The genre of blog investigative reporting

When blogs do real investigative journalism, there’s a distinct benefit to the form.
Newspaper and magazine investigative pieces tend to be really long. Journalists are assigned to cover an issue in-depth for months, and then fill pages with detailed name, date, and fact-filled paragraphs At the risk of seeming shallow, I have a hard time getting throught them.
Ordinary stories tend to be short, written by journalists who have cursory familarity with the issue and tight deadlines, drawing on press releases, standard stories, and conventional wisdom. There are a some strong “beat” reporters who are an exception to this rule. Unless you’re strongly interested in the topic to begin with, they are harder to find, since their stories “look” like every other story.
The blog form is different. When blogs are doing real investigative reporting and analysis, they’ll cover a topic in small bites, day after day. A reader can learn the players and the vocabulary, gradually, and gain an understanding of the topic over time.
Contra the “A-list” stereotype, it’s easy to find these people. A quick Google or Technorati search will find bloggers who write about a topic. It’s easy to zoom in on people who sound cogent. Then follow their blogroll and the people they link to. Put a couple in an RSS reader. And soak up domain knowledge.

Which political blogs?

Grits for Breakfast just won a Koufax award for best single-issue lefty blog, for its coverage of criminal justice reform in Texas. Scott Henson’s blog includes original research and insightful coverage of an important issue that is badly undercovered by the mainstream media.
The Koufax awards inspired others to share links of favorite niche blogs.
Meanwhile, Salon picked up the Daou Report, a compilation of thumbnail clips from political blogs, right and left. Skimming the Daou Report, I get a headache from the snippets of insults — “The Petulant Left”, “wingnuts plan to keep women scared”, back and forth like 4th grade recess.
Complaints about the dreck in the blogosphere are missing the point. There’s infinite space — anyone can choose to read good sources like Scott, easily find other good sources, and ignore the spitball fights.

EPIC and the doom of news

At the urging of Aldon Hynes, I just got around to watching EPIC 2014 — the flash-animated dystopia about the death of the news. I’m less worried about this dystopia than other scenarios of doom.
Epic tells a history of a future in which by 2014, the New York Times is displaced by GoogleZon, an algorithmically-generated stew of peer-created content, narrowly personalized to the preferences of the individual user.
But the big threat to the New York Times isn’t Google News, which links to traditional news sources. People who get their news from Google wind up reading more traditional sources than people who just read their local paper.
EPIC envisions an AI that constructs news stories themselves, not just a portal to existing stories. But the AI to write an interesting story is a lot harder than the AI to assemble a page of stories based on a popularity algorithm.
The passive faith in AI is belied by the real process of using Amazon recommendations and Technorati today. Amazon algorithmically assembes a set of recommended books, each with a set of human-written recommendations. The reader critically sifts through the recommendations, separating the cogent from the illiterate. If Amazon were building its recommendation service, the recommendations would be linked to deeper blog and profile information about the reviewer, providing further material to check trustworthiness.
Meanwhile, the formulaic crime-and-accident coverage of today’s local news might as well be written by a bot. In-depth coverage by special-interest bloggers not infrequently beats the shallow, formulaic coverage of the mainstream media.
Also, I don’t think personalization is as big a problem as EPIC makes it out to be, although folks have been worried about it since Nicholas Negroponte popularized “The Daily Me” in the mid-90s. Social networks with external links can broaden cultural reference at least as much as they shrink them, and surely more than the narrow mass media. I can get more diverse music references in a couple of hours with iTunes, LastFM, Webjay, Amazon and Google than in a lifetime with ClearChannel.
Not to mention the fact that newspaper circulation has been falling since the 60s, under competitive pressure from radio and TV. EPIC deplores and bemoans a world where the news is shallow and sensationalistic — but that world was created by TV “disaster-of-the-day” coverage.
The big threat is from Craigslist, which cannibalizes the classified ad revenue that accounts for the newspapers’ profit margin. Good investigative journalism takes money and time. Journalist need money to eat. It’s an open question whether alternate business models — different from the classified and space ads in traditional newspapers — will generate enough money to keep investigative journalism afloat.

Lessig on Municipal Wireless

At the hearings last week, Chairman Phil King asked why governments should provide network access, when the same service can be provided by private enterprise.
Prof. Lawrence Lessig answered this question in Wired Magazine last week.

Ever think about the poor streetlamp companies, run out of business because municipalities deigned to do completely what private industry would do only incompletely? Or think about the scandal of public roads: How many tollbooth workers have lost their jobs because we no longer (since about the 18th century) fund all roads through private enterprise? Municipal buses compete with private taxis. City police departments hamper the growth at Pinkerton’s (now Securitas)… If private industry can provide a service, however poorly or incompletely, then ban the government from competing. What’s true for Wi-Fi should be true for water.

There’s a range of services like roads, transportation and security, where the government provides services. Even though there are private-sector alternatives, the government plays an major role in providing these services, because they are “public goods”.
The government even put the private streetlamp industry out of business, because it was so much more effective to have city lights on every street than a patchwork of lights in front of a few businesses and rich people’s houses.
The conservative movement is right to question and scrutinize the functions that government provides. The failure of Soviet factories and farmes proved that private enterprise is better at most economic activities.
But there are functions like roads, streetlights, police services, and in the 21st century, network access, where the government has a justifiable and important role to play.

Community networks and the constitution

When I started working to oppose the municipal wireless ban with EFF-Austin, I wasn’t convinced it was a constitutional issue. As I got more involved, I realized how important it was to constitutional freedoms.
The justification comes from Prof Lawrence Lessig’s insight that an information-age society is governed by law code and computer code. The law tells us what we may do, and the computer code supplies us with the choices.
The printing press made it possible to have the communication and free speech to support democracy. Internet access is a major enabler for free speech in our time. Banning community wireless is, among other bad things, a significant threat to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
I do public interest tech policy volunteer work with two affliations: the ACLU-TX cyberliberties project, and EFF-Austin. ACLU-TX has signed on the to the list of groups opposed to the municipal wireless ban.

Blink: on educated intuition

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink contains fascinating insights into the relationship between experience and intuition.
The book is about the power and limits of snap judgements. In the first chapter, a set of experts feel instantly repelled by a showy new Getty museum acquisition which turns out to be a fake. Their snap judgements trumped months of expensive studies from the Getty. The “snap judgements” of the aniquarians, though, had been honed in decades of experience with antiques.
Psychologist John Gottman is able to instantly detect the likely success of a marriage, and Paul Ekman is able to instantly read faces. The snap judgement skills of both of these psychologists has been honed by the results of years of study that taught them what signs to focus on.
In Blink, two factors play into overcoming the weaknesses of snap judgement.
Education is the first. John Gottman’s method, developed through years of study, can be taught to novices. The lethal snap judgements that led cops to kill an innocent, frightened Amadou Diallou in New York and use excessive force after car chases can be improved by police procedures that give cops extra seconds to respond to problems.
Resistance to stereotypes is the second. Classical orchestras started hiring many more women as soon as they started holding blind auditions. A superior car salesman resists pre-judging his customers based on appearance — a grimy farmer is a millionaire, and a ratty-looking teenager has wealthy parents.
This book complements (and cites) one of my favorite books, Gary Klein’s Sources of Power, which tells stories about how experts really make decisions — not with analytical process, but with educated intuition.
Gladwell’s book fills in what Klein’s book was missing — a picture of how the process of training helps to hone the intuitive process, by generating a large mental database of relevant expertise, plus a rapid feel for the salient points that jump out from a pattern.
Gladwell’s book is less explicit about the thesis than this review. Literary training and perhaps New Yorker style leads Gladwell to a lively, story-based approach. Which is a bit too bad, because it might lead some people to miss the key insight about the relationships between intuition and experience.
(Ross, this was my airplane reading from Seattle).

Indiana anti-municipal wireless bill dies in committee

A bill in Indiana to prohibit cities and towns from offering wireless networks died in committee on Wednesday. The story is good news for advocates of community networks in Texas. The ban that failed in Indiana is similar to a provision being heard at the Texas House Regulated Industries next week.
Indiana cities and towns made a compelling argument that the networks help economic development. For example, , the town of Auburn, Indiana (pop. 6000) was able to save jobs in local automotive repair and medical transcription business as a result of a municipal wireless network.
The story of Auburn, like many other small towns, belies the telco claim that the municipal wireless bans are in the public interest. As reported by Muniwireless, “The town approached Verizon about bringing broadband to their community, but the latter told them that there were not enough residents to make it worth Verizon’s trouble.”

wireless social software

Muni Wireless reports on about Neigbornode, an bulletin board application managed by a group of NYU students and alumni, and publicized by New York City Wireless that allows neighbors to post for-sale items and gossip.
The guy behind the software is John Geraci a grad student at NYU who also did the Grafedia project, which connects 3d graffiti with online images. It doesn’t do the technically cool thing of associating the online graffiti with spacial coordinates. Instead, it uses a hobo code to mark the graffiti, and fellow cyberhoboes can find the link and associated images on the net.

Personalization vs. Socialization

Ross Mayfield offers an insightful critique of the limits of personalization, which has long been seen as the premier way to make content more valuable. This is a very good point — the flaw with the “daily me” is that it restricts my information flow to things I know aready.
I think they go together nicely. Social filtering lets you branch out, experiment, grow, and learn from the tastes and interests of your friends and colleagues.
Personalization is still needed to manage focus amid vast quantities information, even considering the collaborative input of friends and colleagues. I value Ross’s links on social software and business trends, and Rick’s political tales, but would less interested in socially filtered feed of sports scores. (Sorry guys!).
I think about it with a spacial metaphor. You want a familiar starting point, and a set of directions to explore, where the interests of your social network represent roads out.

Ben Franklin and public wireless

Ben Franklin would have loved public wireless. Ben Franklin was an entrepreneur who saw the connection between private enterprise and public infrastructure.
Franklin created a thriving printing business, seizing opportunities in a colonial economy hungry for news and education. But there was no reliable way to send newspapers to customers. It could take weeks or months for a message to cross the colonies.
So Franklin helped to set up the postal service, which provided regular mail delivery, and stimulated both business and civic life.
Franklin also helped to set up volunteer fire brigades that would battle all fires, regardless of whose property was burning. Before the volunteer fire brigades, wealthy people created fire clubs that would put out the fires of duespaying members. But when a poor person’s house or workshop caught fire, the whole neighborhood could burn. Franklin saw that a public fire protection service would protect everyone.
Roads, street lights, and fire protection are civic services that provide overall benefits to civic life and economic development. Municipal wireless has the potential to be an amenity that creates spillover economic development.
Innovative communities are experimenting with municipal wireless, like Colonial Philadelphia experimented with fire protection in the 1700s, and cities experimented with street lights in the late 1800s.
But the telecom industry wants to stop these experiments before they get started. They want to make it illegal to provide wireless service as a public amenity.
Imagine if all streets were toll roads. Imagine if it was considered illegal, and radical, for a city or town to build public roads?
Conservative philosophy provides a valuable critique of the role of government. It’s important to critically examine what government does and get the government out of businesses where the private sector does a better job. In today’s American politics, efforts to reduce government spending and foster enterpreneurial growth have overshot the mark.
When the Founding Fathers started this nation, they had a strong sense of the common good. They valued liberty of conscience, and freedom for economic self-determination (with a large blind spot). And they saw that individual and prosperity were fostered by public service, and by public services which promoted the general welfare.
The initiative to ban public wireless goes against the patriotic spirit of Ben Franklin, who fostered the development of civic services that were complementary to economic development, private enterprise and liberty.