The journalism landscape in a nutshell

This lede is the baseline from which I think any discussion of contemporary journalism should begin:

There have been various proposals to “save journalism” from the crisis brought on by digitalization. But by and large these ideas have less to do with meeting the information needs of a democratic society than with preserving the profit potential of existing media outlets.

The one change I would make is to put “crisis” also in quotation marks in order to show that the crisis-metaphor is just one frame pushed by incumbent media outlets. Another frame would be “new opportunities” or “focus shift” or “changing landscape”. The above is from “ Public Media and the Decommodification of News” published in FAIR’s (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) Extra!

Outside of my jurisdiction

A cable access TV producer is indicted on child pornography charges. The station pulls their show saying “it’s good sense”. An uninvolved station gives their point of view:

Sylvia McDaniel, executive director of Portland Community Media, which operates under the state government, said she cannot suspend a show unless lawbreaking occurs in the studio or within the context of the show.

“We manage the programs, not people’s personal lives,” McDaniel said, in a phone interview.

“We also go by their behavior in our facility,” she added. “Producing the show ‘Cannabis Common Sense’ doesn’t give them the right to stand in my parking lot and smoke dope.”

“My jurisdiction is what goes on my channels, not what someone does outside my jurisdiction,” McDaniel added. “Their personal lives are none of my business. I don’t pull a show if it has nothing to do with the show.”

I also appreciate how the article’s author contextualizes this quote from the station that pulled the show:

RVTV in general “allows free speech,” but, she said, it’s run by a public university in a small town and is “a lot more conservative in approach.”

In general, if you have to qualify speech, it isn’t free, but that’s just my opinion.

My nonprofit Facebook strategy and tactics

I was asked by a colleague how to increase the size of their organization’s Facebook Fan page—not that I would consider any page I manage to be an overwhelming success.

Googling around, I could only find technical advice (“install these apps”) and crappy nonexistent-advice (“You need to have a strategy.” duh, tell me what that strategy would be). So here’s the stream of consciousness around what I do:

  1. Figure out your goal for the page (why spend the time in the first place?). I’m using ours as vanity (look, we’re hip/popular) and also just another channel to push information out to. I’m stoked if someone leaves a comment (and I’ll reply to it), or better yet, posts something themselves (I allow non-admins to post—it’s somewhere in the settings)… but that’s not my goal right now, so I don’t spend to much time worrying that it isn’t happening.

  2. If your goal is like mine (#1), the main tactic I take is to try to be posting new things to the page as much as possible. The problem is that the few organizations’ pages I manage, there isn’t a lot of content generation: we don’t do a lot of communications or events. The way I get around this is trying to repost other events and news articles (I use Google Reader to aggregate a bunch of blogs, as well as anything that comes by email/listserv) that align with the mission and constituents/audience of the organization. For example, on our AmeriCorps programs page, I post articles about nonprofit culture, volunteerism, time management, living cheaply, etc.

  3. So now there is the matter of actually getting people to fan the page: I have the benefit of having some well-connected Friends who are sympathetic/interested in what I post, so they do help spread the word by reposting things. The main strategy I have though is to constantly mention the Facebook page in all external communications: I have an icon/badge prominently on our website; I put a “Follow us on Facebook” in our email eblast template; I try to make it part of our events (for example, I just hosted a conference and put in the booklet: “Follow our Facebook page for updates and discussion around the conference”)

  4. Don’t sweat it: Facebook is just another communications channel (at least for us), I don’t particularly worry that we have 4,000 people on our email mailing list, but only 150 of them are fans on Facebook. Our message is still getting out there. Facebook is unique since it allows people to easily re-post and spread among their social network, but it doesn’t matter how they are reading it so long as the message has reached the people you want to be reading it. Also, I think people get hung up on Facebok because it has a very public metric of success (“you have this many fans”) that your mailing list doesn’t.

Metaphor death

A well-worded comment by Kia to a Gift Hub post entitled Money Has Failed in its Role of Allocating Resources towards Human Survival? (my own, typo-prone comment is lower down in the thread)—also reposted on IMproPRieTies:

We are just now witnessing the collapse of the markets. We may also see the collapse of “the markets” in another sense, the markets as a metaphor for life. Metaphors are not merely ornaments: they are very strange. For instance, the moment you take for granted that a metaphor is the equivalent of the thing it describes or points to, is the moment when that metaphor is effectively dead. It’s worse than useless for thinking with. But usually people go on using such metaphors long after they’ve ceased to generate any new ideas–which is one of the things a metaphor is supposed to help us do. People will just keep walking on in the resulting conceptual daze, because to think about it is like looking at the end of the world. Some will invest heavily in re-animating the corpse and blame the demise on the usual suspects: the all-powerful and infinitely devious upstart poor and other outsiders. I mean, maybe the market was never supposed to become the dominant metaphor of the content of human livelihood; maybe that’s why it fails.

To add to metaphor, the moment you take a framework (or logic model, or even a well-worded description) as the entirety of your endeavor, you’re toast. I’ve been in planning classes where the student decries “My project doesn’t fit!” to which the teacher replies “It should”—without clarifying whether it is the proposal or the endeavor itself that must acquiesce to the confines of little numbered boxes.

Starvation begets starvation


An article that confirms my anecdotal experience: “ The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” from the Stanford Social Innovation review:

A vicious cycle is leaving nonprofits so hungry for decent infrastructure that they can barely function as organizations—let alone serve their beneficiaries. The cycle starts with funders’ unrealistic expectations about how much running a nonprofit costs, and results in nonprofits’ misrepresenting their costs while skimping on vital systems—acts that feed funders’ skewed beliefs. To break the nonprofit starvation cycle, funders must take the lead.

That quote is from the brief, yet the last sentence is misleading. According to the article change starts at the board:

Nonprofits must then speak truth to power, sharing their real numbers with their boards and then engaging their boards’ support in communicating with funders. Case studies of organizations that have successfully invested in their own infrastructure have repeatedly noted the need for a shared agenda between the leadership team and the board.

And the article is chock full of fun, familiar anecdotes:

Not only do funders and donors have unrealistic expectations, but the nonprofit sector itself also promotes unhealthy overhead levels. “The 20 percent norm is perpetuated by funders, individuals, and nonprofits themselves,” says the CFO of one of the organizations we studied. “When we benchmarked our reported financials, we looked at others, [and] we realized that others misreport as well. One of our peer organizations allocates 70 percent of its finance director’s time to programs. That’s preposterous!”

From Mission Measurement by way of Entry Level Living’s Allison Jones. Illustration by David Plunkert (it’s included in the article).


Quotidian insights


I hate to repost ironic internet memes, but this from reddit touches upon pedagogy and (attempts at) representing other perspectives. From the comments:

“Write me a letter from the point of view of [you name it].” This is a typical mistake made by middle class teachers who don’t -really- know what the world looks like through the eyes of somebody from a different background. .

And more straightforward:

These sorts of assignments are bullshit anyway. The average letter anyone from any age would write would typically be banal and not cover significant historical aspects. The letter demanded by this situation would probably be full of family specific greetings and quotidian insights. I doubt a realistic letter would get good marks from the teacher though!

If they want an essay about a topic, they should just ask for one, rather than dress up the question in this way.

In case you’re curious, this is the translated text:

My life here is terrible. Work environment is not great and benefits are little. But don’t worry, everyday only about 10 people are seriously injured and I’m very careful. We opened a small shop, business isn’t bad. Although I don’t understand very much English, but I can still understand what white men say. Hopefully we can become successful, I will work hard and take care of myself.

Are you guys well? Miss you very much, hope to see you again .—

Other examples mentioned in the comments are “Write a journal entry from the point of view of an English explorer seeing Africans for the first time” and “Write one set in the present day about if Germany had won WW2 (and had invaded the UK in doing so).”

Charity, Mercy and Sin

From the introduction to “ Poverty and Charity in Past Times” by Mark Cohen (Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.3, 2005, p. 354)”, an analysis of Catholic confraternities in the 16th century :

Traditionally, Catholic poor relief was shaped by the overlapping but distinct concepts of “charity” and “mercy.” “Charity” could exist between equals (neighbors, friends, and family), and “mercy” entailed transactions between the strong and the weak, the prosperous and the poor, etc. The evidence of mercy provided a soul’s defense at the Last Judgment; to neglect them was to court damnation. The rules of many Catholic institutions, including confraternities, were designed to ensure that Christians performed good deeds systematically. Many theologians validated good deeds even to the benefit of unworthy persons, regardless of any undesirable social consequences. Critics have argued that these Catholic doctrines encouraged dependence, palliated poverty, and probably fostered a class of professional beggars who traded on the belief that almsgiving was vital to salvation.

And an analysis of subsequent Protestant activities:

Catholic societies retained and expanded certain kinds of institution that were alien to most Protestant communities: hospitals for abandoned children; pawn banks, which lent money to the needy at moderate interest rates; and convent-like institutions for women whose honor was threatened or lost. Behind them, arguably, lie variations on the principle of tolerating a lesser evil to avoid a greater one. Protestant poor relief was an instrument for creating a disciplined society in which overt sinfulness was repressed, even though all human beings remained sinners. Catholic poor relief was more willing to accommodate sin and bring it to the surface—the better to counter it through conversion and penance—within the processes of redemptive charity.

Why framing matters

Lewis Hyde’s introduction from Frames from the Framers: How America’s Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property:

The linguist George Lakoff has been insisting for some years now that progressives need to improve the way they frame their issues. Conservatives have become very good at framing– ”the death tax,” “partial-birth abortion,” “the ownership society”–and, Lakoff argues, once a debate is joined in terms set by the frame, the debate is lost. You can speak of taxation as a way for groups to empower themselves toward worthy ends (schools, bridges, libraries), or you can speak of taxation as an oppressive tool of Big Government. When you let the debate begins in the Big Government frame, you never get your library funded.

If we turn from death and taxes to intellectual property and the public domain we’ll see that the entertainment industry has also been very good at framing its issues. Here is a typical assertion: “There’s no difference in our mind between stealing a pair of shoes in a shoe store and stealing music on-line. A theft is a theft is a theft.” If in fact there is a difference between downloading a digital MP3 file and stealing a pair of shoes this “theft frame” has neatly erased it and sealed the erasure with a tautology.

Many people think that there is a difference, of course, but what alternative frame might reveal it? In what imaginative or discursive universe should we be having our discussion about file sharing? Is a song really a pair of shoes? What is the apt rhetoric here? What metaphors should guide us?

We participate, they profit


The International Fund for Agricultural Development published Good Practices in Participatory Mapping [PDF] last summer. In it they mention Sherry Arnstein’s A Ladder of Citizen Participation (JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224).

There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process. This difference is brilliantly capsulized in a poster painted last spring [1968] by the French students to explain the student-worker rebellion.  The poster highlights the fundamental point that participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.

Arnstein introduces a ladder typology whose subject matter is all too familiar:


The bottom rungs of the ladder are (1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy. These two rungs describe levels of “non-participation” that have been contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” the participants. Rungs 3 and 4 progress to levels of “tokenism” that allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice: (3) Informing and (4) Consultation. When they are proffered by powerholders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful. When participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, no “muscle,” hence no assurance of changing the status quo. Rung (5) Placation is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advise, but retain for the powerholders the continued right to decide.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making clout. Citizens can enter into a (6) Partnership that enables them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders. At the topmost rungs, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power.

Obviously, the eight-rung ladder is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate the point that so many have missed - that there are significant gradations of citizen participation. Knowing these gradations makes it possible to cut through the hyperbole to understand the increasingly strident demands for participation from the have-nots as well as the gamut of confusing responses from the powerholders.

Though the typology uses examples from federal programs such as urban renewal, anti-poverty, and Model Cities, it could just as easily be illustrated in the church, currently facing demands for power from priests and laymen who seek to change its mission; colleges and universities which in some cases have become literal battlegrounds over the issue of student power; or public schools, city halls, and police departments (or big business which is likely to be next on the expanding list of targets). The underlying issues are essentially the same - “nobodies” in several arenas are trying to become “somebodies” with enough power to make the target institutions responsive to their views, aspirations, and needs.