WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, and Government 2.0 with David Forbes – Technoccult interview

David Forbes

Photo by Jonathan Welch

David Forbes is an Asheville, NC based journalist and blogger. He’s a senior journalist at The Mountain Xpress, a regular contributor to Coilhouse (both print and online), and runs his own blog The Breaking Time. You can find him on Twitter here. As a fellow media-geek I asked David to chat with me about WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, and Government 2.0.

Klint Finley: Personally I don’t think there’s one single future for journalism, but many different futures. I think WikiLeaks is one of journalism’s futures – what do you think?

David Forbes: I would agree that there’s not one single future, just as there’s not one single past for journalism — is made up of many different methods of pursuing and conveying information. WikiLeaks represents that raw, juicy information aspect, and there is a role for that, though it’s more limited in impact that some of its apostles may think.

There’s also a desperate thirst for analysis and context, for putting information together in ways that Wikileaks can rarely do.

Above: short version of the “Collateral Murder” video

Well, it seems like they’re trying to do more of that now, with the collateralmurder.com site and all.

A bit yes, but it’s still not their strength, and I don’t think it ever will be. As the release of that video shows, their strength is in finding what others can’t find. Ironically enough, the best analysis of that video has been done by some of the more traditional journalists (in their training at least) who’ve moved well into new media and can use their own contacts and info to put all of this into context.

I’m not sure, but it seems like they were initially trying to be a resource for journalists instead of an actual source of journalism. But they weren’t get the response they were hoping for so they’re doing journalism themselves now.

Jay Rosen called them a “stateless press” which I thought was really interesting.

It is, and does play to that part of journalists’ minds that sees themselves as an investigative society beyond borders.

On a side note, journalism is a capricious field, and what wisdom there is remains usually of the least conventional. For example, this week news emerged that NPR has doubled its market share over the last ten years, to the point where it exceeds network TV news. By a lot of the narratives about “new media” radio’s a dinosaur, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. But it has.

NPR Fast Company chart

Above: NPR’s market share visualized by Fast Company via Peltier Tech Blog

Oh wow, that’s interesting. I knew they’d been growing for the past few years. I wonder if that has to do with increased commute times for American workers.

Partly, yes, but moreso I think it’s that they’ve moved fairly aggressively into new media, enough not to get left behind, and people are thirsty for succinct analysis of the glut of information out there.

So let’s imagine for a moment a scenario in which virtually all professional news organizations have gone out of business. There’s just no business model for them, and all that’s left is “citizen journalism.” (I don’t think it will come to that, but let’s just pretend.)

As a professional journalist yourself do you think “citizen journalism” could step in to fill that gap? Do you think out of work journalists would keep doing journalism on the side, for instance?

Ah, a good hypothetical. No, I don’t think they could, much as plenty of professional journalists are salaryman hacks and plenty of citizen journalists are quite good.

The value of professionalism is underrated, and most news orgs don’t help themselves by having become extremely stodgy, but investigative skills don’t come overnight, and the sort of combined knowledge and contacts some sort of organization has is invaluable.

I think, in that hypothetical, it would quickly “re-professionalize” The best citizen journalists would find backers or form organizations and another system – perhaps bounties for really valuable pieces- would come along to provide the resources.

Yeah, that’s part of why I think it’s an impossible scenario – at least a few people are going to make money some how.

How much investigative work do modern journalists do? It seems a lot of the leg work is actually done by non-profits, advocacy groups, people like that, before journalists even get started.

It depends on the modern journalist. Sadly, a lot of more corporate papers have ditched much of their investigative arms, but plenty, especially locally owned papers or alt weeklies (like the one I work for) are actually going into it more heavily because there’s a hunger for it. Sure, non-profits and advocacy groups will usually do some of the legwork, especially in the initial stages, but at best they’ll only have a piece of the puzzle. Even on basic news stories, plenty of journalists still spend a lot of time chasing down statistics, facts, harassing contacts. A lot of this doesn’t get seen outside, because what the public sees is a very small chunk that’s been battered into a coherent narrative.

A mentor of mine put it best “investigation is following up 10 leads and having  nine of them go nowhere.”

Can give any examples from personal experience of doing investigative work.

I’ll use one of the older, higher-profile stories I’ve worked on. Back in 2007 a Buncombe Sheriff’s deputy, using a North Carolina law that had been struck down in the ’60s, arrested a couple for flying a large, upside-down American flag in front of their house.

activists Mark and Deborah Kuhn arrested in Asheville

This was a case where the investigation had to be done extremely quickly. So I ended up heading to neighbor’s houses, talking to them, getting them to make introductions to others. Turned out one of them had snapped some pretty gripping photos of the arrest. I then uncovered the ruling striking down the old flag desecration law, and found out that the deputy shouldn’t have been responding to a call within the city anyway. The charges were dropped, but it’s an example of how investigative journalism works: the information was there, some of the neighbors had pieces of it, but it still had to be pulled together, put into a whole, added to, etc.

I don’t know if you can speak to this, but how is Mountain Xpress doing through this period of… adjustment… for the newspaper business? Alt weeklies have been amongst the hardest hit. Are you/they doing anything interesting to adapt and weather the storm?

We’re weathering it fairly well. That’s in part because the paper has a lot of loyalty in the area and a lot of support from the communities here. But we’re also adapting from the news end. Now when a news story breaks we’ll have it up on Twitter ASAP, and we’ve worked on building our news hashtags and put those feeds up on our main site. Then we’ll have a blog post, then an in-depth print article

Hell, I’m Twittering news from local government meetings (as my outside Asheville followers are no doubt weary at me for). But I think that “all of the above” approach is necessary to survive. Media changes, the need to deliver stories doesn’t.

Right – I think the hard part though is figuring out how to monetize new media. It’s obvious that you’ve got to be everywhere these days – but paying the bills gets harder and harder.

Are there any particular journalism start-ups or experiments that you find particularly exciting?

Well, you mentioned Wikileaks, and that’s one. I find some of the hybrid experiments interesting: the all-online Seattle Pi has developed a pretty extensive stable of “neighborhood bloggers” I think using Twitter for that quick-hit news (and feedback) is fascinating.

I think, in Seattle, the West Seattle Blog is even more interesting. But the PI is interesting in that it’s a very well established paper daily making a huge change in how they operate.

I’ll have to check that out: good local media is priceless, and I’m glad it seems to be making something of a comeback. The future of the PI will be interesting to follow too: they’re making some interesting steps, but I wonder if a corporate-owned paper can be as adaptable as they need to be.

I’m also really interested to see how the NY Times semi-permeable pay-membrane works out.

Ah, the NY Times. The journalism nerd in me loves them, though I gritted my teeth at the “pay membrane stuff.” Last year, I think someone found that for what it costs to supply all their subscribers, they could buy every last one of them a Kindle.

You mean all their print subscribers?

Yes.

Ah, it’s actually twice as much as buying every subscriber a Kindle, pardon me.

New York Times Kindle

One of the problems I see with monetization… even if you can get people to pay monthly fees for access or whatever, I don’t know if that will cover the sorts of expenses newspapers have. Newspapers have typically lost money on subscriptions and made up for it with ads.

Indeed they have. One of the problems, I think, is that corporations began buying newspapers and seeing them as just another asset. Newspapers, except for rare boom-times, aren’t meant to make huge amounts of money; they make slow, steady profits instead. Also, many got used to being the only game in town and alienated a lot of smaller advertisers, instead of finding ways to build them into a network that could better endure shaky times.

Ironically, a similar thing happened in the banking industry: this pursuit of massive profits inspired a lot of  dumb, risky decisions because parts of the economy apparently can’t work unless they’re making ridiculous amounts of money.

I actually really like the idea of the pay membrane – I hope it works out. But I don’t think it will be their only or even main source of revenue.

Government 2.0

So shifting gears a little bit. You’ve been following the “Government 2.0″ debate on your blog. First of all, can you sum up what “Government 2.0″ is concisely?

Basically it’s technologists looking to revolutionize government with, as one might expect, technology. Gov 2.0, in theory at least, would be more accessible, transparent and allow people and government to better coordinate to solve problems and get needed information. And that “in theory” absolutely has to be stressed.

How do you think that fits into what you do as a journalist?

This is one of those areas where it affects me at multiple levels. As a journalist, I know how difficult needed information can be to get and obviously freeing that up would be a major boon to my profession, and most citizens. The political observer in me — which is informed in part from seeing government up close as journalist — has some major criticisms of Gov 2.0.

And what are those?

Oh my, where to start. The Gov 2.0 people for the most part genuinely want to do good, and they’re brilliant. Some of this stuff — like making case law and legislation massively more accessible — will be a big boon. But they’re largely well-heeled business and government types. These are people for whom government’s already working pretty well.

I would’ve killed at the Gov 2.0 conference to see one community organizer up there, talking about how this could help people who aren’t remotely linked in to all this shining technology. Transparency’s great, but there’s already more information out there than ever before about how government operates. There need to be ways to connect people to actually use that information and to press for needed change — basically tomorrow’s political  machine. Politics is a fight, it is always and only a fight, whatever form it may take and whatever people may tell you otherwise. I don’t think most of the Gov 2.0 people really comprehend that yet and until they do, we’ll see some fancier tools and more info, but government will continue to be largely as it is now.

I’ve gotten very cynical, myself, about how much transparency and all that actually matters. We know so much about what happened during the Bush administration, and yet nothing was done about and nothing is being done about it.

Well it ended up playing a major role in routing his party in the elections and has led to the reversal of many of their policies (though not nearly enough, by many counts). But yes, it’s a stark example of the limits of transparency when not backed up by the power to make it count.

Hm, well, let’s try to wrap this up with something a little more positive.

Surprise musical number? I’m a terrible singer.

Yeah, I’m only good at making noise so that’s out.

OK, so let’s try and end with this question… If you could tell everyone who reads this to go out and do one thing after reading this, what would it be?

Pay attention to as much of the world around you as you can for one day. That means politics, art, fashion, weather, everything. Then pick a definite course of action to improve things from where they are right now. That’s vague, I know, but basic observation is a good start. I think there’s a grand world coming and we’re fortunate to live in very interesting times. But that same potential means upheaval and uncertainty. We’re going to need everyone engaged and ready to fight like hell in their own way, and taking a good look around is the best first step.

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