The Web Is Our Friend

Here’s the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Web Is Our Friend

We’re watching the world change before our eyes in the Middle East as everyday people are picking up the tools of new media to spread revolution against tyranny. Most of us “over here” see this as a good thing, although we fear the vacuum that might result. Good or not is an important question, because this idea that everyday people can connect so easily is at the core of everything that’s disrupting the media world today. If everybody is a media company then the media is everybody.

I’ve dedicated my life to the belief that the Web is a good thing for culture, and I teach that we’ve just begun to feel the ramifications of a genuinely hyperconnected world of human beings. I think it’s going to change everything we know, and if I had the money, I’d invest in that wager.

And so I think it’s appropriate for me, today, to take a trip back and explain why I think the Web is our friend. Insofar as Life moves us upward and onward, it’s important to know where our belief is, for only then will we be free to explore tomorrow.

The future face of news

Steve SouthwellLet me introduce you to regular guy, Steve Southwell. Well, he’s regular in the sense that he’s raising a family and works for a living. He’s also a blogger. His blog has been around since 2005. In the continuing debate over whether bloggers are journalists, Southwell stands at the cutting edge. Without formal training in journalism or “credentials” from anywhere, Southwell is keeping an eye on government in the Dallas/Fort Worth suburb of Lewisville, Texas and serving the public trust in ways that today’s “real” journalists don’t. He is a textbook example (if there are any) of what it means to be a “citizen journalist,” and he could show those who have the invisible badge a thing or two.

A year ago, the Lewisville School board passed new rules — clearly designed to hamper Southwell’s efforts — stating that school district officials may turn down an interview request “if official press credentials are not presented or available.” This came on the heels of a Southwell investigation into the practice of allowing youth pastors from local evangelical churches to hobnob with students during the lunch period. He had asked three principals for interviews, and received the same email from each within 5 minutes of each other: “We follow district guidelines.”

Undeterred, Southwell has studied the laws and probably knows more about open records’ statues that any reporter in the metro area. He’s even filed an open records request for open records requests, just to see who was asking for what.

He videotapes government meetings and makes them available to anyone.

Then there was the case of a freshman city councilman who voted on a property tax law but wasn’t paying the property taxes for which the law was intended. This resulted in a confrontation, a story, and a public humiliation for the elected official.

Since Southwell began his work on local government, three of the seven school board members have been ousted in elections, and the guy is becoming a force to be reckoned with in Lewisville politics.

Southwell spoke at my class at the University of North Texas last night and said he got into becoming an activist with the Iraq War, with which he disagreed. I found him smart, driven and extremely knowledgeable about his rights. After a stint helping politicians, he moved to local government, because nobody was watching it. Since my class is an ethics class, we were most interested to hear how he understands and practices the basics of journalistic ethics of thoroughly doing the investigative work, presenting all sides fairly, and not blindsiding anybody. He makes the tough calls and does the deal, and I defy anybody to tell me this guy isn’t practicing journalism. In fact, he’s actually doing the work of the Fourth Estate that the so-called “real” press has given up on in favor of Chilean miner stories and Paris Hilton drug use.

The journalism world today could learn from Steve Southwell, but they won’t. He represents the new journalism, investigated and written by people with a passion for keeping an eye on things locally. He has two boys in the Lewisville School District, so he’s concerned with the way things are run.

To the mainstream press, however, Southwell has no right to be doing what he’s doing. He is, after, just a regular guy.

The inevitability of contract journalists

It was too hot here in Dallas to do much of anything this weekend, at least that’s my excuse for not writing. But then I came across this from the Wall St. Journal: Cities Rent Police, Janitors to Save Cash. It’s the story of cash-poor municipalities turning over public service duties to independent contractors, because they just can’t pay for them the old fashioned way. This is a stunning reality in today’s economy, which, by the way, isn’t getting any better no matter how the suits spin it in Washington.

I think it’s an inevitable path for journalism and journalists as well, and I’ve thought that way for a long, long time. In September of 2003, I wrote “The Rise of the Independent Video Journalist,” the prophecies of which are coming true even as we speak:

  1. Playerless video streaming technology and bandwidth provide steady, high quality Internet pictures that users of all ilk and hue will accept. Video doesn’t drive the Internet yet, but by 2010 it will share the stage with the other efficiencies of a wired world. It’s unlikely consumers will fully embrace the idea of combining their TV set with their computer until the same box runs both and the video quality of both is interchangeable.
  2. Video-on-demand (VOD) takes the place of broadcast schedules as the principal method by which people watch television.
  3. Point-of-view journalism becomes an accepted part of information programming.
  4. Internet video news portals take the place of or supplement news organizations in offering Video News On Demand (VNOD) to users.

Read the Wall St. Journal story, take a hard look around you, and get busy advancing your personal brand. It will carry your ability to take care of your family sooner than later.

Cities Rent Police, Janitors to Save Cash

Big Brother is us? I hope not.

I’m sitting here grading papers from my ethics class, and a paragraph from one essay causes a wee bit of concern:

“…last year, a fight broke out in the West Hall, and half the residents took out their camera phones to record the incident. As a resident assistant, when we see a fight break out, we are supposed to record it on our phones instead of break it up so the police have something to look at afterwards. But to see residents pull out their camera phones instead of stopping their friends from fight, it was inappropriate.”

Um, does this concern anybody but me? It’s one thing to record events like these for “news” purposes, however you define that, but to become an extension of the government in so doing is, well, a little disconcerting. Who knew that Pogo was so right. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”