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.

Noted: “Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”

Tom Stites, an accomplished and indeed storied news hound (and a mentor and great inspiration to me), has produced this important article about the continuing decline in civic investment and recognized value of journalism, and original reporting in particular.

Read it, share it. You already live it.

“Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”
http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/12/tom-stites-taking-stock-of-the-state-of-web-journalism/
By Tom Stites

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable.

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur ….

Read the whole essay at Harvard’s Neiman Lab Dot Org.

Delivery matters.

So you produce some top-shelf coverage, but the target population — the people who need to see it — are not connecting. Why not? More to the point: How do you solve that?

Enter California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Turns out they have an on-staff Public Engagement Manager, who made this cool thing happen:

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

A fine example of nonprofit journalism making itself matter.

Source: “California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want,” Poynter Online, June 23, 2011

Shield Law Wouldn’t Apply to Non-Journalist Journalists

The New York Times notes that an important shield-law bill for journalists is heading for a vote in Congress has been modified in the wake of the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story:

“Senators Charles E. Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, Democrats of New York and California, are drafting an amendment to make clear that the bill’s protections extend only to traditional news-gathering activities …”

So what exactly is a traditional news-gathering activity? And who, for that matter, is a journalist? Both of these things could be addressed in the bill in a manner that seems hostile to both technological and social innovation.

One step in this direction is to add specific language to the bill …

“… defining who would be covered by the law as a journalist — an area that can be tricky in an era of blogging and proliferation of online-only news media outlets.”

Reference:

“After Afghan War Leaks, Revisions in a Shield Law Bill”
New York Times, August 4, 2010

Net Architecture and the Future of Journalism

Our best hope for journalism is that it adapts to the Internet as a medium, by adopting a decentralized organizational structure, in sync with the Internet’s basic/essential architecture as a network.

In the network, power and access are distributed, everyone’s equally capable and embedded in a peer context. Thus the enterprise of journalism should focus on good process and good practice at the peer level: to facilitate collaboration, resource exchange, and the circulation of information/ideas/dialogue.

Check out this except from John Naughton’s essay in The Guardian, “The internet: Everything you ever need to know”:

“The answer lies deep in the network’s architecture. When it was being created in the 1970s, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, the lead designers, were faced with two difficult tasks: how to design a system that seamlessly links lots of other networks, and how to design a network that is future-proof. The answer they came up with was breathtakingly simple. It was based on two axioms. Firstly, there should be no central ownership or control – no institution which would decide who could join or what the network could be used for. Secondly, the network should not be optimised for any particular application. This led to the idea of a’ simple’ network that did only one thing – take in data packets at one end and do its best to deliver them to their destinations. The network would be neutral as to the content of those packets – they could be fragments of email, porn videos, phone conversations, images… The network didn’t care, and would treat them all equally.

“By implementing these twin protocols, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn created what was essentially a global machine for springing surprises. The implication of their design was that if you had an idea that could be implemented using data packets, then the internet would do it for you, no questions asked. And you didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”

Can you imagine? Journalists who don’t have to ask permission, working in a peer community. Democracy requires nothing less.

Noted: NPR’s Vivian Schiller at the IRE conference

The speech by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas indicates that the wise teachings of the small, independent news nonprofit are going mainstream:

Partnerships=good. Competition’s in the blood, but teaming up multiplies impacts and extends limited resources.

Innovation=decentralized. Schiller doesn’t actually up and say this, but the revelation is there, waiting for its moment:

“[I]nvestigative reporting, often the most painstaking, labor intensive and sometimes solo form of journalism, has also been at the very forefront of experimentation and innovation.”

It makes sense that this “painstaking … and sometimes solo form of journalism” should spur innovation: Working on one’s own, or with a small team of collaborators, relieves, albeit temporarily, the news producer of the heavy hand of the vertical/institutional power structure.

Innovation happens in practice, in action, among the multitudes, in a massively parallel process of individual and small-group effort. A topheavy power structure just gums that process up.

Indeed, she notes the experience of NPR Executive Editor Dick Meyer’s “very first contact” with “the weird new thing called the Internet” at a similar IRE conference in the early 1990’s:

“At that early conference, he says he learned about ‘user groups’ to find sources and witnesses in disaster areas where phone and cell service might be out — what we now call crowdsourcing. IRE invented computer-assisted reporting and database reporting. You’ve been using social networks before they were called social networks — there were ‘gophers’, list serves, more user groups. Technology allowed reporters to use objective methods to develop and analyze empirical data — of campaign contributions and spending, of budgets, of pollution. Reporting about institutions could in this way move beyond the anecdotal, beyond personalities and even beyond conventional scandal. You — the people in this room — invented much of that.”

Precisely. Absolutely. Innovations in the use of technology do not happen in the board room. They happen in the lab, and in the field, where people are actively putting the tech to expedient usage.

Now perhaps I can shoehorn in a corollary to all this: The sooner that journalists can shake off centralized production and management models, the sooner the Fourth Estate will be able to live up to its idealized role in our democracy.

Investigations=fundability. About this, we shall see. While it is true that there’s a renewed interest among funders in supporting investigative work — a tacit recognition of the threat to democracy presented by what Tom Stites calls our “wildly corrupt” business/political milieu — the larger issue of philanthropic support for vital news and public-information projects and processes remains knotty. The need greatly outstrips the resource, at this time, for reasons that are far too complex for this brief discussion.

That stated, the renaissance that Schiller notes is indeed gathering steam.

However, it’s been a long time coming, and the work is hardly done. Indeed, it’s hardly begun. Much more infrastructure needs building, and much more systemic reform and reinvention awaits the courage and opportunity of those who care about the future of journalism and democracy.

Noted: The Executive Pay Question

From the Columbia Journalism Review, a comment on executive pay and the startup-funding issues that confront small, nonprofit-news projects (such as my own Newsdesk.org endeavor):

Newsosaur Alan Mutter [noted] that Paul Steiger, the editor in chief of the non-profit news startup Pro Publica, earned a $570,00 salary in 2008. Mutter compared that situation to the Chi-Town Daily News, a startup that folded in September after it failed to raise $300,000 needed to meet its annual budget …

“Adding Steiger, a former managing editor at The Wall Street Journal (where he earned more than twice as much), to Pro Publica’s masthead surely provided the start-up some much-needed star power. On the other hand, half his salary would still leave him well off by industry standards, and free up enough money to hire half a dozen reporters. So this raises the question: Can very large news salaries be justified in the current business climate? And does it make a difference whether the outlet is a non-profit startup, a for-profit newspaper, or a television news network?”