Category Archives: Citizen Journalism

Learning to think like a molecule

In 16 years as a daily newspaper reporter I’ve covered some mind-expanding stories including the race to map the human genome which revealed nothing so much as our stunning ignorance of the baffling complexity of the smallest, dumbest purposeful thing in the universe, the organic macromolecule.

Molecules, you will recall, are strings of atoms. Macromolecules are more complex strings. I’m not certain whether only organic molecules can form macromolecules; polymers are non-organic and may be macromolecules. But I do know that organic macromolecules, such as most famously DNA, do engage in purposeful action. And non-organic molecules do not. The most prolific macromolecules are more colloquially known as proteins. Our science has no idea how many proteins exist in life’s repertoire. But what we do know is that proteins are tiny little machines that run every function in every living organism. These macromolecules — think of proteins as long strands of rough pearls — literally fold and unfold, just as you might open and close your hand. Proteins are the smallest functioning unit of cells. They are the gears and levers of life. Proteins direct my fingers to press the appropriate keys on my keyboard. Proteins focus your eyes on the words and conduct them to the brain where they are reformulated as thought. To borrow a phrase that might succinctly explain the magic of life: It’s the macromolecules, stupid!

I felt obliged to offer that background before I tried explain what molecules have to do with media because it was a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, speaking at a biotechnology conference in 2003, who first drew the connection between the ability of stupid proteins to perform miraculous feats and the possibility that the machinations of macromolecules hinted at a revolution in the coordination of human affairs.

The conference in question turned out to be my last junket as a biotech reporter and it was held in a swell California venue, the seaside city of Monterey. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule which opened up a new way of thinking about the inner workings of cells as collections of gazillions of complex organic machines.

My published clip for that event made no mention of the Marine general’s remarks* which were so amazingly incongruous so as to stick in my head. So imagine this ramrod-straight Marine Corps general telling a few dozen slouching scientists and their hangers on like me that he found leadership inspiration in molecular biology. More often than not, the general explained, the Corps anticipated that future “battles” might involve two or three Marines from a platoon engaged in guerrilla conflict, none above the rank of private –  and God forbid they should get cut off and out-of-radio contact, and be unable to think for themselves.

Now despite the fact that enlisted Marines are commonly known as “jarheads” I do not mean to suggest that the general compared them to dumb-as-brick proteins. But as a former enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, I still recall quite vividly the night when a bourbon-and-cigarette-breathed drill instructor stood nose-to-nose with me to shout, “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR MOMMA, BOY?” — which absurd question I did not take personally but rather as proof that insofar as the Navy was concerned I was indeed a dumbfuck as was the swinging dick to my left and right to use the Boot Camp parlance.

Thus it struck me rather forcefully to hear this retired jarhead general talk about a form of organization that fell rather lightly on the rank and file because on the day that two riflemen get stuck in the boonies, back to back, with nothing between them and being overrun but their training and wits, they will be truly fucked if they have been conditioned to act purposefully only when orders are delivered in a shout at nose distance.

That was in 2003, but since I was then 49 and did not anticipate going into combat I had no immediate use for the thought. So I parked it until three years later when a brief meeting outside yet another conference in Monterey — Technology, Entertainment and Design or TED — caused me to dredge it up from memory.

Again my story about that TED conference made no mention of my chat with Rod Beckstrom, a co-author of “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book subtitled: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” But you can see the obvious connection and understand my receptivity to the notion of leaderless yet purposeful groups. However, as I had no venue to write about that in the newspaper I once again put that fanciful notion to bed.

Recently, however, I revived this idea of a leaderless media in a posting of my own titled, The Pyramid and the Cloud. That posting looked backwards at corporate media and was part of a series of blog entries in which I argue that hierarchy of journalism is at war with its truth-seeking mission. That is quite a conundrum given that the only journalists who draw regular paychecks work for corporate hierarchies. Those essays which start with a posting titled, Take Me To Your Leader, suggest reforms for corporate media to loosen their control mechanisms through blogging and thus delegate more independent truth-seeking power to the rank-and-file.

So I obviously hope for some movement in that direction on the part of Organized Journalism by which reference I do not mean to liken Corporate Media to the La Cosa Nostra. But after 16 years inside the system, I fear that newspaper leaders may not be as progressive as Marines in recognizing the need for new forms of organization to meet the operational challenges of competition for attention in a networked world (here let me mention “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” the book/philosophy by Web guru David Weinberger).

Meanwhile, let me redirect my molecular thinking toward creating a metaphor that would help unorganized journalists aggregate in purposeful ways with minimal overhead. That is the lesson I extract from nature. Systems of extraordinary complexity can function smoothly with no one shouting orders! Tomorrow I will suggest how some of the mechanisms to coordinate purposeful combinations of scattered content creators may already exist — and how we can use molecular biology as a template to help us understand what other software tools, social norms and perhaps loose organization might be needed to derive greater purpose and profit from Disorganized Journalism which is not a knock on citizen journalism but a statement of fact.

* Though I did not write about Lt. General Paul Van Riper’s remarks on molecular biology I learned that he had played an Iranian leader in a 2002 wargame in which his tactics inflicted, on a U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, the worst (simulated) defeat in naval history. I wrote a story about that in 2003. Earlier this year a New York Times article about U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Gulf repeated Van Riper’s lesson about how a loosely coordinated attack by inferior forces had so completely bamboozled America’s overconfident military brass.

Senators: don’t use shield law to stab bloggers

Shield law divides journalists, bloggers? by Douglas Millison

The Justice Department is lobbying the U.S. Senate to amend a proposed reporters shield law to exclude bloggers from the limited protections that it would give paid reporters against the forced disclosure of confidential sources. The House passed a national shield law last fall in reaction to the recent spate of subpoenas issued by federal prosecutors to reporters like Judith Miller. That bill (search for H.R. 2102 EH) treated bloggers and paid media the same. The Senate version (search for S. 2035) uses different words to accomplish the same goal of treating citizen journalists just like the professional journalists (see graphic below).

But a dozen letters from Cabinet-level officials, posted on a Justice Department web site, argue that the shield law would aid terrorism because it “provides a broadly defined class of ‘covered persons’ with extraordinary legal protections against having to reveal confidential sources.” That last quote is from a March 31 letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The other letters make the same point — the definition of covered persons is so broad as to harm national security.

Bloggers should be furious. And Senators should ignore this latest illogic from a Justice Department still tainted by the disingenuous Alberto Gonzales.

In principle journalism has never been a privileged profession but rather a form of free speech, which is every American’s right to practice under the First Amendment. To create an artificial privilege for paid practitioners would never have made any moral or legal sense — even less so now that technology is erasing the distinction between the citizen and paid journalist.

In practice, a senior White House official, Lewis Scooter Libby, has been convicted of perjury and obstruction for his role in attempting to silence Joseph Wilson when he questioned the falsehoods that formed the U.S. rationale for the invasion of Iraq. Libby sought to undermine Wilson by blowing the CIA cover of his wife, Valerie Plame. Now this untrustworthy administration wants the legal authority to discriminate between paid journalists — who were so accepting of their leaked lies — and unpaid bloggers who might get truthful tips from honest whistle-blowers. If the Senate and House cave in to White House pressure, they will create a double-barreled tool for manipulating public opinion — leak lies to mainstream media and prosecute any blogger who gets a truthful tip to the contrary.

This is a weak law in that it creates dozens of reasons to force “covered persons” to reveal sources, including what I call the Steve Jobs clause that would force a “covered person” to reveal a source who leaked a trade secret. Jobs tried to use the California courts to divine who had leaked info about a new Apple product to some bloggers, but the state’s shield law, which defines bloggers as journalists, got in his way. So if the federal law passes, any corporate official looking to hide anything behind a trade secret has a brand new ally in the U.S. Justice Department.

The arguments around the federal shield law are complex. The First Amendment Center offers a lengthy article on the history of this debate. Many people think weak federal protection is better than none at all. Fine, so long as every American who practices journalism plays by the same rules. Long ago the Founders wrote that “Congress shall make no law” limiting the First Amendment. No law means no differentiation between journalists on the basis of whether they are volunteers or get paid.

Text of House and Senate bills as regards “covered persons”

What then is to be done: build or berate?

tn_change.jpg Interactive media invite change

I was arguing with another blogger over the weekend over the best way to make a difference as a writer, and it finally occurred to me that that writing and journalism are too timid for the times, and out of step with the technolgy. Writing is about suggesting ideas. Good ideas are a useful but that judgment is in the mind of readers and they come to most stories with a set of preconceptions. They already have some predisposition toward the facts and when they read it is to see whether the writer has or has not conformed to those preconceptions. Everyone does this. At least so I believe based on 53 years of life experience including 16 years as a newspaper journalist. But I formed this bias, if you will about how people process information, back when I was a 20-year-old Navy journalist, reading a nightly newscast aboard a warship in the Pacific. I used to walk down the passageway from the closed circuit TV studio where I did my thing and hear from my crewmates playing cards on the mess decks. That was during the 1970s. During the 1980s I wrote columns for a now defunct weekly in Arcata, California. It was a small town of about 15,000 and I believe I earned $10 or $15 a week. But for me, as a small business owner, it was about the exposure. And I recall one day in particular when one of my townsfolk stopped to compliment me on something I had written and I made the error of asking them what — and they told me something 180 degrees to the opposite of what I had intended to convey. Whatever they had read had been the opposite of what I meant.

So now we have interactive media available and I think that changes everything. Suddenly the communicator has the ability to request or provoke an action. That is the fundamental difference. So far writers and broadcasters have focused on the ease of distribution. Yes it is easier to send digital copies. And yes this has completely upended the economics of publishing. That economic disruption has complicated the task of journalism. It used to be we could imagine that somewhere, somehow, the news industry would cover the important topics of the day out of the profits they enjoyed through advertising. And both print and broadcast news used to be extremely profitable. So there probably was sufficient wealth to insure a level of scrutiny from the press overall sufficient to play the watchdog role that journalists imagine to be theirs. Nowadays I think every aspect of that supposition is wrong. As the profit goes out of the newsgathering industry there is an inexorable pressure to create content that draws readers and advertising. Pay-per-click advertising demands “good” news because there is nothing that can be sold alongside a keyword like “genocide” (I explored this topic previously in a posting titled Hot Tubs vs. Hot Zones.)

But interactive media change the whole process of communication in a way that we are only beginning to understand because it is so new. We can invite activity. If you agree, vote this article higher. If you agree, write your elected or corporate official. If you agree, join the movement in some way appropriate to your circumstances. The communicator no longer need be merely the guardian angel (or devil) whispering in your ear. They become the organizer or inciter of activity. The writer becomes a rabble rouser. Otherwise they leave the most powerful capability of new media unused, and that is the ability to use the network to coordinate the actions of like minded people.

Why did I wake up this morning in this “storm the Bastille” frame of mind? It has to do with that argument I mentioned. The other party was interested in tracking down some supposedly misleading information about global warming. Why bother is my thought? I can no greater waste of time than trying to change the minds of people whose predispositions make them more likely to sneer than to smile at my ideas. If I wanted to do something about global warming, I would plant a tree. If I wanted to do something in a big way about global warming I would start a group of people who plant trees. I would share information about which trees have the best carbon-dioxide conversion rates. And what about city dwellers? Are there potted plants that could decorate an office or apartment and enlist more folks in the effort?

It all comes down to how change occurs. During most of the last 15 years I have covered Silicon Valley where change is an industrial process. The main take away is the power of small teams of dedicated and focused individuals. That’s what a startup company is — a few people with a laserlike focus on making something happen.

That same method would work just as well for the sort of change that gets lumped under the rubric of social progress. If you want to change some part of the human experience,  create a web page to lay out what you stand for and find the people who agree. Make it easy for them to join you. Or you join them. Do something. Actions speak louder than words. Interactive media finally connect the two. So why fight the losing battle to change minds when there are minds that already agree with you and are just waiting for something purposeful to do?

Postscript: the artwork is from

Linking press release to story when non-obvious

tn_question.jpg  If I, as the reader-and-citizen-journalist suspected that a particular story originated from a press release, how could I verify this, and find out what group put out the press release?  (and, in an ideal world, see the original press release?)

It should be quite easy to answer this question because under normal circumstances any group that issues a press release want credit and the newspaper generally wants to cite or quote from the release.

But that must not be the case here and, indeed, citizen journalists who are competing with local media and perhaps playing the outsider’s role akin to that of an alternative weekly, may suspect that news is being fed to the establishment and withheld from the opposition. And this could be true. Newsmakers — local government officials or business leaders or other community bigshots — have relationships with newspaper editors and reporters. Newsmakers often feed stories to these trusted media — whether this is good, bad or indifferent let history and/or God judge. But the citizen journalist could easily be seen as the troublemaker and get left out by mutual consent of the local power structure and its overly-cozy friends at the local paper. 

Catching covert press releases should be simple. Grab a section of the suspect story and put this text string into a search engine in quotes, to signift that you are seeking an exact phrase. If the text was lifted out of a press release the search engine should find it. Alternately if the reader/citizen journalist suspects that a particular group issued the press release but the search engine trick doesn’t reveal it, perhaps the newspaper paraphrased a release. So check the web sites of suspect news-makers – most of the times a government agency or even a private business eventually posts the complete text of a press release. Then the citizen journalist can see it as well, even if later.

Now here’s a wrinkle. What if there never is or was a press release. What if the news story were based on a leak. Say the county administrative officer calls a reporter and says, here is some stuff you cannot attribute to me? And then the newspaper uses this as a basis for a story. The citizen journalist is hosed. You can’t track or trace the information. This is one reason why I dislike the use of anonymous sources. Anyone who ever tells a reporter anything has an axe to grind or a reason to speak. Identifying the speaker is a vital part of the information. Anyhow, lots of reporters get all mushy when talking about anonymous sources and consider these nameless ones the wellspring of investigative journalism. I believe that to be true so rarely as to make most of the utterances bunk. Most anonymous quotes are reported by reporters too lazy or too timid to demand that their sources either put up (their names) or shut up.

But that’s my pet peeve.

 Back to the problem at hand, if the stories of concern emanate from leaks, take a deep breath. There is nothing you can do. But what about public meeting laws, you might say? Okay, there are such things that govern public officials but they generally know how to stay on the safe side of the law. Don’t waste your energy trying to expose their favoritism. Devote your time and talents to telling the real story that you see because that is the great but sutble power of the pen that you do possess. You can create the true and persuasive account that will draw readers to your point of view. Thing if it as a form of magnetism. You are creating some set of ideas to draw the like-minded to you. In no way are you creating a sort of thought ray that will seek out wrongheaded ideas and change them. I’ve been writing a long time — almost 16 years in daily newspapers and twice that with my prior adult experience — and I can’t recall ever having changed a single mind. But I have exposed many, many people to new ideas or shown them how to find others who believe as they do.

So for now if you are the citizen/reader up against an entrenched media/government cabal cultivate a sense of humor. Imagine that your media adversaries are covering Rome back in the day of Nero, and their spoon-fed news will start to read like this: “A marvelous melody was heard emanating from the imperial balcony last night.” You prose will have more punch: “Fire scourged the seven hills of Rome last night.”

Now who are them Romans gonna read and believe?

Survey says bloggers more diverse than nation


A detail from a float celebrating the diversity of San Jose, California, where 130 languages and/ dialects are spoken in the school district.

A newly-released survey from BigResearch drawing on a panels nearly 16,000 respondents suggests that one in four Americans blogs “regularly or occasionally” and that this blogging community is more ethnically diverse than the general adult population.

 I offer a snippet from the top of the press release and post its entirety below because I couldn’t find a link. The press release is written as if the data are statistically valid but I found no note about methodology:

“Twenty-six percent of all adults say they regularly or occasionally blog. Of those, 53.7 percent are male and 44.7 percent are married. Twenty-eight-point four percent hold a professional or managerial position, while only one in 10 (10.4%) are students.  Bloggers tend to be younger, averaging 37.6 years old, compared to 44.8 for adults 18 or older (in the general adult population). Ethnically, 69.7 percent of Bloggers are White/Caucasian (vs. 76.1%), 12.2 percent are African American/Black (vs. 11.4%) and 3.7 percent are Asian (vs. 2.0%). Twenty percent of Bloggers are Hispanic, compared to 14.8 percent of adults 18+ (in the general population). In addition, Bloggers report a lower income ($55,819 vs. $56,811) and are better educated (14.3 years of education vs. 14.2).” (emphasis added)

    .*                    *                   *                  * 

COLUMBUS, OH – (MARKET WIRE) – 2/12/08 – The art of blogging is no longer reserved for the college student with too much to say or the unemployed, self proclaimed “computer-nerd,” according to BIGresearch’s ( most recent Simultaneous Media Survey (SIMM 11) of 15,727 participants. 26% of all adults say they regularly or occasionally blog. Of those, 53.7% are male and almost half (44.7%) are married. 28.4% hold a professional or managerial position, while only one in 10 (10.4%) are students.    Bloggers tend to be younger, averaging 37.6 years old, compared to 44.8 for adults 18+. Ethnically, 69.7% of Bloggers are White/Caucasian (vs. 76.1%), 12.2% are African American/Black (vs. 11.4%) and 3.7% are Asian (vs. 2.0%). 20% of Bloggers are Hispanic, compared to 14.8% of adults 18+. In addition, Bloggers report a lower income ($55,819 vs. $56,811) and are better educated (14.3 years of education vs. 14.2).In the blogosphere, political blogs are becoming increasingly common, especially in an election year. 24.6% of registered voters say they regularly or occasionally blog. 37.6% of Libertarians regularly/occasionally blog, followed by Democrats (26.9%), Independents (25.7%) and Republicans (22.9%).“Bloggers are a diverse group and not who you would expect,” said Gary Drenik, President of BIGresearch. “This diversity provides political Bloggers with a forum to discuss issues or maybe be influenced by others, while Candidates have an opportunity to reach interested voters.” Another point of interest from the analysis of the Blogger shows that they are using most forms of new media significantly more than the average market.

Regular/Occasional New Media Usage (Top 5) 


Cell Phone 93.0% 87.5%
Instant Messaging 75.3% 49.3%
Download/Access Video/TV Content 72.2% 45.0%
Video Gaming 66.9% 47.5%
Text Messaging  65.5% 45.2%

Source: BIGresearch SIMM 11, Jan 08, N=15,727More Bloggers regularly seek advice from others before purchasing products or services (21.3% vs. 16.8% of adults 18+). They are also more likely to give advice with 38.3% saying they regularly give advice about products / services they have purchased (compared to 29.4% of adults 18+).Although Bloggers are more likely to use new media, the analysis finds that more conventional forms of media trigger their Internet searches. Magazines, at 51.6%, rank highest; followed by reading an article (48.8%), broadcast TV (46.1%), cable TV (44.5%), face-to-face communication (42.5%) and the newspaper (39.7%). To receive a recap of the key findings, click BIGresearch
BIGresearch is a consumer intelligence firm providing solution-based insights of consumer behavior, present and future, in areas of products and services, retail, financial services, automotive and media. BIGresearch conducts the Simultaneous Media Survey (SIMM) bi-annually and the Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey (CIA) monthly. More information is available at  

When crowdsourcing meets broadcasting

Crowdsourcing is the term coined to describe using an audience to generate some form of content, from simple feedback to fully fledged stories or artistic creations.

CNN is now poised to put its broadcast — and online — muscle behind an experiment in crowdsourcing as MediaWeek reports:

“Time Warner’s CNN this week will enter YouTube territory with the launch of, a new Web site built entirely on user-produced news. And unlike CNN’s own properties—where only iReport submissions that have been handpicked by editors and checked for accuracy ever make it online or on air—the new site will be wide open, allowing users to post whatever content they choose, CNN said.”

Susan Grant, executive vp of CNN News Services told MediaWeek the site would not rush to look for advertising opportunities in part perhaps because advertisers may be leery of putting their brands into this content mosh pit.

This is not an isolated development. It is my sense that broadcasters have embraced user-participation far more aggressively than print media perhaps because the new-found ease of video production and uploading strikes that industry as a novelty. It used to be difficult to freelance as a videographer. It’s getting less so.

As another example along these lines MTV got a grant from the Knight Foundation to create an election-site drawing on citizen contributors. (details).

I’ve blogged in the past (but can’t find the reference now) about how local broadcasters have been beefing up their web sites and gaining traffic at the expense of local newspaper sites. Print had an early advantage in getting web traffic because it was easier to repost words and photos than it was to either contribute or distribute video. That is changing. And fast. (Get a whiff of this in a post titled “TV & Radio facing news revolution“ from Ken Kaplan.

As communication migrates from the literal to the audiovisual broadcast websites could easily leapfrog print websites as magnets for attention. Broadcasters have a great medium for pushing people to their web sites. And once viewers get to the web it’s easier to downland and watch a video than to wrap one’s mind around words.

So here CNN throws open its doors. ““This is an opportunity to create a relationship with a global audience,” said the CNN exec behind the project.

It’s an interesting experiment. I’m not aware of anything of a similar scale being conducted by a newspaper.

Where o where is that niche o mine?

tn_newniche.jpg Do you have something cushier?

I collect items about niche media businesses for ideas or inspiration. Here are a few.

  • Columbia Journalism Review published two articles last fall aimed at daily newspaper reporters who wanted more depth than their jobs allowed. Elisabeth Sifton suggests that books rule and newspapers drool in an article titled, “The Second Draft of History.” And in the companion piece former Washington Post staffer Linda Perlsterin explains why she became “Unshackled.”
  • Heidi Benson of the San Francisco Chronicle (where I also work) wrote about the Frontline/World newsmagazine; hardly a niche, I suppose, but an example of how video journalists are trying to cover the stories that fall through the vast cracks of what airs on network news.
  • LA Times reporter Alana Semuels writes about e-mail services that keep La-La landers abreast of whatever is hippest and hottest in “E-mail newsletters seek to mine riches from niches.” I read the piece and saw a lot more niche than rich but see for yourself. (Click to read article)
  • Finally, Associated Press writer Josh Funk says the demise of cassette tapes has been predicted for 20 years and now only niche uses keep this medium alive. In an article about the last audio cassette tape maker in North America, Funk writes that: “Sales of music tapes plummeted from 442 million in 1990 to about 700,000 last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America . . . Officials at the last cassette maker in North America, Lenco-PMC Inc., saythe plastic cases — invented in 1964 to hold two miniature reels for magnetic tape — remain popular in at least three uses: Audio books for the blind, court recordings and religious messages.”