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The FCC vote on transparency in political advertising

Investigative reporter Stuart Watson of WCNC in Charlotte, N.C. did something unusual last week: He reported on his own station’s advertising.

Watson reports on politics and on public records, among other things. So he naturally took an interest in a proposal to require that public disclosure files once relegated to filing cabinets be put online and made truly public.

The twist, in this case, is that the files in question are kept not by a government body, but by broadcast television stations, including his own. These stations broadcast on public airwaves, and there are a few conditions to the licenses they hold, including the disclosure of certain information about their business, to help monitor the extent to which the stations serve “the public interest.” (The term itself is a source of great contention at the Federal Communications Commission, the body that oversees broadcast licensing.)

These files are, in theory, available for public inspection. But how often do people actually look at them? The political file, which discloses the purchase of advertising on behalf of political campaigns, is likely the most popular, and even that is viewed mainly by those in the business — political consultants and those who run professional political campaigns. In his segment, Watson physically walks viewers through the process of looking up a public file.

Watson interviewed me as a research fellow with the New America Foundation because of our organization’s work to gather and share public files, and to increase media transparency.

The FCC did vote to put political files online, despite intense lobbying from broadcasters against the proposal. The only TV camera at the commission’s meeting that day? WCNC’s.

 

Future of Online Journalism Symposium

Peter Shane invited me to Ohio State University last month to participate in this symposium. I presented my research on unmet local information needs in a small community in North Carolina. That presentation will form the basis of a journal article in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society. This is my Storify record of the symposium as a whole.

SXSWi 2012: A Penny Press for the Digital Age

I’ve just landed in Austin for SXSW Interactive, and I’m putting the finishing touches on my portion of tomorrow’s presentation, A Penny Press for the Digital Age.

I’ve created this Storify story about the panel, with lots of background links.

If you care about the digital divide and digital inclusion and how journalism can better serve low- and middle-income people, please join us: Saturday, March 10 and 9:30 a.m. (more details at the link above) or follow on Twitter with the hashtags #sxsw #digipenny

Reaction to my Triangle media ecology case study

Last September, the New America Foundation published my case study of media and information in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Here’s the PDF of version 1.2. An updated version 2.0 is coming soon available here.

 

Downtown Raleigh, photo by Mark Turner

The study is a broad overview of the ways in which people who live in the Triangle get news and information about their local communities. I looked at newspapers, broadcast TV and radio, blogs of note, online neighborhood organizing, and the efforts of universities, libraries, nonprofits, and foundations to meet information needs. Following the lead of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, I used a rubric of “information health” to consider how well all these media outlets and other sources meet the need, what their challenges and successes are, and where gaps exist.

The audience for the report was twofold: I wanted to give policy makers in Washington, D.C. a window on how media and technology policies function of a piece in a metropolitan area; I also wanted to give people in North Carolina who are producing media (or wish to invest in it) a road map.

Reaction to the first version has been wonderful. UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Andy Bechtel, a former editor at The News & Observer, published this Q&A on his blog. It’s a quick read that gives background about what the report is all about.

In October 2010, New America’s Tom Glaisyer came to Durham to lead a roundtable discussion about the case study with a small group of stakeholders at the Triangle Community Foundation. Those at the table included editors, publishers, bloggers, academics, and foundation folks. Some I had interviewed for the case; some were learning about it for the first time.

One, UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Ryan Thornburg, blogged about the conversation, responding with ideas for action and policy change.

Professional reporters, whose ranks are being mowed down by an unsustainable business model that relies on corralling an increasingly dispersed and disaggregated audience, need to organize their audience in order to lower the cost of reporting.

The Triangle doesn’t necessarily need more professional journalists. What it needs is more people who think journalistically. We need more people who can not just describe what is seen, but who are curious about what we might not be seeing. We need more people who are less interested in what they can make people think and more interested in showing them how we know what we know. Curiosity and verification are the core tenants of journalistic thinking that I teach my newswriting students, and we need to find a way to hone those instincts among all North Carolinians. At the very least, they’ll become better consumers of news and there’s a chance that some might even become better producers of news.

 

Ryan and I worked together to develop those recommendations into an opinion piece for The News & Observer, which ran last December.

Andria Krewson, a Charlotte Observer veteran who blogs at Global Vue, had this reaction:

The call to action is remarkable in these respects: It comes from two people in academia, without financial interest in seeing more citizen participation in the media, and it calls for journalistic thinking from ordinary people. It also focuses on North Carolina and local civic news….

What I don’t want to see from their call to action: Yet another conference. We have plenty, even in North Carolina, planned for 2011.

What I would like to see: Specific projects or small meetups, with cross-discipline teams, aimed at small slices of the news ecosystem that are uncovered now.

 

Then in February, N&O Executive Editor John Drescher wrote this column about the case study. Like Ryan, he engaged with the idea that the mainstream media can become stronger by finding a way for, as Ryan puts it, the tributaries to contribute. Tributaries are any source that’s not mainstream: citizen blogs, startup news sources, Twitterers, nonprofits, etc.

In our meeting back in October, we asked participants to describe themselves — and their role at the table — in five words or less. I remember John Drescher’s were: “I need more reporters.”

I agree. But given the trend is heading in the opposite direction, we also need more than reporters. Better quality information and news will depend in part on our own ability as citizens to provide it to one another, and that will require us to think journalistically, and to view the tenents of fact-finding, verification and balance as part of civic duty.

Information needs and the future of journalism

When I left my position as a full-time staff writer for the Independent Weekly last summer to enter the Master of Public Policy program at Duke University’s Sanford School, I did so in the hope of better understanding how to address the question of how we will pay for journalism and what journalism will look like in the coming years. The question that haunted me with increasing intensity as I wrote an occasional column, The Monitor, about changes in the Triangle’s local media environment. I covered layoffs and buyouts at our local daily newspapers and debates over broadband access at the statehouse. The question broadened beyond journalism into a larger concern over how people will get access to meaningful news and information they need to fully exercise their rights and maintain a democratic society.

I came to Sanford to study with James Hamilton, an economist who studies media. His book All the News That’s Fit to Sell made a deep impression on me, as it analyzed media issues that were familiar to me using a deeply unfamiliar analytical framework. I wanted to learn economics, develop quantitative analytical skills and deepen my understanding of how public policy is made. The first year has been quite a ride. I overcame my fear of math (a phobia too many of us journalists suffer from) and completed courses in statistics, microeconomics, political science, policy analysis and ethics. My favorite course was Prof. Hamilton’s media policy and economics, naturally.

This summer, I have the opportunity to put many of these skills to work on a project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. that produces work I have respected since my days as a junior editor at Salon.com. The Media Policy Initiative is a project funded by the Knight Foundation to explore information needs in communities. “Information needs,” as explained in the Knight Commission Report, means everything from journalism as we know it (conventional print and broadcast) to the availability of public information on government web sites to the ability to engage with such information through Internet-based technology and other forms of communication. As a Knight Policy Intern, I will be researching a writing a media ecology case study of the Triangle area of North Carolina.

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