On the Media

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ON THE MEDIA: The media today – A unionization wave across the industry

By Pete Vernon, November 20, 2017, for Columbia Journalism Review

ACROSS THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE, as consolidation and technological advancements drive rapid change, a mainstay of 20th century labor battles is having its moment. Staffers from numerous outlets, both legacy print and digital-only, are unionizing.

At the Los Angeles Times, long a bastion of anti-union sentiment, staffers have engaged in a public-facing unionization drive, challenging its parent company Tronc. For CJR, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer traces the paper’s history with labor, which includes a bombing of the Times office by a pair of brothers hired by unionists. Writing on the current state of play, she contrasts the huge raises that Tronc executives have given themselves, even as they demand cuts across their newsrooms, with the pay cuts taken by New York Times executives over the same period (the NYT newsroom has long been unionized). Mohajer writes that “the successful formation of a union at the Los Angeles Times would have been largely unimaginable in the last century,” but Times national correspondent Matt Pearce tells her, “We think this can be successful. We’re the dominant publication in the most populous, wealthiest state in the country, one that is driving the direction of the country in many ways.”

A wave of unionization has taken place across the digital media landscape in recent years, with journalists at Vice, Gizmodo Media Group, HuffPost, and other outlets organizing. Last week, staffers at Vox Media—the digital startup that runs eight sites, including Eater, Recode, and Vox.com—announced their intention to do the same.

The dismal financial picture for media outlets is well known. Last week’s news that BuzzFeed and Vice would fall significantly shortof their revenue targets only added to the gloomy prognosis. Facing that uncertain future, it’s no surprise that journalists would opt for the collective bargaining rights and employee protections that unions offer. Management at many of those outlets, however, is pushing back. One week after DNAinfo and Gothamist staffers voted to unionize, the sites’ billionaire owner Joe Ricketts shut down his entire operation. Even at liberal sites, like Slate, resistance from management has been stiff.

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman on Life in Donald Trump’s America

By Will Tizard, November 12, 2017, for Variety

Frederick Wiseman, 87, whom Camerimage Film Festival is honoring with a retrospective of five films and its award for Outstanding Achievements in Documentary Filmmaking, has remained resolute in his approach to subjects, from Chicago public housing to juvenile court, beef feed lots and Paris’ Crazy Horse nightclub, since 1967. That’s when his first film, “Titicut Follies,” exposed such abusive practices at the Bridgewater, Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane that it was banned for decades (though attorneys argued it was a violation of patients’ privacy).

His new project, “Ex Libris,” is an incisive, three-hour-plus look at the New York Public Library system that presents a host of the real-life heroes, struggles and small victories that have drawn audiences to Wiseman’s work ever since he left behind his career as an instructor and/or researcher at Boston University, Brandeis and Harvard, and picked up a camera.

“Ex Libris” leaves you with kind of a glow – something about seeing all these brilliant librarians thinking up incredible ways to serve their community.
Trump has made it a political film. Because everything the library represents is in such stark contract to everything he represents. Interest in others, helping poor people, helping immigrants, you can go right down the line – everything. Access to knowledge, interest in science…

The New York Public Library staff are incredibly resourceful and motivated, as you discovered.
They’re genuinely interested in helping other people. And that’s nice to see any time – particularly great to see it now. It’s interesting for Europeans to see it because a lot of them have never been to America and all they know about is Trump. And it gives them a sense of another aspect of American life.

You’ve said you never go into a film with a thesis and that filming is your research – what was your most striking discovery in “Ex Libris”?
The real answer to that question is what you see in the film. I think it’s the variety, the diversity of activities – and wish to genuinely help other people, which the diversity of activity is an expression of.

I really don’t know what the point of view or the themes are until I begin to put the sequences together. And that’s after seven or eight months of editing.

I first edited all the sequences I thought I might use, and then when I thought all the so-called candidate sequences were editing and close to final form then I began to work on the structure at that point. I made the first assembly very quickly – maybe three or four days. Because I knew the material very well and I could make the changes fast.

What’s your method for constructing the narrative at that point?
The first assembly always comes out 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final film and then it takes me six or eight weeks after that where I work on the internal rhythm within a sequence, the transition sequences, until I’m satisfied that I’ve got the best film I can make out of the material I have.

And then I go back and I look at all the rushes all over again to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything that might be useful as a result of the choices that I’ve made.

It’s fascinating how public and private funding come together in such a vast institution, which your frequent focus on exploring class really illustrates.
It’s about 50-50. I think their annual budget is about $300 million and half come from the private sector and half from the city.

The library bridges the class divide in the sense that all classes use it and rich people support it. And you see all classes, races and ethnicities are present. But in terms of the great gap between rich and poor in America now, it certainly suggests that, although it doesn’t deal with that – it’s not a principal theme of the film.

But you see the people who are the board of trustees and you contrast them with the people you see who are in that one-room library in Harlem. It does begin to suggest that there’s a pretty big gap.

“Ex Libris” involved more locations than you’ve ever had – 13, correct? How do you not get lost while editing all this material yourself?
Yeah, that is the most. That’s where you make or break the film, in the editing. You can have good material and screw it up or you can have mediocre material and improve it. I don’t start with a script or anything so the idea is always to find the film in the rushes.

Well, if I’m having a bad day, I go take a walk or take a nap then go back at it. I like doing it so that helps.

But most documentarians really value an objective editor who can come in cold and spot the holes and the areas that might be confusing.
I could never do that. You have to have good picture and you have to have good sound. But you can screw up in the editing. I would never delegate it to anyone else.

Right from your start with “Titicut Follies” in 1967, you’ve rejected the conventions of interviews, voiceovers and music. Did you always have the feeling that these manipulate the audience’s emotions?
I don’t feel any need to do it. Yeah, that’s what music does. I try to do it with the music that’s available that the people in the film heard.

There’s a lot of music in my films but it’s always music that’s recorded as part of the shooting. It’s not added music. There’s a lot of music in “Ex Libris” but it’s all music that I recorded as part of the shooting.

I try to cut the movie so that I give the viewer enough information so that they can understand what’s going on. When this technique works, it works because the viewer feels that they’re present. I’m not against interviews – I’m only against using them myself. I mean Marcel Ophuls has made great movies because he’s a terrific interviewer.

Same with voiceovers – I don’t like to use anything that distances the viewer from what they’re watching.

You’re also a purist in your stand against re-enactments, insisting on filming only what occurs in front of the lens. But doesn’t this mean important events can often happen off camera?
Inevitably you miss stuff but I like to be prepared to shoot interesting things that are going on when I’m present. At least I don’t know what I missed when I’m not present!

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ON THE MEDIA: The Trust Project brings news orgs and tech giants together to tag and surface high-quality news

, November 16, 2017, for Nieman Lab

“The hope is that, if news organizations are more clear and transparent about what they’re doing, then users can make their own decisions.”

Will readers trust the news more if they have more information about who’s behind it?

It’s worth a try. Thursday marks the launch of The Trust Project, an initiative three years in the making (but feeling oh-so-relevant right about now) that brings together news outlets such as The Washington Post, The Economist, and the Globe and Mail, as well as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Bing, in a commitment to “provide clarity on the [news organizations’] ethics and other standards, the journalists’ backgrounds, and how they do their work.” The project will standardize this method of increased clarity so that news organizations, large and small, around the world can use it, and so that the algorithms of the tech giants can find and incorporate it.

“The public can look at this and say, ‘okay, I know more about what’s behind this organization’,” said Sally Lehrman, senior director of journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and the creator of the project, which is funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, Google, the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Markkula Foundation. “Hopefully, it will pull back the curtain on some of our practices as journalists, which, in fact, a lot of people don’t know about. And this lack of transparency is partly what creates a sense of suspicion.”

A team of representatives from dozens of media companies worldwidecame up with eight “core indicators”:

— Best Practices: What Are Your Standards? Who funds the news outlet? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.
— Author Expertise: Who Reported This? Details about the journalist who wrote the story, including expertise and other stories they have worked on.
— Type of Work: What Is This? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.
— Citations and References: For investigative or in-depth stories, greater access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.
— Methods: Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a
story and how they went about the process.
— Locally Sourced? Lets people know when the story has local origin or expertise.
— Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts to bring in diverse perspectives.
— Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy and other areas.

“Think along the lines of a nutrition label on a package of food, or a lab report that conveys your health status when you go in for a checkup,” Lehrman wrote in a post on TheAtlantic.com earlier this year. The Trust Project worked with Schema.org to create a standardized technical language for the tags so that tech sites can incorporate them.

The first wave of publishers going live with the Trust Indicators includes The Washington Post, Mic, The Independent Journal Review, The Globe and Mail, The Economist, Trinity Mirror, The German Press Agency dpa, and Italy’s La Repubblica and La Stampa. Lehrman sought out these organizations to be first because “those are ones I knew had the technical capabilities to be the demonstrations. I also aimed to experiment with how this would work across different types of media.” The integration of the standard is a heavy technical lift; it needs to be incorporated into publishers’ CMSes and site code. You can check out this Trello board for links to how the Indicators are being incorporated onto various parts of participating publishers’ sites, from “About” pages to author bios to citations and references. And here’s a mockup of an article that contains all of the Indicators.

The second wave will probably include a similar number of publishers. The Trust Project also worked with the Institute for Nonprofit News to develop a WordPress plugin that allows qualified publishers to incorporate the indicators into their sites. Eventually, the project will begin scaling more ambitiously. “The costs will lessen over time,” said Lehrman. “I’m thinking a lot about how to ease the path for newsrooms that don’t have the kinds of resources that this first phase of newsrooms does.”

There are also, of course, the tech companies. Facebook, Google, Bing, and Twitter partnered with The Trust Project early on, and will be incorporating the Trust Indicators into their products in various ways. Partnering with The Trust Project since its conception has been important to Google, in large part because “we believe the indicators can help our algorithms better understand authoritative journalism — and help us to better surface it to consumers,” said Richard Gingras, VP of news products at Google, in a statement. “We hope to use the Type of Work indicator to improve the accuracy of article labels in Google News, and indicators such as Best Practices and Author Info in our Knowledge Panels.”

Facebook, meanwhile, will be displaying the Trust Indicators via the article context feature it launched in October.

For now, the tech giants’ buy-in appears experimental and limited. Nobody is saying that they’ll favor Trust Project partners in their algorithms or anything like that. “You’re not going to see sudden changes with the algorithm,” Lehrman said.

The Trust Project is explicitly nonpartisan. The Independent Journal Review is the most conservative launch partner, but overall, the project is meant to be a consortium of “news organizations that adhere to traditional standards,” Lehrman said. “The idea is that news organizations are providing information about how they go about their work, who funds them, and what their mission is in terms of coverage. The hope is that, if news organizations are more clear and transparent about what they’re doing, then users can make their own decisions.”

There are bound to be naysayers, “fake news” criers, and both readers and sites that regard the appearance of the Trust Project’s logo as, in fact, a sign that an outlet should not be trusted. But Lerhman believes that, over time, the project will make inroads among readers. The Center for Media Engagement (formerly the Engaging News Project) at The University of Texas, Austin, has been testing news consumers’ reaction to the Trust Indicators over the past few months, and though the full results haven’t yet been released, “the Trust Indicators did create a statistically significant shift in attitude about whether the site was trustworthy,” Lehrman said.

“I am confident that, over time, this will start to build,” she added. “The Trust Project provides a strong sense of how journalism is distinct from other kinds of information. These [participating] organizations are independent. They don’t want to be controlled. But they are saying this is a situation where they want to band together to respond to the public need.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Newsonomics: A call to arms (and wallets) in the new era of deregulation and bigger media

, November 16, 2017, for NeimanLab

 

First Sinclair and now the Kochs are back. In an age of media free-for-all and massive deregulation, will fact-based journalism become an endangered species?

Quibble, if you will, about the level of degeneracy now afoot in the heart of the Old and New Confederacy, as the Roy Moore saga provides yet more sick drama in the country.

That’s a sideshow. What’s quickly appearing on the main stage — if it’s still behind the curtain for now — is the beginning of a likely massive movement in news media ownership. You think you’ve seen a politicization of the press? The 2016 election may serve as just its preamble.

We’re on the brink — witness several actions this week alone — of a small number of right-leaning companies rapidly buying up, or buying into, the assets of journalism companies. In so doing, the alt-right “fake news” assault may move into a much more insidious phase, as long-trusted brands could take their marching orders from those who believe “fact” is fungible, in service of their political and business goals.

“Media madness,” former Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps called it Wednesday, as 15 Democratic senators called for a new federal investigation of the FCC’s rush to deregulate broadcast media in America.

Their immediate target: Today’s FCC meeting, as current FCC chairman Ajit Pai speeds up his blitzkrieg assault on the decades-old regulatory rules aimed at maintaining a diverse, many-voiced, widely owned free press. Soon to be repealed: several regulations that have prohibited domination of broadcast news media by a few companies and one that has long forbid the joint ownership of a major newspaper and a major TV broadcaster in the same market. [Update: On Thursday afternoon, the FCC indeed voted to repeal the regulations preventing broadcasters from owning newspapers in the same market.]

While Pai and his confederates pose superficially plausible arguments about how digital media has changed everything, their goals are more prosaic. Sinclair Broadcasting figures to become the first big winner of the new era. Although it’s opposed by a good mix of critics — from the stalwart Free Press group to Newsmax’s Chris Ruddy to Glenn Beck to the Dish Network, Public Knowledge, and Common Cause — Sinclair stands a good chance of soon becoming the largest regional broadcaster. How big? If it is allowed to complete its acquisition of Tribune Media (which some will recall cashed out a good chunk of the newspaper industry–built digital classifieds business and then most of the real estate and buildings associated with the former Tribune, now Tronc, newspapers), Sinclair will own 233 TV stations across the country, including the 42 gained in the Tribune sale. That’s a reach into 72 percent of U.S. households. Before the in-progress de-regulation, companies were capped at 39 percent.

Look no further than the coverage of the Roy Moore story to get a glimpse of the future in detail. In “How Sinclair compromised the news on an Alabama station it owns to support Roy Moore,” Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik traced the chain of slanted reporting. It began with Sinclair-owned WBMA, which reported that all its sources (from three interviews) believed the good judge and not The Washington Post.

Then Breitbart picked up that report, giving its journalism even wider distribution and its own brand of certification. It’s hard to quickly assess how WBMA and other Sinclair owned stations have covered the Moore story. What we do know is that Sinclair, privately owned and led by chairman David D. Smith and CEO Christopher Ripley, makes no secret of its alt-right enthusiasms. It has mandated nationally produced must-carry editorials, some of them so fact-challenged as to provide ample satiric fodder for John Oliver. 6,356,541 people, as of this writing, had watched that 20-minute Oliver segment, but it’s unclear how much of a difference that makes. (On the other hand, let’s recognize the dogged work of Advance Publications’ Al.com tracking the real story of Roy Moore’s behavior in Gadsden in the 1970s and eighties.)

Sinclair’s approval appears to be in the final stages, though it’s unclear how the heightening opposition will affect that. It may be the first of ever-bigger deals done for political as well as business reasons. As former FCC commissioner Copps told Deadline.com Wednesday, “[It’s] the nadir of the FCC’s credibility as a protector of the public interest. We shouldn’t just be focused on one merger. There are going to be a lot more after that. It’s a flashing green light, greener than any before it.”

While broadcast takes center ring here, pay attention to the rest of the circus.

On Wednesday, the aspirational media mogul Koch Brothers blazed their way back into media ownership consciousness. As The New York Times reported, the brothers are backing a bid to buy Time Inc. With an injection of $500 million, magazine publisher Meredith looks as if it will finally be able to close its pursuit of Time Inc., perhaps putting that company out of its two-decades-old transition woes. The Kochs came close to beating Michael Ferro to the Tribune Publishing punch three years ago; only odd circumstance and pressure on one of Tribune’s then-major owners, Oaktree Capital Management, and on its co-chairman Bruce Karsh, prevented that deal.

In 2013, the Kochs came close to owning The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant, Florida’s Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun. (Presumably, if they had made the acquisition, David Zurawik wouldn’t be writing his critical columns for the Sun, and then often taking his viewpoint to Brian Stelter’s Sunday morning Reliable Sources.)

As the Times’ Dealbook put it, “It is not clear how much influence — if any — the Kochs would have on a Meredith-owned Time Inc. if the deal were to go through.” The Kochs have never been shy about mixing business and politics, and they’ll be — with long-standing publisher Meredith a curious intermediary — close to such titles as Time Magazine, Fortune and Money.

How might they use that influence? How might Sinclair double down on its own advocacy after it wins the approvals it needs? Who else may come along — with enough money to freely mix business and politics? Inevitably, Rupert Murdoch’s name reappears. Just a week after it was reported that his 21st Century Fox was in talks to sell substantial film and TV cable assets to Disney, his name has popped up again as a would-be buyer.

Could it have been the never-say-die 86-year-old news magnate of our time who whispered AT&T sweet nothings in President Trump’s ear, moving him to both tweet concern about media consolidation and to see his recent pick for Department of Justice Antitrust chief reverse himself and object to AT&T’s buy of Time Warner, including, most significantly to our points, CNN? Yet it’s also been reported that Murdoch has been a would-be buyerof CNN? The regulatory apparatus, or the dismantling of one, only serves as another means to a business end for Murdoch. Yes, imagine it: Some kind of Fox/CNN tie-up of money, distribution and, of course, working the political angles of the day.

Who may be a first mover if Ajit Pai is successful in letting big broadcasters buy up as many of the country’s TV stations as they want and add big metro newspapers to their consolidated operations? Rupert Murdoch would have to be high on that list. And again, the L.A. Times, the center of so much intrigue throughout its ownership-challenged decade, plays a part. In 2012, Murdoch, too, wanted to buy the L.A. Times. But he was stymied by the cross-ownership rules that meant he’d had to sell highly profitable L.A. stations in order to buy the Times. Now, if the FCC changes stick, Murdoch may be a key player in the broadcast/press roll-up.

This brings up the inevitable question: where are the other names? Wasn’t George Soros supposed to be the master of progressive conspiracies? We’ve seen people like Jeff Bezos (Washington Post), John Henry (Boston), Glen Taylor (Minneapolis) and the Huntsmans (Salt Lake), among others, step forward and return degrees of reinvestment and stability to important metro dailies. Now, when it looks as if many more assets can be bought — and combined, with TV broadcast assets looking richer in a print-decimated world — who else will step forward?

It will take confidence, courage, and money, to confront the new reality. Free Press and others are likely to contest FCC changes in the courts, but that may only be a delaying action. It’s best, perhaps, to contest this war of free press in the marketplace as well. This week, I raised the question of who might buy CNN if the global TV news giant (and leader of the digital news audience pack) comes up for sale. Though, AT&TT CEO Randall Stephenson has proclaimed his willingness to litigate DOJ’s objection to the breadth of his Time Warner buy, time — and offers — may persuade him to sell off CNN.

The gravity of such a sale is clear. I’d argue that CNN has served as a fact-seeking bulwark against the alt-right, in the company of the Times and Post in aggressively covering and uncovering truths and lies. Imagine if it morphed into something else. (In fact, AT&T’s own standing has quickly morphed, given the crazy times: It has moved from being a perhaps poor steward of CNN to a politically aggrieved party in the mess. On Monday, L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik laid out concerns about the AT&T/Time Warner deal.

On Tuesday, Axios’ Jim VandeHei linked the rise of Newt Gingrich’s weaponized politics to John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as VP to the “algorithm-ized rage” of Facebook. “Fox News, created in 1996, televised and monetized this hard-edged combat politics. This created the template for MSNBC to do the same on the left, giving both sides a place to fuel and fund rage 24/7. CNN soon went all politics, all day, making governance a show in need of drama,” he wrote. The Fox point is a good one, but underestimates Fox’s — and Murdoch’s influence — on our current politics.

Before Fox — the Americanized version of downmarket British tabloids that blur fact and fictions — such “journalism” was reserved for a place at the supermarket checkout. Most people knew that the category of Enquirers and Stars were not to be taken seriously. Fox News changed that by looking like TV news, its production values and Roger Ailes’ wiles revolutionizing reality. In 2017, we’re up to competing realities. What about 2027?

In the Trump administration’s ongoing teardown of regulation — from health to environment to education — incalculable damage grows. Its media deregulation could have a great deal of impact. I’ve written, here at the Lab, about the likely impacts of news deserts on the 2016 election. As we approach 2018, that desertification only grows. Print advertising losses of 15 percent or more will mean hundreds of fewer journalists working next year. The FCC’s cry for digital freedom is likely a smokescreen. The likely convergence in the TV/local newspaper property combos to come will likely be convergences of costs and less reporting. Cost savings are a top priority for companies eyeingsuch consolidations. But this deregulation could put more money into the pockets of those who already have a lot of it.

Last week, when I spoke with New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, he recalled his awakening to the value of journalism in a democratic society:

My story of becoming a journalist — I was born in 1957, so at the age of 14 or 15, I was completely engrossed by American politics and Watergate. In England, by the way, where I couldn’t see any American newspapers. But hearing at one or two removes about the work being done by The New York Times and The Washington Post in uncovering Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and so forth. It’s a matter of honest astonishment that 45 years, 46 years later, it’s the same brands.

It is an astonishment. About 2,000 journalists, in total, power those two institutions. Although their work this year will prove historic, it’s not enough. We need journalists working freely in the pursuit of fact all over the country, in whatever “print” and “TV” become.

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ON THE MEDIA: America’s Local Newspapers Might Be Broke – But They’re More Vital Than Ever

Local journalism is doing great work across the country while fighting cutbacks and tight budgets. But we need people to stop expecting news to be free

By: Kathleen McLaughlin, September 11, 2017, for The Guardian

The Texas Tribune’s coverage of Hurricane Harvey wasn’t a magic trick; it was the result of truly persistent beat reporting. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

More than a year before Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, the Texas Tribune dug deep into how climate change and unchecked growth created a sprawling city vulnerable to devastation if the perfect storm hit.

In their investigation, the Tribune explained the factors behind Houston’s dangerously heightened exposure to hurricane disaster. In the days since Harvey flooded the city, ruined homes and businesses and killed at least 70 people in its path, the Texas Tribune’s work has been hailed as “oddly prescient”.

In fact, it was the natural outgrowth of great journalism by reporters who know their subjects and communities well and have covered these issues extensively.

One of the Tribune’s reporters, Kiah Collier, explained that she and her colleague Neena Satija reported at length on Houston’s debate “over how, and whether, to build some kind of storm protection system to block the devastating storm surge that would accompany Houston’s ‘perfect storm’”. When Collier moved to the Tribune from the Houston Chronicle in 2015, Satija was already in talks with Pro Publica about the project and she jumped aboard.

“This previous coverage was definitely important; I had a grasp on the issue from the get-go and a bunch of sources,” Collier told me over email.

Collier says she and her team knew the story would be predictive, but not so soon. Rather than being spooked by the Tribune’s accuracy and ability to foresee what was coming to Houston, let’s consider instead the years of hard work, digging and trust-building it took their reporters to get to that story. It wasn’t a magic trick; it was the result of truly persistent beat reporting.

In the face of massive cutbacks and tight budgets, this kind of reporting is happening all over America. I’ve been working this summer with the Guardian and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project on their new On the Ground project and I’ve been doing what might be the most fun part of the work. My job has been to create partnerships with local and regional news outlets like the Texas Tribune.

One of the goals of the project is to get these important stories about inequality in front of the people affected by them. We know that nobody does that better than local and regional press. Talking with dozens of editors, from Atlanta to Wyoming and Texas to Tulsa, has reaffirmed my belief that a massive share of the most important journalism done in America today is from reporters and editors committed to improving their own communities, not in amassing empty praise or followings on Twitter.

From beautiful new magazines to old-fashioned small-town daily newspapers, local journalism is still fighting a tough financial battle, but doing incredible work.

Missoula, Montana. Photograph: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

In Atlanta, the Bitter Southerner has turned gorgeous reporting, writing and editing, wrapped under a killer brand name, into a battle against negative stereotypes about the American South. In Fargo, North Dakota, the alternative weekly newspaper High Plains Reader is investigating racism and violence in one of the only states in America without a hate crimes law. In Oklahoma, the online outlet Oklahoma Watch picks one or two topics each year that its top-notch staff can dig into at great length, with consequential reporting and insights.

These are just a few of the outlets I’ve had the pleasure of exploring this summer. All across America, I’ve spoken with journalists who are committed, working their butts off and forever looking for new ways to keep their organizations going financially. There’s no shortage of the will to do solid journalism, to help people better understand what’s happening in their towns and cities. But with the death of traditional newspaper funding and the ongoing corporate consolidation of American local press, the situation can seem grim.

Even over the course of the summer, the media landscape in my home state of Montana changed yet again. (I wrote about Montana’s media and the dire state of local news in America earlier this year). Missoula’s only independent newspaper – the Missoula Independent – was bought by Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based company that already owns four of the state’s largest daily papers and several smaller outlets.

The Independent was probably Montana’s lone remaining widely read critic of Lee’s cutbacks and coverage in the state and though its management has promised to keep it independent, the truth remains to be seen. Separately, the Lee chain scaled back yet again on its political coverage, moving one of its two remaining state reporters into a local education beat. The change went unreported in their pages.

Montana’s shrunken press is but one example of what happens to journalism when the ultimate motive is profit. In a report last fall, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that since 2004, more than a third of US newspapers had been sold at least once, and that the largest newspaper companies continue to buy up papers and squeeze out cash.

“Concerns about the role and ownership of newspapers have been voiced and debated since the founding of the country,” they wrote. “However, the dramatic shift in ownership of newspapers over the past decade – coupled with the rapidly deteriorating finances of community papers – brings added urgency to a new version of an age-old question: In the digital age, what is the civic responsibility of newspaper owners to their communities?”

Yet it’s wholly unclear whether non-profit models are better at serving the public good. A new report from New York University questions whether foundation-funded journalism is just creating more reporting for those who already have journalism – the wealthy (sorry, I can’t use the word “elite” as it’s almost always a misnomer), who live in clusters of America where media remains relatively strong.

So what can you do? The simple solution lies with you, dear reader. Find a news outlet valuable to your life and pay for it. Plain and simple. It’s not a long-term solution, but we need people to stop expecting the news be the same as air and sunlight – absolutely free.

On Sunday, we got some very sad news that a potential partner for On the Ground was going away, for an indefinite period. The editor of Indian Country Today – an invaluable source of news and information and the Native American diaspora in the United States – has gone on hiatus to figure out a new funding model. This month, the Guardian published a beautifully reported and written piece by one of their journalists on violence against Native women. Without her deep grounding in the issue, built through years of reporting, it’s hard to imagine how writer Mary Pember could have done the issue such justice.

ICT editor Chris Napolitano told me he thinks there are ways to get people to support journalism again, but we may be well beyond the era of subscriptions supporting reporting. What lies ahead, he suggests, is in adding value, going beyond the headlines and daily news.

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ON MIGRATION: The Stories Behind DACA, the Now-Ended Program for Young Undocumented Immigrants in the US

By: Amanda Lichtenstein, September 11, 2017, for Global Voices

Activists protest the end of DACA in Los Angeles, September 5, 2017. “Deport Hate, Not Dreamers” and “United We Dream/#DefendDACA.” Photo by Molly Adams on Flickr, permission under CC BY 2.0.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that the Trump administration would terminate a program that grants two-year renewable work and study permits to immigrants who were brought to the country as children without papers.

In the days following the policy shift surrounding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACAprotestswalkoutspetitions, “resistbot campaigns” and calls for impeachment have flooded the internet and the streets of the US. Critics accuse the White House of being cruel, as many DACA recipients self-identify as Americans.

DACA was put in place through executive action by President Barack Obama in 2012. A legislative version of the policy, known as the DREAM Act, has repeatedly failed to pass in Congress.

Nearly 800,000 DACA recipients, who are often called “dreamers” in reference to the DREAM Act, now face the possibility of deportation when their permits expire in six months if Congress does not act.

The decision triggered a renewed debate on the very definition of what it means to be an “American,” in this case referring to a citizen of the United States, with organizations like Define American at the forefront, using stories to put a face to the numbers.

Founded by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is himself undocumented, Define American’s mission is to use the power of story to “transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.”

Define American also invites undocumented people and their allies to create and upload text and video testimonials about the immigrant experience in the US.

Giovanni Amado, 23, arrived in the US in 1998 from Mexico City when he was just 3 years old. In his video testimonial, published a few days before the Trump administration’s announcement, Amado talks about his work as a fraud specialist in a bank and says he does not understand how terminating DACA helps anyone:

“The term American should not be defined by a document or the lack of one. It is more so the willingness to contribute to the country and help others out whenever possible.”

And Denea Joseph, a 23-year-old woman from Belize who came to the US at the age of 7, says DACA allowed her to finish her university studies. She defines American as:

“..an individual — immigrant or otherwise — who has lent their skills, knowledge, education, business acumen as well as labor that lends to this nation’s positionality as a hegemonic power.”

In addition to crowd-sourced testimonials, Define American recently launched#UndocuJoy, a social media campaign designed to combat victimizing representations of undocumented people by “flooding the media with authentic images of happiness.”

The campaign features a video in collaboration with poet Yosimar Reyes who narrates his poem “I Love Us” throughout a series of images of everyday undocumented people getting up, going to work, dancing, making breakfast, and being human:

“I love us / because we have constantly had to prove our humanity / and constantly done it beautifully / Because to stay human / Under these conditions / you have to have an understanding of / Beauty.”

The struggle for permanent sanctuary

In Attorney General Sessions’ speech announcing DACA’s termination, he referred to DACA recipients as “mostly adult illegal aliens.”

His choice of wording recalled Define American’s campaign #WordsMatter, launched in 2015, which urges journalists to stop using the word “illegal” to refer to people:

“Phrases such as “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien”  replace complex legal circumstances with an assumption of guilt. They effectively criminalize the personhood of migrants, instead of describing the legality of their actions.”

“Being in the US without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one,” the campaign continues.

Given Trump’s past disparaging comments about people of Mexican origin, as well as a series of controversial executive orders, pardons, and proclamations that involve minority communities, the move to end DACA and the language used to justify the decision have reinforced accusations that Trump is purposefully stirring mistrust and hatred in society.

Even before Trump’s rise to the presidency, the federal government’s deportation priorities led certain areas of the country to limit their cooperation with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Currently, four states (California, Colorado, Connecticut and New Mexico), as well as 37 cities and counties, have declared themselves as so-called sanctuary cities.

Following the DACA decision, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel doubled down on his city’s commitment to offering sanctuary, going so far as to declare Chicago a “Trump-Free Zone.”

But sanctuary cities aren’t a permanent solution for DACA recipients. Their fate now rests with Congress. Perhaps hearing the personal stories published by initiatives like Define American will remind lawmakers that there are real people behind the statistics and that being American is more than just a piece of paper.

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ON THE MEDIA: U.N. Human Rights Chief Condemns Trump’s Attacks on Media

By: Nick Cumming-Bruce, August 30, 2017, for The New York Times

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human rights chief, said the president risked inciting violence. Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

GENEVA — The United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday that President Trump’s repeated denunciations of some media outlets as “fake news” could amount to incitement to violence and had potentially dangerous consequences outside the United States.

The rebuke by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights, at a news conference in Geneva was an unusually forceful criticism of a head of state by a United Nations official.

Mr. al-Hussein was reacting to Mr. Trump’s recent comments at a rally in Phoenix during which he spoke of “crooked media deceptions” in reports of the violent clashes at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the death of a counterprotester.

In Phoenix, the president’s words also appeared to whip up audience hostility toward journalists.

“It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only a cornerstone of the Constitution but very much something the United States defended over the years, is now itself under attack from the president himself,” Mr. al-Hussein said. “It’s a stunning turnaround.”

Asked for comment, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in an emailed statement, “We believe in free press and think it is an important part of our democracy, but the press also has a big responsibility to the American people to be truthful. Their job is to report the news, not create it.

“Is it not ‘dangerous’ for the media,” she continued, “to create false narratives and overzealous attacks against the president that the American people chose to be their leader? The president is focused on growing our economy, creating jobs, securing our border and protecting Americans. Since those are also the priorities of most Americans, hopefully the media will make covering them theirs.”

In an attempt to deflect criticism that he had stoked racial divisions by failing to unequivocally condemn the actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as racist, Mr. Trump had accused the news media of giving a platform to hate groups.

He singled out by name The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post.

Mr. al-Hussein said that the violence in Charlottesville was “an abomination.” The Nazi salutes, the display of swastikas and the anti-Semitic chants had no place in the United States or anywhere else, he said.

“To call these news organizations fake does tremendous damage,” Mr. al-Hussein added. “I believe it could amount to incitement. At an enormous rally, referring to journalists as very, very bad people — you don’t have to stretch the imagination to see then what could happen to journalists.”

Mr. Trump’s relationship with the news media has veered from lobbing labels like “dishonest” and “enemy of the people” at certain companies to agreeing to cordial sit-downs with those very outlets, like a wide-ranging interview with Times reporters in July.

President Trump speaking in Phoenix last week. Photo: Tom Brenner/The New York Times

He was criticized for retweeting a short video meme showing him wrestling with and punching a figure whose head had been replaced by the logo of CNN, a network he has called “garbage journalism.”

But the president has shown a strong preference for programs on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox network, like Sean Hannity’s program and “Fox & Friends.”

Before the presidential election, Mr. al-Hussein had warned that Mr. Trump could be a danger to international stability, but on Wednesday, at a news conference to discuss Venezuela, the human rights chief focused mainly on more recent domestic events.

Mr. al-Hussein said the president’s demonization of the news media was “poisonous because it has consequences elsewhere.” If a journalist were to be harmed, he asked, “does the president not bear responsibility for this, for having fanned this?”

Countries that did not recognize the essential role of the news media could be inspired if journalists in the United States were attacked, he said. He noted that Cambodia’s government, for example, had withdrawn licenses from the news media and it had cited Mr. Trump as an inspiration for doing so.

Mr. al-Hussein also condemned the president’s comments regarding Muslims, minorities and transgender people as “grossly irresponsible.”

“It emboldens those who think similarly to sharpen their assaults on these communities,” he said.

The number of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States in the first three months of this year was 86 percent higher than in the same period last year, he said, citing figures from the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. al-Hussein compared Mr. Trump to a bus driver “careening down a mountain path.” From a human rights perspective, he said, “it seems to be reckless driving.”

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ON MEDIA: Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival

By Nick Rice for Clash, 17-07-17

Clash – DocFest 2017, Strong Island

Inspiration overload at one of the international film industry’s most important annual events…

The Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival, or Doc/Fest as it’s widely known, is a welcome highlight on the international calendar of any filmmaker or documentarian and for the vastly growing audience of compelling and crucial non-fiction films.

For six days in June, Sheffield city centre becomes a cosmopolitan heaving hub of activity that celebrates and elevates a palette of film work that is as rich as it is relevant. With swanky boutique, brand spanking multiplex and cosy old favourite cinemas across the city all involved, alongside other venues such as the Crucible Theatre, City Hall and Town Hall – plus free outdoor screens with deckchairs dotted around – the Doc/Fest requires some careful navigation. Thankfully, everything is within walking distance, so every talk, masterclass, screening, live performance, workshop, exhibition networking party or piss-up, is only a quick march away.

For one itinerary-busting week festival-goers are exposed to the latest works of internationally acclaimed veteran filmmakers and vital emerging voices that reflect the world we share. As the CEO and Festival Director Liz McIntyre succinctly puts it, “We’re reeling from seismic change as we witness events that we know will become the most pored over scenes in future documentaries. Doc/Fest 2017 is brimming with documentaries that are funny and quirky, powerful and influential, heart-stopping and heart-breaking”.

The Opening Night film of the 24th edition was the world premiere of Daisy Asquith’s Queerama, coinciding with 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which marked the slow process of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK. Given unlimited access to the British Film Institute’s archives, with some material dating back to 1919, Asquith has crafted an eye-opening and entertaining account of gay experiences in the last century.

Clash – DocFest 2017, City of the Sun

With a soundtrack by John Grant, Alison Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair the film transports us into the lives of gay men and women throughout the 20th Century. Black and white footage and testimonials from homosexuals in the 1940s and ‘50s offer a rarely seen glimpse into the intensely difficult challenges that society once imposed. The film and its playful editing (staggering given it was accomplished in months rather than years) shines a welcome light on how far society has progressed in the face of ugly prejudice. After the premiere John Grant performed several tracks used in the film and joined Asquith and the prominent creator of contemporary British queer cinema Campbell X for a lively Q&A.

The Talks & Sessions are one of the most popular elements of Doc/Fest and this year the stellar bill continued. Louis Theroux interviewed one of his heroes, Nick Broomfield – the acclaimed filmmaker who during his forty years in the industry has made films such as Biggie and Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Kurt & Courtney and the hotly-anticipated Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me which premiered at the Doc/Fest. Broomfield and Theroux made for an infectious duo and after a riveting tour through the elder’s career one City Hall audience member shouted out the suggestion that they should collaborate, which quickly received noisy cheers of concurrence.

The redoubtable and always likeable Ian Hislop was also at City Hall in conversation with the BAFTA-winning actor and satirist Jolyon Rubinstein (The Revolution Will Be Televised, Revolting). The pair were intensely amusing bedfellows and unpicked the world of post-truth and satire, lambasting prime targets like the excruciatingly smug Piers Morgan and the sickeningly repellent Katie Hopkins in their stride whilst presenting the modern media landscape encountered by the long-time editor of Private Eye and the only panel member of Have I Got News For You who has never missed a single episode, even when requiring an urgent operation for appendicitis.

Clash – DocFest 2017, A RIVER BELOW

At the Crucible Theatre the legendary director and artist Peter Greenaway CBE, whose work stretches back to the 1960s and includes The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, gave an uncompromising speech in which he slammed the need for writers in filmmaking and called instead for a “painter’s approach” to the art. In a densely-filled hour Greenaway championed non-narrative styles of storytelling and urged for more pioneering forms of artistic approach to respond to the febrile social and political changes at hand.

One of the most enlightening talks came from the explorer, BAFTA-Award winning presenter and skilled documentarian Bruce Parry, who discussed his extraordinary career to date with journalist and presenter Katie Puckrik. The Showroom Cinema hosted a packed session and screened sneak previews of Parry’s latest project – the result of four years of work, pleasure and pain – the new feature length documentary Tawai – A Voice From The Forest (due for release in cinemas this Autumn), in which he returns to reconnect with the tribes from his amazing adventures when making the ‘Tribe’ BBC series. Returning to India, Malaysia and the Amazon and to the Penan tribe of Borneo, Parry discussed the film and how his fascinating documentary work and journeys have brought him to a fully rounded re-evaluation of his views on human nature and how humankind relates to the natural world.

The Marketplace segment of Doc/Fest offered a huge programme of initiatives and pitch opportunities for anyone either already making films or eager to do so. TV stations, Production company’s and content providers such as Channel 4 and The Guardian hosted live pitching sessions where audiences observed the entire process from a candidate’s pitch through to the final decision making and filmmaking prizes. This is another one of the numerous fantastic things about Doc/Fest – it’s such an inclusive and supportive environment. Whether you are simply a keen documentary fan, a fledgling filmmaker or a bonafide legend, there is always something to engage and inspire.

Not least the actual films. A total of 60,856 attendances were enjoyed by everyday cinema-goers and international and UK industry delegates, with a record 250 screenings at 14 screens across the city.

Clash – DocFest 2017, City of Ghosts

In its first year at Doc/Fest, the Art Doc Award, which has been created to celebrate new forms of storytelling and recognises bold, innovative non-fiction films, was given to ‘City of the Sun’ by first-time filmmaker Rati Oneli (United States, Georgia, Netherlands, Qatar, 2017). The film moves seamlessly between fact and fiction and lays bare the honest realities and ups and downs of four different sets of lives in what remains of a small mining town in Georgia.

The Environmental Award was taken by A River Below (Dir: Mark Grieco, Brazil, 2017), which highlights the alliance between a renowned marine biologist and a reality TV star who are both campaigning to save Brazil’s pink river dolphin, whilst also posing questions about the ethics of activism in the modern media age.

The Tim Hetherington award, given to films and filmmakers that resonate with the late journalist Tim Hetherington’s legacy, was won by Strong Island (Dir: Yance Ford, USA). Through unflinching testimonials and stylish cinematography we bear witness to the grief endured by a family whose son was murdered on Long Island, New York, and the disinterest of the police in bringing to justice the killer of a young black male.

The Grand Jury Award went to City Of Ghosts (Dir: Matthew Heineman, USA). The film centres on the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and in a heart-pounding 90 minutes it exposes the unspeakable horrors of life under ISIS rule.

Festival Director Liz McIntyre mentioned that “we strive to increase the visibility and accessibility to documentary story-telling for inspiration” and Doc/Fest does that and much more in extraordinary fashion.
– – –

An early bird price of £159 + VAT for a ‘Lightning Pass’ – giving access to all of next year’s films and events – is available HERE.

The 25th edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest will open on Thursday 7 June 2018 and close Tuesday 12 June 2018, with the Annual Awards’ Ceremony and Closing Night Film.

Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival report

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ON THE MEDIA: Confusion over U.S. Travel Ban Grounds Foreign Correspondents

New restrictions on immigrants and refugees coming to the United States are also posing challenges for foreign correspondents covering news in the United States. Some have had to indefinitely postpone plans to report on conflicts in the Middle East while others have found an unfriendly reminder of their past treatment as journalists in less free countries. U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration executive order sent shockwaves throughout the world as citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees were barred

Source: Confusion over U.S. Travel Ban Grounds Foreign Correspondents

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ON THE MEDIA: In West Bank, Witnesses To Conflict Are Using Video To Document What They See, NPR

This week, Israel will sentence a soldier convicted of killing a wounded Palestinian man last year in Hebron. A Palestinian shoemaker recorded a video of the shooting, which was shown at the trial.

Source: In West Bank, Witnesses To Conflict Are Using Video To Document What They See : Parallels : NPR

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ON THE MEDIA: The View From Room 205

Can schools make the American Dream real for poor students?

ON THE MEDIA: A powerful radio documentary on the appalling state of US education in poor neighborhoods.  From Linda Lutton at WBEZ, Chicago public radio.

Source: The View From Room 205

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ON THE MEDIA: Declaration of Dependence – The Local News Lab

Communities and news organizations working together will transform local journalism. Here’s how.

Source: Declaration of Dependence – The Local News Lab – Medium

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ON THE MEDIA, HAITI: Interested in Haiti? Read this book: Why Haiti Needs New Narratives by Gina Athena Ulysse

A Haitian-American anthropologist makes sense of her homeland in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

Mainstream news coverage of the catastrophic earthquake of January 12, 2010, reproduced longstanding narratives of Haiti and stereotypes of Haitians. Cognizant that this Haiti, as it exists in the public sphere, is a rhetorically and graphically incarcerated one, the feminist anthropologist and performance artist Gina Athena Ulysse embarked on a writing spree that lasted over two years. As an ethnographer and a member of the diaspora, Ulysse delivers critical cultural analysis of geopolitics and daily life in a series of dispatches, op-eds and articles on post-quake Haiti. Her complex yet singular aim is to make sense of how the nation and its subjects continue to negotiate sovereignty and being in a world where, according to a Haitian saying, tout moun se moun, men tout moun pa menm (All people are human, but all humans are not the same). This collection contains thirty pieces, most of which were previously published in and on Haitian Times, Huffington Post, Ms Magazine, Ms Blog, NACLA, and other print and online venues. The book is trilingual (English, Kreyòl, and French) and includes a foreword by award-winning author and historian Robin D.G. Kelley.

Source: UPNEBookPartners – Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: Gina Athena Ulysse

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ON THE MEDIA: Truth, Fact, and the Future of Journalism (Co-hosted w/Citizen Futures) – StoryCode Boston (Boston, MA) | Meetup

Truth, Fact, and the Future of Journalism (Co-hosted w/Citizen Futures)

Wednesday, Jan 25, 2017, 6:00 PM

Workbar Cambridge
45 Prospect Street Cambridge, MA

20 StoryCodas Went

On Wednesday, January 25th, StoryCode Boston and Citizen Futures will present a discussion on the future of journalismThe Big Idea: What “truth” do we want from journalism? How will we define media and journalism going forward? Is the business model broken? Will journalism still have a voice?Overview // Follow the money: The media landscape is p…

Check out this Meetup →

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ON THE MEDIA: Predictions for (Local) Journalism 2017: Nieman Journalism Labs

Each year Nieman Jourmalism Labs asks people in journalism and digital media what they think is coming in the next 12 months. Here’s a selection of the responses that specifically address the power of local perspectives. Join our campaign: #LookListenLocal #csfilm #MentProdInfor

LOCAL JOURNALISM WILL FIGHT A NEW FIGHT “We will never be able to compete with the national news outlets on scale. So instead, we will acknowledge our strengths: Proximity. Intimacy. Fidelity.” 

LOCAL NEWS GETS INTERESTING “Going deep with local news means creating uniquely valuable journalism, rather than fighting the traffic battle against dozens of hot takes on Washington’s latest twists and turns.” 

JOURNALISM IS COMMUNITY   “Who is consuming our work? Is this audience different from who we would expect? Are there other people who would benefit from our work, and how do we reach them?” by 

STOP FLYING OVER THE FLYOVER STATES  “We have to stop thinking of these people as subjects we cover and relate to them as neighbors, friends, and readers we make journalism for.” 

CHAOS OR COMMUNITY? “Newsrooms must hire decision-makers, not just reporters, who are reflective of the communities we cover.” 

THE YEAR OF LISTENING ““The thing about listening,” some bold newsroom leader will say, standing atop a desk addressing the newsroom, “about really listening, is that it’s not soft. It’s not a kind of nice thing to do when you have extra time. If you do it right, it will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And make no mistake: The future of this newsroom, the future of our democracy even, depends on it.””

INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION WITHOUT COLONIAL OVERTONES “So much of the conversation about media internationalization and global expansion uses a lot of conquest language and colonialist overtones — and sometimes not even subtly” 

Find all the predictions here:  Nieman Journalism Lab

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ON THE MEDIA: How to Find and Support Trustworthy Journalism – Go Local – Medium

If you are hungry for news you can trust, journalism that helps you make decisions about your community, reporting that holds power to account, then this is for you. This is my personal advice for people who want to support journalism that matters.

Source: How to Find and Support Trustworthy Journalism – Highlighting Generosity – Medium

#MentProdInfo #CSFilm #LookListenLocal

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ON THE MEDIA: Are humans evolving beyond the need to tell stories?

By Will Self, www.theguardian.comNovember 25th, 2016

Neuroscientists who insist technology is changing our brains may have it wrong. What if we are switching from books to digital entertainment because of a change in our need to communicate?

A few years ago I gave a lecture in Oxford that was reprinted in the Guardian under the heading: “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)”. In it I argued that the novel was losing its cultural centrality due to the digitisation of print: we are entering a new era, one with a radically different form of knowledge technology, and while those of us who have what Marshal McLuhan termed “Gutenberg minds” may find it hard to comprehend – such was our sense of the solidity of the literary world – without the necessity for the physical book itself, there’s no clear requirement for the art forms it gave rise to. I never actually argued that the novel was dead, nor that narrative itself was imperiled, yet whenever I discuss these matters with bookish folk they all exclaim: “But we need stories – people will always need stories.” As if that were an end to the matter.

Non-coincidentally, in line with this shift from print to digital there’s been an increase in the number of scientific studies of narrative forms and our cognitive responses to them. There’s a nice symmetry here: just as the technology arrives to convert the actual into the virtual, so other technologies arise, making it possible for us to look inside the brain and see its actual response to the virtual worlds we fabulate and confabulate. In truth, I find much of this research – which marries arty anxiety with techno-assuredness – to be self-serving, reflecting an ability to win the grants available for modish interdisciplinary studies, rather than some new physical paradigm with which to explain highly complex mental phenomena. Really, neuroscience has taken on the sexy mantle once draped round the shoulders of genetics. A few years ago, each day seemed to bring forth a new gene for this or that. Such “discoveries” rested on a very simplistic view of how the DNA of the human genotype is expressed in us poor, individual phenotypes – and I suspect many of the current discoveries, which link alterations in our highly plastic brains to cognitive functions we can observe using sophisticated equipment, will prove to be equally ill-founded.

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has been prominent in arguing that our new digital lives are profoundly altering the structure of our brains. This is undoubtedly the case – but then all human activities impact upon the individual brain as they’re happening; this by no means implies a permanent alteration, let alone a heritable one. After all, so far as we can tell the gross neural anatomy of the human has remained unchanged for hundreds of millennia, while the age of bi-directional digital media only properly dates – in my view – from the inception of wireless broadband in the early 2000s, hardly enough time for natural selection to get to work on the adaptive advantages of … tweeting. Nevertheless, pioneering studies have long since shown that licensed London cab drivers, who’ve completed the exhaustive “Knowledge” (which consists of memorising every street and notable building within a six mile radius of Charing Cross), have considerably enlarged posterior hippocampi.

This is the part of brain concerned with way-finding, but it’s also strongly implicated in memory formation; neuroscientists are now discovering that at the cognitive level all three abilities – memory, location, and narration – are intimately bound up. This, too, is hardly surprising: key for humans, throughout their long pre-history as hunter-gatherers, has been the ability to find food, remember where food is and tell the others about it. It’s strange, of course, to think of Pride and Prejudice or Ulysses as simply elaborations upon our biologically determined inclination to give people directions – but then it’s perhaps stranger still to realise that sustained use of satellite navigation, combined with absorbing all our narrative requirements in pictorial rather written form, may transform us into miserable and disoriented amnesiacs.

When he lectured on literature in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov would draw a map on the blackboard at the beginning of each session, depicting, for example, the floor plan of Austen’s Mansfield Park, or the “two ways” of Proust’s Combray. What Nabokov seems to have understood intuitively is what neuroscience is now proving: reading fiction enables a deeply memorable engagement with our sense of space and place. What the master was perhaps less aware of – because, as yet, this phenomenon was inchoate – was that throughout the 20th century the editing techniques employed in Hollywood films were being increasingly refined. This is the so-called “tyranny of film”: editing methods that compel our attention, rather than leaving us free to absorb the narrative in our own way. Anyone now in middle age will have an intuitive understanding of this: shots are shorter nowadays, and almost all transitions are effected by crosscutting, whereby two ongoing scenes are intercut in order to force upon the viewer the idea of their synchrony. It’s in large part this tyranny that makes contemporary films something of a headache for older viewers, to whom they can seem like a hypnotic swirl of action.

It will come as no surprise to Gutenberg minds to learn that reading is a better means of forming memory than watching films, as is listening to afternoon drama on Radio 4. This is the so-called “visualisation hypothesis” that proposes that people – and children in particular – find it harder not only to remember film as against spoken or written narratives, but also to come up with novel responses to them, because the amount of information they’re given, together with its determinate nature, forecloses imaginative response.

Almost all contemporary parents – and especially those of us who class themselves as “readers” – have engaged in the Great Battle of Screen: attempting to limit our children’s consumption of films, videos, computer games and phone-based social media. We feel intuitively that it can’t be doing our kids any good – they seem mentally distracted as well as physically fidgety: unable to concentrate as they often look from one handheld screen to a second freestanding one, alternating between tweezering some images on a touchscreen and manipulating others using a remote control. Far from admonishing my younger children to “read the classics” – an utterly forlorn hope – I often find myself simply wishing they’d put their phones down long enough to have their attention compelled by the film we’re watching.

The Great Battle of Screen … a teenager triple-screening. Photograph: U Baumgarten via Getty

If we take seriously the conclusions of these recent neuroscientific studies, one fact is indisputable: whatever the figures for books sales (either in print or digital form), reading for pleasure has been in serious decline for over a decade. That this form of narrative absorption (if you’ll forgive the coinage) is closely correlated with high attainment and wellbeing may tell us nothing about the underlying causation, but the studies do demonstrate that the suite of cognitive aptitudes needed to decipher text and turn it into living, breathing, visible and tangible worlds seem to wither away once we stop turning the pages and start goggling at virtual tales.

Of course, the sidelining of reading narrative (and along with it the semi-retirement of all those narrative forms we love) is small potatoes compared with the loss of our capacity for episodic memory: would we be quite so quick to post those fantastic holiday photographs on Facebook if we knew that in so doing we’d imperil our ability to recall unaided our walk along the perfect crescent of sand, and our first ecstatic kiss? You might’ve thought that as a novelist who depends on fully attuned Gutenberg minds to read his increasingly complex and confusing texts I’d be dismayed by this craven new couch-based world; and, as a novelist, I am.

I began writing my books on a manual typewriter at around the same time wireless broadband became ubiquitous, sensing it was inimical not only to the act of writing, but that of reading as well: a novel should be a self-contained and self-explanatory world (at least, that’s how the form has evolved), and it needs to be created in the same cognitive mode as it’s consumed: the writer hunkering down into his own episodic memories, and using his own canonical knowledge, while imagining all the things he’s describing, rather than Googling them to see what someone else thinks they look like. I also sense the decline in committed reading among the young that these studies claim: true, the number of those who’ve ever been inclined “to get up in the morning in the fullness of youth”, as Nietzsche so eloquently put it, “and open a book” has always been small; but then it’s worth recalling the sting in the tail of his remark: “now that’s what I call vicious”.

And there is something vicious about all that book learning, especially when it had to be done by rote. There’s something vicious as well about the baby boomer generation, which, not content to dominate the cultural landscape, also demands that everyone younger than us survey it in the same way. For the past five years I’ve been working on a trilogy of novels that aim to map the connections between technological change, warfare and human psychopathology, so obviously I’m attempting to respond to the zeitgeist using this increasingly obsolete art form. My view is that we’re deluded if we think new technologies come into existence because of clearly defined human objectives – let alone benevolent ones – and it’s this that should shape our response to them. No, the history of the 20th century – and now the 21st – is replete with examples of technologies that were developed purely in order to facilitate the killing of people at a distance, of which the internet is only the most egregious example. Our era is also replete with the mental illnesses occasioned by such technologies – sometimes I think our obsession with viewing violent and horrific imagery is some sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder.

So, it may be that our instinctive desire to kill at a distance is a stronger determinant of our cognitive abilities than our need to tell other humans where the food is. Which would certainly explain why poring over a facsimile of Shakespeare’s first folio is being supplanted by first-person shooters. I’ve referred throughout this piece to Gutenberg minds, and I do indeed believe that each successive knowledge technology brings with it a different form of human being. It’s worrying that our young seem distracted and often depressed, and sad for those of us who have invested so much of our belief and our effort in print technology, that it – and the modes of being associated with it – appear to be in decline. But it may be the case that our children are in the larval stage of a new form of human being, one which no longer depends on their ability to tell the others where the food is. Why? Because, of course, they know where it is already, due to the absolute fluidity and ubiquity of bi-directional digital media. Indeed, there may not be any need to tell the others where the food is in the future, because in an important sense there are no others.

The so-called “singularity” proposed by tech gurus, whereby humans hybridise with machine intelligence, and form a new genotype, subject to evolution by natural selection, may not begin with a cosmic bang; rather, the whimpering of our children as they shoot at their virtual enemies, or are defriended, may be the signal that it’s begun already. Richard Brautigan, the great hippy writer, envisaged a “cybernetic meadow” in which “mammals and computers live together in mutually programmed harmony”. It sounds to me an awful lot like our own current state of storytelling, without, of course, the need for anyone to read poetry, which is the form within which Brautigan did his visualising, and we received his rather optimistic vision.

This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by Will Self as part of Scottish Book Week. His new novel, Phone, will be published by Penguin next year.

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Divided We Fall, But Bland Calls For Unity Won’t Cut It Either

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This is about the deep listening that needs to be done and that Community Supported Film wants to nurture and champion…

“The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that it is up to our political leaders to unify us. They can set the tone, but it is primarily in the hands of the American people to rebuild a basic level of mutual respect and dignity …
Hate and bigotry almost always grow out of fear.
Caring for those you disagree with is not the same as compromising your principles.
Emotional connections change everything; rational arguments don’t. …
1. Whatever it is you are pursuing, think about who loses if you win.
2. Decide you care what happens to them.
3. Reach out across that divide to start a real conversation. …”

The 2016 election highlighted divisions that run deep in American society. Here’s what you can do to help bridge them.

Source: Divided We Fall, But Bland Calls For Unity Won’t Cut It Either

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ON THE MEDIA: Eight Ways to Strengthen Democracy Beyond Voting

Chuck Collins great post on the work to be done. Community Supported Film particularly encourages us all to evaluate the impact of his point #1 and #2. We must do some “deep listening,” as Christopher Lydon (Open Source) has been saying. We need to hear the perspectives of those we don’t know and don’t understand. The media is not doing this work for us and we must find a new way to hear each other. Community Supported Film is committed to empowering local voices.

‘Especially after the deeply toxic experience of 2016,’ writes Collins, ‘we all need to step up to protect our real democracy.’

Source: Eight Ways to Strengthen Our Democracy Beyond Voting

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ON THE MEDIA: Local Investigative Reporting – Nieman Reports

voiceofsandiego.org,

At the nonprofit voiceofsandiego.org, ‘From day one our job has been to fill the gaps between what people want from their local media and what they have.’

Source: Defining an Online Mission: Local Investigative Reporting – Nieman Reports

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