Sustaining democracy in the digital age

From the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities:

America needs “informed communities,” places where the information ecology meets people’s personal and civic information needs.

This means people have the news and information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. They need information to participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard.

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Digital First, Print Last: Journal Register’s John Paton

“To be in the News business now means you must run your business as Digital First.  And that means Print Last. Print Last because that is how this new world works. Print is a slow medium and digital is fast. Atoms will never beat bits….

“Digital First strategy is centered on the cost effective creation of content and sales and not the legacy modes of production…. Community media labs in each of our 18 dailies have helped turn our audience, who became our competitors, into our colleagues. And the communities we serve are the better for that….

“As CEO, I blog to my employees and the public. I ask for their help and they oblige. I also regularly email my 3,106 employees and they me. And the most common complaint is – lack of communication. You just have to keep working at it knowing that it, like the website or the newspaper, is a job that is never done….

“We actually pay some of to experiment. We call it our ideaLab. The ideaLab is a select employee group – we asked them to apply online via my blog (and they did in the hundreds) – who are paid to experiment. We supply them the tools (Droids, Smartphones, iPhones, iPads, Netbooks, etc); the time (25% off with pay) plus some extra pay as an incentive. There are no rules….

“Jeff Jarvis – now a member of Journal Register Company’s Advisory Board — said it best: ‘Do what you do best and link to rest.’…

Across all of our 18 dailies, we assigned, reported, edited, produced Web & print products using only free Web-based tools … We have built sales support systems using an iPhone and free Google tools. We have successfully printed pages on a press using only free web tools. The next time some rep comes to your shop brandishing a $20M system – tell the price just went down. Way down….

“In Torrington, CT at our daily, the Register Citizen, our young publisher there, Matt DeRienzo deputized his entire community to fact check all of his products online and in print. By putting a Fact Check box online he issued an invitation to every reader, source and community member to hold them accountable and engage in correcting, improving or expanding the story.”

Towards a new civic ecology by @henryjenkins

“The contemporary communications system is at once struggling with the threat that many major news outlets which have been the backbone of civic information over the past century are crumbling in the face of competition from new media. We may not be able to count on the traditional newspaper, news magazine or network newscast to do the work we could take for granted in the past….

“At the same time, we are seeing expanded communications opportunities in the hands of everyday people — including in the hands of academics and other experts who traditionally had little means of direct communication with the various publics impacted by their work. The problem at the present time is that existing channels of professional journalism are crumbling faster than we are developing alternative solutions which will support the kinds of information and communication needed for a democratic society….

“Thinking about a civic ecology helps us to recognize that while journalists do important work in gathering and vetting the information we need to make appropriate decisions as citizens, they are only part of a larger system through which key ideas get exchanged and discussed.

“We understand this if we think about the classic coffee houses which Habermaas saw as part of the ideal public sphere. The proprietors, we are told, stocked them with a range of publications — broadsides, pamplets, newspapers, journals, and magazines — which are intended to provide resources for debate and discussion among the who are gathered there on any given evening….

“By this same token, the present moment is characterized by both commercial and noncommercial forms of communication. As the comic strip, Zits, explains, ‘If it wasn’t for blogs, podcasts, and twitter, I’d never know whar was going on.’…

Educational reform should go hand in hand with our efforts to restructure the civic ecology. As I’ve shown in my work for the MacArthur foundation, young people need to acquire a range of skills and competencies if they are going to meaningfully engage in the new participatory culture. As they scan the media ecology for bits and pieces of information, they need more discernment than ever before and that comes only if they are able to count on their schools to help them overcome the connected concerns of the digital divide, the participation gap, and the civic engagement gap.

“The Digital Divide has to do with access to networked communication technologies — with many still relying on schools and public libraries to provide them with access. The Participation Gap has to do with access to skills and competencies (as well as the experiences through which they are acquired). And the Civic Engagement Gap has to do with access to a sense of empowerment and entitlement which allows one to feel like your voice matters when you tap into the new communication networks to share your thoughts.

“Unfortunately, we’ve wired the classrooms in this country and then disabled the computers; we’ve blocked young people from participating in the new forms of participatory culture; and we’ve taught them that they are not ready to speak in public by sequestering them to walled gardens rather than allowing them to try their voices through public forums. …

“Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderheide have written about Public Media 2.0, suggesting that we should no longer think about public service media (as if the knowledge simply flowed from above) but rather public facilitating and public mobilizing media that creates a context for meaningful conversations and helps point towards actions which the public might take to address its concerns. It is no longer enough to produce science documentaries which point to distance stars without giving the public something it can do to support your efforts and absorb your insights into motivated action.

“It is no longer enough simply to inform. You must inspire and motivate, you must engage and enthrall the public, if you want to cut through the clutter of the new media landscape.”

What’s the point of journalism school?

“If there’s one thing a journalism school expects of its students, it is the ability to pose a tough question.

“Orion de Nevers, a freshman at the University of Southern California, serves up this one: Why would anyone major in journalism at all?”

  • Excerpt from NPR

My comment:

Journalism is (finally) being decoupled from newspapers and magazines. Print distribution is going away. Critical thinking and compelling expression skills can be acquired in many ways other than journalism school.

Just do it. Write a blog, shoot and edit video, curate topics of interest. The traditional gatekeepers are not needed. Just do it.

The revolt of China’s Twittering class via @ethanz

“Twitter has become a powerful tool for Chinese citizens as they increasingly play a role in reporting local news in their communities. But the social revolution brought by microblogging might be even more important than the communication revolution. Indeed, here Chinese Twitter users lead the world, using it for everything from social resistance, civic investigation, and monitoring public opinion, to creating black satire, ‘organizing without organizations’ in the Guangdong anti-incineration movement, and mailing postcards to prisoners of conscience….

“Twitter political activism in China challenges the simplistic yet widespread assumption that social media in the hands of activists can lead swiftly to mass mobilization and social change. Instead, these information-sharing tools and channels promote more subtle social progress.

“That subtlety reflects the distinction between macro-politics and micro-politics. Macro-politics is structural, whereas micro-politics is daily. Changes in the micro-political system do not necessarily lead to an adjustment in the macro structure, particularly in hyper-controlled political systems like China’s. But if small units are well organized, they can greatly improve the well-being of society as a whole, bit by bit, by working at the micro level. ‘Micro-information’ and ‘micro-exchange’ can push forward real change.

“Why is micro-power so important? In the past, only a few highly motivated people engaged in political activism; the masses took almost no initiative. Passionate people did not understand why the public seemed unconcerned about their efforts. Today, highly motivated people can lower the threshold for action so that people with less passion join their efforts.

Currently, the Chinese Twittersphere has three prominent features: First, as China’s rulers strengthen their censorship efforts, Twitter has become highly politicized. Moreover, Twitters brings opinion leaders together around one virtual table, attracting a lot of ‘new public intellectuals’ and ‘rights advocates,’ as well as veterans of civil rights movements and exiled dissidents. Its influence on Chinese cyberspace and traditional media is the result of this grouping.

“Finally, Twitter can be used as a mobilizing tool in China. Recent years have seen an explosion of activities indicating that Twitter has become the coordinating platform for many campaigns asserting citizens’ rights. With the proliferation of Twitter clones in China (all the major portals now offer microblog services), social movements in China are getting a long-term boost.”

With Twitter blocked, Chinese micro-blogging thrives

“China’s 420-million web users have seized on micro-blogging as a new avenue for mass expression in a tightly-controlled information landscape….

“Last year … China’s censors added Twitter to their list of blocked foreign services amid government accusations that social media were used to fan deadly ethnic unrest in northwestern China in July 2009.

“But several Chinese clones soon sprung up, offering users a platform for sending 140-character messages via provider websites or mobile phones — while exercising heavy self-censorship to keep authorities happy….

“From almost nothing last year, there are an estimated tens of millions of micro-blogging, or ‘weibo’, accounts in China…. A recent poll found that about 90 percent of under-40s use a “weibo” service … The DCCI predicts active user accounts will exceed 400 million within three years as China’s online population grows…

“Users say China’s half-dozen providers offer services that are superior to those of Twitter, such as embedding of videos and photos. They add that more can be expressed in 140 of the Chinese language’s pictographic characters than in English….

“The real impact of ‘weibo’ could lie in its ability to knit together — through the rapid, mass sharing of links — the countless Chinese blogs, forums and other websites that are the dominant outlet for public expression.

“’The density of information they have created, their frequency of dissemination and the degree of connectivity they have enabled for web users far surpass any previous form of Internet use,’ Hu Yong, an author of several books on the Chinese Internet, wrote in a recent opinion piece.”

The movement for open government software

“Code for America was founded to help the brightest minds of the Web 2.0 generation transform city governments. Cities are under greater pressure than ever, struggling with budget cuts and outdated technology. What if, instead of cutting services or raising taxes, cities could leverage the power of the web to become more efficient, transparent, and participatory?”

“Information is the currency of democracy, yet in our Information Age, the average citizen is deeply disconnected from civic life. Governments spend tens of billions each year on information management, but much of that data is locked away in proprietary systems. Newspapers once fed civic engagement, but mainstream journalism is crumbling. And cities sharing the same challenges — from education to transportation — are stuck finding solutions on their own, often the aid of peer and citizen expertise.

“OpenPlans is a non-profit technology organization focused on civic engagement and open government. We use journalism and open source software to turn data into accessible, useful information. This work engages the average person in shaping their community.”

“As public sector budgets continue to shrink across the country, a consortium of public and non-profit organizations today launched a new effort to reduce government IT costs. Civic Commons is a new public-private partnership that will help governments share software they have developed, eliminating countless duplicative software development efforts and accelerating the spread of innovation across the country.”

The benefits of publicness

“Publicness builds trust. Secrecy doesn’t.

“Publicness kills the myth of perfection. That is, when we open our process, we are showing our faults and are no longer held at every moment to the myth of perfection that has come to rule our industrial-age processes.

“Publicness enables the wisdom of the crowd. If we all keep our information, knowledge, ideas, and lessons to ourselves, we lose collectively.

“Publicness organizes us. Cue Clay Shirky. Speaking and assembling go hand-in-hand as rights. When we stand up and say who we are, we can find others like us and do things together”

Advancing the Web to empower people

From the Web in Society program at the World Wide Web Foundation.

“Creation of locally-relevant content on the Web is impeded in many places by the lack of knowledge and technology. Life-critical information and services are in limited supply, especially for those who need help the most.

“The Web in Society Program is the Web Foundation’s first step toward filling the ‘content gap’, the Web Foundation works directly in the field to provide grass roots organizations, governments, NGOs and entrepreneurs with the knowledge, training and tools to share locally-relevant information more effectively.

“Our initial focus is to support projects that foster social and economic progress in developing countries, and within sectors such as agriculture, health care, education, institutional transparency, women’s challenges and other topics of local and global relevance. Enabling content that is accessible on mobile phones will be key, especially in developing countries where mobiles are the dominant communication device. Exploring the use of voice as a first-class interface to the real Web is another goal.

Creating a network Like Facebook, only private

Diaspora will be released to developers September 15.

“The terms of the bargain people make with social networks — you swap personal information for convenient access to their sites — have been shifting, with the companies that operate the networks collecting ever more information about their users. That information can be sold to marketers.

Some younger people are becoming more cautious about what they post. ‘When you give up that data, you’re giving it up forever,’ Mr. Salzberg said. ‘The value they give us is negligible in the scale of what they are doing, and what we are giving up is all of our privacy.’

Excerpts from NYTimes.com