WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, and Government 2.0 with David Forbes – Technoccult interview

David Forbes

Photo by Jonathan Welch

David Forbes is an Asheville, NC based journalist and blogger. He’s a senior journalist at The Mountain Xpress, a regular contributor to Coilhouse (both print and online), and runs his own blog The Breaking Time. You can find him on Twitter here. As a fellow media-geek I asked David to chat with me about WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, and Government 2.0.

Klint Finley: Personally I don’t think there’s one single future for journalism, but many different futures. I think WikiLeaks is one of journalism’s futures – what do you think?

David Forbes: I would agree that there’s not one single future, just as there’s not one single past for journalism — is made up of many different methods of pursuing and conveying information. WikiLeaks represents that raw, juicy information aspect, and there is a role for that, though it’s more limited in impact that some of its apostles may think.

There’s also a desperate thirst for analysis and context, for putting information together in ways that Wikileaks can rarely do.

Above: short version of the “Collateral Murder” video

Well, it seems like they’re trying to do more of that now, with the collateralmurder.com site and all.

A bit yes, but it’s still not their strength, and I don’t think it ever will be. As the release of that video shows, their strength is in finding what others can’t find. Ironically enough, the best analysis of that video has been done by some of the more traditional journalists (in their training at least) who’ve moved well into new media and can use their own contacts and info to put all of this into context.

I’m not sure, but it seems like they were initially trying to be a resource for journalists instead of an actual source of journalism. But they weren’t get the response they were hoping for so they’re doing journalism themselves now.

Jay Rosen called them a “stateless press” which I thought was really interesting.

It is, and does play to that part of journalists’ minds that sees themselves as an investigative society beyond borders.

On a side note, journalism is a capricious field, and what wisdom there is remains usually of the least conventional. For example, this week news emerged that NPR has doubled its market share over the last ten years, to the point where it exceeds network TV news. By a lot of the narratives about “new media” radio’s a dinosaur, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. But it has.

NPR Fast Company chart

Above: NPR’s market share visualized by Fast Company via Peltier Tech Blog

Oh wow, that’s interesting. I knew they’d been growing for the past few years. I wonder if that has to do with increased commute times for American workers.

Partly, yes, but moreso I think it’s that they’ve moved fairly aggressively into new media, enough not to get left behind, and people are thirsty for succinct analysis of the glut of information out there.

So let’s imagine for a moment a scenario in which virtually all professional news organizations have gone out of business. There’s just no business model for them, and all that’s left is “citizen journalism.” (I don’t think it will come to that, but let’s just pretend.)

As a professional journalist yourself do you think “citizen journalism” could step in to fill that gap? Do you think out of work journalists would keep doing journalism on the side, for instance?

Ah, a good hypothetical. No, I don’t think they could, much as plenty of professional journalists are salaryman hacks and plenty of citizen journalists are quite good.

The value of professionalism is underrated, and most news orgs don’t help themselves by having become extremely stodgy, but investigative skills don’t come overnight, and the sort of combined knowledge and contacts some sort of organization has is invaluable.

I think, in that hypothetical, it would quickly “re-professionalize” The best citizen journalists would find backers or form organizations and another system – perhaps bounties for really valuable pieces- would come along to provide the resources.

Yeah, that’s part of why I think it’s an impossible scenario – at least a few people are going to make money some how.

How much investigative work do modern journalists do? It seems a lot of the leg work is actually done by non-profits, advocacy groups, people like that, before journalists even get started.

It depends on the modern journalist. Sadly, a lot of more corporate papers have ditched much of their investigative arms, but plenty, especially locally owned papers or alt weeklies (like the one I work for) are actually going into it more heavily because there’s a hunger for it. Sure, non-profits and advocacy groups will usually do some of the legwork, especially in the initial stages, but at best they’ll only have a piece of the puzzle. Even on basic news stories, plenty of journalists still spend a lot of time chasing down statistics, facts, harassing contacts. A lot of this doesn’t get seen outside, because what the public sees is a very small chunk that’s been battered into a coherent narrative.

A mentor of mine put it best “investigation is following up 10 leads and having  nine of them go nowhere.”

Can give any examples from personal experience of doing investigative work.

I’ll use one of the older, higher-profile stories I’ve worked on. Back in 2007 a Buncombe Sheriff’s deputy, using a North Carolina law that had been struck down in the ’60s, arrested a couple for flying a large, upside-down American flag in front of their house.

activists Mark and Deborah Kuhn arrested in Asheville

This was a case where the investigation had to be done extremely quickly. So I ended up heading to neighbor’s houses, talking to them, getting them to make introductions to others. Turned out one of them had snapped some pretty gripping photos of the arrest. I then uncovered the ruling striking down the old flag desecration law, and found out that the deputy shouldn’t have been responding to a call within the city anyway. The charges were dropped, but it’s an example of how investigative journalism works: the information was there, some of the neighbors had pieces of it, but it still had to be pulled together, put into a whole, added to, etc.

I don’t know if you can speak to this, but how is Mountain Xpress doing through this period of… adjustment… for the newspaper business? Alt weeklies have been amongst the hardest hit. Are you/they doing anything interesting to adapt and weather the storm?

We’re weathering it fairly well. That’s in part because the paper has a lot of loyalty in the area and a lot of support from the communities here. But we’re also adapting from the news end. Now when a news story breaks we’ll have it up on Twitter ASAP, and we’ve worked on building our news hashtags and put those feeds up on our main site. Then we’ll have a blog post, then an in-depth print article

Hell, I’m Twittering news from local government meetings (as my outside Asheville followers are no doubt weary at me for). But I think that “all of the above” approach is necessary to survive. Media changes, the need to deliver stories doesn’t.

Right – I think the hard part though is figuring out how to monetize new media. It’s obvious that you’ve got to be everywhere these days – but paying the bills gets harder and harder.

Are there any particular journalism start-ups or experiments that you find particularly exciting?

Well, you mentioned Wikileaks, and that’s one. I find some of the hybrid experiments interesting: the all-online Seattle Pi has developed a pretty extensive stable of “neighborhood bloggers” I think using Twitter for that quick-hit news (and feedback) is fascinating.

I think, in Seattle, the West Seattle Blog is even more interesting. But the PI is interesting in that it’s a very well established paper daily making a huge change in how they operate.

I’ll have to check that out: good local media is priceless, and I’m glad it seems to be making something of a comeback. The future of the PI will be interesting to follow too: they’re making some interesting steps, but I wonder if a corporate-owned paper can be as adaptable as they need to be.

I’m also really interested to see how the NY Times semi-permeable pay-membrane works out.

Ah, the NY Times. The journalism nerd in me loves them, though I gritted my teeth at the “pay membrane stuff.” Last year, I think someone found that for what it costs to supply all their subscribers, they could buy every last one of them a Kindle.

You mean all their print subscribers?


Ah, it’s actually twice as much as buying every subscriber a Kindle, pardon me.

New York Times Kindle

One of the problems I see with monetization… even if you can get people to pay monthly fees for access or whatever, I don’t know if that will cover the sorts of expenses newspapers have. Newspapers have typically lost money on subscriptions and made up for it with ads.

Indeed they have. One of the problems, I think, is that corporations began buying newspapers and seeing them as just another asset. Newspapers, except for rare boom-times, aren’t meant to make huge amounts of money; they make slow, steady profits instead. Also, many got used to being the only game in town and alienated a lot of smaller advertisers, instead of finding ways to build them into a network that could better endure shaky times.

Ironically, a similar thing happened in the banking industry: this pursuit of massive profits inspired a lot of  dumb, risky decisions because parts of the economy apparently can’t work unless they’re making ridiculous amounts of money.

I actually really like the idea of the pay membrane – I hope it works out. But I don’t think it will be their only or even main source of revenue.

Government 2.0

So shifting gears a little bit. You’ve been following the “Government 2.0” debate on your blog. First of all, can you sum up what “Government 2.0” is concisely?

Basically it’s technologists looking to revolutionize government with, as one might expect, technology. Gov 2.0, in theory at least, would be more accessible, transparent and allow people and government to better coordinate to solve problems and get needed information. And that “in theory” absolutely has to be stressed.

How do you think that fits into what you do as a journalist?

This is one of those areas where it affects me at multiple levels. As a journalist, I know how difficult needed information can be to get and obviously freeing that up would be a major boon to my profession, and most citizens. The political observer in me — which is informed in part from seeing government up close as journalist — has some major criticisms of Gov 2.0.

And what are those?

Oh my, where to start. The Gov 2.0 people for the most part genuinely want to do good, and they’re brilliant. Some of this stuff — like making case law and legislation massively more accessible — will be a big boon. But they’re largely well-heeled business and government types. These are people for whom government’s already working pretty well.

I would’ve killed at the Gov 2.0 conference to see one community organizer up there, talking about how this could help people who aren’t remotely linked in to all this shining technology. Transparency’s great, but there’s already more information out there than ever before about how government operates. There need to be ways to connect people to actually use that information and to press for needed change — basically tomorrow’s political  machine. Politics is a fight, it is always and only a fight, whatever form it may take and whatever people may tell you otherwise. I don’t think most of the Gov 2.0 people really comprehend that yet and until they do, we’ll see some fancier tools and more info, but government will continue to be largely as it is now.

I’ve gotten very cynical, myself, about how much transparency and all that actually matters. We know so much about what happened during the Bush administration, and yet nothing was done about and nothing is being done about it.

Well it ended up playing a major role in routing his party in the elections and has led to the reversal of many of their policies (though not nearly enough, by many counts). But yes, it’s a stark example of the limits of transparency when not backed up by the power to make it count.

Hm, well, let’s try to wrap this up with something a little more positive.

Surprise musical number? I’m a terrible singer.

Yeah, I’m only good at making noise so that’s out.

OK, so let’s try and end with this question… If you could tell everyone who reads this to go out and do one thing after reading this, what would it be?

Pay attention to as much of the world around you as you can for one day. That means politics, art, fashion, weather, everything. Then pick a definite course of action to improve things from where they are right now. That’s vague, I know, but basic observation is a good start. I think there’s a grand world coming and we’re fortunate to live in very interesting times. But that same potential means upheaval and uncertainty. We’re going to need everyone engaged and ready to fight like hell in their own way, and taking a good look around is the best first step.

Fortress Iceland? Probably Not.


Throwing some cold water on the expectations Iceland as journalism haven:

, the problem is that whatever Iceland does, it can’t change the 500-pound gorilla of international media law: the principle that publication happens at the point of download, not the point of upload. The poster child case for this principle is Dow Jones & Co., Inc. v. Gutnick, a case that reached the High Court of Australia in 2002. In that case, Gutnick sued Barron’s Online for publishing an allegedly defamatory article about him, and despite the fact that no one in Australia other than Gutnick’s lawyers actually read the offending article, the judges unanimously ruled that Australian laws applied, and thus Dow Jones (publisher of Barron’s Online) was liable to Gutnick. At least at the time, the High Court of Australia was the highest court worldwide to hear a case involving this issue, and for better or worse, its ruling has carried the day in similar cases around the world since. […]

With the Gutnick ruling setting the current paradigm for international jurisdiction, the IMMI is not nearly the journalistic fortress it’s meant to be. Plaintiffs will still be able to sue in a libel-friendly jurisdiction (like London, for example) and thereby circumvent all the protections the IMMI is meant to offer. To be sure, if the publisher and his assets are entirely within Icelandic jurisdiction, the plaintiff may not be able to do much about the publication.

Read More – Citizen Media Law: Fortress Iceland? Probably Not.

(via Jay Rosen)

Crowdfunded journalism – does it work?

finding dolly

I pitched the whole world on Dolly Freed. Seriously, every magazine you can think of and a hundred more.

Nobody was interested in a profile of a woman who used to eat roadkill, make moonshine, and sit around reading Sartre with her alcoholic and probably-genius father, a woman who later went on to get her GED, put herself through college, and become a NASA rocket scientist who helped figure out the mess behind the Challenger explosion before turning her back on that world for a life that felt more authentic and invigorating.

Yeah, I can’t see the appeal whatsoever.

So after months of rejection, I bought myself a website about and used it to self-publish a long-form feature story about a month ago, called “Finding Dolly Freed.” […]

So did Radiohead journalism succeed? I guess it depends on the definition of success. In the strictest sense of the word, yes, it worked: I recovered my costs. Yet you could look at the visitor-donation ratio — 160 of more than 5,000 visitors contributed — and extrapolate that this doesn’t appear to be a sustainable model, at least not in its current form. I choose to look at it this way: 160 people sent money they didn’t have to spend, to a person they didn’t even know — that, to me, is wondrous.

Someone else may find a better way to indie journalism in this form — I hope so. I’d be thrilled to see an independent self-publishing model fly, but if you’ll allow me a dogmatic moment here, for it to be truly meaningful the journalism must be inviolable: Story and storytelling matter but so does the journalist and whether he/she has built the story on a foundation of reporting and integrity. Institutional backing confers credibility, but in the wilds of the Internet, you’re on your own; trust begins and ends with you and your standards and approach.

Wired: Dolly, Rejection and Radiohead Journalism

A few years ago Josh Ellis was able to get most of all of his expenses paid for in advance to write a longform journalism piece Dark Miracle: Trinity, The Manhattan Project And The Birth Of The Atomic Age, and still had $25. (Updated: see comments)

The New York Times metered access plan

new york times building

(Photo by Alex Torrenegra)

Summary of my view: It’s a great idea, but executing it properly will be extremely difficult.

If you didn’t hear – The New York Times is going to “meter” access to their site. Readers will be able to view a certain number of articles per month for free, after which they’ll have to pay.

I didn’t even know about the Financial Times meter before last week when I first read rumors about the NYT takes the same approach. I occasionally read articles at FT, and have occasionally linked to articles there. Their meter gives me no trouble.

That unobtrusiveness may come at a price. It took me only one Google search to find a way to circumvent their meter – this Greasemonkey script. Apparently, they just use cookies to determine the number of articles you’ve viewed. I’m not sure how many of FT’s paying customers are going to go through the trouble of installing Firefox extensions or manually deleting cookies to get access to the site, but I’d guess it would be more of a problem for the NYT’s larger and more general audience.

So that’s where execution gets tricky. Start making the meter more effective, less easy to route around, and you’re likely to end up making it a lot more intrusive to casual readers. There’s already something of a blogger backlash against the plan, and if the meter ends up being cumbersome, the Times could find their casual readership dropping off (and their advertising revenues declining).

And that’s to say nothing of people outright pirating their articles through copy and paste. If they start trying to implement means to keep people from copying and pasting the text from their articles, they risk alienating their customers even more.

So yes, it will be tricky to pull off. With a sufficiently generous meter (20 articles a month seems reasonable), affordable access rates (I’d be great if they also had some metered plans – say 50 articles a month for $5, instead of having to buy unlimited access), unobtrusive technology, and, of course, high quality content, they could have a winning business model on their hands. (I’d also encourage them to offer free unlimited access to libraries, schools, charities, etc., as well as to visitors from developing nations.) But it will be a hard balance to pull off, especially if NYT bigwigs push for tight security and restrictions.

See also: Paid content has a good look at the ends and out of it.

Google CEO denies making a profit on newspaper’s backs

Google is a great source of promotion. We send online news publishers a billion clicks a month from Google News and more than three billion extra visits from our other services, such as Web Search and iGoogle. That is 100,000 opportunities a minute to win loyal readers and generate revenue—for free. In terms of copyright, another bone of contention, we only show a headline and a couple of lines from each story. If readers want to read on they have to click through to the newspaper’s Web site. (The exception are stories we host through a licensing agreement with news services.) And if they wish, publishers can remove their content from our search index, or from Google News.

The claim that we’re making big profits on the back of newspapers also misrepresents the reality. In search, we make our money primarily from advertisements for products. Someone types in digital camera and gets ads for digital cameras. A typical news search—for Afghanistan, say—may generate few if any ads. The revenue generated from the ads shown alongside news search queries is a tiny fraction of our search revenue.

Wall Street Journal: How Google Can Help Newspapers

(via Wu)

Murdoch: We’ll probably remove our sites from Google’s index

Rupert Murdoch has suggested that News Corporation is likely to make its content unfindable to users on Google when it launches its paid content starategy .

When Murdoch and other senior News Corp lieutenants have criticised aggregators such as Google for taking a free ride on its content, commentators have questioned why the company doesn’t simply make its content invisible to search engines.

Using the robots.txt protocol on a site indicates to automated web spiders such as Google’s not to index that particular page or to serve up lionks to it in users’ search results.

Murodch claimed that readers who randomly reach a page via search have little value to advertisers. Asked by Sky News political editor David Speers why News hasn’t therefore made its sites invisible to Google, Murdoch replied: “I think we will.”

Mumbrella: Murdoch: We’ll probably remove our sites from Google’s index

(via Jay Rosen)

I’d be quite happy to see News Corps shoot themselves in the foot, but I have the feeling people who actually know what they are talking about will stop this from happening.

Future journalism business models: research and explanation services

Two interesting idea-bombs via Jay Rosen:

To my eye, one of the more interesting new-model ideas popped up at this summer’s meeting of investigative reporting nonprofits outside New York. The idea, mentioned by two participants, was to set up a separate unit that would do contract or customized research for paying clients. Revenue generated would supply one piece of the business-model formula that would pay for the core investigative reporting business.

The concept seemed both promising and potentially ethically tricky, but in any case it seemed like a fresh approach. Fresh, anyway, till I discovered that the owners of the Economist have been doing this since 1946 through the Economist Intelligent Unit. These days the EIU, with more than 40 offices worldwide, sells country analyses in 200 markets, provides custom research and presentations for executives, convenes conferences on both government and business topics, and more. It calls itself the “world’s pre-eminent global research and advisory firm.” If that’s true, it’s obviously a business that’s bringing in tens of millions of dollars annually in revenue.

Online Journalism Review: Research for hire: A revenue model for the news?


Common Craft, a professional “explainer” service:

Common Craft is a small company owned by Lee and Sachi LeFever in Seattle, Washington, USA. The company was founded by Lee in 2003 as an online community consulting company. We started making videos in 2007 with our first video: RSS in Plain English. Since then, we’ve published two kinds of videos:

1. Educational Videos – Videos we create to sell on this website (our current focus)
2. Custom Videos – Videos we were hired to create by companies like Google, Ford and LinkedIn.

Combined, we’ve created over 30 videos that have been viewed over 10 million times online. Our current focus is building a library of educational videos that help educators save time. If you’re in need of a custom video, please contact us or visit our Explainer Network to find talented producers.

Rosen indicates they are very busy.

Competing Against Free

Under the circumstances, I think it may prove very difficult for commerce-oriented enterprises to succeed over the long term. Someplace like a dry cleaner is able to make money because it doesn’t need to worry about being undercut by competitors who aren’t trying to earn a profit. If for some reason Bill Gates decided to pour $5 billion into a foundation dedicated to offering not-for-profit dry cleaning services to Washington, DC then the existing dry cleaners would be in huge trouble. They don’t have that problem because nobody wants to run non-profit dry cleaners. But lots of people want to write about political issues for reasons that have nothing to do with profit-maximization. And my sense is that organizations are increasingly doing this. CAP/AF was a think tank early adopter in terms of building robust in-house new media capacity, but to the best of my knowledge just about every think tank and advocacy shop in town would like to get in on the action. And ultimately, a proliferation of content that’s not supposed to make money is going to make it even harder than it already is for those trying to make profits to do so.

Think Progress

(via Jay Rosen)

See also: Kevin Kelly’s article The New Socialism.

West Seattle Blog editor defends journalistic blogs

Once again, speaking in defense of those of us who publish original news in blog format:

Yes, we have cultivated sources. Not “just” the community members who kindly turn to us when they see a crash or a fire or a crime, because they know we will cover it NOW, but also politicians, community leaders, government employees, other ‘insiders’ who know we understand that if they feel something is important enough to check out, chances are it matters to thousands of community members, so off we go to dig in.

And yes, we sit through never-ending community meetings. Almost every night of the week. Some afternoons too. From design review, to Hearing Examiner appeals, to hearings scheduled just as formalities for some ongoing government process – buried in published public notices – and we go to City Hall and the County Council Chambers and the courthouse downtown.

We cover important stories that others don’t bother with. No paper in our area, big or small, saw fit to bother with a murder trial last year that started with a shooting in an area of our neighborhood where “that just doesn’t happen” and led through a story of stalking and self-defense, with the teenage suspect ultimately exonerated after a year behind bars. They all read our work so they knew it was happening and chose to ignore it.

I paid a reporter to cover it daily — it lasted a few weeks — even though at the time I couldn’t really afford it — just knew it had to be done and I couldn’t do a full day of court justice while also managing the rest of the site. Now, months later, we have the revenue to pay more journalists to work with us – freelance for starters but I hope more permanent soon – including two veterans whose jobs were cut at local papers big and small for $ reasons.

So, dear old-media folks who I understand are acting out of pain and fear – I have been through layoffs myself — please stop attacking and dismissing everything with “blog” attached to it – it is only a publishing format. If there is a specific writer you are upset about, call them out by name/site, but get educated and learn that the “blog” world has a surprising amount of REAL JOURNALISM going on, produced by REAL JOURNALISTS, and since some of us small operations seem to be showing signs of sustainability, this just may be the way a lot of REAL JOURNALISM is produced for the foreseeable future – you are welcome to buy a domain, install a CMS, and get after it yourselves, too.

–Tracy Record, editor/co-publisher, West Seattle Blog
(Seattle, WA, 650,000 pageviews/mo., 20,000 homes/businesses visiting at least once weekly)

From: Jay Rosen’s Tumblr

West Seattle Blog

David Simon: Dead-Wrong Dinosaur

I caught some of David Simon’s testimony to the Senate on the radio the other day. It was like nails on a chalk board for me – listening to the same dead wrong arguments over and over again.

Ryan Tate says some of the things I wanted to shout through the radio:

I found this argument odd, because as a newspaper reporter who spent a few years covering a town much like Baltimore — Oakland, California — I often found that bloggers were the only other writers in the room at certain city council committee meetings and at certain community events. They tended to be the sort of persistently-involved residents newspapermen often refer to as “gadflies” — deeply, obsessively concerned about issues large and infinitesimal in the communities where they lived.

Gawker: David Simon: Dead-Wrong Dinosaur

Memo to newspaper journalists: “online news” doesn’t begin and end with Matt Drudge, and newspaper subscription never paid your salary.

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