Information needs people

I love Jay Rosen‘s formulation of a really important assumption for many journalism critics: Weak is the need for current information without a strong culture of participation.

So important.

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Where has all the paper gone?

A friend recently e-mailed me with a comment about the decline of newspapers that had never crossed my mind:

“We are disappearing from the archaeological record.”

How interesting! I wonder what concerns archaeologists have about the digital world?

What is the importance of physical artifacts to understanding ourselves, or our history? In what ways are physical artifacts distinct from digital ones?

Is it even true that digital records are less durable than physical ones?

I’m sure this topic has been on the minds of archaeologists for a little while, really, considering that digital archives of information are not entirely new. But no one seems to mention it, at least not that I’ve come across.

To the library!

::: Updates :::

March 31: Coincidentally, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo was wondering the same thing, only in the realm of books — arguably, a greater concern than newspapers.

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Taking social networking’s power outside the network

If Facebook followed Bernard Lunn’s advice and put its weight behind something like Uncrunch America, I’d be happy. I wouldn’t be happy because of anything about Uncrunch America, in particular, though. Rather, I’d be happy because it would serve as an example of where Facebook was capable of harnessing its users and developers for pressing social needs. Of course, Facebook already offers ways for people to support social causes, so in a sense, the kind of move Lunn advocates wouldn’t be too unorthodox. But it would also suggest Facebook has potential for people to help one another, rather than provide only a platform on which people can share amongst themselves, or organize to them take action outside of Facebook itself.

As Lunn puts it: “Surely the web is more than just a tool to hurl sheep?”

Or am I just not familiar enough with other similar efforts – i.e., is this not unique?

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I finished Jeff Jarvis’ What Would Google Do and I feel like I need to go outside, or take a deep breath, or something.

Jarvis loves Google. Duh. Obviously. That’s the whole point. And that’s cool — I love Google too.

But something bugs me about deifying Google. I want to ask, “Yes Jeff, but what about urban schools?” “Yes Jeff, but what about making sure people have potable drinking water?” What bugs me is that I feel Jarvis might respond, “here’s how Google can solve this problem. Let’s go!”

The plan might be great, but I want to respond, “yes, this would work, but look around. It’s not happening, not yet anyway. People are still without water today.” That perspective is important to me. I worry it gets lost too often when I spend a good chunk of my time on computers with people similarly privileged and, possibly, working within too tight of a bubble.

Let me also be absolutely clear that I don’t mean to suggest Jarvis actually thinks any of this. In fact, considering he spent time in WWGD? on I’m inclined to think he recognizes the immediacy of these problems (even if he praises their response). I’m simply reporting here on the feeling I get as I go through his book — which, thanks to the publishing house structure he used (as he described), may have been more hyperbole than anything.

But apart from that, I’m jotting down some notes, some of the short-form wisdom (“Jarvis laws”?) I’m finding. I have a feeling I’m going to use them often.

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Deja-news all over again

Sometimes when I try to think about what news “is” (as in, for when people ask, why is x news?) I strip down the word: News is, basically, multiple things that are new.

Yet I hadn’t come across any coverage in mainstream media that suggested the same until today, when I saw it in two stories about the same topic.

> NYT: “Mr. Obama did make a sliver of news, disclosing that he intended to announce in the next couple of days what kind of help his administration would give the auto industry.”

> AP: “The president did not make news, but ran smoothly through answers to questions posed to him…”

Ignoring for a moment the slight contradiction between these media reporting on the event as “making history” and yet saying there wasn’t any news in it, the basis for the reporters saying he “didn’t make news” seems to be that he didn’t say anything they hadn’t heard before. So, apparently, there would have been “news” if there were something new.

Not that this proves my definition or anything. You couldn’t narrow down “news” to just one definition, anyway. But this caught me off guard.

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Seeing journalism as a niche product

One of the conclusions in Stealth Democracy is, to simplify, “some information is not necessarily better than no information.”

“Some information” means a few things, but one of them is the product of compromising on content to try to attract a wider audience. Think to when newspapers say “people are too busy to go to a jump page, so we’ll make it a ‘containable.’ That way they at least know something.” They at least know “some information.”

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue “some information” is harmful because, as they and others have argued, people make poor decisions in democracies when presented with incomplete information.1

“The conclusion “some information is not necessarily better than no information” has some potentially big implications for journalism.

For example, note the skepticism regarding the potential success of micropayment-funded journalism. Let’s say we’re right that many readers will run away if a news organization decided to start charging for content. To where will they run? If Stealth Democracy has anything to say about it, they will not run to the next site over to get news, or at least not news of much substance. They’ll run to someone who gives them TV listings and comics.

So, who’s left? To oversimplify (again2): People who care about what news journalists want to produce and who, hopefully, understand that producing that news comes with costs. These people understand that journalists (citizen, professional, extraterrestrial, whatever) need time to pursue the news and have to be willing to take on responsibilities to organize its delivery, presentation, etc.

I am not saying the community could not also help in all these processes (I would encourage it!), but I am saying this community may be made up primarily of like-minded people who, recognizing a social need and their having means to provide it, would be willing to compromise on a system of payment and responsibility necessary to provide that social need. If others outside of that circle wish to use it, fantastic. They’re welcome them into the group if they wish to join. But what interest would we, or should we, have in catering to them?

This could be a partnership. You have publication A for everyday, not-so-hard news, and publication B for people who want deeper coverage of events.

Publication B does not try to half-ass the news. It doesn’t offer “containables.” Because of its relatively small base of readers and funding, it can offer a deep relationship between reporters and readers/users (which can foster trust, also a good thing.) But publication A references publication B, saying “hey, someone wrote about this.” One line, one link to better coverage for people who want to know (do what you do best and link to the rest, right?).

How to monetize it? Good question. I haven’t a clue. I’m still not very good at thinking clearly about that.

:: late thought ::

The encouraging thing about the Internet is how easily this might — might — be possible. That’s why when I think about whether I’m too dismissive, I remind myself I also have an opportunity to overcome it with social networking tools and platforms.

:: related ::

Matt Thompson, of whom I’ve quickly become a fan, looks at this situation in a much more optimistic light. Worth a read.

:: notes ::

1. Lee Anne Peck has also argued against the mentality within journalism that praises act utilitarianism at the expense of asking “of what quality is the good created by our actions?” However, her argument addresses reporting practices, not necessarily output. You also could think of the times when newspapers name jurors, harming a good number of trials.

2. I keep saying I’m oversimplying because I want to stress I’m aware of when I’m doing so. The authors of Stealth Democracy make very clear their work is not conclusive, and I have no interest in trying to make it so. But I find the conclusions fascinating and, clearly, I’m interested in following them to see where they may lead when combined with more research.v

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That’s some consolation!

In a recent Pew Research Center report is the following:

As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.

Not unexpectedly, those who get local news regularly from newspapers are much more likely than those who read them less often to see the potential shutdown of a local paper as a significant loss. More than half of regular newspaper readers (56%) say that if the local newspaper they read most often no longer published — either in print or online — it would hurt the civic life of the community a lot; an almost identical percentage (55%) says they would personally miss reading the paper a lot if it were no longer available.

Is it somewhat telling that only 56% of regular newspaper readers think losing a newspaper would hurt civic life “a lot”? Only 56%? Just over half?

I admit that 56% is much higher than the 25% who thought it would hurt civic life “some.” But I have a hunch that had the survey asked reporters the same question, “a lot” would have totaled at least 90%. Pew’s results suggest to me that reporters and journalists have a disconnect of some kind with readers over how important their product is.

Some might say the source of that disconnect are people belittling the value of newspapers.1 Myself, I would blame apathy.

1. Parker is a perfect example of who those hypothetical 90%-plus of reporters might be. An example, from her column I linked to: “But the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic. “

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