Appropriate mediums for appropriate conversations

The administration of Whitman College, the school I went to for my freshman year, has decided to cut funding to its Varsity Alpine and Nordic ski teams. The community is in uproar about this decision; if you aren’t on one of the teams, then you have a friend who is. Andrew Spittle, the Web Manager at the Whitman Pioneer, saw the controversy as an excellent time to experiment with their new website. In a post published on the CoPress Blog today, he goes into detail about the different tools they used to get the word out (Twitter, list serv, Facebook, and banner ads), and reveals how effective each medium was for driving traffic to their stories.

Twitter wasn’t effective at all, as it only sent less than 1% of their overall numbers. In the comments, I mention that his assessment is almost there. Twitter is a really valuable tool, but that value only applies if you can reach your community on it. The Whitman campus isn’t there yet in terms of adoption, and might never be, but there is the possibility that it will become more effective for discussion in the near future. The Pioneer leading the charge, pardon the pun, by actively advertising discussion like this might be one way to increase the number of users, or that number might grow once the campus learns the value of Twitter via SMS for finding the best parties on Friday night. I wouldn’t discount entirely, it’s just a matter of engaging in conversation where your community is.

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Waste to the river

Waste to the river

Just below the Dapka Ghat in Kanpur, a “nhala” or drainage ditch, pours raw sewage into the Ganges River. The pollution is 80% domestic and 20% industrial. Waste treatment should have been addressed by the Ganga Action Plan of 1985 but, like many of India’s environmental programs, it didn’t bear fruit because of the size of the issue and complexity of the political action required to solve it. In the meantime, the number of leather factories has jumped from 175 to over 400, substantially increasing the amount of waste disposed in the river.

Reframing the conversation

There were two excellent posts published this weekend on the future of the news industry. They emphasize long-term scenario vision, and technological empowerment. The first, Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable“, I caught from a Twitter link sharing storm Friday evening. Although there were a number of money quotes, his perspective on disruptive technology as revolution stuck with me (emphasis mine):

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

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Cricket match

Kids play cricket, India’s most popular sport, on the banks of the Ganges River in Kanpur. Although significantly polluted, it is still the life-source for those who live along the river.

The Ganges, according to Rakesh Jaiswal of Eco Friends, is forecast to “die” in 30 to 50 years, meaning all available water flow will be allocated to different agricultural and industrial uses. This analysis doesn’t factor in the potentially negative effects of climate change on water sources in the Himalaya.

This is the first in a series of images titled “India, Water, and Sustainable Development” that was first published in Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development in Spring 2008. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting the best of these photos.

Daily Emerald on strike, and the evolution of the newspaper

Around 8:30 this morning, Kai Davis (or @ninjakai) twittered something about the Oregon Daily Emerald being on strike. The initial image in my mind was one of people picketing in the street, and I couldn’t honestly guess as to what they would be striking about.

Then I read the editorial.

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Wikis to (re)build the news

It seems to be all of the rage these days (the first one I came across was created by Andrew Dunn).

Alexis Madrigal and Sarah Rich have started a wiki to design the next San Francisco Post-Chronicle, after hearing news that the Hearst Company could be shutting down the newspaper within weeks. With a potentially serious gap opening in Bay Area news production, they’ve begun brainstorming ways in which to bring the newspaper up to speed with the 21st century. The planning is broken into three arenas, two of which I have time to cover before my own flight to SF:

Distribution Model

Let’s go digital. It’s all about the internet, especially in early adopter central (i.e. San Francisco). Reporting should be web first, and the print edition could be cut to once a week. Publish a news magazine-style edition on Fridays and make it a compilation of the best content from all around town. I’d bet there’s a number of blogs that would like to see print readers for a cut of the revenue.

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What is journalism?

Dharmishta Rood started a thread on Seesmic for a class at Harvard on the 9th of March asking, “What is the future of news?” I don’t feel as though my two minute response conveys everything I’d like it to, and want to clarify a few of the ideas.

The future of news isn’t newspapers. The newspaper is an inefficient, uneconomic, and environmentally-troubling method of moving data. In my opinion, Steve Rhodes laid out an epic laundry list of everything that’s broken in the newspaper industry a few days ago. There isn’t any need to repeat that, thanks to the internet. The key takeaway is that, instead of trying to figure out how to financially support newspaper-style journalism on the web, we should be active in conversation about what journalism is, and how the internet will enable us to do it better.

To me, journalism is the act of providing impartial, accurate information to empower a community to make decisions. I had “independent” in the definition earlier, but I don’t believe that independence is entirely necessary if you partake in the art of full disclosure. The process of journalism need not be limited to newspapers, and the format need not be tied to an article measured in column inches. As Suzanne Yada rightfully noted just over a month ago, “Twitter isn’t journalism, just like television isn’t journalism, but you can find journalism ON Twitter and ON television.” Our information needs have changed from a hundred years ago, and the internet lends news organizations greater ability to fulfill this responsibility.

Two premises for the near future (that you’re welcome to dispute):

  • Newspaper journalism operated in the era of information scarcity, where “what is news” was determined by the amount of space available in the delivery mechanism. Online journalism operates in the era of information as a commodity. This means that “what is news” is defined by the quality of information.
  • We’re also now in an indefinite era of format fragmentation, meaning that journalism can be implemented in a myriad of different ways. This is another paradigm shift from the newspaper age, but not for the worse: the internet allows us to do more with information. The internet is ultimately a more powerful platform for journalism because users can be exposed to information automatically based on context and the depth of information they need.

The “Future of News” is going to be a competition to see who can create the most innovative and engaging ways to deliver information which empowers communities to make decisions.

Discussion topics for NewsInnovation Portland

In no particular order, these are the things I’m looking forward to discussing at BarCamp NewsInnovation Portland tomorrow:

What is journalism? Every conversation starts with a foundation, or core premises, and I don’t believe we’ve gotten to that point yet in this shindig about newspapers dying. Considering it’s a fundamental paradigm shift we’re going though, I think it’s going to be important to start at square one and build up.

The model for the ideal digital news organization. There’s a lot of ideas bouncing around as to how newsrooms should change, what the business models are, and what their websites should look like. It would be really sweet to come up with a master list of all of these ideas (and then have someone experiment with them…)

Transparency for building trust. The first group to take the concept of an “open source organization” and apply it to journalism wins five dollars. I’d enjoy covering strategies and techniques (a la the CoPress Team Blog) for completely opening a news organization.

If you can’t make it, we’ll be livestreaming and liveblogging the whole day long. It will be epic.

Save the old or start new?

For the discussion about journalism education with the #collegejourn folks, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the fire.

First, the assumption is incorrect. There’s no way professors are going to be able to “catch up,” but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just another characteristic of the indicative paradigm shift that’s happening right now. We’ve got to move from a “one-to-many” style of top-down education to a “many-to-many” style of networked education. What we’re doing right now, having a lateral conversation that is independent of geography, is just one example of this transition happening organically. If anything, it’s going to be us (i.e. the students) getting professors caught up. In doing so, however, the question will be raised of what exactly the role of journalism professors is. I don’t necessarily have an answer.

Journalism schools, furthermore, need to become catalysts for innovation. “Innovation” is becoming a buzzword these days, but there has been less discussion on what is needed to inspire it. I’m of the opinion, though, that schools are excellent ground for experimentation. Students should be afforded the opportunity and encouraged to test new things out because the school can be an environment where it doesn’t hurt to fail, pick up the pieces, and try again.

It’s critical to drop multiple choice testing. Standardized tests and rote memorization are one of the worst excuses for learning, and do even less in an era of rapid technological transformation. One of my classes this fall was J204 Visual Communications. In my opinion, 90% of the tests we took were based on how well you could memorize the book. I did quite well but honestly couldn’t tell you what I learned four months later. Grading is subjective, and should instead be based on an interpretation of merit.

Furthermore, there need to be multiple tracks of learning. Classes now are held for the lowest common denominator, but the gradient of skill aptitude is increasing. There needs to be better rapid certification for “self-learners,” and the class needs to be better structured such that those who learn at a quicker pace are incentivized to teach their fellow students.

What if class was an unconference? What if, at the beginning of every semester, the students came together and collaborated on their syllabus for the next semester? Instead of the professor teaching what he or she thinks the students should learn, the educational process needs to be driven by what students want to learn and, more importantly, by the questions they want to answer. Education through creation instead of education through systemization.

I challenge any school to be this radical. It might even motivate me to re-enroll.

More disruption, courtesy the Internet

Via Joey Baker (and an earlier link I didn’t save), Professor Douglas Rushkoff on the “transformative nature of the internet“:

I’m not entirely sure how to collect my thoughts on this, but the presentation struck me as profound. Most importantly, it’s heartening to know that there are other crazies out there working their minds through the same observations of a fundamental change taking place. There’s tremendous room for intellectual growth, largely because it’s such uncharted territory. A couple memorable quotes from the presentation:

Talking about crises in the banking sector, Rushkoff says, “decentralizing technologies fundamentally undermine the corporate-capital structure.” The traditional corporate-capital structure, to my understanding, mandates that the wealth of a corporation is dependent on the scarcity of its product.

He goes on to explain that “‘digital economy’ is in itself an oxymoron […] Things digital are best understood as an ecology, not as an economy. Economies are based in […] rational actors, maximizing their value, through the acquisition and distribution of scarce resources, whereas on the internet what we have are irrational people having fun engaging in sharing what feels, at least to them, like limitless resources.” In short, the foundation of the economy is taking a 180, thanks to the internet.

The takeaway, as I realized in a conversation over lunch, is that it’s an amazing time to be alive because, depending on which side of the bed you work up on, there is so much potential for high impact creativity and innovation.