Dear Secretary Psaki and the Office of the Press Secretary, My name is Alexander B Howard; you may have noticed me tweeting at you this past couple months during the transition and now the administration. I came to DC over … Continue reading
An overwhelming majority of tech experts surveyed by the Washington Post said that social media companies were correct to suspend former President Donald J. Trump’s accounts after the failed putsch at the U.S. Capitol in January 6, 2021. That includes … Continue reading
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In the same way that poor diets affect our physical health, America’s infodemic is being fueled by poor information diets. About 2,100 newspapers have folded since 2004, driving a ~58% decline in newsroom employment.
Digital outlets have not replaced the jobs or journalism reporters produced and editors verified.
Now, the New York Times reports that “pink slime” outlets are filling the information voids left behind, with the emergence of pay-for-play digital outlets that launder partisan attacks for a few dollars an article and digital duopoly of Facebook and Google dominates the digital advertising markets.
None of this is new nor, in 2020, can we really say that no one saw this coming.
In an essay that accurately predicted the ongoing trend in the industry, Shirky asked the crucial question that keeps people who believe democracies depend on a robust, independent free press to inform publics engaging in self-governance: “who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”
His answer remains instructive:
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.
For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.
There were good ideas in the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of American democracy, but it’s hard for me to argue that the polluted social media and cable news ecosystems of today are meeting them, given the collapse documented above.
In 2020, there is still no national strategy to catalyze that journalism, despite the clear and present danger absence poses to the capacity of the American people to engage in self-governance or the shared public facts necessary for effective collective action in response to a public health threat.
Investors, philanthropists, foundations, and billionaries who care about the future of our nation needs to keep investing in experiments that rebuild trust in journalism by reporting with the communities reporters cover using the affordances of social media, not on them.
Publishers could build out new forms of service journalism based upon data that improve access to information, empower consumers, patients, and constituents to make better choices, and ask the people formerly known as the audience to help journalists investigate.
We need to find more sustainable business models that produce investigative journalism that don’t depend on grants from foundations and public broadcasting corporations, though those funds will continue be part of the revenue mix.
As Shirky said, “nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”
Finally, state governments need to subsidize public access to publications and the Internet through libraries, schools, and wireless networks, aiming to deploy gigabit speeds to every home through whatever combination of technologies gets the job done.
The FCC, states and cities should invest in restorative information justice. How can a national government that spend hundreds of billions on weapon systems somehow have failed to provide a laptop for each child and broadband Internet access to every home?
It is unconscionable that our governments have allowed existing social inequities to be widened in 2020, as children are left behind by remote learning, excluded from the access to the information, telehealth, unemployment benefits, and family that will help them and their families make it through this pandemic.
Information deprivation should not be any more acceptable in the politics of the world’s remaining hyperpower than poisoning children with lead through a city water supply.
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There’s much to be learned from the experience of the city Gainesville, Florida, where a commissioners voted in 2014 to publish the public’s email correspondence with them and the mayor online.
More than five years on, the city government and its residents have are ground zero for an tumultuous experiment in hyper-transparent government in the 21st century, as Brad Harper reports for the Montgomery Advertiser.
It’s hard not to read this story and immediately see a core flaw in the design of this digital governance system: the city government is violating the public’s expectation of privacy by publishing email online.
“Smart cities” will look foolish if they adopt hyper-transparent government without first ensuring the public they serve understands whether their interactions with city government will be records and published online.
Unexpected sunshine will also dissolve public trust if there’s a big gap between the public’s expectations of privacy and the radical transparency that comes from publishing the emails residents send to agencies online.
Residents should be offered multiple digital options for interacting with governments. In addition to exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and petition on the phone, in written communications with a given government, or in person at hearing or town halls, city (and state) governments should break down three broad categories of inquiries into different channels:
Emergency Requests: Emergency calls go to 911 from all other channels. Calls to 911 are recorded but private by default. Calls should not be disclosed online without human review.
Service Requests: Non-emergency requests should go 311, through a city call center or through 311 system. Open data with 311 requests is public by default and are disclosed online in real-time.
Information Requests: People looking for information should be able to find a city website through a Web search or social media. A city.gov should use a /open page that includes open data, news, contact information for agencies and public information officers, and a virtual agent or “chat bot” to guide their search.
If proactive disclosures aren’t sufficient, then there should be way to make Freedom of Information Act requests under the law if the information people seek is not online. But public correspondence with agencies should be private by default.