A World in Which City Councilors Blog

"What about unbaised reporting?"

That’s what a good friend asked a few weeks ago as I was explaining the vision underlying 9Neighbors.

We’re
building 9Neighbors for a world in which city councilors blog,
community activists promote their agenda on YouTube (er, Seesmic), and
mothers publish photos from the sidelines of their kids’ soccer games.

9Neighbors will help community members find the best of all this new local media.

As
I explained our vision, my friend, a journalist, saw a catch: If the
articles, photos and videos through which a community learns about
itself come directly from that community, the information will be
biased.

That’s true, and it would be a problem if these articles, photos and
videos were traditional news reports. But they’re not. They’re
conversation, and in conversation we call bias opinion and expect it.

Conversation won’t replace thorough, unbaised reporting, but it’s a
great alternative in situations where professional reporting is not
feasible.

The planned extension of Boston’s subway to Somerville is a great
example. The Globe, The Somerville Journal and The Somerville News are
all covering the issue in helpful, broad strokes. It’s unrealistic to expect
more from them.

Those who want to understand the issue in more detail are heading to the listserve of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership.
Everybody who posts on the STEP list has an opinion, and that’s good.
Members of the community develop identities, issues surface, they’re
hashed out honestly, and the community moves forward.

Eventually, the discussion that’s happening on the STEP list will
happen openly, across the web on all the community’s issues. Smart
local leaders will weigh in on their blogs, businesses will explain
what the changes mean to them on their sites, conversations will begin, and issues
will become clearer.

None of this will replace thorough, unbiased, professional reporting. It will just
provide information on a level of detail that is not feasible for
reporters. It will be rich, honest information that was previously
unavailable, and it will be great to have.

Powerful Forces That Would Tame or Silence Us

This vignette in Bill Keller’s speech for The Guardian last week caught my eye:

President Kennedy was furious at [David] Halberstam’s aggressive reporting from
the battlefields of Vietnam, and he complained to the publisher at the
time, Punch Sulzberger, the father of our current publisher. Maybe, the
president suggested, the Times should send Mr Halberstam to London or
Paris. Punch Sulzberger was pretty new in the job, and had never
encountered an angry president before, but he firmly declined. Then,
and this is the part I love, when he got back to the office Punch sent
Halberstam instructions to cancel his upcoming vacation. The publisher
didn’t want the White House to see Halberstam heading for the airport
and get the idea that the Times was giving in.

It’s a wonderful story meant to rally the troops — to show the power
of a financially healthy, civic-minded Times Company — the Times of New York Times
Co. v. Sullivan
and New York Times Co. v. United States, that as Keller says, is our  "institutional bulwark against powerful forces that would tame or silence us."

There’s only one problem with this vignette today. When I think of the
company that’s really sticking it in the eye of the powerful, fighting
today’s Sullivan, I don’t think of the NYT. I think of Google.

Yes, as Keller points out, The Times is still fighting the Bush
Administration for its disclosure in 2005 of National Security Agency
wiretapping. That is a huge, important battle, but to me it feels more
abstract than than the battles Google is fighting. 

Google is the one pushing for net neutrality so that 9Neighbors can germinate without
getting squashed by the Comcast Bundle. Google is the one fighting to
make sure Verizon doesn’t control
the information I read and write
from my mobile devices.

Google is no replacement for newspapers. Their record in China is
spotty, and they certainly aren’t doing the critical dirty work of FOIA
requests and lawsuits that are still routine at places like the News-Press in Forth Myers, Fla.

That said, old-liners like Keller need to respect Google’s values.
Google is being built on precisely the same set of assumptions that The
Times was built on — that access to information makes our society
better off.

The difference is only in scale: The Times publishes information
itself, while Google enables everybody to publish information.

Tomatoes Into Gold

Umair on Facebook: A $15b valuation and $300m in cash give you the room to learn – from
the people throwing them – how to turn shitloads of tomatoes into gold.

But if all you do with those resources is just have your PR
drones carefully wipe the tomato off your face and tell you again how
cool you really are – you’re on the road to nowhere.