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Making sense of the news in a new media world

danps's picture

Years ago there was a criminal case where a crooked cop planted evidence against the suspect even though prosecutors already had a pretty tight case against him. One observer described the police officer's actions as "framing a guilty man," and I've found that to be a useful phrase from time to time since. Sometimes the case against someone or something is strong enough without embellishment, and piling on can actually have the opposite effect.

I actually thought that was the case back in 2008 when Sarah Palin was unable to name a newspaper she read. Sure it was fun to laugh at her when she answered "all of them," but my reaction was: Hell, how would I answer that question? Twenty years ago I would have been able to, but the rise of the Internet (and the scaling back of newspaper coverage) has led to a situation where instead of subscribing to one source that aspires to give a full snapshot, I pick and choose individual stories from a multitude of sources.

I bring up Palin's answer because I was reminded of it yet again last Saturday. I read a long article in the City Journal about California's pension system, and another on the effects of incarceration in the Chicago Reporter. Both were far, far too long for inclusion in the newspaper I used to subscribe to, and in any event I don't think any kind of syndication deal exists with either outlet.

The City Journal article showed up in the Naked Capitalism link roundup; the Chicago Reporter article showed up in my Twitter feed.

"Cell blocks: Taxpayers spending billions to incarcerate Chicagoans who hail from a small fraction of city’s blocks"
el Justiciero

I check in with the Stop Fracking Ohio page on Facebook several times a week for the latest there, I get several daily emails from different sources, RSS feeds that let me skim through headlines and just read the posts I want, and so on. In other words, just like Sarah Palin I would not be able to tell Katie Couric what newspapers I read.

That will only be reinforced if recent stories about newspaper consolidation into the hands of the wealthy represents a trend. I sure as hell won't pay for a rag put out by the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch, and even if the buyer is someone I have a higher opinion of such as Warren Buffett, the concentration of newspapers into fewer and fewer individuals' hands strikes me as problematic.

Lest anyone start concern trolling about the specter of epistemic closure, a well chosen group of sources offers just as many opportunities for encountering opposing voices as newspapers do. For instance, the City Journal is run by the Manhattan Institute - a notably right wing group. Just because I want to dodge the propaganda catapulted by a plutocrat's house organ (or the regurgitated conservative talking points that the right wing in Washington has been disgorging for the last thirty years) doesn't mean I refuse to consider contrary ideas. It just means I refuse to consider thoroughly debunked bullshit. That's Paul Krugman's job.

It can also mean piecing together stories from different sources and reviewing competing narratives. For instance, an outlet that uses a City Hall based model of reporting on a police sweep will highlight the police chief's characterization:

"We called them in, and we gave them a simple message," said Oakland Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Breshears. "The message was 'Stop the violence, change your lives or law enforcement will relentlessly make all efforts to shut down or dismantle your gangs.' Today was the follow through of that promise."

Here, on the other hand, is the view from someone in the neighborhood:

Later this morning, a neighbor who lives next door to the raided house came over to help with a blue vacuum cleaner, a broom, and willing hands.

Sweeps of all kinds going on this morning in Oakland. Sweeps of all kinds.

One story leads with the Tough On Crime narrative while the other goes into some detail on what exactly that entails. Residents don't seem nearly as well served in the latter.

Those of us with a keen interest in a particular issue are now able to assemble a fuller picture by analyzing accounts from different perspectives. For instance, there was a protest at a fracking waste storage site in southeastern Ohio a few weeks ago. There's a local newspaper's account of it, a pro fracking post that among other things called it "a terrorist action," and an account from the group that staged it.1

As new sources for this kind of reporting and analysis multiply, people have the ability to weigh the merit of competing versions and decide for themselves what seems right. Sometimes there will not be a local media outlet to report stories. In cases where there is, the outlet might float above the fray as a kind of neutral arbiter; in others it will have its thumb on the scale.

(Bias is often revealed by how much coverage the outlet gives an issue, how prominent the coverage is, what views get represented in the coverage, and where those views are placed in the coverage. For instance, an industry friendly headline with a dissenting voice ten paragraphs in is not balance.)

In an environment like that a newspaper does not exist as a monolith. Many people who would once have been subscribers will increasingly turn to it only when it carries stories of interest. The rest of the time they will cobble together their information about what's happening in the world from many new and nontraditional sources. What newspapers do you read? Who can tell anymore?


1. From the News And Sentinel article:

some of the protesters, many wearing masks, stormed the GreenHunter office, on Ohio 7 along the Ohio River, said Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff's Office. The facility serves as a storage site for the waste generated during the process of hydraulic fracturing. "They (took) some keys, tried to clog up some of the toilets, scared quite a bit of the employees," said Warden.

From an activism perspective, wearing masks is a bit too close to black bloc for my comfort. If you aren't willing to show your face while you protest you may want to think twice about the nature of that protest. Also: entering the office and confronting unsuspecting employees gets filed under Definitely Not Cool. And minor vandalism just discredits the action. That said, the office was soon vacated and apparently no worse for the wear:

Using the GreenHunter office as a sort of command center, GreenHunter employees would use binoculars to identify a culprit from the raid and police would travel across the road to where the group of protesters had eventually congregated in the front lawn of a local resident.

Still, direct action and civil disobedience need to be very well organized and disciplined. It looks like this one could have used quite a bit more of both, and the lack of it is precisely what gave opponents the opportunity to make the activists look like extremists. They could have disrupted business there and drawn attention to the proposed transport of toxic fracking waste via barge without giving the pro-fracking side the opening they did. Sloppiness like that is not helpful.

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Submitted by lambert on

... I processed about 200 sources daily. (I went to the sites and looked at the front pages, which strikes me a better than a news reader.) I would estimate 50% of those sources were newspapers, and the rest (blogs) often keyed off newspaper articles.

The newspapers I didn't cull from that list had local reporters and weren't just ripping stories off the wires. That doesn't mean that they were good reporters (though some are), rather that they were known quantities whose biases I felt I could factor in. So curation and a track record are key.

I don't know what happens to the editorial aggregation curation model when *everything* is paywalled, I really don't.

Man, I hate to see Ohio Fracking sucked into FaceBorg. For one thing, they don't own their data, and all their data is going into a big pipe that flushes out at the NSA's data center in Utah. For another, have you ever tried to find an old post in FaceBook? For a third, Facebook is incredibly siloed, because you think all your friends are seeing your posts, but only 15% are. It's horrible. But it's free! And easy to use! I wish some open source platform would gut facebook, I really do.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

I think "aggregated local" is a great model. Papers carry lots of wire stories, and one of the things implied by my post is that wire stories are increasingly irrelevant in the Internet age. Sure there's been TV and radio for ages and that didn't kill newspapers, and the Internet won't either, but if the president says something big people will find out about it right away. When I got to the point of cancelling my PD subscription I had stopped getting anything out of the vast majority of those items.

That said, something like a longish AP story on the new pope's time in Argentina during the dirty wars is a great extension of the quick "here's the new pope!" stories that TV/radio/Internet will produce in the immediate wake of the announcement. That's relatively uncommon though - there's a lot more "Sequester update: still sequestering!" type pabulum in wire stories, and I think the audience for them is a lot more limited.

Original reporting is gold, and the papers that do it well will IMO have the most success. There's still a need for it. Us bloggers need something to link to. I think the model for people like us is to have access to a reasonably priced - $5 a month, say - electronic subscription. The Record Courier was doing that for a while, then revamped and now want $8.95 a month for electronic only, which seems a bit much to me (though buying for a full year averages close to 5).

Services like Twitter and RSS make aggregated local possible. I can follow Bruce Finley on Twitter and get the latest on fracking in Colorado, or put the PD business feed in my reader and skim through a dozen headlines in a minute - again, ignoring wire stories and pabulum ("Who's 'On the Move' in the Cleveland area?") and looking for relevant original items. To me, that's more efficient than going to the home page. It loads faster too; lots of web pages are very content rich, and waiting for a bunch of graphics & plugins to load for a single story is a drag.

It inhibits discovery though, especially on Twitter. I only know about Finley's stories since he usually just posts those to his feed; I don't see anything else on the Denver Post page. So pluses and minuses. Something like the NADM (launch it already, lambert!) lets people with those different consumption preferences all get together, and with enough contributors would hopefully limit the blind spots the different approaches have.

A lot of what the Stop Fracking Ohio FB page does is link aggregation, so I find it useful for that. But I make sure to put the relevant stories into my own collection so I can refer back to it later. I think it's useful to build an audience and even somewhat for organizing. It's most definitely not for building an archive. SFO uses its page to call attention to what's happening right now, not to create any kind of historical timeline. For me it's kind of a one-way feed, because I use FB to connect to family & friends. I don't want to pass along all kinds of political posts, though I do that sometimes.

Submitted by lambert on

I think the "market state" is key and I have ginormous series incubating on it. It is the key to framing resource extraction operations correctly IMNSHO. So it defines the beat. I hope to start that this coming week and then get into full CC/NADM mode again. With some plan for monetization in mind. Possibly a pod-cast subscription?

There is also various technical work to be done. Composing it in a hand-crafted Drupal document in HTML is a non-starter as I discovered when I tried to repurpose the data.

So, begin with an XML document then:

1) Transform to HTML for blog post as daily aggregate

2) Disaggregate as select tweeted snippets throughout the day

3) Disaggregate to maps, timelines etc.

And so forth. There's a lot of power in properly structured content.

Rangoon78's picture
Submitted by Rangoon78 on

Thanks for alerting me to that pension article. As I read it I realized it was part of the plutoctat's full-court press against public pensions. As you said it's worth a read in a "know your enemies" sense
The Pension Fund That Ate California by Steven Malanga, City Journal Winter 2013
In 1968, the California state legislature added one of the most expensive of all retirement perks, annual cost-of-living adjustments(Unlike the minimum wage* which has no cost-of-living adjustment)

Interesting, if biased, story on a pension fund from which I hope to collect:

*Declining value of the federal minimum wage is a major factor driving inequality
By Lawrence Mishel February 21, 2013

The minimum wage’s share of the average wage was about 50 percent in the late 1960s…In 2011, the minimum wage was worth only about 37 percent of what an average worker earned per hour, not far above its lowest point, reached in 2006, in 47 years.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

My overall sense of it was: correct diagnosis, wrong prescription. If benefits have become unsustainably large, undo the ones that have made it so. Do not, as the author suggests, dump the defined benefit for defined contribution.