May 3: Innovations in Journalism Expo

[ Here’s an event I’m producing via Indy Arts for the local SPJ chapter. Hope to see you there! ]

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INNOVATIONS IN JOURNALISM EXPO 2008
“Creating a Brighter Future”

Saturday, May 3, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.

A showcase for breakthroughs in business, technology, media and democracy

Venue:
The Domain Hotel, 1085 East El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, CA

Online:
http://artsandmedia.net/expo/journalism/

Phone:
415-677-9877

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PRE-ORDER your tickets today, prices increase at the door:
http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/30296

DISCOUNTS FOR SPONSOR MEMBERS:
$12 admission (pre-order only) for members of SPJ-NorCal, Independent Arts & Media, the Maynard Institute, AAJA, NAJA, NAHJ, BABJA, Fotovision.org, and other Expo sponsors.

PANELISTS AND TOPICS:
http://artsandmedia.net/expo/journalism/#panelists

CAREER COUNSELING:
Speed-career counseling; reserve your space now — deadline April 28
http://www.artsandmedia.net/expo/journalism/#career

SPONSOR the Expo and gain promotional benefits. Call 415/677-9877, online at:
http://www.artsandmedia.net/expo/journalism/#exh

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ABOUT THE EXPO

The Innovations in Journalism Expo is a unique, one-day event showcasing cutting-edge work that combines journalism, technology, new business models, and philanthropy. Come and participate in lively discussions that will bring truly fresh perspectives and new ideas to the table regarding the “future of journalism.”

Featured panelists include GENEVA OVERHOLSER (“On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change”), JON FUNABIKI (SFSU professor, former Ford Foundation officer), DAVID TALBOT (Salon.com founder), REESE ERLICH (international print and radio freelancer), DAVID OLMOS (former Los Angeles Times health editor), ROSE AGUILAR of Your Call Radio, SANDIP ROY of New America Media and many more.

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WHO?

The Expo is produced by the Society of Professional Journalists-Northern California and Independent Arts & Media, in conjunction with NewsTools2008/Journalism That Matters-Silicon Valley (April 30-May 2 @ Yahoo), RedwoodAge.com and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

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SCHEDULE OF EVENTS & ACTIVITIES

9:00-9:45 a.m. WELCOME! Set up and Settle in
Join us for bagels, coffee and socializing. This is also the time for Expo sponsors to show up and set up.

9:45-10:00 a.m. Opening Remarks
Welcome comments from Linda Jue, president of the Society of Professional Journalists-Northern California.

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ROOM ONE

10:00 a.m.-11:15 a.m.: KEYNOTE — “New Money, New Media, New Hope”

ROSE AGUILAR hosts the daily public affairs show Your Call on KALW-FM. Her forthcoming book, “Red Highways,” will be out in September. The book collects political interviews with people living and voting in so-called “red states,” and calls for a more thoughtful and productive dialogue in the media and between people with differing views. She will speak about what the public wants from journalism, and what it gets.

PERSEPHONE MIEL is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at The Harvard Law School where she directs the Media Re:public project, examining the impact of participatory journalism on the information environment. Prior to joining Berkman, she spent more than 12 years with Internews Network, an international NGO supporting independent media around the world.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER is the newly appointed director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications. She previously held the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting for the Missouri School of Journalism, in its Washington, D.C., bureau. She is a frequent print, broadcast and online media critic, and the author of “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change.”

DAVID TALBOT, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon.com, is also the author of New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He recently launched a media and entertainment company called The Talbot Players with his brother Steve, executive producer of PBS’ Frontline World. He is also helping develop the San Francisco Free Press, a nonprofit Bay Area news engine that aims to combine the best of professional and citizens’ journalism.

MODERATOR: CYNTHIA GORNEY is a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, U.C. Berkeley, a magazine writer (with regular contributions to National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Oprah, Runners World and Harpers, among others), an occasional radio host of KQED-FM’s Forum, and the author of “Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars.”

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ROOM ONE

11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m. NEW CAREERS: Next steps, new opportunities

Layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks and consolidations have claimed the jobs of hundreds of journalists in the Bay Area, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the San Jose Mercury News. This panel will examine next steps for the casualties of the business crisis that’s currently devastating news media.

TOM BALLANTYNE, “career doctor” for journalists and others, on career changes and transitions for the many Bay Area journalists reeling from the recent layoffs at MediaNews publications and other properties.

REESE ERLICH reports regularly for National Public Radio, Latino USA, Radio Deutche Welle, Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, and Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio. He also writes for San Francisco Chronicle, St. Petersburg Times, and the Dallas Morning News. His first book, “Target Iraq,” was a best seller; his second book, “The Iran Agenda,” came out in late 2007 and he’s now working on a third, chronicling 40 years of reporting from Cuba.

LESLIE GUEVARRA is a transitioning media and communications professional with more than 25 years experience as a news reporter, editor and senior newsroom manager in print. She has also been a public affairs program host and associate producer in television, and a podcaster. Her leadership roles have included director of newsroom hiring and staff development and interim head of human resources for a newsroom of more than 500 people. She is a founding member of the Asian American Journalists Association’s San Francisco Chapter and most recently was a deputy managing editor for the Chronicle.

BRUCE KOON is news director of KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. He oversees a 20-person newsroom that produces regional news programming for Northern California and a statewide program, The California Report. Previously, he was executive news editor of Knight Ridder Digital. His online team contributed to the effort that earned the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the Biloxi Sun Herald coverage of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. A founding board member of the Online News Association, Koon also has been an editor for the San Francisco Examiner and Oakland Tribune and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and National Observer.

FREE CAREER COUNSELING: Professional career coaches will be on hand Saturday afternoon for free 10- to 15-minute speed consulting sessions about career transitioning. They’re available for a quick critique of your resume or to provide tips on interviewing, networking and the right next steps for you. YOU MUST PRE-REGISTER so we have enough consultants on deck. To participate, pre-order tickets for the main event, and click the “Career Counseling Signup” option in the order form. SIGNUP DEADLINE: APRIL 28

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ROOM TWO

11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m. THE NEWSROOM: Growth, change, adaptation

What are the secrets of success for a newsroom in today’s economy? This panel examines both the realities of growing opportunities in segmented and hyperlocal markets, as well as the gap between what’s offered these markets and what they really want.

ANDREW FITZGERALD, head of Collective Journalism, Current TV’s Vanguard news division, is a graduate of the USC School of Cinema-Television where he studied alternative forms of documentary filmmaking. Prior to Current, Andrew worked for Channel One News, where he co-produced Channel One’s first user-generated project around the 2004 elections. He joined Current in August of 2005, quickly making his mark producing Current’s award-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage.

DAN GILLMOR, the founding director of the new Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, is also founder of the Center for Citizen Media, and an outspoken advocate for new media technologies, methods and funding models.

KOUROSH KARIMKHANY is vice president of corporate development at CondeNet, the online arm of Conde Nast Publication, where he has overseen the integration of Wired.com, Reddit.com and NutritionData.com. Prior to that, he was General Manager of Wired.com, the senior producer of Yahoo! News and Weather, and product manager at Yahoo! Games. He also has written extensively about technology for Bloomberg News and Reuters. He holds a BA in economics from UC Irvine and a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University.

TROY MAY, publisher of the growing lesbian/gay lifestyle publication ON Magazine (formerly OutNow Magazine), addresses the topic of good reporting and selling advertising, and the synergy between print and online publications.

CHRIS RAUBER, reporter for the San Francisco Business Times, notes that his parent company has publications in 45 American cities, and at a time of retreat for daily journalism is actually hiring. “Business journals are successful,” he says, “because they target a niche audience that is interested in the specific news they have to offer.”

MODERATOR: TOM MURPHY is CEO and Editor in Chief of RedwoodAge.com, a national news site designed for readers over 40. Prior to that, Murphy was the founding Managing Editor of MarketWatch.com, a Bloomberg correspondent and the AP news supervisor in San Francisco.

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12:45-1:45 p.m. LUNCH + PUBLIC SPACE
Take a break, circulate, shake hands, trade business cards, catch up, cool down, and generally propose, propound, present, pontificate and participate.

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ROOM ONE

1:45-3:00 NEWSTOOLS 2008 REPORTBACKS

Panels, speakers and topics presented opportunistically based on NewsTools 2008 proceedings April 30-May 2

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ROOM TWO

1:45-3:00 JOURNALISM BEFORE PROFITS: The Future of Public Media

Much heralded as the future of media, the Internet has proven much more difficult to monetize. Large corporations are learning how to implement the ad-driven model online, but still struggle, even as smaller sites and bloggers leverage Google Adwords to build small empires. But what else is possible? How can public media and TRADITIONAL media, such as print, blaze new trails in the New Media Economy?

TED GLASSER (professor of communication, Stanford University) focuses on media practices and performance, with emphasis on questions of press responsibility and accountability. His books include Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue, written with James S. Ettema, and The Idea of Public Journalism.

DAVID OLMOS, a former reporter, editor and Pulitzer finalist at the Los Angeles Times, discusses new models for specialized reporting. Olmos, the former Health Editor at the L.A. Times, is developing a project to produce explanatory reporting on health issues in California.

MICHAEL STOLL & JOSH WILSON: Two working journalists who have taken the plunge as nonprofit entrepreneurs, Wilson and Stoll are building a nonprofit, commercial-free infrastructure for serious journalism at the community level. Through their sponsoring agency, Independent Arts & Media, they are exploring new ideas for both online newsrooms (Newsdesk.org) and that cornerstone of community journalism, newsprint (The Public Press).

SANDIP ROY is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show UpFront on KALW 91.7 FM. He manages New America Media’s immigration beat and writes regularly for mainstream and ethnic media including San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, India Currents, India Abroad and The Times of India. He is also a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and has appeared on CNN International, This Week in Northern California and co-hosts Your Call with Rose Aguilar on KALW. He has received awards from the South Asian Journalists Association, Trikone, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, American Women in Radio and Television and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

MODERATOR: LOUIS FREEDBERG, a former editorial page editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the founder of the California Media Collaborative, which promotes dialogue among key representatives of the California media with leaders in key California constituencies, including academia, philanthropy and public policy and other nonprofit organizations in order to devise and implement new strategies for improved coverage of the state.

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3:15-4:30 FUNDING & PHILANTHROPY

Is there funding for new public and independent media? What role does the philanthropic sector have in this formula? How do the strengths and disadvantages of the nonprofit model play out? Is the traditional public-media model even viable? How does the philanthropic sector simultaneously drive and need to adapt to new media realities?

DAVID COHN has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, among others. He’s also worked with NewAssignment.net, NewsTrust.net, the expanding citizen journalism network Broowaha, and is developing an innovative new funding mechanism that’s been likened to “Kiva for Journalism” called Spot Reporting.

JON FUNABIKI is a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where he works at the Center for Renaissance Journalism, a new interdisciplinary center on emerging opportunities for community, ethnic and other forms of news media. Previously he was the Ford Foundation’s deputy director of media, arts & culture.

SUSAN MISRA senior consultant at the TCC Group, manages the Challenge Fund for Journalism (CFJ), a joint grantmaking initiative of the Ford Foundation, James S. and John L. Knight Foundation, McCormick Tribune Foundation, and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. She has also provided strategic planning and evaluation services to a number of philanthropies including the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Stuart Foundation, and Campion Foundation. Misra received a Master’s in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

MARC SMOLOWITZ, an Academy Award-nominated documentary film producer, is the Technology Circle Chair of the Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization in the SF Bay Area. He is a member of the Full Circle board of directors, and a producer at the online video startup Tellytopia.

MODERATOR: LINDA JUE (President, SPJ-NorCal; Director, New Voices in Independent Journalism; Executive Editor, George Washington Williams Fellowship) is a longtime advocate of free and independent media, and was associate director and a founding staff member of the Independent Press Association. She brings insight into the challenges of both mustering funding for the independent press, and sustaining nonprofit media infrastructure.

4:45 p.m.: Closing Comments & Thanks

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SPONSOR THE EXPO … and get significant promotional benefits
Businesses, nonprofits, schools, community organizations and advocacy groups are invited to sponsor the Innovations in Journalism Expo. Spread the word about your good works to a select community of journalism leaders, educators, advocates and practitioners. Call 415/677-9877 for details.
Get Sponsorship info online: http://artsandmedia.net/expo/journalism/#exh

Sponsor Benefits include:
Logo placement and link on Web site
Logo placement and contact info in Expo printed program and press materials
Advertising options in the May 3 Expo program
Individual promotional table at the May 3 Expo, with high-visibility exhibitor space
Discounted Expo tickets for your membership

For more event information, contact Josh Wilson, edit at artsandmedia.net, 415/677-9877 or Ricardo Sandoval, rsandovalpalos at yahoo.com, 916/321-1018.

The 36-Hour Work Week

The fact is, public-service journalism is undercapitalized, an endless dilemma for anyone trying to develop a nonprofit newsroom budget.

Thus, in the process of pulling together another skin-and-bones budget proposal, it seemed opportune to cut costs by strategically reducing the work week by four hours.

There are several ways to slice a 36-hour week — four nine-hour days, three tens and one six, or four eights plus one half day.

Understand that the economic rationale behind this is not one concerned with a certain sort profit-seeking, but rather long-term financial sustainability for a public resource in a hostile funding environment.

There is an important question as to whether this would reduce productivity. The answer, of course, is yes. What’s in doubt is how significant that drop is in the long run.

It’s also true that a reduced work-week or a three day weekend can be a good thing for the worker, whether a journalist with a freelance project, a parent, an artist or musician, etc.

Now, there’s also France’s 35-hour week to consider. Public opinion is predictably schismatic — loathing on the right and populist fervor leftwards.

I think that schism, however, is one peculiar to the for-profit economic mindset, or at least to the hypercapitalist ideal of Growth.

Sustainability is a different issue entirely.

local.newsdesk.org

Newsdesk.org seeks to innovate in the social arena in which news is produced (by creating a co-op/peer-run newsroom) and in the values that drive the production of news itself (by using the Internet to extend ad-free, nonpoliticized journalism beyond its current nonprofit-dinosaur doldrums).

Within that context, a news bureau and a network of the same becomes a radically different sort of structure, one in which technology is a subordinate means to a more grand end — a true paradigm shift in the economic and social conditions under which news is produced and disseminated.


Title:Newsdesk.org: The Bureau Project (local.newsdesk.org/)Total Cost:

$763,000 for three operational bureaus per year + fellowships and “hub” services for each

Describe:

Newsdesk.org’s Bureau Project will establish low-cost, nonprofit, online news bureaus and fellowships in underserved areas, to develop enterprise and investigative coverage of important but overlooked local/regional issues during the 2008 election season … and beyond.

This project innovates by using the Internet to extend and strengthen the value and impact of nonpoliticized, commercial-free journalism. Bureaus will derive revenue from syndication, individual donors and philanthropy, and fill significant gaps in local information needs.

Bureaus:

  • detroit.newsdesk.org/
  • nola.newsdesk.org/
  • sfo.newsdesk.org/

Fellowships:

  • Great Lakes
  • Gulf Coast
  • Desert Southwest
  • Pacific Northwest & Alaska

Goals:

  • Cover important issues that get lost amid election-year horse race and polls, such as public health & environment, economy & labor, and civic life.
  • Strengthen the local news ecology by syndicating content to commercial outlets that lack funding for enterprise and investigative work.
  • Develop advisory boards with local SPJ chapters, professional groups, news councils and j-schools, to provide independent evaluation and ombudsmanship.
  • Connect bureaus in a peer network for cross promotions and resource-sharing. Resources include a scalable, adaptable Web template, common editorial standards and best practices, and shared financial and promotional resources/staff (in San Francisco).
  • Develop staff-run newsrooms (two reporter/editors and one digital news producer) to spur collaboration and innovation. Our inspiration is the Dutch broadsheet De Volkskrant (www.volkskrant.nl), which operates a newsroom without editors. Instead, the agenda is set by reporter-peers who are mutually responsible for quality control.
  • Develop a collaborative online platform that deepens context, builds communities of conversation and facilitates independent inquiry.
  • Extend editorial capacity through a $100,000 endowment fund for professional journalism fellowships. Grants would support time-limited coverage of a specific topic or region by small teams of journalists.

Who would want to use it, and why?

News audiences locally, regionally and nationally are underserved by the Wall Street-driven media economy. They are the eroding marketshare of mainstream news media, and the consensus is that they are migrating online, drawn by a myriad choices and newfound interactivity.

But dissatisfaction persists. According to a July 2007 Pew survey, more than half say news media are politically biased, inaccurate and don’t care about the people they report on. That criticism was more pronounced among Internet news audiences.

Newsdesk appeals to these readers and communities by covering topics that are deprioritized in commercial media — such as labor, third parties, and environment and health — and using a “longtail” strategy to develop ongoing/evergreen coverage that serves persistent, specific information needs.

Why are you the best person or organization to develop this project?

We are journalism professionals with the talent, experience, vision and social capital required to make Newsdesk.org’s Bureau Project a success.

  • Talent & experience: Newsdesk staff and advisers include veterans of major urban and regional newspapers, Web sites and academic institutions, including SFGate.com, Wired Magazine, Salon.com, the San Jose Mercury News and many more.
  • Vision: We are “net natives” who seek to reinvent the nonprofit newsroom as an efficient, entrepreneurial and open-source hybrid that leverages the strengths of the Internet on behalf of working journalists and the communities they serve.
  • Institutional support: Newsdesk.org’s nonprofit sponsor, Independent Arts & Media, is an established Bay Area nonprofit with a mission to “expand civic dialogue by increasing access to independent voices.” Indy Arts has a diverse support structure, including longtime allegiances with Bay Area funders, an active board of directors, and a growing body of individual donors. This is the institutional back-end Newsdesk.org needs to fulfill its editorial goals.
  • Record of achievement: Newsdesk.org has broken ground with original coverage and analysis that later became front-page news, including the FCC and net neutrality, Iraq veteran’s health care, the energy industry and more. Our News You Might Have Missed newsletter has been published each Wednesday since February 2002, giving readers access to “important but overlooked” local and regional news with national and global relevance.
  • Social capital: Our work has earned us the support of a growing body of individual donors, with Web traffic and email subscriptions also on the rise. Subscribers and fans of our work also promote it to their friends, family and community. Our network is further strengthened by our advisory board and other allies in the journalism industry and academic world. Collectively, this social capital can be leveraged for fundraising, promotions and community-building.

Expenses Budget

  • This was not included in the original application, which did not ask for specific budget breakdowns
  • Please note that staff salaries are predicated on a 36-hour work week, and despite that are pretty damn frugal

ONE BUREAU, ONE YEAR:

Staff (two reporter/editors and one multimedia/Web producer):
$135,000 ($45,000 x 3)

Benefits:
$46,800 ($15,600 x 3)

Operations:
$15,200

Total per bureau:
$197,000

Total for three bureaus (SF, NoLa, Detroit) per year:
$591,000

BACK-END STRUCTURE, ONE YEAR (San Francisco-based):

Web development (contractor):
$12,000

Development Director:
$45,000

Benefits:
$15,000

Fellowships (split three ways between bureaus):
$100,000

Total back-end:
$172,000

GRAND TOTAL:

  • One year: $763,000
  • Three years: $2,298,000

“These guys don’t get it. I’ve got to get out. I’m just wasting my time.”

Newsosaur passes along this quote as part of a comment about the continued failure of commercial/mainstream/traditional media to make good on the promise of the Internet:

As if the mainstream media didn’t have enough trouble navigating the uncharted realm of digital innovation, they are losing many of the young, technologically astute employees who could be their guides.

“What am I doing here?” a talented young designer and programmer working at a publishing company asked me recently. “These guys don’t get it. I’ve got to get out. I’m just wasting my time.”

The problem, according to Newsosaur, is that the “net natives” employed by media companies — those members of a younger generation that grew up amidst the current outpouring of convergent media technology, and who presumably find its use as natural as breathing — are too low on the managerial totem pole to have any positive influence on media strategy.

This is exciting and validating to anyone who’s resigned from a sexy “new media” job after repeatedly hitting the brick wall of senior management.

However, merely “getting it” doesn’t make one bound for success — at least not in this economy.

HotWired “got it” — or at least they reveled in the glamour and potential of the Internet in its first moments of unfolding — and they are as thoroughly dead and gone as the dodo. So dead and gone, their URL (www.hotwired.com) doesn’t even take you to a legacy site, but rather to wretchedly utilitarian, monetized search engine with nary a glimmer of digirati joi de vivre.

I look at SFGate (my resignation from which has already been tediously documented in these pages), and as a mass-media outlet, they are successful.

They “get it” in that they are learning how to monetize the Web. Great. But they are not innovators, at least not in the news department. It’s all Sunday magazine fare with a lot of ad colonization.

Merely “getting” the Web — for example, understanding that it is capable of depth and context as well as instant updates and byte-sized overview, or that it encourages a type of mutuality that ensures accountability between producer and consumer, and indeed blurs the line between the two — guarantees one nothing at all.

Newsdesk.org’s singular challenge has been translating the fact that we “get it” into something people want to give money too.

It is telling that our support is, in that regard, primarily from small, individual donors, rather than large grantmaking institutions.

LIke the large media institutions, the big grantmakers mostly don’t “get it” either — an exception may be the Knight Foundation — or, they only get the parts that fit in with their big/centralized/corporatized worldview.

In the end, “getting” the Internet as much about the VALUES of the news producer and her or his ability to connect to an appropriate support structure, as it is about one’s savvy use of technology to tell a story and engage a community.

Meanwhile, until we build alternatives, we are stuck with the systems currently in existence. As Newsosaur himself notes:

Like the others quoted in this article, the young journalist is not being named, so as to protect his livelihood until he bails out of his MSM job.

Sacred Cows and Chicken-Fried Steak (or, the Bonfire of Objectivity)

I have provided media and campaign advice to San Francisco mayoral candidate Chicken John Rinaldi, and as a journalist and editor, this raises a few questions.

One the one hand, that means I cannot credibly provide “fair and balanced” coverage of the 2007 election.

On the other, what does this say about the rest of the San Francisco media establishment?

Consider: The city’s leading — or at least highest profile — newspaper is brazenly partisan in its support of the incumbent, running a sumptuous profile of Gavin Newsom, and so far offering no similar treatment in print to his opponents beyond describing them as a “cast of characters” and a “bad joke” in a pair of collective profile articles.

Interestingly, back on Sept. 6, CW Nevius (noted in these pages for his recent, front-page screeds against the homeless), decried the anointing of Newsom as the certain winner of the race; yet none of his Chron colleagues have taken him up on his call for “a vigorous airing of the issues, a debate on policy, and a clear-eyed look at the candidates.”

In fact, less than two weeks out from the election, the SFGate.com front page doesn’t even link to its rather disorganized elections page (where the lead item today is about 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani) — and in a headline earlier this week referred to the entire slate of candidates as “Gavin and the 11 Dwarves.”

This provokes serious doubts about the entire notion of fairness and balance in the commercial-media mainstream, at least in San Francisco.

How this can be “solved,” I will address a bit further along in this essay.

But: Keeping in mind that one of America’s most highly regarded journalists, Mr. Bill Moyers, was once the press secretary for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, I have decided that it really is OK for me — as a partisan of the arts and a reformed entertainment editor — to provide advice to a professional clown who knows he can’t win, but who nonetheless seeks to advance dialogue about San Francisco’s arts, culture and sustainability policies.

* * * * *
That advice, by the way, amounts to one dinner meeting as part of his “brain trust,” and a few email exchanges, in which I exhorted him a) to invite Mayor Newsom on a fact-finding tour of Amsterdam to study the Dutch approach to homelessness and “victimless crimes,” and, b) to summarize his campaign positions in bullet points and send them to the Chronicle, which had sought them for publication.

Chicken ignored those pearls of wisdom, stating that a) he wanted to advance his case for “a city of art and innovation,” not confront Newsom, and that b) the Chron was insincere in its offer, and only throwing a bone to public participation to keep up appearances.

He turned out to be right on that one. None of the candidates’ positions were ever intended for print in the newspaper itself, and can’t even be accessed from the Web site’s front page, but rather are buried in the aforementioned depths of its elections section, far from the eyes of the daily news browser.

The issue gets deeper still, however, and really, this particular rant isn’t about the Chronicle. It’s about me. And capital-J Journalism as an ideal and aspiration.

Walk with me, then, for a while …

* * * * *
In 2003, Matt Gonzalez made headlines with a near-miss run for mayor against his fellow member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Gavin Newsom.

It was a heated campaign, amidst which Newsdesk.org conducted extensive interviews with both candidates, asking identical sets of questions, and arguably going more in-depth on the issues than any other Bay Area media outlet.

Fast-forward to summer 2007. Mayor Newsom is running for his second term, and in the polls is far ahead of the opposition.

Speculation is rife throughout the city, however, that Gonzalez is girding himself for a comeback. He’s making the rounds, meeting local community groups, and gauging their receptivity for another go at City Hall’s top job.

One such group was the Abundance League, a fabulous conversation salon focusing on social and cultural transformation, of which I am a member.

It was a bit of a dilemma for me to attend.

One the one hand, I wanted to cover the race as we did in 2003. Thus far, local media had largely anointed Newsom and ignored his opponents, which was and remains a dreadful breach of journalistic responsibility to sustain vigorous public participation.

An astute observer would consider that one hell of a news hole, ready for the filling — and there at the Abundance League was the race’s dark horse, in the flesh.

However, Newsdesk.org has no resources for serious campaign coverage right now. I was in no position to do additional reporting on the current mayoral race.

And, as Gonzalez was primarily interested in opinion and guidance about whether he should run against Newsom, I decided to keep my distance, and exited the meeting in the opening moments of the conversation.

In retrospect, considering my later support for Chicken, and considering the ongoing mayoral partisanship of the mainstream and alternative press here in town, I probably could have stayed and chatted with Gonzalez all night.

But I don’t want to be friends with politicians.

I don’t even want to be collegial with them.

There’s a glamour and charisma to these people that is entrancing, and as a reporter, you gotta keep your guard up.

And as a voter, too. Ask tough questions of them, and yourself, and the press that delivers you the facts. Above all, don’t believe the hype.

Chicken, for example, has some brash and fresh talk on arts and greenwashing, is witty to the point of being hilarious, can charm the socks off a shoe-store mannequin, and is a damn snappy dresser. But he’s also a loudmouth, alienates people, and freely confesses that he doesn’t have all the answers.

Snake oil or straight-talker?

Politicians and carnies are frighteningly similar, if you think about it.

So boot up those brain cells before punching out the proverbial chad, brothers and sisters, and hold your media and your candidates equally accountable.

* * * * *
And we, the media, must too hold ourselves accountable.

Consider: I have plenty of opinions about local politics and issues — globally, nationally, and where I live, my home town of 15 years, San Francisco.

How, then, do I handle the ethics concern of covering issues I care about with fairness, not to mention a little grace?

Well, certainly not through “objectivity,” a sacred cow of the journalism world long overdue for ritual slaughter — and not just because it can be falsified to mask hidden (and not so hidden) agendas, but also because, as Brent Cunningham argued in the Columbia Journalism Review, devotion to objectivity can “make us [journalists] passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”

The solution advanced by the advocacy-journalism community — namely, disclaim your bias and express your viewpoint with vigor — is legitimate enough, but entirely unsatisfactory to me, personally.

Why? Because it closes doors to other readers or news-seekers who do not share your opinion.

Because journalism as I idealize it needs to provide EVERY reader with the chance to educate themselves fully, and make up their own minds.

I would propose that a real solution to the problem of bias in journalism is as follows:

  • Full disclosure of potential influences on one’s reporting (which I have done here)
  • A standards-driven approach to coverage of sensitive issues that enforces, through strict methodology, the daily practice of fairness and accuracy in coverage
  • A fully functional online interface that enables the Internet community to continue developing its role as “at-large ombudsmans” for a given news outlet (i.e., welcome to the blogosphere, darlings)
  • A mechanism by which reporters or editors with genuine conflicts of interest — such as ties to a candidate during election season — would address the conflict by recusing themselves from covering the topic, to be replaced by qualified staffers selected by an oversight board

By this reckoning (and if Newsdesk.org had a budget to actually do any coverage right now) I would absent myself from the SF 2007 mayoral election beat (and any other race that Chicken participates in), and my replacement would be selected by, say, the Newsdesk advisory board, or the local SPJ chapter.

* * * * *
The fact is, I could write a totally evenhanded, very in-depth article on the whole campaign, and never emit a whiff of bias, overt or covert.

This is surely true of any decent journalist who, being human and prone to any number of opinions, nonetheless gives the upper hand to her or his sense of reportorial duty.

However, if you have a reporter who is NOT decent enough to be fair and accurate when covering a topic they care about, but who is good enough to hide that bias, the problem of false objectivity returns with a vengeance.

So the methodological approach to preventing this is invaluable, and should be both respected and protected.

In that light, I’m probably also not the best guy to cover arts or transport policies. I’m an activist in both those arenas — through my work with Independent Arts & Media in the former case, and as a Critical Mass rider, op-ed writer and essayist in the latter.

Though I’ll write you one heck of an op-ed on either topic, if you like.

What do you think? Please advise. This is complex and emotional territory, and above all, I want to do the right thing.

p.s. Chicken John for mayor.

Show Me the Money

So, how does an idealistic journalist fed-up with the failings of for-profit media put food on the table in the post-consolidation, post-merger, post-layoff San Francisco Bay Area?

Freelance, baby. And, sadly, it is not possible to pay a mortgage or support a family as a ronin journalist. The fees are laughably small. My breatkthrough coverage of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the San Francisco Bay, written freelance for SFGate.com after I resigned, took a month to research and write and netted me a whopping $400. What a joke.

Currently, I’m writing and editing white papers for FAS.research, an Austrian social network analysis company that recently opened a branch in San Francisco. They develop campaign, marketing and communications strategies for globe-straddling corporations of various descriptions.

A headhunter has also been knocking recently, seeking to place me as a “social media editor” for financial services companies in San Francisco.

Modesty, already in short supply on these pages, forbids me from declaiming the fees I get for that kind of work. But suffice it to say, freelance journalism, and even the average newsroom staff position, doesn’t come anywhere near what these people offer.

And that’s the tragedy of American journalism in a nutshell.

New Radio Project Archives

As part of my work with Independent Arts & Media, I produce, edit and broadcast a half-hour radio programs based on Shaping San Francisco‘s marvelous Talks! series down at CounterPulse in SF.

The show airs on KUSF-FM on Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. Each half-hour episode features one or several panelists from a given evening’s talk, plus expansive, audience-led dialogue and inquiry.

You can access the first dozen episodes via our new audio archive:

  • Shaping SF Radio: Indy Arts home page
  • Learnin’ & Teachin’: The Future of Education (four parts)
  • The Green City (three parts)
  • San Francisco Land Grabs (two parts)
  • The Health Epidemic & Eroding Public Health (three parts)
  • Can San Francisco Feed Itself? (three parts)
  • Reclaiming Bay Area Military Bases (two parts)
  • What’s Natural About Natural Disasters? (four parts)
  • America & the Philippines (two parts)