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.

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.