A lot of people are very concerned this will create a space where people are even less likely to talk to the press, effectively making whistleblowers scared to tip off reporters to important information.
In a letter to Eric Holder signed by 50 news organizations, from NPR to the Bay Area News Group to Politico, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press wrote:
The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security which lie at the heart of this case.
The letter goes on to say that by subpoenaing two months of records from 20 phone lines, the DoJ has gone against all guidelines set forth about phone records. It goes on to call for a shield law:
The Department’s actions demonstrate that a strong federal shield law is needed to protect reporters and their newsgathering materials in a court of law where the adversarial process ensures a fair weighing of the issues. While Congress should provide that remedial legislation, there is still much that this Department can do to mitigate the damage it has caused.
Right here in Sonoma County, in Rohnert Park, someone started a petition calling for legislation against this practice.
In its infancy, the site is a kind of forum for the members of the group: Jake Bayless, who runs Empire Report; Joshua Simmons, web developer; Kerry Rego, social media consultant; Gretchen Giles, writer, editor (and former Bohemian editor); and Terry Garrett, Leadership Developer at Sonoma County GoLocal. So far, members have hashed out questions about local media. The public can view their discussions and, if they want to participate, join the group's Facebook page to enter the discussion.
Some of the questions the Sparky Project has asked so far are about journalism and its potential issues:
What is news, anyway? (And who should decide?)
What information do people need to conduct their lives?
In order to reach its highest good, does a democratic state require a well-informed citizenry?
Giles responded to the question about what's news, and who should decide: "If the gate has been unlocked and anyone can post items at any time under the guise of 'news,' how do we sort out the necessary from the unnecessary without gross error?"
An excellent question, and one that needs a lot more discussion. It's laudable for this group to have formed, and to be brave enough to ask these questions in a public way. What I'm unsure of is where this is going and what the end result will be. Whatever happens, though, the group was founded by people who are certainly well-versed in the media—it should be interesting to see what comes to fruition.
Take some of the local blog posts on Patch.com.
For those who aren't familiar with Patch, it is a collection of hyperlocal websites all over the United States owned by AOL. Each individual site covers roughly one town and has one editor managing the content for that site. At its core, it is a news site like any other.
According to Patch:
Simply put, Patch is an innovative way to find out about, and participate in, what's going on near you.
We're a community-specific news, information and engagement platform driven by passionate and experienced new media professionals. Patch is revolutionizing the way neighbors connect with each other, their communities, and the national conversation.
We want to be the most trusted, comprehensive, and relevant news and information resource in your community. What can you do on Patch?
But the better question would be: "What can't you do on Patch?"
Take Patch blogger Cathy Gumina Odom. Her post on Healdsburg Patch's site: I'm Stoned When I Can't Connect My Bluetooth Keyboard is a fabulous example of Patch being the “most trusted, comprehensive, and relevant news and information resource” around.
Or... not. It is, however, a great example of what can happen on a news site with little to no editorial control. Really, read the thing. It's utterly bonkers.
Now just because there's one crazy blogger out there doesn't mean everyone who blogs for Patch is a stoned lunatic. But oftentimes there's no vetting process for what goes up and what doesn't go up. This is true for many sites; Patch is just a great example.
The editors of these sites are responsible for getting a certain number of posts up a day (as per their contract) and may not have time to worry about what is or isn't being covered by freelancers and bloggers. While this may not seem like a big deal, the fact that Patch is branding itself as a relevant news source makes it kind of a big deal.
(To be fair, many if not most of the editors who work for Patch are qualified journalists. Take Petaluma Patch editor Karina Ioffee, who went to UC Santa Cruz and studied at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. She worked for the Arizona Daily Star, the Stockton Record and two of the world’s largest wire services, the Associated Press, and Reuters.)
Not everyone who writes on the web needs to have a graduate degree in journalism. There are tons of blogs out there on relevant topics being written by all sorts of people. Food blogs, music blogs, gardening blogs, parenting blogs...the list goes on and on.
But for a site whose founders claim to want it to be trusted, and claim to present relevant news, and then let anyone at all write for it unedited (and, might I add, not get paid)—to me, it seems a little odd, and takes that old citizen-journalism idea a little too far.
Once again, it's up to the consumer to filter out the garbage to get to the gold.
In newsrooms all over, reporters get press releases by the bushel. There are services like PRWeb and PR Newswire that reporters can use to find story ideas. They can even subscribe to get e-blasts on specific topics, such as healthcare or banking. Or media ethics. Press releases provide a way for the government, businesses, labor unions and anyone who has something to say to get in front of a reporter. In of itself, this is not a bad thing. It is a useful tool.
But... sometimes... a story that comes out sounds a whole lot like the release it comes from. Sometimes it's word for word. (Which kind of, but sometimes not exactly, could be called a free advertorial. Just sayin'.) Other times, direct quotes, or sections of the release, are copied and pasted into the story. Sure, copying a quote from a press release means the quote will be exact—yet often they're taken out of context.
Churnalism is a product launched last week by the Sunlight Foundation that enables media consumers to conduct a side-by-side comparison of news stories in American media and press releases they (may) come from. The project is modeled after a similar British product that came out a couple of years ago.
One thing I think is exceptionally cool about this is that in addition to press releases from a variety of places, it also compares the articles to Wikipedia. As a reporter, I have no problem looking at a Wiki site to get source IDEAS, but copying and pasting from Wikipedia? Sorry kids, that is just plain ol' plagiarism. And will very possibly be wrong.
At the annual California Newspaper Publishers Association awards luncheon on April 27, the Bohemian was honored to take home two awards. Competing in a category with 35 other weekly newspapers statewide, staff writer Leilani Clark won second place in the Best Feature Story category for her cover story detailing the crackdown on medical marijuana growers and dispensaries ("Smoked Out," May 2, 2012). In addition, the Bohemian staff won second place in the Special Section category for our Best Of issue spotlighting longstanding local businesses that have thrived for 40 years or more ("Best Of: Legends," March 21, 2012). Furthermore, Blue Ribbon certificates were awarded to William Smith and Sara Sanger for their Bohemian work in illustration and photography, respectively.
This marks three statewide awards and seven national awards that the Bohemian has won in the last five years for excellence in journalism. Frankly, we're honored, and will continue to work hard to bring you the best paper possible.
Blasting Sonny Rollins in Joy
This week, both the Press Democrat and the North Bay Business Journal published opinion pieces written by community members on the potential benefits and pitfalls of Sonoma Clean Power, a "community choice program" designed to provide "green electricity at competitive prices to the residents and businesses of Sonoma County," according to the program's website.
The program, if approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who unanimously approved to launch the program in December of last year, will provide energy to current PG&E customers who choose not to opt out and stay with PG&E.
Today in the Press Democrat, county supervisor Efren Carrillo and Public Utilities board member Dick Dowd co-authored YES ON SONOMA CLEAN POWER: Give Residents Control, Choice (all-caps theirs, incidentally) arguing that "Sonoma Clean Power will deliver greener power at a competitive price while creating a new permanent source of income to run local programs."
Also in the Press Democrat today, Hunter Stern, business representative with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 1245, argues in NO ON SONOMA CLEAN POWER: Higher cost, more greenhouse gases, that public power will bring higher costs and less "green energy" with the onset of this program.
Meanwhile, the Monday issue of the North Bay Business Journal ran 'Sonoma Clean Power carries potential economic benefits,' by Sonoma County Water Agency Public Information Officer Amy Christopherson Bolten.
Bolten leads off her column with this statement:
Sonoma Clean Power is a community choice aggregation program being developed by the Sonoma County Water Agency to purchase electricity for Sonoma County customers. This program has multiple benefits and risks, is complex and not well understood by Sonoma County residents and businesses. In order to help the North Bay Business Journal readers understand the various aspects of Sonoma Clean Power, the Journal is partnering with the Sonoma County Water Agency to publish a series of articles discussing the various aspects of this effort. This article discusses the potential for development of locally sited renewable power facilities.
(Great intention, but I wonder how many of the risks the water agency will discuss in this media partnership, considering that it's the very agency in charge of, and pushing for, the program. Indeed, the SCWA is the current home for Sonoma Clean Power's temporary website.)
These pieces follow several in-depth stories published in the PD and the NBBJ in the last week about the program.
"Five months from now, Sonoma County intends to launch its program to become the power supplier to 220,000 local homes and businesses, displacing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. from its position of energy dominance. At stake in the short term is up to $170 million in annual revenue," states a story by Brett Wilkison.
The North Bay Business Journal's story, by Eric Gneckow, states the program offers "the clearest picture yet of expected pricing from a renewable energy—focused power agency under development in Sonoma County, a new report shows that a typical business customer in the launch phase of Sonoma Clean Power could expect to pay between 3.1 percent less per month and a half-percent more than conventional utility rates."
I have to say, even with all the coverage this is getting, the opinion pieces, to me, kind of get in the way of my feeling like I have a true understanding of the benefits, risks and the potential monetary gains and losses that will come if this program is launched.
A 2011 Bohemian cover story by Darwin Bond-Graham examined the early stages of Sonoma Clean Power, and noted that while Marin's public power agency buys much of its power from Shell—hardly a green source—Sonoma County has a number of local greener options, even including chicken poop.
A 2012 follow-up article by Rachel Dovey found that the SCWA was in talks with nine potential suppliers, including Consolidated Edison, Calpine and Goldman-Sachs. And while cost estimates for consumers ranged from a $4 to $10 increase per month, Bond-Graham followed up with Paul Fenn, who wrote the 2002 California law that enables cities and counties develop their own sources of local power; Fenn at the time said a zero-rate increase in rates, or even a decrease, was possible.
Adding to an increasingly long list of stories in the Press Democrat about the new owners of the paper, a story by Derek Moore today looks into the "controversy in Sonoma" about the revised building plans for Chateau Sonoma Hotel and Spa.
Darius Anderson, founder and CEO of Kenwood Investments, backing the project, is also, as many know, one of the principals of Sonoma Media Investments, owner of the Press Democrat.
Of course Anderson and his partner Doug Bosco, another principal at Sonoma Media Investments, have been in the news regularly lately—story about lobbying, story about Jared Huffman, story about Gov. Brown. The two are newsmakers in this area, but the recent influx of stories "above the fold" about their dealings is a little hard to stomach.
Take the very well-written story by Kevin McCallum about the Sacramento Kings which graced the front page of the Press Democrat late last month. Fine, Anderson is a big wheeler-and-dealer in this situation, which is justifiable sports news . . . in Sacramento. This seemed like a story for the Sacramento Bee, or something the PD could have pulled from the Associated Press—not one to have a stellar reporter like McCallum spend valuable time covering when he could have been writing about more relevant things to our community.
As for the Anderson's hotel, I'm not suggesting the residents of Sonoma don't find this issue important. It is. In the story, Moore writes: "The Index-Tribune building, an adjacent warehouse and an antique store, all owned by Anderson, will be razed to make way for the hotel complex."
This is news, and I am glad it is being covered. The voices against the development were heard, and reported on in the Press Democrat, and that is important. But the more stories about the new owners that aren't relevant to the local community, the less inclined readers will be to take seriously the ones that are.
The 16th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival was host to a bevy of films, and one, Project Censored: The Movie, may be the most important film I've seen in terms of inspiring media consumers to seek outlets that speak the truth.
If you know about Project Censored, you're probably not surprised that I am a fan. For those unfamiliar, it is a nonprofit located at Sonoma State University whose mission is to "teach students and the public about the role of a free press in a free society — and to tell the news that didn’t make the news and why." Each year, Project Censored publishes a book of the 25 "top censored stories and media analysis." The stories are collected by students and faculty and are vetted by media professionals.
Project Censored was founded in 1976 by Carl Jensen and was housed in the Sociology Department at Sonoma State University until it spun off and became its own nonprofit, the Media Freedom Foundation. This allowed Project Censored to be more autonomous and to reach out to other schools across the country in order to have a wider net with which to catch untold stories.
Project Censored: The Movie is directed by Doug Hecker, a former participant in Project Censored, and Christopher Oscar. In it, the two attempt to answer the question: "What will it take to end the reign of corporate media's junk food news?" The night the film premiered at the Sonoma festival, 200 people were turned away. There was an additional showing later in the weekend, and a third showing was added at 9 p.m. Sunday night to accommodate the crowds.
Hecker and Oscar's inspiration to make the film stemmed from their role as fathers, and wanting to leave behind a news legacy worth something. They talk about "junk-food news" and why corporate media fails to report the truth. Interviews with Howard Zinn, Oliver Stone, Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Daniel Ellsberg and Dan Rather, among others, are eye-opening, particularly to the uninformed media consumer.
Khalil Bendib, a political cartoonist, talks about the top-down structure of the news and how corporate ownership hides the truth.
"General Electric owns NBC. General Electric is a bomb maker. NBC is not going to be against war," he said.
My personal hope is that this film is widely distributed. It seems to me that often, films like this are only seen by people who already know the problems, and simply preach to the choir. If this film is seen by many, it could shed some light in otherwise dark corners of reality and inspire people to take a more active role in their news consumption.
When asked to reflect on the role of the alternative media, Bendib says, "I would compare it to oxygen, really."
Holy mackerel, media junkies! I came across this gem on Salon.com and what a doozy it is.
My impetus in writing on media issues for the Bohemian is to make the media landscape a better place. That may be bold and ambitious, possibly megalomaniacal—and oddly enough, if it worked, I would ostensibly be making myself irrelevant. But that's my goal.
I was a reporter with the North Bay Business Journal for about three and a half years. I have written for myriad other publications, but nowhere else did I receive regular press releases about and from businesses and institutions I wrote about. The job of marketers is to market, and they did it, and did it well. My job as a reporter was to sift through and find the "news," and this was my judgment call. For some reason I was allowed to be the "gatekeeper." (A term thrown around in J school which I find sort of funny.) But the point is that I looked at these releases and determined whether there was real news value or whether they were things marketers were trying to slip past me as news so they wouldn't have to pay for advertising.
It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
Anyway, this well-written column from Salon, by Andrew Leonard, is about exactly the sort of thing that has troubled me.
That trusted news sources (in this case, the author is calling out a Forbes magazine article for saying Google shouldn't discriminate between news and sponsored content, i.e. ADVERTISING) aren't making sure their readers know the difference between actual stories and advertising is maddening.
The Forbes writer, Jeff Bercovici, argues that Google's recent stance against this kind of media manipulation is OK.
But even if Google’s stance isn’t a threat to the native business model, its approach here leaves something to be desired. When Google wanted to address the infestation of content farm crud in its search result, it didn’t have to threaten to block the perpetrators from showing up in search unless they played by its rules. It simply watched how its users responded to content farmed articles and used those signals to adjust its algorithm accordingly.
That’s the sort of elegant engineering solution we’ve come to expect from Google, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t apply here. If Google News users think some sponsored content is news, who is Google to say otherwise?
I'm sorry, but I am a Google News user, and I absolutely mind if there are paid-for or even not-paid-for advertisements posing as news stories!
How can we have a press that actually makes a difference in our lives if it is half advertising masquerading as editorial? We can't. I think they call that propaganda. Kudos Google, at least this time, for drawing a line in the sand.
Sonoma Media Group (not to be confused with Sonoma Media Investments, who own the Press Democrat, the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the Sonoma Index Tribune and other associated publications) today announced a $4.5 million deal to buy five local radio stations which were owned by Maverick Media Group, LLC.
I wish the investment group had chosen a different name, as it could be confusing to media consumers which local group owns which local press. The similarity is reminiscent of when North Bay Biz magazine changed their name after the North Bay Business Journal, which targets the same audience, changed its name so long ago.
Maverick Media sold KSRO, The Mix, Hot, The River and Froggy in the multi-million dollar deal. According to the Press Democrat's story, Lawrence Amaturo, "who previously owned KSRO and several other radio stations," will take over the radio stations as owner/operator in May.