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Some news: Arizona State University’s Cronkite School has launched News Co/Lab, a collaborative lab aimed at creating, testing, and promoting innovations that will help make the news ecosystem more robust and valuable for all participants.

Before I tell you more about what we’ll be doing, and who are initial partners will be, some background:</span>Last March, I asked this question: Could we find ways to make media/news literacy universal?

The question, which sounded simple, contained a universe of complexity. But the issues that sparked it went to the heart of what it means to be a Digital Age participant in civic, economic, and cultural life.

By the end of 2016 it became clear to anyone paying attention that misinformation, a perpetual problem in our media ecosystem, had become a crisis. The rise of social media and its split-second posting/sharing culture had given malicious actors their most powerful platform in history. With a few notable exceptions, traditional  journalism was eroding. Fierce competition, especially from online platforms boasting enormous scale and efficiency, was undermining the business model. The journalism craft’s longstanding flaws (including, far too often, institutional arrogance) had undermined the public’s trust. Ambitious and already powerful people around the world were doing their best to poison the public even more against journalism and the whole idea of truth; their power and ambitions were best served through spreading confusion or outright lies, no matter what damage that did to our ability to make decisions based on reality.

No one disagrees that a key response to this barrage of badness must be to improve our information supply. But in recent times, in my view, we’ve paid too little attention to the demand side of the equation.

Supply and demand were never entirely separate before the Internet arrived. Now, given the ubiquity of creative tools and access to information–combined with “Big Data,” algorithmic targeting, AI, filter bubbles, and sharing–they are more deeply intertwined.

In this environment, even as we upgrade our information sources, we have to upgrade ourselves–as users of media who consume, create, share, and collaborate in our endlessly complex ecosystem. And we have to find ways to do this at scale–reaching as many people as possible to help them, above all, to be critical thinkers who would use media with integrity.

In that context last March, Facebook and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication convened a News Literacy Working Group.” Over a long weekend, we gathered an amazing group from around the world — experts in news/media literacy, journalists, technologists, researchers, funders, and more. My challenge to them was to think of ways we could make news literacy scale, and I suggested that we needed, in particular, a commitment to do this from educators, journalists, and technology platforms. One participant, my friend Jeff Jarvis from City University of New York, thought we should frame the issue in a much wider way than viewing it through the lens of that subset of media literacy we call news literacy. Others had their own ideas on a) what was wrong; and b) how we might address it. We thrashed through some of the issues and came up with a long list of ideas. It was an amazing three days.

Since then, the emergency hasn’t abated. On some levels, it’s vastly worse. But a lot is happening in the media world to at least begin to understand what’s happening, what’s at stake, and how we can collectively work to counteract the worst effects of the misinformation poison.

We’ve been doing what we can at ASU, with courses, training, and more. With News Co/Lab (we’re pronouncing it “collab”), we hope to go much deeper, but in targeted ways. I’ll be shifting my time to focus on the lab as its founding director. Facebook is our initial sponsor; more on that below.

We’ll be working mostly in and around the place where supply meets demand. We want to collaborate with anyone–teachers, journalists, librarians, technologists, civic leaders, among others–who shares our goals and wants to work on this. We have no intention of duplicating what others are already doing well. We want to help them do more of it.

To that end, our collaborative lab will start off with a scan of the emerging best practices from the many organizations already doing great work in the areas where we’ll focus. One thing we’re certain to learn: There’s much more work ahead. The nation’s (and the world’s) struggles with literacies of all kinds–civic, digital, media, news, and more–are well documented.

Our first on-the-ground project goes to the foundation of journalism: local news and information. We’ll be working with newsrooms and the communities they serve, to collaborate on experiments that increase transparency, engagement, mutual understanding, and respect.

Our media industry launch partner for that project is McClatchy. This makes me happy for several reasons. While McClatchy has suffered as much as any company in the local news business as it tries to make the wrenching transition from print to digital, its leadership and its journalists haven’t lost sight of the service component of what they do. The first McClatchy community where we’ll work will be Kansas City, where I worked for the Kansas City Star* early in my journalism career.

We also have an in-house partner, of course: Cronkite News. It’s the news arm of Arizona Public Broadcasting, and is part of the Cronkite School. It produces news for a variety of platforms, including a superb evening newscast for Arizona residents, and has bureaus in Washington and California. The students and faculty of Cronkite News are constantly experimenting, and we’ll be working with them to broaden their (and our) horizons even more, again aimed at creating deeper connections with the community.

There’s more coming from the lab, and we’ll be telling you about it in the days and weeks ahead. We’re beyond jazzed to be getting this initiative off the ground.

Which brings me back to our launch sponsor: Facebook. The News Co/Lab emerged from that March weekend and the subsequent conversations with people at the company and elsewhere. Facebook faces challenges for all kinds of reasons, but I’m convinced that the people I’ve worked with there are sincere in their wish to help solve the hugely difficult information-ecosystem problems we face individually, in our communities, in our companies and other institutions, and in nations around the world.

A special word of thanks to Áine Kerr, whose unbounded energy, commitment, and goodwill made her a joy to work with over these months. I wish her the absolute best as she heads back to her home in Dublin to co-found a news startup called Neva Labs. She’s earned the goodwill of news people, who will miss her in the post she’s so ably filled at Facebook. She has been part of a collaborative team there. I’m confident that her Facebook Journalism Project colleagues intend to push these kinds of projects forward, and more than hopeful that the people they work for share that commitment.

I also need to say, and this seems like the right place, that my relationship with Facebook over the years has been…complicated. As I said in March, I have longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s (and Google’s and other giant platforms) overwhelming dominance in the media world–not to mention the troubling issues that stem from centralization in general. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists and Internet users in general on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies. I’ll keep pushing the platforms to use their reach to help “upgrade us.”

But for all the disagreements, we agree on some vital goals. And to achieve those, I’m glad to collaborate. My participation may not sit well with some people, and I respect that. But I’m comfortable with this decision.

Finally, none of this would be happening were it not for my ASU colleagues. Eric Newton, the Cronkite School’s head of innovation, is the lab’s co-founder; we’ve collaborated on putting it together, and he’ll be working with me, staff, and partners as we proceed. The behind-the-scenes folks at the school, in development, legal, and other areas, routinely handle things that are out of my depth. And Dean Chris Callahan has been, as always, consistently strong and helpful along the way.

So much is happening now in the news ecosystem. Our lab will be among a host of new and existing efforts to make things better. None of us, individually, has the answer or answers. But we have ideas and energy, and an abiding belief in the value of reliable information in a world that so desperately needs it.

Individually, we will make some dents in the problem. Together, we will make a difference.

*I worked for the Kansas City Times, which was the Star‘s sister paper and was later folded into the Star.)

(Photo: Pixabay)

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A few days after the 2016 national election, viewing what I believe was (and remains) an emergency situation, I urged the major technology companies to make media and news literacy part of their missions. We’d just emerged from the most rancid campaign in my memory, marked in part by an avalanche of misinformation.

Social media platforms, especially Facebook, were getting a lot of heat—some of it deserved—for their role in making it easy for completely fabricated “news” reports to spread like a fast-moving pandemic. There were calls for the tech companies to remove the malicious hoaxes—what people called “fake news”—from their sites. (One appropriate response was to make it more difficult for hoaxers to profit from their deceit.)

I don’t want Facebook, or Google, or Twitter or any of these huge companies being arbiters of truth, as I wrote in November. The dangers in that struck me as obvious, given their enormous sway over public conversation and information search.

But they could help the public in big ways, I thought, if they’d help us—the audience for and users of information—to upgrade ourselves. Not long after, Facebook’s Áine Kerr, manager of journalism partnerships, asked my colleagues and me for some ideas what the company could do, and had some suggestions of her own. One result of those conversations, I’m glad to report, is a “News Literacy Working Group” this weekend at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

We’ve assembled a superb, cross-disciplinary group of people from around the U.S. and several other countries. They understand the emergency, and they’re coming to Phoenix to go deep on this question: How can we make media/news literacy, which now seems so vital, a core part of everyday life?

What we’re doing isn’t a “summit,” though the people joining us are some of the best we know in a number of fields—media literacy and its critically important subset, news literacy; journalism, technology, academia, NGOs, philanthropies, and more. Rather, it’s a working group of folks who all understand that this problem  demands not just a redoubling the valuable work already being done, but also a batch of fresh, ambitious ideas on how to make news literacy scale.

This chart doesn’t start at zero; media and news literacy advocates have been working to help people for years. But in a world awash in misinformation and outright deception, we need to grow this field dramatically.

When people in technology talk about “scale” they mean using modern tools and techniques to extend the reach of a product or service with exponential growth. You’ve seen charts that look like a hockey stick, where the initial growth is modest but turns up in a dramatic way, almost becoming a vertical line over time. That’s what scale means, and one of my goals is to make media/news literacy do that—via schools, libraries and other community institutions; via media; and tech platforms themselves.

In recent weeks, the Cronkite School has been working closely with Facebook to put this meeting together. A key colleague in this has been Eric Newton, now head of innovation at the school, who helped kick-start many of the nation’s pioneering news literacy initiatives when he was head of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has pumped countless millions of dollars into improving public knowledge.

Facebook’s sponsorship of our meeting falls under its recently announced “Facebook Journalism Project,” a three-pronged initiative that includes “Training & Tools for Everyone,” specifically including a wish to promote news literacy. Áine Kerr and her Facebook colleagues have much of the heavy lifting to make this working group happen. Their professionalism has been evident at every step, and it’s been gratifying to work with them.

To answer a question that several people who know about the ASU-Facebook collaboration have already asked me: My longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s overwhelming dominance in the media world have not changed at all. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies.

But I gladly work with people with whom I disagree on some matters when we have common interests in other ways. I’m convinced that Facebook is serious about promoting media and news literacy—helping all of us upgrade ourselves to be active users of media and not just passive consumers.

We—all people who understand the need to make civics and critical thinking universal—have a lot of work ahead. I hope that this weekend will be one step in a long and vital journey.

medialitSome news: We’re launching a MOOC — a massive open online course — on news and media literacy. The course (here’s the registration page) will be based on an online course I currently teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and will be open to all who are interested, at no charge.

The  MOOC, which has received funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, will be hosted at edX, one of the major–and rapidly growing–course platforms. ASU has become a member of the edX university consortium, and this is the first offering from the school. The course launches July 6, and registration is open now.

(Note: The media-literacy MOOC is not part of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy, which will be offering a battery of for-credit courses.)

We’re well aware that the jury is out, to put it mildly, on the ultimate value of MOOCs. Clearly they’ve been oversold in some ways. To think that courselogothey’ll take over education is absurd. Equally clearly, they have enormous potential. This course is experimental by definition, but we have two major goals: to make it a super-useful learning experience, and to learn from what happens in order to improve the next time.

One of the best parts of this project is the people involved. In the past several months we’ve recorded conversations with some of the smartest folks I know in the news and media-literacy communities. They include Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales; New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; CNN’s Brian Stelter; media-literacy guru Renee Hobbs; and many others. We’ll be featuring these conversations in the course.

This is a team effort in every possible way. I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with the ASU Online folks, who’ve been helping me sweat the details and who know lots of things I don’t. A team of students at the Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab has put together some great marketing ideas. PhD candidate Kristy Roschke, whose focus is media literacy, is playing a key role in the course development and will be the lead teaching assistant when the course goes live.

MOOCs are open in ways that most university courses are not. Openness is core to my work–my Mediactive book, on which the course is largely based, is free to read online and/or download, and is available under a Creative Commons copyright license (“Some Rights Reserved”). I want to apply the principle of openness, as much as possible, to the new project. So I’ll be blogging regularly about how we’re doing this between now and the July 6 launch.

You may find this interesting to watch. If so, and if you think we can improve on what we’re doing, let me know. I’m looking for the best ideas, not just my own.

Most of the smartest people don’t work in journalism.

There’s an enormous amount of R&D going on in digital media. Most of it isn’t happening inside the news industry.

As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, the low barrier to entry is fueling an enormous amount of experimentation. Most projects fail, but that’s a good thing, because when so many are being tried the small percentage that work will be a relatively big number.

Where is all this happening? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world. Many if not most of the valuable ideas, technologies and techniques are coming from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent — but whose work could and should be used in the journalism ecosystem.

Connecting dots

There’s a need for a new kind of initiative to help sort things out. It’s not a traditional Center or Institute.

Imagine the inverse of a big corporate R&D center, which tries to pick winners and makes relatively “safe” bets. Imagine, instead, a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques — business models as well as editorial innovations — inside and outside the journalism sphere, but mostly outside. Then they connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Who are the connectors?

They understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer. But it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people; b) recognize innovative technology and business models when they see them; and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

They appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing.

They have a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors; the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any of them; and the desire to follow the dots to wherever they lead.

They’re capable of being evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also to take risks in new areas.

Some principles of operation

  • An open process. Honor requests for NDAs prior to product launches, but the bias should be toward making everything available to anyone who’s interested. This would run contrary in many ways to the news industry’s traditional approach, but the tide is turning in a lot of shops where openness is correctly seen as an advantage.
  • Meet anyone, anywhere. Hold small news-focused workshops or mini-conferences to encourage more independent cross-fertilization. Might not be necessary given the explosion of startup camps, incubators, etc.
  • Measurement: Get the data, publish it and explore it as you go, and work with academics who are (at long last) turning to the real world for a lot of their research.

Audience/users

Traditional news organizations could really use this. I’m not saying they should stop doing their own R&D, but this would provide some better leverage for those budgets, to the extent they still exist. Only a few major organizations have what it takes to do this in-house.

Who else could use this?

Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that there are also serious business models.

Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and nonprofits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, all the better. (If newspapers can sell advertorials, uh, native content, by the bushel, why can’t they — transparently — partner with some of these other entities?)

Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use. (This includes communities of interest, not just geography, but if something useful for one it’ll almost certainly be useful to the other.)

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing. It is definitely worth the effort, because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

I recognize that those latter entities are competing with newspapers and traditional media. But my goal isn’t to see newspapers survive — much as I still love what they do when they do it well and hope they’ll survive in some form. It’s to see that whatever comes out of this messy period has value to communities, investors and everyone else in the emerging ecosystem.

I’ve launched a new blog for my next book/web/whatever project, called “Permission Taken” — helping you use the technology you buy the way you want to use it, and to be safe and secure in the process. We’re losing control to centralized entities from companies to governments, and losing our privacy and security in the process.