Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Alliances, Robustitude, and Refugees

Dambala asks several questions over here that I'd like to see answered.  Don't miss that post. I'm interested in seeing the reactions over there.  In the meantime, I've got a few things I'd like to add.

I still don't understand what a "Digital Alliance" is.  The Allies tell us it is a "cooperative effort" to "promote readership of local news outlets regardless of medium, and it encourages community engagement in the journalistic process" which sounds really neighborly and stuff but, well, how is that any different from regular day to day operations?

Each of these entities already publishes online in a forum that allows for public feedback.  They already cite and credit one another's work when appropriate. It's nice to see these internet publications state that they understand how internet publishing works. But what, specifically, will they be doing now that actually changes anything other than just saying they're (kind of) on a team or something? 

Maybe the Allies are sending us a message that an attack on one is tantamount to an attack on all of them.  If that's the case, then we could be headed for a cataclysm because it looks to me like one of these entities is about to come under attack.   
But there's another name in the game that may upend the way New Orleans gets its online news. It's called NOLA Beat — and you'll be hearing more about it later this week.

The brainchild of Greater New Orleans Inc. president Michael Hecht and Leslie Jacobs, the head of Educate Now!, NOLA Beat (which was in its early stages known as NolaNow.org) is a nonprofit startup planned in the mold of ProPublica or the Texas Tribune, two of the country's most well-known nonprofit news sites.
Hecht's and Jacobs' non-profit isn't designed to compete with NOLA.com. It will be going head to head with The Lens. As similarly structured non-profits, the two entities will be competing for the same pool of local donors.

That's a pretty tight market too.  The majority of The Lens's budget is funded by contributions from a handful of charitable groups. Most prominent among these are the nationally based Knight Foundation and the Open Society FoundationsThe Lens does offer individual sponsorship opportunities.  You can support them here in exchange for such colorful titles as  "News Shark" or "News Hound" depending on the size of your donation.  But you'd have to be a News Ostrich not to understand that, in order to become sustainable, they're going to have to find a way to start raising much more of their revenue locally than they currently are.

Hecht and Jacobs are going to make that task all the more difficult.   NOLA Beat (despite sounding like something marketed to teen girls)  will be a publication run by the head of the GNOinc business lobby and by New Orleans' number one charter school advocate. The Lens sells itself as a champion of transparency particularly with regard to land use issues and the charter school system. I'm betting that most well placed philanthropic donors in New Orleans are going to be more disposed to direct their largesse toward the former rather than the latter.  Even if it turns out there is in fact room for two non-profit news organizations in New Orleans, it's difficult to imagine that the competition for donor dollars won't skew the editorial emphasis in a more "business friendly" direction.

None of this bodes well for the still unaddressed problem of who is being left to fend for themselves in the coming digital focus wars. Jarvis DeBerry (who still happens to write for the Axis) walked into a fire fight the other day with these comments on reader reaction to a photograph published in the Times-Picayune.

Some readers were more worked up over a Rusty Costanza photograph that accompanied Wednesday's story. He showed an 8-year-old boy at the development busying himself with an iPad. That's a relatively expensive piece of technology. Predictably, outrage ensued.

Readers called and emailed reporter Katy Reckdahl to express their anger. One less caustic correspondent was clearly worried at what the reporter might think of him for raising the issue: "Not to rush to comment. I hope this is nothing more than someone gave him the iPad as a gift and he is using it for educational means or just playing games ... I hope I am not over thinking this. I am not prejudice (sic) -- this just did not look right."

I imagine that at some point or another all of us who aren't poor have decided which items poor folks, especially those on government assistance, should be allowed to have. And which items they should be denied. Fancy rims have been known to set me off. Maybe for you it's gold teeth, Air Jordans, the latest mobile phone. City Councilwoman Stacy Head used her taxpayer-funded phone to send an outraged email when she saw a woman using food stamps to buy Rice Krispies treats. What right do the poor have to sweetness?
Of course we've seen this "What right do the poor have to..." bullshit come up over and over.  But in a newspaperless city, it looks like we're now down to asking what right do the poor have to news?  What good is "digitally focused" reporting going to do for the ever expanding ranks of the underprivileged if we're going to go around shaming the very tools of digital literacy out of their hands? As the battle to find a sustainable news business model heats up, how many refugees are we creating in the process?

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