Archive for the ‘Knight News Challenge’ tag

Why we need a UK equivalent of the Knight News Challenge

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This post was first published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog on 9th October 2014

You’ll remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never existed. Mr Potter owns virtually everything in the town. There are pawnshops, night clubs and neon bars all down the high street. Nothing functions in the re-named ‘Pottersville’ without Mr Potter taking a cut.

In five years’ time, a new media giant such as Google or Facebook could have a similar stranglehold on our local media.

Our local print press continues to decline. In the first half of 2014 alone, local newspaper circulation dropped by an average of 13.5 per cent year-on-year. Since 2000, regional newspaper paid circulation has more than halved.

Hyperlocal websites are starting to fill the democratic gap, but slowly and intermittently. There are fewer than fifteen hyperlocal sites in Northern Ireland and fewer than thirty in Wales and Scotland (Ofcom, 2013). Less than a third of hyperlocal sites make enough money even to cover even basic costs (Barnett/Townend 2014).

Open data has yet to animate an army of armchair auditors, as the Coalition government hoped it would. ‘Simply putting data “out there”’, the Public Administration Committee said in 2014, ‘is not enough to keep Government accountable’ (PAC, Tenth Report).

Civic technology has not taken off in the UK as it has in the US

We do not yet have an equivalent to Nextdoor.com – the private residents’ social network, or neighbor.ly – the crowdfunding site for local civic projects, or openplans.org – digital tools to involve people more closely in planning decisions.

The amount invested in local news and civic technology in the US – for profit and non-profit – dwarfs that invested in the UK. The Knight Foundation alone has put over $235 million into journalism and media innovation in the last eight years. MacArthur, Rockefeller, Open Society, Ford and other foundations have also supported innovation in this area. Private investors have invested more still, particularly in civic technology. Between 2011 and 2013, private funders put $364 million into civic technology in the US (Knight Foundation, 2013).

In contrast, our local civic innovators and entrepreneurs are starved of support. NESTA, Technology Strategy Board and Carnegie are almost the only non-commercial funders supporting innovation in local news and information.

The consequences are becoming clear. Local news and information providers are increasingly unable to perform the role expected of the Fourth Estate. Local businesses and services are ever more reliant on non-UK technology platforms. We urgently need to alter our trajectory. We need to move from deterioration and dependence to innovation and growth.

Spurring innovation

The best way to change this is through a local news competition. A competition in which individuals and organisations would compete for awards of between £10,000 and £50,000 to start, grow and run the local news and civic technology of the future.

Similar competitions already exist in the US – like the Knight News Challenge. Over the first five years of the Challenge, Knight gave awards to 79 news innovation projects – a total of $26.5 million.

A UK version of such a competition could see a transformation of local news. Ten million pounds a year for five years would lead to over 2,000 award winners: 2,000 local news and civic technology projects around the UK. It would be a bottom up revolution in local news, driven by people in the local areas themselves. Compare this to the 30 licenses granted to organisations to provide local broadcast TV services.

Neither does such a competition need to be supported through existing public funds. The French government set up a €60 million news transition fund paid for by Google (following a dispute about whether Google should pay to display news content in its search results). Eric Schmidt has since said he is happy to discuss a similar arrangement in the UK. Alternatively, there could be a more realistic charge for the collection and commercial re-use of personal data.

Such a competition could create a flowering of innovation and information about local communities. It could energise civic participation and democratic engagement. It could leave a legacy of enterprise, experience and invention that would put the UK at the forefront of digital information development.

The alternative? We could watch as new media giants – most US-based – colonise our local areas, providing digital platforms for everything from the council to the police to local business. These digital giants would necessarily levy a charge or subsidise their services through local advertising.

As with Mr Potter’s Bedford Falls – or rather Pottersville – nothing will function in Bedford, Bedfordshire, without Google or Facebook taking a cut.

The full report on which this post is based – ‘Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality’ – was published by the Media Standards Trust on 9 October 2014. 

Written by Martin Moore

October 17th, 2014 at 11:33 am

‘A rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other’ – on public activism and civic media

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This post was first published at PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on Thursday 30th June 2011

The smell of public activism wafted across this year’s Knight Civic Media conference at MIT.

Mohammed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English (AJE) spoke about how Al Jazeera covered the Egyptian revolution. Political consultant Chris Faulkner spoke about Tea Party activism; Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the P.A.S.O./Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talked about the “Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic” campaign; NPR’s Andy Carvin spoke about curating and verifying tweets from Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; and Baratunde Thurston, digital director of The Onion, gave a tremendous riff about his own — and his mother’s — activism.

If discussions were not actually about Tahrir Square, Tunisia or the Gay Girl in Damascus, they were infused by the same spirit.

Given this activist spirit, it was highly fitting that, at the start of the conference last week, Chris Csikszentmihalyi announced that Ethan Zuckerman would be succeeding him as director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media (where the conference was held). Zuckerman has been a central figure nurturing, filtering and aggregating civic media over the last decade at Harvard’s Berkman Center and particularly through Global Voices Online that he set up with Rebecca McKinnon in 2005.

Civic media is hard to define, Zuckerman told the audience. It combines at least three elements:

  • Organizing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously
  • Self-documentation using participatory media
  • Use of broadcast media as an amplifier

Digital tools for civic purposes

In Tunisia, for example, people recorded themselves protesting and then published their recordings on Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook helped people organize political meetings and support groups. Zuckerman referred to other examples across the world where people were using digital tools for civic purposes. In Russia, people have been tracking wildfires using Ushahidi at Russian-Fires.ru. (Ushahidi is a Knight News Challenge winner.) In the United States, at LandmanReportcard.com, farmers and landowners have been keeping records of visits from “Landmen,” negotiators for oil and gas companies, to expose disinformation and make sure they get a fair deal.

In Egypt, the public and the media learned from one another, AJE’s Nanabhay told the conference attendees. People recorded themselves protesting and published it online. Al Jazeera amplified those recordings. As a consequence, people recorded themselves more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of public media that grew and grew.

People are now all too conscious of the power of self-produced media, Nanabhay said. In the past, people committed dramatic “spectacles of dissent” in the belief that this was the only way of grabbing the attention of mainstream media. Now they stand with “a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other,” recording, publishing and promoting themselves and their causes, he said.

In the United States, the grown-up children of illegal immigrants have been taking videos of themselves “coming out” as having no documentation. The more people who take videos of themselves and publish them on the Net, the more empowered they feel, and the more others join them. See, for example, this YouTube video of an Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic rally in March.

NPR’s Carvin spoke about how many of his connections and sources in Syria, who had started tweeting anonymously, were now using their real names and pictures. They had crossed a line, they said, and there was no going back. If they were to die, then they wanted others to know who they were.

The conference captured the flavor of how people are now using digital tools to empower themselves and give volume to their dissent — though this is by no means all about public anger and protest. Cronicas de Heroes Juarez, a project that came out of the Center for Future Civic Media, gathers and projects good news stories from the town of Juarez, Mexico. It was set up to balance the many bad news stories coming from the town that were creating an impression of a place in hopeless decline.

Public empowerment

A number of this year’s Knight News Challenge prizes reflected this feeling of public empowerment, of people taking control of their own representation and information.

The biggest prize winner was The Public Laboratory, a project that initially appeared less digital and more paper, scissors, stone. The project uses string, balloons, kites and cameras to take aerial photographs of landscapes. These photographs are then threaded together digitally to provide detailed information about land use, pollution, and the progress of environmental initiatives. The project found its calling after the Gulf oil spill when satellite photographs simply were not detailed enough to see the spread of oil or its impact on the environment.

Zeega, another of this year’s big winners, will help people video their own stories and edit them together on its open-source HTML5 platform. NextDrop gets even more practical still. It will provide a service that will tell communities on the ground in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. The Tiziano project emerged from work done in Kurdistan and is intended to give communities the equipment, tools and training to illustrate their own lives.

These projects are highly pragmatic, focused on the public, not media professionals, and apply existing technologies to real-world problems. They don’t start with the technology and then figure out what you might do with it.

In this world, in which the public organizes and records themselves, the role of the news media changes. Mainstream media shifts from recording media content itself to gathering existing material, verifying it, contextualizing it, and amplifying it. Other Knight News prizes recognized and were directed at this shift: iWitness and SwiftRiver, and — for data – Overview and Panda.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved a lot since its inauguration in 2006. But its strength lies in the consistency of its aims, and in the growing relevance of those aims: helping to inform and engage communities. Long may it continue.

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Going beyond news gathering and reporting

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Last week’s Future of News and Civic Media conference organised by the Knight Foundation in Boston (#fncm) was that rare thing – a #futureofnews conference where I came away feeling quite inspired and with a renewed optimism about the future of news (though not as we’ve known it).

In particular, I learnt that there are growing numbers of people in the States who have moved beyond the increasingly circular debates about how to sustain the incumbent news industry. Instead, they are working on lots of projects that use the internet and mobile to provide the public with timely information, in an accessible way. In other words, deliver what journalism did – or was meant to – deliver, without calling it journalism.

Take, for example, this year’s Knight News Challenge Winners (of which Paul Bradshaw tweeted ‘Very impressed… easily the strongest year yet’). Only one of the twelve winners is directly focused on addressing the travails of the existing news industry – and even this in a very non-traditional way. PRX StoryMarket will provide a way for the public to pitch and pay for news stories on US public radio. It is based on the ‘spot.us’ model (a Knight winner in 2008), but focused on radio.

Nine others (making up over 80% of the prize in terms of funding) are about enabling and enhancing information flows within communities and hardly mention the word ‘journalism’.

Citytracking will ‘make municipal data easy to understand with software that allows the users to transform web data into maps and graphics’ (by the renowned Stamen Design – see this map for example).

The Cartoonist will create a free tool that allows people to produce cartoon-like current event games

Local wiki will ‘help people learn and share community news and knowledge through the creation of local wikis’. The two young guys who won the award started a local wiki in Davis 6 years ago which has grown to be the biggest media source in the town.

GoMap Riga will ‘inspire residents to become engaged in their community by creating an online map where people can browse and post their own local news and information’. Again, this is about people – the community – putting up and reading content about their neighbourhood (run by a tremendous Latvian duo – Kristofs Blaus and Marcis Rubenis).

Front Porch Forum will help residents connect with ‘their community by creating open-source software for neighbourhood news’. Essentially micro local private sites based around a handful of blocks.

Stroome allows people to edit video online, for free, within their browser.

CitySeed will ‘develop mobile applications that enable people to geotag ideas for improving neighbourhoods’. The example they give is of someone geotagging a location for a community garden.

Tilemapping will enable residents to ‘learn about local issues by creating a set of easy-to-use tools for crafting hyperlocal maps’.

WindyCitizen’s real time ads will ‘help online start-ups generate revenue and become sustainable by creating enhanced software that produce real-time ads’. This may well help journalists and the news industry, but notice there’s no mention of news outlets, just ‘online start-ups’.

Of the final two, one enhances traditional reporting (Order in the Court 2.0), and the other will use social media to report on a US battalion in Afghanistant (One-Eight).

And it wasn’t just the Knight News Challenge winners that eschewed traditional ideas of journalism. Most of the conference was spent talking about new media tools that served a public purpose – or ‘civic media’ as its termed in the States. News is a part of this, but only in the sense that there is a public value to news.

We saw a demo by SourceMap – a site that helps you map where things come from and what they are made of; and of boy.co.tt – a site that makes consumer boycotts much more targeted. We were introduced to streetblogs – a ‘daily news source, online community and political mobilizer for the Livable Streets movement’; seeclickfix – like MySociety’s fixmystreet; transparencydata.com from the Sunlight Foundation; groundcrew.us – that uses GPS and mobile communication to coordinate volunteering, events, political canvassing etc.; and many other sites and services that enhance communication, focus citizen activism, bring people closer to public authorities, and fulfil those perennial twin goals of greater transparency and accountability.

There is lots of development already being done in the US with public data. In Boston, the release of real time transport data by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) in November 2009 generated a slew of creative hacking (see this Wall Street Journal piece). The same is now happening in New York. There is also an open wiki for helping collaboration and gathering best practice at http://wiki.openmuni.org/.

Much of the new development is emerging from US universities, such as MIT. At the MIT Media Lab’s Center for the Future of Civic Media, for example. It defines civic media as:

“any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents. Civic media goes beyond news gathering and reporting”

We in the UK are now expecting ‘a tsunami of data’ to flow from government thanks to the Big Society declaration (including a new ‘right to data’). Some people have begun using the data for development – such as the live train map for the London underground. But it is well worth casting our eyes across the Atlantic – we can learn alot from current developments in the US.

Written by Martin Moore

June 21st, 2010 at 3:43 pm