What’s a Journalist?

Let us introduce you to a can of worms: Are citizen journalists and bloggers real journalists? Can they be?

Over on the Future Journalism Project blog we were asked the following question: I’m a journalism student currently working on an essay where the question is “Are citizen journalists and bloggers ‘real journalists’?” Do you have any views on this?

Our Qualified Response

Oh dear, you’re really opening up a can of worms.

Here’s what I think I think.

But before I think, let me back up and ask, what is this creature you speak of? What is this “real journalist”?

Is it a paid professional who ventures out into the world, reports what’s happening, verifies that reporting, distills and concretizes the results and publishes it through some means for consumption by some audience?

Better, does that professional need to be working for an established organization that somehow defines its mission as “news-gathering”?

It could be. And time once was when only well financed organizations had the means of production and distribution to make it so. And so it was.

But what then do we make of the rest of us, the rabble with our blogs and tweets and podcasts and such? Maybe we’re part of an organization but the organization is small. Maybe we plan to make money at it but we don’t quite do so yet. But maybe we do all that stuff the paid professional at the established organization does. Are we then journalists? And is payment a prerequisite for professionalism? Or are we just amateurs playing a pick-up game of journalism basketball?

Or what of the media teams at advocacy organizations such as non-profits and NGOs that can now have media teams because media is in the hands of all and peer production can be very, very powerful? 

Some say these people can’t be real journalists because they’re advocates working for advocacy organizations. Where’s the objectivity, these people say. But what then of journalists who work for partisan news organizations? Aren’t they just advocates too in different colored clothing?

I don’t ask these questions to be clever. Instead I ask because they’re questions that are being asked. 

And if you asked me really and truly, what is a “real journalist,” I hedge and hedge again and then paraphrase former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he wrote about trying to define porn: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be journalism, but I know it when I see it.”

So let me get back to what I think I think. 

Never before have we had such complete and total access to the ignorance, depravity, ugliness, mundanity and folly of others than we do now.

And never before have we had access to the wit, wisdom, intelligence, humor and warmth of the human spirit as we do now.

It’s this latter access that enthuses me. The ability to read, watch, listen to and interact with people who have deep, deep knowledge on discrete subjects is something that perpetually amazes and gives me great hope for the information age we are in. I’m optimistic that way.

Are all these people journalists? Or “real journalists” as the case may be?

Most likely not. But they are citizens. And this is much more important. And they often commit acts of journalism as they go about being citizens and then share that with us through their online lives.

This could be on a personal blog, or it could be by submitting material to a CNN iReport, sifting through document data dumps with news organization like the Guardian, or posting videos and photos and short messages about what’s happening on the street in Egypt and Iran and Tunisia and Yemen and Algeria. Or, less dramatically, your backyard.

Last fall I invited Rachel Sterne to guest lecture a class I teach. Rachel is currently the Chief Digital Officer of New York City. At the time she was the founder of a global hyperlocal news site called Ground Report. This is what I wrote about her thoughts at that time:

While readily admitting that her network of reporters can’t compete with mainstream outlets like the Times on access and persistent, overall journalism quality, she does outline how citizen reporting such as that done on Ground Report brings entirely new perspectives and voices to the news cycle. In that way, she thinks publications like Ground Report can function as early warning systems in our future journalism environment.

I hope these stray ideas give you food for thought as you write your own. As I said, your question really opens up a can of worms.

Here’s another one for you: what’s the difference between a reporter and a journalist?


Future Journalism Project Does NYC

Reporting from New York on disruption and opportunity in American journalism — a short video update on who we’ve been talking to and what you can expect to see.

Over the past few months we’ve been exploring current disruptions and opportunities in American journalism by interviewing great minds about their thoughts on — and efforts in — a remarkably fluid and changing landscape. The video above introduces some of whom we’ve been talking to.

Following the FJP

Project Background

Our goal is to launch a Web site in early 2011 that houses these interviews so that those interested in the future of American news media have a deep resource through which they can explore changing newsrooms, business models, education and the stakes all this has on democracy itself.

Interested in Collaborating? We are Too.

A good place to start is joining us at our Tumblr blog at FutureJournalismProject.org. A few of us are posting there now. A few more would be great. If you’re passionate about the changing journalism landscape and want to join in, send us an email and tell us a bit about yourself.

We’re also looking for hacks and hackers of all stripes:

Sponsorship Opportunities

Interested in being a Future Journalism Project Sponsor? We are too!

Contact us and we’ll let you know how we plan to integrate Sponsors across the Web Site, the Podcast Series and feature length documentary planned for 2011.

You can learn more about the scope of the project here (PDF).

News and Updates

You can follow our progress on Tumblr or on Twitter (@futureJproject), or send us an email at hello@futurejournalismproject.org.

Video Still: Heading for the Scrap Heap by John O’Connell via Flickr. Used with permission.

Richard Branson has a new Project

Richard Branson to launch iPad-only magazine. Smooth move or vanity play?

Richard Branson will be announcing Virgin’s new iPad-only magazine today in New York. Called Project, Branson believes it will be “a paperless ‘revolutionary multimedia’ publication.”

Others could call it a nice vanity piece that will compete with Rupert Murdoch’s similarly planned iPad-only magazine.

Project will focus on entertainment, design, business, travel and international culture and be run by Branson’s daughter Holly.

Publishers on Publishing WikiLeaks

With the release of US diplomatic cables, publishers are chiming in on public interest versus national security. Here’s a rundown.

The New York times discusses its rationale for publishing and reporting on the documents:

The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match…

…The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins says that The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment:

Is it justified? Should a newspaper disclose virtually all a nation’s secret diplomatic communication, illegally downloaded by one of its citizens? The reporting in the Guardian of the first of a selection of 250,000 US state department cables marks a recasting of modern diplomacy. Clearly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive, whatever computing’s snake-oil salesmen claim. No organisation can treat digitised communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms.

Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.

Der Spiegel believes US foreign policy is badly shaken, and that public interest outweighs political and security concerns in their decision to publish:

Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information — data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America’s partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public — as have America’s true views of them…

…With a team of more than 50 reporters and researchers, SPIEGEL has viewed, analyzed and vetted the mass of documents. In most cases, the magazine has sought to protect the identities of the Americans’ informants, unless the person who served as the informant was senior enough to be politically relevant. In some cases, the US government expressed security concerns and SPIEGEL accepted a number of such objections. In other cases, however, SPIEGEL felt the public interest in reporting the news was greater than the threat to security. Throughout our research, SPIEGEL reporters and editors weighed the public interest against the justified interest of countries in security and confidentiality.

William Kristol of the Weekly Standard writes that the US government should ignore the release and refuse all comment about it. He later adds that WikiLeaks should be punished:

I didn’t mean to say that treating the leaks as beneath contempt and beneath comment was all the U.S. government could or should do. My original post didn’t deal with the possibilities of criminal prosecution or covert action or cyber-warfare against WikiLeaks. I’m for whatever can be done on these fronts.

CNN explains why they did not have advanced access to the documents:

In addition to the Times, four European newspapers — Britain’s The Guardian, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany and El Pais in Spain — had prior access to WikiLeaks documents. CNN has not had advance access to the documents because it declined to sign a confidentiality agreement with the site.

For a cheat sheet of what’s actually in the release, the Atlantic Wire has a good aggregation of current reporting and analysis.

Otherwise, head to the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais or Le Monde for your initial deep dive.

The links above go to the landing page on those sites for their complete coverage.

Infographics: Mapping the Social Web

A new map graphs the social web so that geographical landmass is equivalent to online activity.

social media map

We like mapping. We like visualization. We like social media.

Mash them all up and you have a recipe for success.

This is what Randall Monroe of xkcd has done, turning social networks and communities into countries and continents with geographical landmass equivalent to their online activity.

The xkcd map updates his famous 2007 map so that raw membership and traffic is no longer the measured metric. Instead, it’s actual activity gathered during Spring and Summer of 2010.

As the map notes:

Communities rise and fall, and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. This updated map uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there. This meant some comparing of apples and oranges, but I did my best and tried to be consistent.

Estimates are based on the best numbers I could find, but involved a great deal of guesswork, statistical inference, random sampling, nonrandom sampling, a 20,000-cell spreadsheet, emailing, cajoling, tea-leaf reading, goat sacrifices, and gut instinct. (i.e. making things up.)

Sources of data include Google and Bing, Wikipedia, Alexa, Big-Boards.com, StumbleUpon, WordPress, Akismet, every website statistics page I could find, press releases, news articles, and individual site employees. Thanks in particular to folks at last.fm, LiveJournal, Reddit, and the New York Times, as well as sysadmins at a number of sites who shared statistics on condition of anonymity.

Some of my favorite areas include the “Sea of Opinions,” “Spamblog Straits,” and the “Bay of Flame” which, of course, is bordered by a region of conservative and liberal blogs.

The map can be viewed at xkcd, includes a biggie version and can even be ordered as a poster.

Citizen Journalism as Early Warning System

Ground Report Founder and CEO Rachel Sterne talks citizen journalism and an interesting question arises: in our evolving journalism landscape, can sites such as hers serve as early warning systems to mainstream media organizations?

Are citizen journalists more agile than their professional counterparts, often breaking news before the big boys have had time to react?

About this Screencast

This screencast is from a course I teach at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that focusses on how NGO’s, non-profits, governmental agencies and citizen journalists use Internet and mobile technologies to communicate with core constituencies.

Future lectures as the semester progresses will be posted here.

The answer is quantitative and anecdotal rather than qualitative, and looks in part on how people use social tools such as Twitter and Facebook to report on the world around them. It also includes content produced for citizen journalism sites such as upstarts EveryBlock, Global Voices and Neighborhoodr as well as mainstream initiatives such as CNN’s iReport and AOL’s high profile Patch network of community news sites.

Social Web followers are familiar with the fact that the first image of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River appeared on Twitter; Facebook’s use by activists to report on protests in Moldova, Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere; and Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and other social networks as prime channels for the world to learn what was happening in the streets after the contested 2009 Iranian elections.

More recently, Jose L. Leyva wrote about how citizens in Monterrey, Mexico are taking to social networks— and creating new ones — in order to document drug cartel violence.

Twitter, Facebook and other online forums have also become a primary source of information in a society in which self-censorship and anonymity have become one resort for journalists covering the drug war to avoid threats by cartels or harassment by Mexican authorities. Social media platforms have also become a place in which people eager know what’s going on the streets can get real-time information.

Interesting too are anecdotes given by Rachel Sterne, Founder and CEO of Ground Report, a global citizen journalism site launched in 2006. Speaking to a class I teach at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Rachel put her site head to head with the New York Times to demonstrate how her network of 9,000 reporters has broken news ranging from January 2008 suicide attacks in Peshawar to Albino killings in Tanzania.

While readily admitting that her network of reporters can’t compete with mainstream outlets like the Times on access and persistent, overall journalism quality, she does outline how citizen reporting such as that done on Ground Report brings entirely new perspectives and voices to the news cycle. In that way, she thinks publications like Ground Report can function as early warning systems in our future journalism environment.

This idea dovetails nicely with a conversation I had with Mitchell Stephens, Journalism Professor at NYU and author of A History of News, over the summer for the Future Journalism Project documentary I’m working on. At the time he said something counterintuitive that makes more sense as I’ve thought about it over time: Journalists, he said, have to get out of the news business.

By this he meant focussing less time on being a “reporter” telling the world about the daily events that are going on, and more time being a “journalist” contextualizing the significance of what is going on. In other words, in a social media landscape where we already know the who, what, where and when, journalists and news organizations need to harness their scarce resources on delivering the how and why.

Perhaps, as Rachel suggests, citizen journalism sites such as hers can increasingly fill the early warning reporting role. As she says in her presentation above, her contributors aren’t necessarily amateurs, they’re often journalists in their own countries or subject matter experts with deep knowledge of the specific verticals they’re writing about.

In Rachel’s screencast above, she talks about Ground Report, its founding, how it works and who it reaches. She also offers insight into the technical and sociological changes occurring across the the Social Media Landscape. The screencast and her slideshow are available for download below.

Download Files

Download this Screencast

Right Click (CTRL-click on a Mac) to Download.

Image Credit: James Nash via Flickr/Creative Commons.

The Ethos of Open Source

In less than 20 years the peer production and transparency found in Open Source is firmly entrenced in the mainstream and is affecting much more than just software.

Back in August the consulting firm Accenture released findings of an Open Source Software Report they conducted with 300 public and private firms in the US, UK and Ireland. Their conclusions weren’t necessarily surprising to those who’ve been involved in Open Source over the years:

  • 50% of respondents are fully committed to open source
  • 65% say they have documented strategy for implementing open source while the other third say they’re working on it
  • 78% cite quality of the software as a key driver
  • 71% say reliability is a a key factor
  • 70% say security is a key factor

All this is well and good. It demonstrates that companies and organizations are finally recognizing the advantages of Open Source Software and, more importantly, are growing comfortable enough with it to adopt Open Source solutions for mission critical endeavors.

About this Screencast

This screencast is from a course I teach at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that focusses on how NGO’s, non-profits, governmental agencies and citizen journalists use Internet and mobile technologies to communicate with core constituencies.

I plan on releasing future lectures as the semester progresses.

This ranges from the Obama administration using Drupal for the White House Web site, to Brazil’s adoption of Linux and OpenOffice across governmental agencies.

Better, the Open Source ethos of transparency, peer production and collaboration has made its way outside of the software world and into industries of all sorts. As I outline in the presentation above, organizations such as the Tropical Disease Initiative, Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative and the Institute for OneWorld Health are bringing Open Source techniques to biological and biomedical research.

Architecture for Humanity, an 11-year-old organization focussing the skills of architects and designers on humanitarian issues, has also embraced an open model. Countless other examples of peer production and open sharing now exist.

Oddly — or perhaps not considering America’s schizophrenic relationship with copyright — as Open Source increasingly moves into the mainstream an oppositional movement is forming against it. As the Guardian and others noted in February 2010, “an influential lobby group is asking the US government to basically consider open source as the equivalent of piracy – or even worse.”

It turns out that the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an umbrella group for organisations including the MPAA and RIAA, has requested with the US Trade Representative to consider countries like Indonesia, Brazil and India for its “Special 301 watchlist” because they use open source software.

What’s Special 301? It’s a report that examines the “adequacy and effectiveness of intellectual property rights” around the planet – effectively the list of countries that the US government considers enemies of capitalism.

Yes, Open Source is disruptive to proprietary models and there are those that will dismiss and demean it. And when that doesn’t work, they will fight it. In another context, Chris Anderson famously equated Microsoft’s reaction to the Open Source Linux Operating System with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Even those supporting Open Source find time to fight each other. In August, Oracle sued Google over Google’s use of Java in the Service Development Kit for its Open Source Android Operating System. This one’s a bit of a head scratcher as Java itself is an Open Source programming language licensed under the GNU General Public License.

The above presentation was given to a class I teach at Columbia University and touches on many facets occurring in the Open Source world. It’s very much a primer for those who are new to it. A higher resolution video can be downloaded below, and below that is a mammoth image created by the research firm Focus that gives a great overview of the history and industries Open Source Software is affecting.

Download Files

Download this Screencast

Open Source and its place in nature

Death of the Book, or Not

Paper books are dead, says Nicholas Negroponte. But it isn’t tablets and e-readers that killed them.

the book is dead, long live the book

Xconomy runs an interesting profile of Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop per Child Foundation. In it, Negroponte discusses the foundation’s efforts — and the difficulties it faces — in getting the laptops into Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The article’s well worth the read for that discussion alone but Negroponte’s comments about the state of the printed book are also worth highlighting.

The printed book, he says, is dead. Not dead because of any technological replacement by e-readers and tablets, but dead because of the mundane economics of print.

Negroponte took time in our meeting to philosophize a bit about tablet computers. “There’s a very interesting thing happening,” he says. “Paper books are really dead—they’re gone. And they’re not being killed by tablets, they’re creating tablets.”

That’s the opposite of what many people might think—but Negroponte sees the forces at work at close hand, because of his OLPC work. “It’s the fact that physical books don’t work anymore, especially in the developing world,” he says, comparing the difficulty and cost of shipping physical books against downloading 100 books or more on a single tablet.

“It’s a complete luxury,” he says of physical books, “and it makes no sense.”

This comment provoked some snarky replies on message boards such as Slashdot with a typical reply running approximately thus, “With a real book, I never have to worry about whether the format it’s in will be supported ten or twenty years down the road. The only hardware requirements are eyes and hands, and the only software requirement is a brain, neither of which will go out of style in my lifetime.”

But, if you think of the economics of books, you can see how they begin driving the adoption of digital versions, whether PDF, eBook, or audio. And once this content moves from atoms to bits, pressure on the price point for those bits starts driving costs down.

Think of Flat World Knowledge, an Open Textbook publisher that lets readers access books for free, purchase print-on-demand versions or mp3s of specific chapters, and gives teachers the ability to remix and edit the book’s content. The strategy appears to be working. In 2009, the company secured $8 million in funding and currently has 140,000 users, half of whom end up paying $34 on average for cross-platform formats such as audio files and physical books.

The point though is that Flat World is pushing free digital as a primary option with paid versioning as a secondary volume market.

Here’s how Chris Anderson describes the company in his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price:

Slashdot snark aside, think of Negroponte’s market — the developing world — and take another look at his comment: printed books, he says, are “a complete luxury.”

Now think of the billions living in the developing world where hardcover books can cost half a month’s salary, Amazon doesn’t deliver and local bookstores that can get new books charge even more because of transportation and procurement costs. Think of all these things and you can begin to see validity in Negroponte’s idea.

Books, and the desire for books, are creating a demand for low-cost tablets and the accessibility they afford because physical books themselves are simply, and globally, unaffordable.

Tea Partiers do the Open Source Socialist Thing

Can code be political? If so, what does it mean that a new Tea Party site is built on Open Source software. Could their rigid opposition to all things collective be softening?

Diversitea home page

As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reports, the Tea Party is trying to demonstrate that the movement is more than a bunch of Angry White Folk and actually includes people of various backgrounds and ethnicities.

Tea Party leaders Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, both of the national advocacy group FreedomWorks, were discussing the movement’s success while having coffee with reporters this week, when one of the questioners asked about the Sept. 12 rally in Washington, yet another Tea Party event distinguished by a sea of white faces.

“I’m glad you brought that question up,” replied Kibbe, “because we have a project that we’re launching this week called DiverseTea.” He said DiverseTea would highlight “African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, others that have come to this movement, because there is this nagging perception that we are not diverse.”

They’ve launched a Web site to demonstrate such diversity and as of yesterday, Milbank tells us, “the list of ‘Diverse Tea Partiers‘ on the site had reached a grand total of five.”

The list is now eight (60% growth in a day!) but what catches our eye is the site platform. 

The site’s built on WordPress, the open source CMS, and the design is the freely available WP-Creativix Theme created by IWEBIX

There’s conspiracy in here somewhere. Opponents of Open Source say it’s anti-capitalist and if there’s one thing Tea Partiers love, it’s their capitalism. 

So what gives? Next thing you know they’re going to jump on the Net Neutrality bandwagon.

Are Internet Users Losing Their Id?

A new study suggests people are beginning to take their online reputations seriously. No need to fear. There’ll always be plenty of folly.


A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests people are curating their public personas in order to massage their digital reputations.

The study is timely, released Wednesday as Facebook tries to wake from its nightmare privacy slumber by offering new ways users can gain and maintain control over information available about them.

The Pew study suggests a trend towards greater awareness that our digital lives — and especially our socially networked lives — are primary drivers for others to figure out who we are and what we’re about.

Reclaiming online reputation is starting, happily, with younger demographics that have the most to gain by doing so (read: those whose future employers look them up online).

As the study notes:

Young adults, perhaps out of necessity, are much more active curators of their online identities when compared with older adults. When they change privacy settings, delete tags and comments, and request that information about them be removed, they are demonstrating a desire to exert control over the content they share and the tide of information that others post about them online.