilemma of having too much information in the first place.

How do the threads come together? What is the weave by which we knit together this diverse, divergent democracy of ours?

Writing on the Edge … of the San Andreas Fault

Wow! Here I am at this amazing writing residency at the Mesa Refuge, which is a LOVELY facility perched directly on the edge of the San Andreas rift zone.

(Actually, I’m in the local public library using their wifi; there’s no Internet or phone at Mesa … they want you to concentrate on the writing there, with no distractions.)

How to summarize this remarkable experience so far? I’m sharing a spacious, very well-appointed house with two other writers — Andrea Godshalk, from Amherst, who’s writing about urban farming, and Tram Nguyen, the former editor of Colorlines Magazine, who’s developing a book about immigration and its connection to a variety of hot-button issues.

They are both tremendously fabulous individuals, and I am honored to call them colleagues. They’ve already taught me so much about their topics of interest, and my own writing endeavor. I hope I can offer them the same.

We each have private writing suites, and the place is packed with books, writing supplies, comfy couches and excellent food.

And it is truly a GORGEOUS setting. The house looks out over Tomales Bay and its broad tidelands, with a seaward ridge riding opposite. The fog and sun interact to spectacular effect, the hawks float about on currents of air, hummingbirds dart everywhere, and the place is exploding with flowers.

I don’t mean to lay it on too thick, but, a writer can feel truly valued and validated here.

My work here is focused on public media, and its iterations in the Internet era. There are several documents I’m working on, including an essay I hope to sell to someplace fancy like Harper’s, as well as a “final report” on the May 3 Innovations in Journalism Expo (which was a big success, BTW).

I also updated an essay I wrote (“Arts, Culture & the Crisis of Democracy”) for a grant proposal to the Haas fund for Independent Arts & Media’s arts program. We got the grant, but the essay is strong and deserves wider circulation. It’ll be appearing on the new Indy Arts Web site (thanks, Bosco!), so stay tuned for that.

I also hope to get some work done on two short stories.

One, as-yet untitled, is being written for an anthology to be published by Marina and Jason of fave SF guitar band The Rabbles, on the topic of the twice-as-big-as-Texas mass of plastic floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The story is turning out to be a bit macabre. It was originally going to be about a guy who starts collecting plastic trash on the street, in an attempt to get it out of the ecosystem and waste stream. I then realized that the petroleum byproduct accumulating in his basement was going to consume him and destroy him, as it will our own green-blue orb, someday.

The other story is very sad, about a scientist who, in an effort to create a nanotech mechanism for facilitating flower pollination after the rampant spread of the bee-killing Colony Collapse Disorder, winds up accidentally creating something much worse. It is entitled “Morte Verde,” and takes place in Brazil in the near future.

It is a thrill and a privilege to be a part of the Mesa program, and a thrill and a privilege to be alive and kickin’ on this Earth of ours.

Let’s make the most of it, and leave things better off for those who come after us!