Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Future

This week I was contacted by a former reporter in Portland Oregon who is assembling a group of laid-off investigative reporters to launch a non-profit, non-partisan investigative news service.  The start-up will be called Portland Voice and will have a similar model replicated by MinnPost, TexasTrib, Voice of San Diego, Bay Citizen, and Crosscut.  

In an effort to raise funding from potential investors, they will be showcasing the “Fit to Print” teaser trailer as a call to arms in supporting that dying form of reporting known as investigative journalism.  

James Swenson, who is a part of the Portland Voice effort mentioned in his e-mail that, ” Many of us have been victims of the precise circumstance your film describes.  Your documentary is incredibly timely. We look forward to it’s distribution. In the meantime, the trailer does an excellent job of capsulizing the dilemma and the impacts on our democratic form of government.”  

The “Fit to Print” crew and I are very happy to hear that we are making a difference out there.  Even if it comes in the form of a feature film.  The best part of embarking on a project such as this is the unexpected surprises which come along the way.  This is one of them.  We hope we can contribute further material (even after the film is completed) to help emerging and existing start-ups for news.  The original pitch for the “Fit to Print” project fits in well with this. My fellow journalism-junkie friends and I were discussing the scope of the project in our initial meeting, and the bottom line was always: ‘How can we move forward into the future of print or digital journalism without a clear understanding of what has taken place over the past half-century, while also closely looking at what is taking place within this paradigm shift now in real-time?’  

We hope that by providing footage of what is taking place within legacy media and start-ups for news, we will be able to fulfill that bottom line.  

The members of the emerging Portland Voice will be using the teaser trailer for person-to-person presentations in order to raise the funding needed to start the site.  They will be attempting to raise $3.3 million in start-up to cover the first three years of operation.  The goal is to begin with a staff of 25, including 8 full time professional investigative journalists, multimedia producers, a community editor, development and marketing person(s), editor-in-chief and CEO.  “We are cultivating partnerships with legacy media and new media organizations (ala ProPublica)”, mentioned Swenson.  

We wish them the best of luck in this exciting new venture.  

As we see news sites emerging (and some good investigative sites pop-up), the question should come in two parts: 1) How will these sites maintain funding in the long-term?  2) How many investigative reporters can each organization employ right now and in the forseeable future?

It’s fantastic that a non-profit organization is able to hire web-developers, multi-media producers, editors and marketing staffers, but the bottom line has to be with those doing the actual investigative work.  

It would be interesting to see more individuals receiving grants to do reporting on a solo basis.  That is, provide former news employees the opportunity to become their own brands as contract employees.  By providing a hub for connection, they would each be able to share their content for individual assignments without ever having to meet in person. A photographer could go off and shoot on her own. A reporter could report on his own.  The editor could edit on his own.  The videographer could shoot on his own.  What would be missing in this equation?  The brand.  

When the deadline or work for a story is completed, it would be presented together as one component. The need for the brand would no longer exist because the individuals would be their own brands.  They would be connected not by people, but by automation which would connect stories to photos and videos instantly.  

How would we distinguish professional journalists from citizen journalists?  There would be a number of ways to acheive this.  Perhaps by accrediting previous newsroom staffers with a ranking system for their previous experience, while also awarding emerging staffers or citizen journalists the opportunity to earn similar status as they produce more work and establish their own reputation.  

Is the organization or brand that important to maintain anymore?  Do we even need start-ups to slightly resemble legacy media platforms?  Why not contract each phase of the reporting process out by category.  Contract a reporter, photographer, videographer to go out there and get the content, and let the gelling of each of these elements come together on it’s own.  Let the filter be different each time out.  Imagine if a great reporter previously from The Washington Post was able to connect with a great editor from half-way across the world.  Or a great photo-journalist previously from The Seattle P.I. being able to connect with a young reporter in Miami who is making a name for herself.  

Perhaps this is a little over the top, but in a journalism world where the tectonic plates seem to be shifting every day, it’s interesting to throw another idea out there.  Especially when there seems to be no band-aid big enough to cover the gushing wound inflicted on the industry by …well… itself.

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Sulzberger Says Print Edition Will End (eventually)

Maybe it’s time for New York Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to stop jet-setting the world, giving conferences on the future of digital journalism, and start paying more attention to the digital divide.  Namely, smaller communities within the U.S. who don’t have access to digital news platforms.

A September 9th article in The Atlantic quoted Sulzberger as saying, “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.”   The details as to when, remain vague.  As they should.

Obviously anyone who runs one of the largest newspapers in the world probably knows the day-in and day-out procedures for sustainable business models for journalism better than any lowly blogger/filmmaker such as myself.  However, you would figure that someone of his power would first be concerned with the digital divide our country (and many other nations for that matter) faces now and within the foreseeable future.

On a recent trip to Libby Montana, I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with several residents who are all too familiar with media attention.

Libby Montana is a small town in the northwestern part of the state and has a total population of 2921 residents.  Over the past twenty-five years it has been plagued with asbestos contamination which has killed over 200 people and sickened several more.  In 1999 it was a newspaper reporter, Andrew Schneider of The Seattle P.I. who broke the investigation into the asbestos contamination, linking a cover-up by a major corporation – W.R. Grace.  For a decade, Schneider investigated into the story by rooting himself into a town which has no local television station and whose community newspaper has never acquired the funds (or the will) to probe into the asbestos crisis story.

Schneider’s deep investigative work was followed by television news hot on the breaking coverage produced in the Seattle P.I.  Major television outlets such as CNN and CBS ran a series of watered-down national television stories which never produced any investigative reporting to the level of the P.I.  Schneider was the investigative reporter on this story.  He had the time, resources and backing of a serious newspaper to allow him to move forward on any costly soil testing needed to be done, and other evidence which needed to be proven in order to even write a story.

Last year The Seattle P.I. shut down it’s print edition.  Schneider, along with many others at the paper lost his job.

Why do I bring this up when discussing the need for print to survive, not just now, but within the foreseeable future?  Because digital records don’t hold the same weight as print.  While there is a definite need for the 24-hour micro-scoop news culture online, documents and work into probing investigations can easily become lost or discarded.

I sat down with several local residents of Libby who mentioned how they only get their news from the print editions. Particularly from large papers like The New York Times, Washington Post and what once was The Seattle P.I.  Gordon Sullivan, a longtime Libby resident who owns a local bookstore called Cabinet Books & Music mentioned to me, “Not only does the vast majority of Libby get it’s news from printed newspapers, many people in this town still don’t have access to either computers or the internet.”  As a go-to person for Andrew Schneider’s investigations into the area, I asked Sullivan how he personally followed Andrew’s series of stories.  “Print”, he told me.

Sullivan has also been interviewed by national television news networks regarding the story as well.  Two days before I interviewed him, CBS News was in town to do a segment on the Libby Asbestos crisis.  “They asked me, with a straight face, ‘is there hope for Libby?'”, Sullivan mentioned.  “That’s the difference between newspaper reporting and what you get in digital media.  Filler questions versus hard-to-do investigative work.”

Over the course of this documentary we have met with several investigative reporters working in newspaper and television news who back this point up.  “Print not only gives an article the attention it deserves, it also provides a tangible record of that event”, mentions Columbia journalism professor Andie Tucher. Investigative reporter Jeff Leen of The Washington Post mentioned, “Despite all the information we can now access online, there is still that need for record keeping.  Even if Google was available in the 1980’s when I was investigating [the Medellín cartel], I still needed to actually see Pablo Escobar’s signature on those documents.” The same can be said of newspapers.  “I’ve kept all the articles written on Libby, even from years ago, so that I can go back and check on things until I feel like I can burn them”, one Libby resident mentioned when discussing maintaining records of the asbestos crisis in the area. 

The need for print editions of the newspaper are vital.  For someone like Sulzberger to come out with a blanket statement such as “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future”, is insane. Scale back perhaps.  Once an established business model is set in place, reduce print circulation maybe …but don’t kill the medium.

Communities and readers who can’t afford an iPad, Kindle or even an internet connection depend on the printed paper to stay informed.

 

 

 

 

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Mock Democracy: The Fate of Independent Journalism

If you would like to peak into the immediate future of independent journalism, we invite you to examine what we witnessed this past week in New York City.

Rafael Matinez Alequin has been reporting on City Hall for over 25 years.  He has made friends with countless New York Police officers, security guards, and City Hall personnel for his quick charm and inviting smile.  Once you meet this man you are immediately drawn to his kindness and sense of humor. But also to his tenacity in being one of the only independent City Hall reporters who doesn’t have the backing of an established news organization. He funds his news site out of his own pockets and doesn’t have foundation support.

He does it because he feels it’s his public duty.

Mr. Alequin is an underdog. One of City Hall’s few minority reporters who immigrated to this country long ago.  As a journalist, he’s persevered through countless sessions with New York’s top brass over the past two decades. Asking the tough questions on behalf of New York’s minority and working class.

From Ed Koch to Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Alequin has stood toe-to-toe in press rooms as one of the city’s only independent reporters.  The same independent reporter who marched in the civil rights movement back in the sixties and frequently ended up going to jail for his non-violent protest involvement on various issues.

Mr. Martinez Alequin is not your average blogger, sitting in his boxer shorts on the couch, writing about City Hall on his laptop.  He was also a publisher of a popular newspaper:  The Brooklyn Free Press, which ran from 1983 to 2001. The final year of that newspaper’s publication, tragedy came into Mr. Alequin’s life:  he discovered he had stomach cancer.

With the support of his wife of over 20 years, he was able to survive through surgeries which ended up saving his life.  “She was my hero”, he tells me.  “Without her, during my early career and through my cancer treatment, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Another tragedy would soon fall upon him.  His wife would soon pass away from health complications of her own.

She had helped him run his newspaper for several years.  A husband and wife team who understood that democracy depended on fair and accurate information for the public to digest (if they had the willingness and attention span that is).

They understood this information was vital for any community, small or large, poverty-stricken or gentrified, to survive.  At the end of 2001, Mr. Matinez Alequin shut down his printing press and ceased publication of his paper.  “I just couldn’t do it anymore.  Not without my wife.”

But he wouldn’t give in just yet.  In 2003 he launched The New York City Free Press, with a linked blog site called Your Free Press, in 2007.

In 2007, Mr. Matinez Alequin and two other bloggers sued the city when the police department denied them press credentials. The reason:  they work for nontraditional online news outlets.   The three reporters sought the assistance of attorney Norman Siegel, who once served as the Executive Director of the New York Civil liberties Union from 1985-2000. The reporters won the lawsuit.

Cut to Thursday October 7th, 2010.

Mr. Matinez Alequin is standing outside One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan.  A place he has frequented for several years as a journalist.  As I stand with him in a security line to get into headquarters he mentions how excited he was for this day to finally arrive.  Today is the day he picks up his new press credentials.  This however, isn’t his first press card.  Before it was revoked, he held an official press card from 1986 to 2000.  Then again from 2005 to 2006.

For several years, press cards could be obtained in New York City if you could prove you were a real journalist.  Traditional or non-traditional.  One who consistently showed up on a daily basis for work and provided a fair and balanced view of that day’s events at City Hall and police headquarters. One who was able to reach, and maintain a local audience day-in and day-out.

Mr. Matinez Alequin was all of these things.

Today, however, his resume may not hold the same weight.

As I waited with Mr. Matinez Alequin in line for the press credential office inside police headquarters, I couldn’t help but notice we were the only two people waiting in line.  Apparently bloggers or independent journalists don’t seem to be busting down the doors to get into City Hall these days.  With the glutinous amount of blogging on the internet, it still seems in one of America’s largest cities, you will only find a few dedicated souls to actually walk the true freelance reporting tightrope.

Mr. Matinez Alequin steps inside the press office.  I’m told by an unidentified suit standing at the front entrance window to remain in the hallway, as I myself, do not have the proper press credentialing to join him.

I sit outside the press office for roughly 10 minutes, popping M&M’s and watching Mr. Matinez Alequin through the open office doorway.  He spins around and huffs out of the room, immediately whipping out his cell-phone and dialing.  “They won’t give it to me”, he says.  “They won’t give you your press credential?”, I ask.  “No.  They won’t.  They say my six articles don’t count and that I’m under review. I’m calling Siegel.”, he says.

As part of New York’s official press credentialing process, one has to provide 6 articles from a news organization to prove they qualify as a reporter.  Mr. Matinez Alequin held over 25 years of worthy articles from both print and online.  According to new regulations they don’t count anymore.

Roughly 30 seconds later out steps the deputy director telling us we need to vacate the building if we have no business to conduct here anymore. She ushers the both of us to the elevators where she stood with us as Rafael paced back-and-forth, ending a voice-mail to his attorney Norman Siegel.  “We’re going back to court.  I’ve been fighting this for years and have already been to court over this.”, he tells her.  “You can do that.  But not here.”, she says.

The deputy director escorts the both of us down to the front lobby and stands by as we depart without further incident.

As we continue heading down the street away from the building, Mr. Matinez Alequin turns to me, smiles and says, “that’s our democracy going down the drain.  It will only get worse for others.”

I believe he was on to something.  Mr. Matinez Alequin wasn’t just another journalism student or boxer-short wearing blogger.  He was, and remains a real reporter who now has to figure out a new day-to-day strategy to get access to City Hall and police head-qaurters just to follow through with his normal work.

Lesson learned here:  We are rapidly approaching an Orwellian state of existence.  We know the U.S. newspaper industry is struggling.  We have seen the latest statistics on the public’s distrust with the media.  We don’t see the numbers of newspaper, television and news radio lay-offs that much (save for a few independent blogs) because the mainstream media doesn’t find that story ‘sexy’.  Nor would we have known how public authorities, institutions, and powers-that-be feel about citizen journalists like Mr. Matinez Alequin until now (and even so, you’re reading about it in a blog most mainstream media would classify as ‘superficial’).

It gets worse…

Mr. Matinez Alequin would later tell me about a few of his interactions with the traditional reporters in New York City who work in a tiny press trailer parked to the side of the City Hall building.  “Reporters from The Daily News, Newsday, The New York Times, and the Post are all in there.”, he tells me.  “Most of them are pretty nice.  Good writers.  But the problem is the Mayor’s people plant questions for them to ask each time out.  It’s comforting for them to know that if they only ask certain questions, a job might be waiting for them in his media empire someday.”

…It brings a bright smile to my face when I realize I live in a democracy like ours…


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An Important Story NOT Being Told: Libel Tourism

This past week I was contacted by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld – Director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy.  Dr. Ehrenfeld extended me an invitation to an important event in Washington D.C. to celebrate the passage of the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act of 2010.  

The event featured U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Sessions, Congressman Steve Cohen and Peter King.  As well, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, James Woolsey, Ruth Wedgwood, Judy Platt, and others came to speak on the important role the SPEECH Act will now have on American journalism.  

The SPEECH Act (Securing and Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitional Heritage) will protect American’s free-speech rights from the disturbing effect of foreign libel lawsuits.  The Act ensures that American courts cannot be used to enforce foreign libel suits against American journalists, publishers, bloggers, and authors.  

For years writers and journalists have been tried, imprisioned, and executed in countries with weaker speech protections.  Lawsuits are brought to courts within countries which do not have any substantial connection to the writer or publisher simply because …well… they don’t bear the same First Amendment privileges we have in the U.S.  This is called libel tourism.  

Imagine if you will, you are a blogger with a significant following.  You collect, say, a thousand unique vistors to your blog site each month.  You’re a current- events junkie who loves to comment on that nutjob Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.  You write a story about his growing dictatorship, his monkey-shaped head or any of the other 8 million reasons why Ahmadinejad sucks.  

Cut to several months later …

One of Ahmadinejad’s lackeys comes across your blog and doesn’t like what he sees (because he’s an idiot like Ahmadinejad himself).  He files a lawsuit for defamation.  You happen to be traveling in say, Britain (one of the many countries which does not provide protection against libel tourism).  You’re stopped for a minor traffic violation.  The next thing you know you’re having a background check by a police officer who now holds you for violation of courts in Iran.  You’re sent to Iran to face trail where you could be sentenced to life in prision or death (most likely the latter).  

If you’re an American writer, you now have protection.  

Dr. Ehrenfeld’s 2003 book, “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop it” was the seed for the law to be created. Erhrenfeld was targeted by Saudi billionaire banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom she had “implicated in assisting terrorist financing.”  

Mahfouz sued her in a British court in 2005 for ‘besmirching his reputation’. Mahfouz was previously indicted for fraud related to his stake in the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International.  

Her book was not marketed internationally because Mahfouz targeted potential publishers and forced them to halt publication.  According to Ehrenfeld, “it became a weapon used to silence the media, especially when reporting about support for terrorist networks coming from wealthy Middle Eastern sources.”

Mahfouz ended up suing 45 publishers and journalists over their reporting on his terrorism ties.  All 45 of them caved. 

While I was attending the event, I couldn’t help but notice who wasn’t in attendence:  the media.  

I filmed the event myself and chatted with the only other blogger there (who wishes to remain annoynmous).  He mentioned, “this is barely being covered by anyone”.  He was right.  Besides a few independent news sources such as “The Hill” (a local website for current events in D.C.), the only other U.S. legacy media outlet to cover this event was The Washington Times.  

You would think this type of bill would have also generated a buzz from the Obama administration, who have been desperately searching for issues which Democrats and Republicans in Congress actaully agree on.  

Not so …

President Obama didn’t trumpet this as a bipartisan achievment at all.  There was no celebration or speech from Obama on this isssue.  According to The Washington Times, “President Obama has remained curiously silent”.

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