Friday, March 31, 2006

Social networking for social change?

From Information Week:

Since 2002, social networking companies have been generating buzz, but not much income. Or if they do, they don't want to talk about it.

Despite 24 million members and 9 million unique visitors a month, Friendster's answer to the question “Are you profitable?” is “We're privately held and don't share any financial info…”

After three years, LinkedIn, a social networking site that caters to business people with both free and fee-based options, has 5 million subscribers. Konstantin Guericke, VP of marketing for the company, believes that number will reach 8 to 10 million by the end of the year.

“We're expecting to reach profitability this month,” says Guericke. “We already have had some days where we've taken in more money than we spent.”

That may not sound like much, but Guericke says it's a welcome validation for Web companies that advertising support isn't the only viable business model. “The question is, do people pay for subscription-based services on the Internet?" he says. “Especially in the business arena, if you provide enough value, the answer is yes…”

Adrian Scott, CEO and founder of business social networking site, claims his site, with its six employees and 400,000 users, has been profitable for several years. He says Ryze helps people build business relationships that “can lead to significant business.”

It's harder to say that about social networking sites that peddle personal rather than commercial connections. Scott remains skeptical about the prospects of MySpace despite its supposed 50 million users. “I don’t think it's really clear that MySpace has shown a business model that works,” he says.

So here’s my question: can any of these social or business networking sites and applications contribute on a not-for-profit basis to building movements for more just and democratic societies -- for example, in coalition building efforts, campaign organizing, or just flat-out NGO job and vendor networking? Is anybody out there doing anything interesting in this area?

There is one promising effort I know of called Civic Space, but their "offering is in active development and will not be complete until at least Q2 2006." There are also, of course, ASPs like Kintera, GetActive, and DemocracyInAction, but they are more about email-based fundraising campaigns than self-perpetuating social networking.

So as of this moment, there's no progressive political version of Friendster or LinkedIn. I asked media and Internet strategist Michael Stein if he knew of efforts to organize social change through social networking sites:

As far as social networking services goes, I know of only a few efforts to use them for community organizing or activist campaigns. At the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Seattle last week, Nick Allen from Donordigital covered this topic as part of his talk on "The Future of e-Philanthropy" and he profiled some examples. He mentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Greenpeace, which have both used social networking services to harvest for like-minded people. On many of these services, members list their interests, so it's easy to search for keywords like "Amnesty," "vegetarian," etc. Young activists are using these networks (MySpace, etc) to conduct campaigns either on their own, or as part of organized efforts.

Thoughts? Resources?

Indy Press and Disticor Set to Join Forces; Publishers Cautious

When the Independent Press Association purchased BigTop Newsstand Services - now called Indy Press Newsstand Services - in 2000, it got more than it bargained for. (Disclosure: I worked for IPA for five years; IPA is still one of my clients.) Indy Press was suppposed to be a different kind of national distributor, one who was on the side of the indy publishers and ready to provide extra help to amplify their voices.

Over the past six years, however, that utopian ideal has clashed continuously with a dystopian reality of recurrent cash-flow problems, which resulted in late payments to clients who have included Mother Jones, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, The Sun, and Tikkun (several of these magazines have left Indy Press during the past few months). Early in fall 2005, Indy Press stopped communicating altogether with clients, which fueled ugly publicity and panicky speculation on the IPA listserv about the demise of the IPA / Indy Press.

Veteran indy publishers raised the ghost of the Fine Print bankruptcy, a crisis that helped build the core membership of the IPA. “The irony is, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an organization that was designed to help this problem,’ and, gee, there is,” said Dan Sinker of Punk Planet. “It’s the Independent Press Association. It’s the very people who sent out an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, we can’t pay you because of media consolidation.’ If it wasn’t so fucking sad it would be ironic.”

"The reasons for [Indy Press's cash-flow problems] are numerous," wrote Executive Director Richard Landry in an October 2005 message to the IPA membership, "but they really boil down to the fact that independent newsstand distributors like Indy Press require a lot of working cash themselves in order to be able to deal with the very long return and payment cycles that are standard for our business. This is one major, and very nasty, consequence of media consolidation: The long payment cycles work to the advantage of the very biggest distributors and retailers, and to the disadvantage of the rest of us."

That month Thea Selby, the principal of Next Steps Marketing, was appointed interim managing director of Indy Press, while IPA sought out working capital and partners that could help address cash-flow and Indy Press's position in the distro market. Two weeks ago Landry announced to the membership that IPA...

...has signed a letter of intent with Disticor Magazine Distribution Services to create a partnership in magazine distribution for the independent press...Going forward under the proposed agreement, Disticor will assume the financial and business responsibility to distribute Indy Press titles, bill and collect on their behalf, and pay publishers on sales; while Indy Press will continue to manage the newsstand marketing of the titles to help publishers reach their newsstand sales goals.

As part of the proposed agreement, Disticor will provide the funding that the IPA has been seeking to help it pay Indy Press publishers for the past-due amounts they are owed. Publishers will also benefit from significantly improved payment terms for their titles, including better advances and quicker final settlements.

Indy Press publishers will have access to more and timely sales information under the proposed agreement. Indy Press marketing staff will be better able to provide publishers with the sales analysis and marketing programs they need to more effectively build their newsstand presence.

Reaction among present and former Indy Press clients I've spoken with has been mixed. Feeling burned by late payments and poor communication, many have given up on Indy Press and the IPA. This is a shame. A national distributer run by an indy press membership organization did not turn out to be the Shangri-La many of us - yours truly included - hoped it would be. In becoming a part of the industry, we absorbed its contradictions. Let's hope that the IPA and Indy Press Newsstand Services can pull through its crisis and expand its reach on the newsstand, contradictions and all.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"The Dark Side of Muni-Wi-Fi"

The FierceWiFi e-newsletter - an excellent, free resource - carried this article on the "The dark side of muni-WiFi":

At times we should look a gift horse in the mouth. There is a rush of municipalities across the U.S. and Europe looking to develop free or low-cost WiFi zones. The goal is to provide the residents of these cities with always-on, high-speed Internet access. Leaders of cities say that creating these city-wide WiFi zones is not only vital for economic development and public safety, but they help insure that the digital divide between rich and poor is eliminated, or at least narrowed...

These benefits notwithstanding, critics charge that there is no such thing as a free digital lunch. They say that the proliferation of muni-WiFi helps spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce which is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T, and other large companies. City residents will find themselves surrounded by a ubiquitous online environment which will follow them with ads and information dovetailed to their interests and their geographic location. Unless municipal leaders object, these critics say, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their Web searches, email messages and other online activities as they are tracked, profiled and targeted. The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy says that instead of creating yet another e-commerce stomping ground, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities should understand that real alternatives do exist to the corporate model of municipal-WiFi being promoted by Google and its cohorts. It is possible to develop community networks that reflect the right to personal privacy, and the cost of building such networks can be very low. There are already successful publicly supported models. St. Cloud, FL, a city of 30,000, has built a free WiFi service for its residents as an important public service. The city has been able to build and operate the network, reduce its telecommunications costs and generate new economic opportunities.

See Jeff Chester's Media Alliance analysis of wi-fi marketing ecosystems.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is corporate journalism dying? Oh, I suppose...

In today's USA Today, author and former journalist Dan Neuhart comments on the sale of newspaper company Knight Ridder:

[Knight Ridder founder John] Knight's company became, if not a prisoner of Wall Street, a casualty. Its big-city papers had greater downturns in profits during recessions than did newspapers in smaller cities. Analysts downgraded Knight Ridder's stock ratings and groused about its profits. The company responded with periodic belt-tightening. Some journalists said it went overboard, notably Jay Harris, publisher of the company's flagship San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News; he resigned in 2001 rather than institute what he called "deep and ill-advised staff reductions.

Last year a large, institutional shareholder — unhappy despite Knight Ridder's 16% operating profit margin, which lagged margins in the mid-twenties for some newspaper companies — pushed Knight Ridder to sell itself. No matter that a 16% margin is exceptional among American businesses. By comparison, hotel companies average an 11% operating profit margin, makers of office supplies average 7% and grocers less than 4%.

It matters that newspaper leaders hold strong journalistic sensibilities when facing shareholder pressure to maximize profits. The nation's 13 major publicly traded newspaper companies publish half the 54.6 million copies of newspapers we read every day...

Investor pressure will also touch our future if newspaper websites — logging 54 million visits a month by the end of 2005, up 30% from a year earlier — replace newspapers as our primary source for comprehensive local news...

And we must wonder: How dedicated will the leaders of publicly traded news companies be to spending the money necessary to publish hard-hitting, top-notch newspapers and websites that profit their communities' well-being, even if it means somewhat lower profits for shareholders?

Part of me wants to yawn...this is old news and my capacity for outrage has all but vanished. Corporate journalism is dying, killed by commercial and ideological pressures of all kinds; the much more interesting question is, what business and editorial models are replacing it?

Speaking of old news: way back on Oct. 25, 2005, music journalist and Can't Stop Won't Stop author Jeff Chang commented on the merger of New Times and Village Voice Media. It's a great comment, and deserves being cited:

Competition in the "alternative weekly" sector has been all but eliminated. The New Times is adding magazines like the Los Angeles Weekly, City Pages, and Seattle Weekly to its list, and will command 25% of the market.

It is now the Clear Channel of alt-weeklies...

From the point of view of the principals, the NT/VVM merger is the next logical step in rationalizing the industry.

Here's a business that started in the McCarthyist 50s as a true alternative--the papers used to be called 'undergrounds'--and took flight during the "whole world is watching" media explosion of the 60s. Lots of assholes got exposed, lots of rebels got their shine, and lots of cutting-edge culture got introduced to the world. Then, just like a lot of lefty orgs in the 70s and 80s, the alt-weeklies began to implode. Those decades were rife with purges, shakeouts, closures, and union-busting drives.

All these burned bridges were long forgotten by the go-go 90s, when dot-com money flooded alt-weeklies across the country. That's when VCs started checking out the scene, and corporate hounds like [New Times CEO James] Larkin started moving in...

But then the bubble burst, and everyone was assed-out again...

What media conglomerates began to learn after 2000 was that it wasn't enough to be the big daddy, to have collected all the pieces on the Monopoly board. Properties actually had to make money, and after the bubble, there was a whole lotta head-scratching going on...

In the meantime, the thing that got the alternative press going in the first place--content--suffers.

The Voice, sort of the alt-weekly of record, has been undergoing an extreme makeover during the past 3 years, heading towards a NT template: shorter, less substantive pieces, writing that veers toward breezy over deep, less investigative and more pop-cultural. Some of the changes have been good, a necessary updating for a new generation of readers. Others have left great writers like Gary Giddins (and many others who, unlike Giddins, decided to stay) completely denatured...

When the paper becomes only about selling the latest CD, concert ticket, movie ticket, sex toy, or call-girl service, what the hell is "alternative" about that?...

I'm gonna pour a little out on the sidewalk for the alt-weekly, then I'm gonna go try and find me a real alternative.

Exactly. Don't mourn, organize! Or, in this case, keep writing, publishing, innovating, and scaling up the true alternatives.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Media Reform Worldwide: the Maldives, Thailand, and Australia

I have a Google Alert out for "media reform" and all my hits are coming from the Maldives, Thailand, and Australia. We're not reading or hearing about any of these hotspots in U.S. media, so here's a rundown:

In the Maldives, activists are struggling to loosen government control of the media.

In Thailand, the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra owns the telecom giant Shin Corp., which fired 21 journalists (for apparently political reasons) from its iTV television station shortly after Thaksin became prime minister in 2001. During the past year opposition to Thaksin's authoritarian rule has mounted and rallied around the issue of media freedom. Last week, a Thai criminal court acquitted media critic Supinya Klangnarong, from the advocacy group Campaign for Popular Media Reform, of suggesting that Shin Corp had profited from its connections with the government - which in fact it has.

In Australia, the Howard government is trying to push through a media reform "blueprint" that sounds as though it is modeled on the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which unleashed a wave of media consolidation in the States and vastly increased the power of the corporate media over distribution and content. There's no question, however, that Australia needs some kind of media reform - when traveling there in 2004, I was immediately struck by the centralized character and dullish content of many Australian media outlets.

For a solid overview of the issues, see the this page from the PC Users Group of Australia. The government's blueprint calls for lifting restrictions on foreign investment in Australia's media sectors, compelling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to seek advertising revenue, and easing limits on cross-media ownership that prevent investors owning television stations and newspaper operations in the same city. Writing in the Australian newspaper The Age, Stephen Conroy attacked the government's plan:

Australia needs media reform. There is no dispute about that. The emergence of digital technology opens up great opportunities for media companies and for consumers. We need a regulatory regime that allows the potential to be realised.

Regrettably, however, the media options paper released by Senator Coonan contains a poison pill at its heart. Reforms to stimulate the take-up of digital services are tied to an acceptance of the Government's plan to abolish the cross-media ownership rules.

There is simply no need for these matters to be linked. Across the developed world, countries are rapidly moving to digital broadcasting. Yet only the Australian Government is making this process contingent on changing media ownership rules.

MP John Murphy is even more direct.

Yep, sounds like the American model - Australians would do well to review the legacy of the Telecommunications Act, which, BTW, will be up for renewal in 2007. Get ready to mobilize!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Community Wireless Summit; SF Municipal Wireless Update; BlogHer; Anti-War Media Protest

Some odds and ends:

1. The National Summit for Community Wireless Networks is happening on March 31-April at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. I won't be able to make it, but you should.

2. The City of San Francisco has posted redacted versions of municipal wireless proposals online. The redoubtable Media Alliance published a a very useful comparison chart on the proposals, evaluated based on the following issues: free Internet access, free or affordable hardware, technical training, technical support, resources for creation of locally relevant content, and creation of digital inclusion fund to resource these projects. Such provisions are not pie-in-the-sky: earlier this month, Philadelphia signed a municipal wireless contract with Earthlink that called for the company to "subsidize Internet access for low-income households at $9.95 a month and share future revenue for funding of certain social programs."

A joint Google/Earthlink proposal is considered (for reasons that seem to have more to do with business-page buzz than anything else) the front-runner in San Francisco, but the outlook for a deal that closes the digital divide is mixed. "We are cautiously encouraged by the fact that some of the proposals address our recommendation for a Digital Inclusion Fund to resource affordable computers, training, and locally-relevant content," says Media Alliance's blog. "Surprisingly, the Google/Earthlink proposal does not mention the creation of such a fund, despite the fact that Earthlink has committed to this in its contract with the City of Philadelphia." Hopefully, Philly will put some pressure on liberal SF.

If you live in San Francisco, get involved with Media Alliance's Internet 4 Everyone Campaign. Nationally, the cable and phone industries are organizing against municipal broadband projects, seeking to actually make them illegal on state and federal levels. To learn more, and find out how to act, see the Free Press Web site.

3. BlogHer is a great new organization of female bloggers, that holds a conference, organizes writing clinics, and highlights woman-written blogs. If you blog and you're a woman, or if you're a pro-feminist man who blogs on gender issues, check it out.

4. Over at MediaChannel, Danny Schechter reports on their March 22 protest of war coverage in the media. I was struck by Schechter's grumpy assessment of the movement and the success of the march:

It wasn’t major by any means and was quite overshadowed by a march to save the Seals in Canada, an issue that seems to have generated more excitement than saving democracy in America. That fact was pointed out to me by a reporter from the Globe and Mail of Toronto who came along with us whilst the mighty NY press ignored us to a fault. I explained to him this was a first attempt to join the media issue with the issues of the war in Iraq and is not yet an obvious enough connection to the anti-war crowd that seems happy to just bash Bush over and over and blame it all on the Republicans....

Mediachannel was there but many of the colleagues we respect couldn’t make time for it including our friends at FAIR, MoveOn and even United For Peace and Justice who embraced the idea but didn’t or couldn’t help mobilize for it. Too busy, I guess, to be charitable. It was easy to recognize that big protests take time and organizing efforts (including resources and experience) of the kind we lack. We gave it a try anyway.

Unlike Mussolini, who allegedly had the trains run on time, we were late to the first stop at CBS "Black Rock" headquarters which was surrounded by a construction fence. I got there before the other organizers and posters did and ran into some of the acrimony some activists are famous for: rushing to judgment without any facts. At least one person immediately assumed the worst about my intentions, and then, without listening, stormed off to preserve a sense of self-righteousness.

I have a lot of respect for Schechter and MediaChannel. But for what it's worth, I would respectfully suggest that if the march was less successful than organizers would have liked, they should take a hard look at the tactics they've embraced. It sounds to me (reading between the lines of Schechter's account) that the march was simply not as well organized as it could have been. More critically, I've never felt - and I think many activists would agree with me - that marching on media outlets is an effective way to move media coverage on an issue. It's much better to invest time and money in a comprehensive communications and media critique strategy, while fighting for public policy and building alternatives that will allow dissident voices to flourish. MediaChannel does all that, too: to take online action on Iraq media coverage, click here.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bring the Noise: Building Indy Media in an Age of Consolidation

What defines our media landscape? Consolidation of ownership and downward commercial pressure on journalists and other media workers; the deaths of old business models and the emergence of new ones; the growth of more personal and participatory formats like talk radio and blogging; the concomitant shift from news to entertainment and opinion; and the fragmentation of media consumer markets. For those of us who are working for a more just and democratic society, these trends offer both threats and opportunities.

I routinely encounter people, many of them liberals and progressives, who openly scorn the proliferation of blogs, Xeroxed zines, and other kinds of grassroots independent media; even professionally run indy outlets with circulations in the quarter-million range like Mother Jones are derided as marginal: "in a cut-throat field with little to protect itself but its good intentions." Last week I heard one person dismiss grassroots media as "mere noise." If you're not making a big impact, she said, you're wasting time. Conservative polemicists like Andrew Keen, meanwhile, attack the participatory technologies that fall under the umbrella term "Web 2.0":

The consequences of Web 2.0 are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts. Its empowering promises play upon that legacy of the '60s--the creeping narcissism that Christopher Lasch described so presciently, with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self.

Another word for narcissism is "personalization." Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves...

In the Web 2.0 world... the nightmare is not the scarcity, but the over-abundance of authors. Since everyone will use digital media to express themselves, the only decisive act will be to not mark the paper. Not writing as rebellion sounds bizarre--like a piece of fiction authored by Franz Kafka. But one of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 future may well be that everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience.

Doubtless Keen - who is a blogger and podcaster - counts himself as one of the Mozarts of his field, denied his rightful audience by an "over-abundance of authors." It's death by a thousand cuts! Or, in this case, hits. Maybe Keen should take his own advice and stop writing? No, I think he should stick with it. He really shows some promise. Of course I agree with Keen's criticisms of Silicon Valley utopianism; I also strongly agree that personalized electronic media can encourage narcissism. But even as grassroots citizen media proliferate, mass media are consolidating. Many Americans of many political and cultural persuasions have stopped trusting and believing in media which is more and more about the bottom line.

And so what do you do, and where do you go, when you don't see anything in the media that resembles your life and values? You make your own media, for a start; that helps you to find other people who are facing the same struggles. You link together; you help each other; you share ideas and sharpen your critique. You get active in your community. Maybe you write books. Maybe what you write is mere noise, but at least it's your noise. Our noise. Separately, we're just telling our stories. Together we are making a big impact.

On Saturday I took my infant son Liko to the Anarchist Book Fair - not a place where you'll find the likes of Andrew Keen. There I met Rahula Janowski (whom I've been seeing out of the corner of my eye with her daughter Natasha for years around the Mission) and bought her parenting zine Joybringer; I also met Tom Moniz and bought his zine Rad Dad. After we got home and I put Liko down for his nap, I read both Joybringer and Rad Dad cover to cover. Neither of them is particularly beautiful or skillfully put together; Joybringer and Rad Dad are produced by people who are doing other things in their lives, raising children, teaching, organizing. Yet I found them both heartening, gateways to a wider community of parents who are trying to raise kids in radical ways.

Rad Dad is full of noise about trying to be a radical dad, raw, honest moments that you're not going find anywhere else:

There is a silence among men about fathering. I experienced this as I've talked with men about it; they are excited and yet scared, nervous about making mistakes, most are dying to parent in ways that many of us weren't fathered. But there are very few role models...

In the second issue, Tom writes that Rad Dad:

Has been a failure...Ultimately I feel I've failed to live up to the potential. Failed the timelines, failed to promote it well enough, failed to make the effort to distribute it in ways that it should be, failed to work hard enough to get people to send in more stuff, to be a part of it more.

Tom is harsh with himself, but as a father I learned a lot from Rad Dad. It helped me feel better about trying to be the dad I want to be, and not the one I'm supposed to be according to the mainstream media. This isn't narcissism; it's a culture: the sum total, says my Webster's, of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to the next. Elites are losing control of the means of cultural transmission - a centrury-old process - and that makes elitist ideologues like Keen uncomfortable.'s Scott Rosenberg critiqued a recent panel, chaired by Keen, on elitism and blogging:

"What is the value in sharing experiences?" Keen asked at one point, with a touch of disdain in his voice - as if he wanted to say to the entire universe of millions of bloggers, "I grow weary of your scribblings." My jaw dropped. Isn't "sharing experiences" the root of literature, the heart of conversation, a primal impulse of our humanity? Who would sneer at it?

At the heart of Keen's complaint and others like it is an outmoded habit of thought: an assumption that every blogger seeks and might be owed the same mass-scale readership that old-fashioned media have always commanded. But it just doesn't work that way. Publishing is no longer a scarce resource (as Tim Bishop well put it). The blogger who is telling the story of her final exam or his fraying marriage or her trouble with her two-year old? None of them cares whether Keen reads them, and they certainly don't expect him to. Their "shared experiences" don't diminish the opportunities for the kind of "expert journalism" that Keen values...

A year-and-a-half ago I led a discussion at BloggerCon III about blogging and journalism. I started with the assumption that the "War between Bloggers and Journalists" was over; we were are all - however different our delivery mechanisms and business models - in the same boat, searching for information and voices we can trust, trying to inform and entertain and move the people who read our work, whether it is on paper or screen, whether we're paid or not, whether we're read by ten or ten million.

Exactly. I have nothing else to add. I make my living as a consultant, or as some would have it, a mercenary who flits from project to project. But all the work I do is driven by a single mission: to amplify dissident and disenfranchised voices, and help independent media projects build the business models that can support their diverse editorial missions. In this blog, I plan to share the lessons I learn and models I find, while promoting media reform and media justice efforts like Free Press, Reclaim the Media, and Media Alliance. Welcome; I invite your comments. Let's make noise.

(Both Joybringer and Rad Dad are old school hobby zines; you won't find them online. But you get back issues of Rad Dad by writing to Tom at or 1636 Fairview St., Berkeley, CA 94703. You can get copies of Joybringer at 4104 24th St., PMB #669, San Francisco, CA 94114. Send money: two bucks per copy plus postage should do it.)