I attended the Block-by-Block Community News Summit in Chicago on Sept. 24, an event sponsored by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I spoke to hyper-local and community news start-up founders about policy issues they are facing in journalism's digital age. Below is a summary of the issues, followed by the founders' comments.
- Net neutrality: Metering or privatizing the Internet could hinder the exposure of small news outlets that could not compete with large media companies. New, small businesses are relying on net neutrality for equal treatment on the Internet to sustain their business and ensure access to all consumers seeking information.
- Local government data: Requiring local government to publish data in open digital formats will aid small news outlets. New news founders argue government data of all types is crucial to storytelling, but much data is inconsistently available and not always available in a digital format.
- Intellectual property: Revisiting intellectual property law to support sharing and remove the risk of patent infringement will aid small news outlets, especially those that create their own reporting software.
- Start-up funding, resources: Non-profit foundations should create more micro-loans to start-ups and consider extending loans to for-profit start-ups. Much of the funding today by non-profits goes to other non-profit news organizations, but not all start-ups want to register as non-profit. Make business registration more affordable. And, the private sector could help small news businesses by offering equipment or services to start-ups free of charge or at a discount. Perhaps use news start-ups as a testing ground for media-related equipment.
JOHN HAWBAKER, co-founder of Chattarati, a news and opinion site in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Net neutrality is a huge issue for a news start-up because as a new organization with limited resources, limited clout, limited awareness, if companies are able to limit the public's access to what we're doing and promote other outlets over us, then it limits the average person’s ability to tell their stories and it promotes certain viewpoints over others. It could be detrimental to the way people consume news.
Let's say a broadband provider really liked the New York Times, but didn't like [community site] The Loop, or if they had a disagreement with them over coverage -- I'm not saying anyone would actually do that -- but the potential for that exists and it would be legal for them to limit the public's access to those other sources. It might make news organizations with less clout afraid of how they approach stories about powerful institutions or people.
People need to be able to find us. The great thing about the Web is it’s a level playing field. Anybody can go out there, they can put their content out and they can be judged on the merits of that content without an intermediary saying ‘this is good, this is bad.’ People should be able to discover it and judge it on its own merits.
We’re very interested in data. It would be tremendously valuable if governments had to make to make their data available in an electronic format that was useful and standardized, searchable. We built campaign finance maps a couple years ago for municipal elections and we had to take these printed out pieces of paper that were scanned PDFs and we had to enter line-by-line every donation. Why can’t the county government make those available -- all those are in a county government database anyway. It should be easier to get campaign records in standardized formats.
BEN ILFELD is the co-founder of local news start-up Sacramento Press in Sacramento, California.
Data sets are unbelievably important. The problem isn’t all based on policy. A lot of it has to do with who will affect that policy, so the data that is most interesting is being held at the local level and [municipal governments] don't get funding to open those data sets up and when they do, there aren't good APIs, there aren't a lot of protocols of what it should look like so developers could easily use it.
What it comes down to is we need to skip the part where we convince governments that the information should be available online. I don’t think an alphabet soup of different sites and feeds should be necessary to collect government data. What we should do is convince people that there should be standards and protocols and then funding for local governments to free their data via these standards and protocols. And the people in this room will set up really cool websites that grab it and do something interesting with it, a la Everyblock. And Everyblock will immediately do cool things with it anyway. We need to skip the part where we tell everyone to build their own websites. That's junk and it costs too much money and it doesn't get us very far. And by the time they finish it everybody is going to be only on their cell phone and watching videos.
We have to figure out the ways developers can make the data into interesting things.
Try to make it standardized so that locals have a path. First of all, it's going to take a massive survey. What data do we want from locals? Fire data? That's low-hanging fruit. But what about local election reporting? There’s all sorts of things, like zoning requirements changes -- let's figure out a way where the governments can automatically push that data out when there is a zoning change. So there probably needs to be a discussion about what standards and what the protocol would be so that all they do is their system sends it out within their APIs and their feeds, but Sacramento's looks just like New Orleans’. So a programmer can go in and build one program that works for Sacramento and New Orleans, can build a website that does it, can build a Google mash-up that does it, they can do it nationwide.
What we're talking about is taking massive amounts of data and organizing it in such a way that computers can start to understand it semantically, and that's part of Web 3.0 and the semantic web. and one of the key things to getting there is having that data properly organized and in data sets that programmers can take in and automate what that looks like or how that's supposed to be read. Those really smart programmers aren't going to exist in every town and hamlet, so we need something where every programmer can build something that would work for everybody.
Sacramento County, if they decided to put all their stuff online, it will cost them a lot of money to find a web developer. Because they have to do the development -- not just the piping things out, how it's displayed, and they are going to spend a lot of money and a lot of time and it would actually be cheaper for them to be able to conform to standards and feeds. And there could be companies set up nationwide to go in and consult with cities because they've done it with 5 or 6 cities conforming to a certain feed. So it would be efficient, you'd create a new industry in the United States, it should probably be funded by the federal government because it's like a public good. It doesn't necessarily make sense for an individual city on their own, but together it actually makes a lot of sense so we probably need to collectively pay for this thing somehow, because you are going to have to have some kind of organizational structure that's deciding on the standards in the first place, because we are talking about government work. This is something that needs to be lobbied for.
Intellectual Property Law
Copyright law is pretty terrible. It's so terrible the Creative Commons can just come along and eat its lunch. Creative Commons just makes sense..... where people opt-in to systems that allow for certain kinds of sharing. The fact is we want to allow for more sharing than is normally possible and we have to have these really long things that lawyers write up that people agree to on our site and they don't really know what they are agreeing to so we try to make it like basic language with big headers.......We do what we can to try to force people to read that stuff, but it is not easy and we need something that's closer to Creative Commons.
Patent law should be thrown out all together..... because we build software and if we got to a certain scale, we'd be sued by everyone and their mother. Not because we stole anything, but because everybody owns the patent for basic things online -- I mean, scrolling to see the next story is probably owned by.... It's crazy. Even something like Amazon One-Click, which has held up in court, ...patented the ability to purchase something by clicking a button online? They've patented that!
PATRICIO ESPINOZA, founder of the local Alamo City Times, San Antonio, Texas, which publishes mostly volunteer-contributed content.
As a small start-up, particularly, one of the toughest things is the lack of funding. And that means you are working with a DBA -- "doing business as” -- because it takes money to get it incorporated. To be a nonprofit it takes $1,000, and if you get a lawyer, you still need $1,000 or so, at least in Texas. So I think it would be great if there's new entities that can be created. There's got to be a way it can be more affordable to people to register your entity so you can be incorporated or nonprofit so you are protected. As a DBA, if something happens, your home goes. What happens if you don’t have the $1,000 to process your forms? If something can be changed, I don't know exactly what, but it has to do with the way businesses can be more affordable.
Going to the private sector, foundations, foundations need to see that not everybody is a nonprofit and has a community-based foundation to work with. They should have programs where they have micro-loans or micro-funding, where journalists can get start-up money without having to be a nonprofit, without having to be part of a foundation. I think it's ridiculous there are organizations out there getting half a million dollars just because they are attached to a foundation when there are very qualified journalists working and all they need is a tiny percentage of that but they have no access to that unless you go nonprofit. But what if you don't want to go nonprofit?
I think foundations like the Knight Foundation, should create a program that is specific to that if they truly want to do what they say, which is support and encourage independent journalism. But this is how you do it: Stop giving money to so many foundations; create a micro-loan program even.
I tried applying many times [for foundation funding] and I can't do it. And I think there are many other websites like mine who are operating in good faith, operating in the public interest, that are working very hard, but we can't get $1,000. What I would love to do is go to foundations, and I have done this, and they have looked at my project and they loved it, they said it has everything we look for, but they say you have to be nonprofit or have a marriage with a community-based foundation. And here's the thing: community-based foundations don't understand journalism. They don't get it, they're full of red tape.
What I would also like to see is technology companies create programs for journalism media projects, where you could have access to technology. Where you can get the stuff that you need for either a reduced price or you fill out a form and you get a donation. Like the Harvard Citizen Media Law center. I wouldn't have a lawyer if it wasn't for that. And all I had to do was apply and qualify for it and it doesn't cost me a penny. So if a foundation could come up with a technology access kind of thing, you could go to Apple, Sony, Skype, and create this thing where people have access to technology -- there's so many things you could do if you had the right camera, the right this or that.
SUSAN MERNIT, founder Oakland Local, a nonprofit community news site in Oakland, California.
Broadband Infrastructure and Net Neutrality
In Oakland, we have huge issues of economic disparity. We have 17 percent unemployment and nearly 40 percent unemployment in the African-American communities. There are a lot of people who work in Oakland who have to leave the area to work in high-tech jobs. So I'm in personally very passionate about the need for net neutrality as a policy and for a focus on wireless broadband brought into multiple communities because I think those things not only protect free speech, but they help foster economic sustainability, new jobs and job development. I'd like to see a place where there are more tech-related job training programs and there's more access to high-speed broadband at affordable costs, and that some of the industry that's in Silicon Valley, where they are so squeezed for space, can migrate to Oakland because there are a lot of people in Oakland who now have to commute to San Francisco or Silicon Valley to work because there is no tech development in our part of the bay area.
Broadband in our area is metered by Comcast or AT&T. There really is no open broadband. I think that some of the ARRA monies should be distributed in a way that could support not only job development but infrastructure development in places like Oakland that are economically disadvantaged communities that are near tech sectors.
Jessica Durkin is a New America Foundation Media Policy Initiative fellow. She is the founder of InOtherNews.us, a directory of independent news start-ups, and blogs about it here and at her blog NewsRedux.us. Jessica is based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she examined the local news ecosystem.
Photo credits: Chattarati.com (John Hawbaker), NAHJ.org (Patricio Espinoza), susanmermit.com (Susan Mermit)