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    Media’s “New” Community Role

    by Dan Schultz
    March 21, 2008

    I just got back to the U.S. from my first visit to Rome. The whole trip was great, but my favorite part was The Roman Forum. This ancient gathering place represents, as far as I’m concerned, the epitome of community facilitation given the resources available at the time. This may not seem like a relevant anecdote at first but the point is that I think members of the news industry who are looking for a role in this crazy Internet filled world may discover that the answer to their identity crisis isn’t so new after all.

    This post is about where I think news organizations, especially local news organizations, need to take their digital presence. This is the conversation I hoped to seed with my analysis of the Anonymous activism against Scientology. It also turns out that this post will work nicely with the recent conversation on this blog about the need for news organizations to change the way they operate online.

    Context and Clarification
    In my posts about Anonymous I tried to identify some of the subtleties of online community coordination and pull out any lessons that could help us in our journalism-industry-wide quest to effectively utilize digital technology.

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    Based on a few of the comments to those posts it seems there was a little room for confusion. Some thought I was trying to provide a recipe for media outlets to take advantage of existing online communities or artificially manipulate the masses. In other words, not everyone understood what I believe the technologies should be utilized for. In a comment I wrote:

    “[In these posts] I tried to look at what might have been a reason for [Anonymous] success and largely cite the fact that physical communities don’t utilize the kinds of digital communication tools that you guys have. This is where (for instance) local newspapers, which are desperately trying to find their place on the internet, could fill a role. Not for profit, but instead to get back to the public service that they were supposed to be providing in the first place – an outlet for community voice and an amplification of community issues.”

    From what I understand, some of the original driving forces that inspired local news media were the demand for outlets of community voice and the need for amplification of important community issues. Ethics, practices, role, and tradition – i.e. hard news, public service journalism (which I will refer to as “hard journalism” from now on) – grew over time.

    By focusing on those initial demands and drawing on “hard journalism” practices for reinforcement rather than direction, our adaptation to a new medium will hopefully becomes a little more manageable. That focus is what I wanted to develop with those posts (plus the whole Anonymous effort continues to fascinate me).

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    A New Community Medium
    If my interpretation above is even partially accurate, it seems that local news operations are supposed to be information hubs for the communities they serve. When using a one-to-many medium such as Television or Print, reporters and editors try to represent their community by proxy. For old media that was fine because, realistically, it was the only way for the job to be done.

    With digital media, as everyone seems to have figured out years ago, it isn’t enough to just have an online newspaper. What people are realizing now is that it also isn’t enough to simply enable comments, publish the occasional user-submitted-photo or blog, or incorporate a few pieces of interactive content. All of these things are small steps in the right direction, but small steps are slow and costly in the world of software.

    This time around news organizations need to do more than just learn to use the media, they need to host a community with it – an idea that Richard Anderson put out there in his first post to this blog. People want a place, digital or otherwise, where they can gather and learn about the community in which they are a part, a place where they can get in touch with the issues, and a place where they can pick up on the “vibe.” They want a modern Roman Forum.

    If news orgs don’t provide this then someone else will. What is troublesome is that the “someone else” won’t necessarily incorporate hard journalism in their vision. What makes THAT troublesome is that such services directly compete with the news.

    Facilitating Community Agenda
    In the words of Paul Monaco, much of media’s social influence comes from its ability to set agendas, not by “[telling] its readers and viewers what to think so much as it points them toward what to think about.” Social Media, Digital Media, many-to-many conversations, and all those other phrases that are thrown around describe the tools being used to push that task of issue definition back to the community.

    For news organizations moving online this may seem like a conflict of interest but in reality the situation isn’t so terrible. All it means is that news organizations need to move past agenda definition and take on the job of agenda facilitation. In other words, they don’t have to work to reflect the community any more, now they can provide the communication tools needed to let the community reflect itself.

    To put it in slightly different terms – I’m suggesting that local news sites facilitate “bottom up” agenda. The individuals (the bottom) can suggest issues and those issues may be picked up, prompting natural investigative attention and a swarm response. Anonymous shows that existing communities can do this if they have the tools. They also showed what can happen when a real community issue is met with effective information technology (for interested parties, there was another round of protests on March 15th).

    As I said earlier in my quoted response, one reason physical communities are suffering in the digital world right now is that they don’t have the online hub set up for them. This is where local media (and global media too) should step in and start providing.

    Incorporating Journalism
    So far I have slighted an incredibly important part of the picture: the journalists. Pushing agenda definition onto the community does not mean we can forget about hard journalism. Communities still need the people who find the stories that have fallen under the radar, spend weeks researching the details, and double check the facts. Journalists should focus on what they have been trained to do best and news organizations need to invest in them or we will lose an invaluable part of the process.

    I am suggesting we use the credibility of journalism to augment the democracy of social media and inform the interests of existing community. Paid professionals would still report on new issues to see if their community takes interest, but now the digital version of the physical community they serve can act as a living breathing tip-line.

    Final Thoughts
    This has been quite a mouthful and I probably I tried to say too much in one place. For those in Anonymous who are reading this (I’d be surprised if you made it this far down) I hope the topic was at least somewhat interesting to you. I would like to know what you think about “hard journalism” – and I don’t mean the mainstream gossip you see on network news. I ask the same question to journalists concerning collectively defined agenda.

    Tagged: anonymous community forum media role
    • Terryeo

      It sounds like you have not looked at the base Anonymous was established, over a long period of time. Nor looked at the money driving it. Yes, you observe its online activity and how it gathered momentum quickly, but when you think of the Anonymous organization (and activity) as being spontaneously gathered via internet word of mouth, you have overlooked its roots, its substance. Too often media reports the emotionally invective, the surface emotion. But refuses to consider there is depth and substance that could be exposed. Anonymous originated at alt.net.scientology, a news group, perhaps 25 years ago. Perhaps it is even older than that and goes back as far as the psychiatrists who opposed Dianetics in the early 1950s. But certainly its internet presence was found in alt.net.scientology and its more recent anti-scientology newsgroups at google and elsewhere. So who pays for the bandwidth? Who paid for the DDoS attacks, who sent 24+ mailings of (probably fake) anthrax? These things require close cooperation, funds and organization. There is where you find the roots and driving force of Anonymous. Contributing to it, a small handful of people who were active in the Church and got out of the Church with various public videos, some stolen documents, etc. Those (it seems to me) were were snatched up by the existing critics and their videos and documents exploited on the internet, toward manipulating public opinion. Has it been successful? Well, it created public demonstration and got reaction from the Church.

    • Terryeo, you are suggesting that Anonymous is a group started 25 or even 50 years ago, with centralized funding and resources. Do you have evidence of this? I haven’t heard this anywhere else. Is this just a conspiracy theory or is this the official view of the Church of Scientology?

    • This is quite interesting. You see Terryeo pops up everywhere Scientology does on the web. She (and others) are basically the “Astroturfers” of the “Church” and this fascinating response shows the inner story the “Church” are telling their adherents.
      The story basically goes like this – because the church is such a lovely organisation it would be impossible for thousands of people worldwide to have mobilised themselves, contributed money via paypal or simply paid themselves for bandwidth, leaflets, and even a communal load of fried chicken at the London protests.
      Therefore it must be all paid for by our “secret” leaders, the pharmacological companies and the psychiatrists (possibly also the German government).

      Sadly, this is simply untrue. I personally have donated money for upgrading servers at one of the communities, there’s also legal funds being set up for those people being harassed by the “Church” and this is all *real* grass-roots action.

      We have no leaders, we have no financial backers. Anonymous – whatever the childish origins amongst internet pranksters – has mobilised normal, everyday people to protest the human rights abuses, and fraudulent structure of the “Church”.

      Unfortunately the “Church” cannot conceive of a leaderless, self-organised protest. Since it, itself, is paying for “astroturfers” it assumes that people like myself would not take ten minutes in their day to reply to people like “Terryeo” without payment. When I see the injustices perpetrated by the “Church” and their downright lies – my morals and conscience make it worthwhile for me to point out that this is a paid shill responding to you.

      I however am just some guy… as are all Anonymous.

    • Dan Schultz

      Just to nip that in the bud and keep the comments here from turning into a mini version of Anon vs Scientology I don’t think anyone here believes anonymous is a secret front for Psychiatrists!

      I appreciate the comments though;)

    • Anonymous99

      *Excuse my englisch, it is not my native-language*

      Another Anonymous here :-) I have read your last analysis and have enjoyed it.

      I do not think that the idea of Anonymous can be transported 100% to a community medium for local news.

      Local media is for people in a town or a small area. That means the amount of people living there is limited and they stay for longer. Many people know each other.

      Lets suppose there is a anonymously acting community online for this local area. It would not take long until people would start to communicate in real life (people will always talk about their life, etc) and so know the real life names. Some of them would be more active and therefore be “elected” unofficially leaders, because they are the ones who do the work. Some people would start to talk bad and everybody would knew who and when somebody said this (it will be documented for ever on the internet). With leaders and most people knowing the real life names the concept of Anonymous is invalid. People would not write freely what they really think, because of their families, friends, neighbours, jobs, ….. In the end news would be manipulated from the ones who are the “leaders” in real life.

      So, in my opinion the local news agencies should offer a neutral platform with connection to the most important standard tools (Video channel, message board, chat, eMail, sms, ….) for the community and coordinate/control (like moderators) this platform to avoid formation of groups and leadership at the expense of minorities. Users would communicate not anonymously. If they want they could join the bigger communities that can guaranty anonimity. The news media would write about the themes most of the citizens find interesting and post them on the platform.

      Now some words about Anonymous (the real one :-) ).

      The concept of Anonymous works so good for me because:

      I don´t have the need to communicate with other Anonymous people beyond the actual theme
      I decide when and how long I want to engage myself
      I decide how and what I want to do and why
      I decide what and how much I do
      I decide what is morally good or bad for me
      I don´t have to wait for someone else to decide when I want to do something
      I decide which tools I use
      I can participate even if my contribution could be very small (lack of knowledge, technical skills, …)

      Last but not least, “hard” journalismn is more needed than ever.

      I hope I could express some of my thoughts about the Anonymous concept and it´s possible use for communities.

    • AnonymousAleph

      First of all…Anonymous did not start in alt.religion.anything. (as stated by Terryeo)

      Anonymous is from the #chans, ebaums and ED. The old skool activists from ARS, Clambake, enturb, etc are happy co-horts.

      Secondly to OP: I admire your integrity and idealism. I also agree with many points in your article in terms of what services local “media” could and prolly should provide. Whilst some of it may be wishful thinking, if more media-types thought this way we’d be enjoying a lot more delicious cake.

    • GRASS ROOTS

      It is really beautiful to watch concerned people world wide take down this finite corporation that has thrived on deception, brainwashing and systematically destroying their critics. The internet will never be better than it is right now.

    • David Mudkips

      One of the most interesting things I see going on with Anonymous is that Anonymous is *actually* doing “hard journalism” — deeply fact-checking every single detectable move by the Church of Scientology.

      For a great example of this, visit the “Breaking News” thread on http://forums.enturbulation.org and watch how they are picking apart the new Scientology “Video Channel” the Church has turned their web site into.

      Within hours — hundreds of Anons have been ALL OVER the purported identities and job titles of the supposed proponents of Scientology. This is happening in real-time, right now… and the results have been stunning. It would take an entire building full of hardcore journalists to do this much research…

    • David Mudkips
    • Dan Schultz

      Hi David,
      I’m glad you brought that up — I didn’t explicitly call that out but it is what I meant by “prompting natural investigative attention and a swarm response.”

      I know you were talking about the Anonymous case specifically; which is a good distinction to make because, like I said, I didn’t bring up Anonyumous with the intent of replicating it for physical communities.

      It is worth suggesting though that while that behavior would absolutely compliment “hard journalism” in a physical community, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it could replace it in the general case. For one thing, physical communities wouldn’t have the luxury of being able to focus fire on a particular issue in the way that Anonymous does.

      Do you agree/disagree?

    • Abram Merck

      Is “soft journalism” the sort of story where the journalist just blindly repeats the positions of the people on the two sides of the story? You know, the sort of stories with headlines like “Republicans say Democrats eat babies; Democrats deny.”

      Exactly one of the things that is so frustrating with today’s media is its propensity to repeat, with a straight face, things that do not stand up to scrutiny in any way shape or form. This occurs in all spheres of the media, not just the coverage of Anonymous and Scientology. What has become of fact-checking? Are we returning to the days of yellow journalism where anyone can say anything they want that suits their purposes?

    • FAILinIRELAND

      By Michael Brennan Political Correspondent
      Saturday March 22 2008

      TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern has angered the Church of Scientology by “snubbing” it in the official church-state dialogue process.

      As part of his attempt to combat “aggressive secularism” in Irish society, he issued invitations to Catholic bishops, the Church of Ireland, the Jewish Chief Rabbi and Muslim leaders to take part in multi-faith talks.

      But the Church of Scientology, which counts film stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its members, was left out.

      According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, its Irish representative Gerard Ryan, wrote a letter of protest to Mr Ahern asking whether this had been a “pointed snub”.

      “Perhaps this was simply an error of omission, and if so, I apologise for any inference I may have inadvertently made.

      “However, if our church was deliberately not invited I would greatly appreciate if you would tell me why,” he wrote.

      A spokesman for Mr Ahern wrote back in March last year to say that the letter would be brought to his attention — but there was no further communication with the church.

    • Dan:

      Your post is very insightful.

      Your wrote: If news orgs don’t provide this then someone else will. What is troublesome is that the “someone else” won’t necessarily incorporate hard journalism in their vision. What makes THAT troublesome is that such services directly compete with the news.

      Despite the relative lack of sophistication of offering a community forum, that is exactly what I’ve done at Paulding.com.

      Where I would disagree is on the prospects of those who would start another ‘social networking site’ that does not incorporate news. That is because ‘news’ is the key tool in aggregating the community.

      I do find that having an open forum with free memberships that allow members to start conversations on things as diverse as the best nail salon to a party for SAHM (stay at home mom’s) and their kids, is central to creating my community resource.

      That there are few true taboo topics that can’t be placed in one of the forums (yes, readers of the British tabloids would find a place for their favorite images).

      I think what disturbs many in journalism (particularly editors) is that they feel by opening the door to a wide variety of opinion with minimal restrictions, they lose control over the community narrative.

      I would simply posit that might be a good thing.

      G. Patton Hughes

    • Hi, Dan.

      You wrote:

      >People want a place, digital or otherwise, where they can gather and learn about the community in which they are a part, a place where they can get in touch with the issues, and a place where they can pick up on the “vibe.” They want a modern Roman Forum.

    • Can Duruk

      Dan,

      This was an insightful post.

      I agree with many points; I think noticing that local news outlets might actually facilitate not only distribution of news but also discussion is very important. Disseminating information is a great responsibility considering how powerful “information” itself is and I believe democratization of the process will only benefit the receivers of the news.

      I also agree with you on the point that just letting people produce news is not a good idea. Journalism seems trivial to many but from what I can tell, good journalism is very hard and it really cannot be trusted with masses. That is not to say that people’s voices should be silenced; far from it. But I believe that those experienced in the field should not have their voices taken away either.

      That’s where I think your post is a little lacking. I think you make great observations and have good suggestions on a philosophical level but I’d want to see your ideas as well. You talk about how just letting people comment on news articles is not enough, and I agree. Maybe that’s not the point of this post -or your blog in general- but I’d love to hear your suggestions on this issue as well.

    • Anonimiss

      I’d just like to point out that Anonymous are doing their very best to be exact in their factual analysis of Scientology and are not JUST confined to the internet.

    • Stephen Parker

      I’m sorry, but I find that the original intention of this blog has been seriously off-put by this whole anon factor. Dan, I understand that your ideas grow organically etc within the context of conversation, but I really think recent insights may end up providing long term distractions.

      I also find that updates to this blog occur much too infrequently. Sorry to complain, but I thought this was a research project to bring about real change and that you were being compensated to do so.

    • Dan Schultz

      Duely noted Stephen; I’m sorry to have put you off. I attempted to shift focus away from anonymous on that last post, although the comments ended up being derailed.

      I am about to make another post actually and you will be pleased to know that don’t mention the word anonymous once!!! Seriously though I hope it will follow a bit more closely to the topics you would expect to see on this blog.

      As far as frequency goes I’ll absolutely get back into the swing of things, and I believe that others have been making an effort to do the same.

    • Dan Schultz

      Whoops – double comment – I’m curious to know which insights you believe are distracting! I guess let me know if you see them again in the post I just put up;) If not then maybe they were an artifact of context. Please note that I’ll be moving back into the more ‘concrete’ stuff (i.e. talking about technology and solutions) after this. I’ve had enough time with my head in the clouds!

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