Tag Archives: journalism

How the Globe Editorial Board is Misleading You About Journalism

It was completely fascinating to read the Globe and Mail’s editorial board crow over its “victory” last week regarding the protection of confidential news sources.

Standing up for newshounds!” screamed the headlines, with a bold opening paragraph proclaiming:

The Supreme Court of Canada demonstrated respect and understanding on Friday for news reporting that depends on confidential sources. It set an appropriately high bar for judges who may wish to order journalists to reveal those sources, in civil or criminal cases. The court has in effect given the organized news media the tools to do investigative journalism in the public interest. [Emphasis mine.]

Wow, organized media has been *given tools* to protect the public interest? Yes! (According to the G&M…) Well, if this is true… Cue self-congratulatory text that plays into the trope (and myth) that traditional news media is essential for democracy!

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions. [Emphasis mine.]

The Supreme Court – again, according to the G&M – has ruled. Only journalists for the big news companies are real journalists that can enjoy the protection of the court.

This, if it were true, would be really big news. It might even justify such self-congratulatory rhetoric. The ruling however, is not this cut and dry. In truth, it provides no real new tools; the Globe‘s lawyers extracted little from the courts in the form of new protections; and the protections that do exist exist for everyone, not just journalists.

As a result, what is really disappointing about all this is that the Globe‘s editorial is at best misleading, attempting to lure Canadians into believing that traditional news media companies enjoy rights that are special and unique to them (and further, implies those rights are new). At worst, the piece suggests the editorial board clings to a world before the web – confined to an outdated worldview where “creators” who could legitimately report on or talk about the news were separated from “consumers” who passively absorb it. Previously, this worldview was made possible by the technology of the printing press, which kept production in the hands of a few; now that publishing is available to virtually anyone, the Globe‘s editorial board seems interested in finding a new way to limit this freedom – when they should be expanding it – by attempting to cast the law as a restrictive force whose benefits are enjoyed by only a few (them) and not everyone (us). It’s a dark perspective for the country’s leading editorial board to take.

Intrigued? I hope so, because what the ruling did say matters.

So what did the ruling say and what does it actually mean? Let’s look closer.

This Was a Draw, Not a Win.

Conversing with the eaves.ca legal team*, the consensus is that the ruling is a draw, not a win for the media. Very little has changed. Prior to the ruling, ascertaining if a confidential source deserved protection was up to the courts who used the four part Wigmore framework to make their assessment:

  1. the relationship must originate in a confidence that the source’s identity will not be disclosed;
  2. anonymity must be essential to the relationship in which the communication arises;
  3. the relationship must be one that should be sedulously fostered in the public interest; and
  4. the public interest served by protecting the identity of the informant must outweigh the public interest in getting at the truth.

Nothing about this case changes this framework. Courts, not the media, continue to determine if a source should be confidential, and the criteria have not changed. In short, the media has not been given “new” tools. Essentially the same tools as before apply.

Indeed, this case is at best a draw (albeit an important one) for the Globe‘s lawyers. This is because they were arguing for new and special rights, specifically the recognition that “the basis of the journalist-source privilege is a constitutional one.” In other words, they wanted to court to state that journalists have an inherent right to protect sources in the same way lawyers have a special solicitor-client privilege or medical doctors have doctor-patient confidentiality privilege. However, as the decision states:

the Court was unprepared “[t]o throw a constitutional immunity around the interactions of such a heterogeneous and ill-defined group of writers and speakers and whichever ‘sources’ they deem worthy of a promise of confidentiality and on whatever terms they may choose to offer it.”

Ouch. That’s not a victory, it’s outright defeat. Indeed, the court doesn’t even think journalists are a group with any unique rights as it:

also rejected the existence of a class-based privilege, on the basis that there is no formal accreditation or licensing process for journalists in place, as there is for lawyers for example, and no professional organization regulates the profession and maintains professional standards.

But that’s not it. On the fourth Wigmore criteria – the question of public interest – the Globe‘s lawyers also wanted the onus to shift to the party seeking production/testimony. In other words, to keep a source secret it shouldn’t be up to the Globe to persuade the courts that the story IS in the public interest, but up to the other party (person, corporation and government) to persuade the courts that it ISN’T in the public interest.

But the court did not agree with this request either:

The Court rejected this argument. Given that the evidence is presumptively compellable and admissible, the burden of persuasion remains on the media to show that the public interest in protecting a secret source outweighs the public interest in criminal investigations. The Court ultimately concluded that every claim to journalist-source privilege — be it in the face of testimonial compulsion or the production of documents — is situation specific, with the public’s interest in the freedom of expression always weighing heavily in the court’s balancing exercise. [my bold/italics]

Strike two.

So, to recap so far: First, the court has not made journalists a special class.  We all enjoy the rights to publish content and if that content were tested legally, the Wigmore framework would be applied to our sources. Second, the court essentially preserved the Wigmore test, so it has not “given media the tools”; it has simply preserved and reaffirmed the tools that already existed. Essentially the courts mostly sustained the status quo that existed before the lower court upset the apple cart.

I don’t want to belittle this outcome. This is an important victory for all Canadians as it preserves everyone’s ability to engage in investigative journalism if they so choose.

So what’s with the language in the Globe‘s editorial? Why claim a big victory and dump on bloggers? What you are really reading is a lot of spin. Which is part of what makes the editorial so frustrating – I hold the editorial board to a high standard, and I expect them to not spin stories, especially about themselves and a subject as serious as freedom of speech.

So let’s unpack that spin…

Mixed Messages

The first is the effort to qualify the victory.

As we previously saw, the Globe‘s lawyers argued that journalists should be a protected class and journalist-source relationships should enjoy constitutional protection. As we also saw, however, the Supreme Court did not agree. But look at the quote from the piece below:

“Bearing in mind the high societal interest in investigative journalism, it might be that he [Mr. Leblanc] could only be compelled to speak if his response was vital to the integrity of the administration of justice.” That is a high bar, indeed. The protection of sources should never be absolute, but the Quebec Superior Court will have to give it full consideration, in light of the important public interest at stake, when it ultimately decides the matter.

So first, the bar did not really move. Yes, the court overturned the lower court, but it essentially re-affirmed the Wigmore framework. Again, this is great news, but this is something preserved, not gained.

But more intriguing was the editorial board saying that the protection of sources should never be absolute. A constitutionally protected journalist-source relationship either is absolute, or if I understand it correctly, pretty close to absolute. So why say it shouldn’t be absolute when this is what your legal team was essentially asking for? One suspects that had the court given journalists a special, constitutionally protected relationship with sources (which really would have demanded a dramatic editorial) than the paper would have argued that the journalists sources had finally achieved the absolute protection they so richly deserve and need.

Burying the Lead

But what is particularly interesting about the Globe‘s editorial piece is its treatment of pretty much everyone who isn’t employed by the mainstream media. The entire framing of the piece is that this is a win for journalists and the media, even though the court goes out of its way to say they are not a protected or even recognized class.

Indeed the real story is that important rights that belong to all Canadians have been preserved! But that story is buried.

Rather, the Globe seems very keen to divide the country into two groups – creators (that’s them) and (passive) consumers (that’s you).  Coming back to the first quote from the piece, the Globe notes that.

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions.

In fact, the court does no such thing. First, the Wigmore framework applies to anyone who publishes. That would include people like myself who blog. That also means you (since really anyone can blog, or tweet, or publish something these days).

Second – and this is where it feels like the editorial board really misleads the public – the court did not put great stock in organized media. Indeed, if anything, it went out of its way to say it put very little stock in it.

The basis of the above line in the editorial is, I presume, this part of the ruling:

Justice Binnie put particular emphasis on the significance of the third and fourth factors [of the Wigmore framework], in the journalist-source context. The third factor, whether the relationship is one that the community should sedulously foster (para. 57), introduces a certain degree of flexibility in the evaluation of the different types of sources and different types of journalists. He suggested that whether the relationship is between a source and a blogger, or between a source and a professional journalist, will impact upon the court’s weighing exercise.

So yes, the credibility of the person will matter. But this also means a fly-by-night newspaper may not enjoy the same protection as an established blogger. But even here the wording is quite conservative – “a certain degree of flexibility” and the difference is “suggested.” This is all pretty qualified, and hardly a sign of the court putting “great stock” in established media.

Of course, what little there is gets watered down even further in the next line of the ruling:

But, according to Justice Binnie, the fourth factor [of the Wigmore framework] does the lion’s share of the work, and the court’s task is to “achieve proportionality in striking a balance among the competing interests” (para. 59).

So the public interest is what really matters – not who (e.g. blogger or newspaper) is seeking to preserve the confidentiality of the source.

In Conclusion

This piece is, in many way, a continuation to a piece I wrote in December after a previous Supreme Court ruling which the court went out of its way to put journalists, bloggers and citizens on a equal footing. In the same vein, my problem with the editorial board’s piece isn’t that they played up the significance of their victory – it is still an important victory. It’s that the piece suggests the victory is the (large) news industry’s to enjoy exclusively (or at least, that we ordinary citizens may only enjoy its benefits through them). This is not the case and it does a disservice to citizens, bloggers and journalists to suggest as such.

The Globe and Mail will likely have a long and illustrious reign as the newspaper of record of Canada – but that reign is more likely to continue if it provides credible insights into both the technological and legal realities of the digital world. This editorial suggests that it does not; and I believe that the country, and the paper, are weaker for it.


*Thank you for those who helped me with the legal legwork on this piece, and for those who’ve stuck through to the end; I know this is an unusually long post.

Open Canada – Hello Globe and Mail?

Richard Poynder has a wonderful (and detailed) post on his blog Open and Shut about the state of open data in the UK. Much of it covers arguments about why open data matters economically and democratically (the case I’ve been making as well). It is worthwhile reading for policy makers and engaged citizens.

There is however a much more important lesson buried in the article. It is in regard to the role of the Guardian newspaper.

As many of you know I’ve been advocating for Open Data at all levels of government, and in particular, at the federal level. This is why I and others created datadotgc.ca: If the government won’t create an open data portal, we’ll create one for them. The goal of course, was to show them that it already does open data, and that it could do a lot, lot more (there is a v2 of the site in the works that will offer some more, much cooler functionality coming soon).

What is fascinating about Poynder’s article is the important role the Guardian has played in bringing open data to the UK. Consider this small excerpt from his post.

For The Guardian the release of COINS marks a high point in a crusade it began in March 2006, when it published an article called “Give us back our crown jewels” and launched the Free Our Data campaign. Much has happened since. “What would have been unbelievable a few years ago is now commonplace,” The Guardian boasted when reporting on the release of COINS.

Why did The Guardian start the Free Our Data campaign? Because it wanted to draw attention to the fact that governments and government agencies have been using taxpayers’ money to create vast databases containing highly valuable information, and yet have made very little of this information publicly available.

The lesson here is that a national newspaper in the UK played a key role in pressuring a system of government virtually identical to our own (now also governed by a minority, conservative lead government) to release one of the most important data in its possession – the Combined Online Information System (COINS). This on top of postal codes and what we would find in Stats Canada’s databases.

All this leads me to ask one simple question. Where is the Globe and Mail? I’m not sure its editors have written a single piece calling for open data (am I wrong here?). Indeed, I’m not even sure the issue is on their radar. It certainly has done nothing close to launching a “national campaign.” They could do the Canadian economy, democracy and journalism and world of good. Open data can be championed by individual advocates such as myself but having a large media player repeatedly raising the issue, time and time again brings out the type of pressure few individuals can muster.

All this to say, if the Globe ever gets interested, I’m here. Happy to help.

On Journalism & Crowdsourcing: the good, the bad, the ugly

Last week the Vancouver Sun (my local paper) launched a laudable experiment. They took all of the campaign finance data from the last round of municipal elections in the Lower Mainland (the Greater Vancouver area in Canada) and posted a significant amount of it on their website. This is exactly the type of thing I’ve been hoping that newspapers would do more of in Canada (much like British newspapers – especially The Guardian – have done). I do think there are some instructive lessons, so here is a brief list of what I think is good, bad and ugly about the experiment.

The Good:

That it is being done at all. For newspapers in Canada to do anything other than simply repackage text that was (or wasn’t) going to end up in the newsprint sadly still counts as innovation here. Seriously, someone should be applauding the Vancouver sun team. I am. I hope you will to. Moreover, enabling people to do some rudimentary searches is interesting – mostly as people will want to see who the biggest donors are. Of course, no surprise to learn that in many cases the biggest donors in municipal elections (developers) give to all the major parties or players… just to cover their bets. Also interesting is that they’ve invited readers to add “If you find something interesting in the database that you want to share with other readers, go to The Sun’s Money & Influence blog at vancouversun.com/influence and post a comment” and is looking for people to sniff out news stories.

While it is great that the Vancouver Sun has compiled this data, it will be interesting to see who, if anyone uses their data. A major barrier here is the social contract between the paper and those it is looking to engage. The paper won’t actually let you access the data – only run basic searches. This is because they don’t want readers running off and doing something interesting with the data on another website. But this constraint also means you can’t visualize it, (for example put it into a spread sheet and graph) or try to analyze it in some interesting ways. Increasingly our world isn’t one where we tell the story in words, we tell is visually with graphs, charts and visuals… that is the real opportunity here.

I know a few people who would love to do something interesting with the data (like John Jensen or Luke Closs), if they could access it. I also understand that the Vancouver Sun wants the discussion to take place on their page. But if you want people to use the data and do something interesting with it, you have to let them access it: that means downloading it or offering up an API (This is what The Guardian, a newspaper that is serious about letting people use their data, does.). What the Sun could have done was distribute it with an attribution license, so that anybody who used the API had to at least link back to The Sun. But I don’t know a single person out there who with or without a license wouldn’t have linked back to the Sun, thanked them, and driven a bunch a traffic to them. Moreover, if The Sun had a more open approach, it could have likely even enlisted people to to data entry on campaign donations in other districts around the province. Instead, many of the pages for this story sit blank. There are few comment but some like these two that are not relevant and the occasional gem like this one). There is also one from John Jensen, open data hackathon regular who has been trying to visualize this data for months but been unable to since typing up all the data has been time consuming.

At the end of the day, if you want readers to create content for you, to sniff out stories and sift through data, you have to trust them, and that means giving them real access. I can imagine that feels scary. But I think it would work out.

The Ugly:

The really ugly part about this story is that the Vancouver Sun needed to do all this data entry in the first place. Since campaigns are legally required to track donations most track them using… MicroSoft Excel. Then, because the province requires that candidates disclose donations the city in which the candidate is running insists that they submit the list of donations in print. Then that form gets scanned and saved as a PDF. If, of course, the province’s campaign finance law’s were changed so as to require you to submit your donations in an electronic format, then all of the data entry the Sun had to do would disappear and suddenly anyone could search and analyze campaign donations. In short, even though this system is suppose to create transparency, we’ve architected it to be opaque. The information is all disclosed, we’ve just ensured that it is very difficult and expensive to sort through. I’m sadly, not confident that the BC Election Task Force is going to change that although I did submit this as a recommendation.

Some Ideas:

1) I’d encourage the Vancouver Sun to make available the database they’ve cobbled together. I think if they did, I know I would be willing to help bring together volunteers to add donation data from more municipalities and to help create some nice visualizations of the data. I also think it would spark a larger discussion both on their website, and elsewhere across the internet (and possibly even other mediums) around the province. This could become a major issue. I even suspect that there would be a number of people at the next open data hackathon who would take this issue up.

2) Less appealing is to scrape the data set off the Vancouver Sun’s website and then do something interesting with it. I would, of course, encourage whoever did that to attribute the good work of the Vancouver Sun, link back to them and even encourage readers to go and participate in their discussion forum.

Why Old Media and Social Media Don't Get Along

Earlier today I did a brief drop in phone interview on CPAC’s Goldhawk Live. The topic was “Have social media and technology changed the way Canadians get news?” and Christoper Waddell, the Director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Chris Dornan, Director of Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger School of Public Affairs were Goldhawk’s panel of experts.

Watching the program prior to being brought in I couldn’t help but feel I live on a different planet from many who talk about the media. Ultimately, the debate was characterized by a reactive, negative view on the part of the mainstream media supporters. To them, threats are everywhere. The future is bleak, and everything, especially democratic institutions and civilization itself teeter on the edge. Meanwhile social media advocates such as myself are characterized as delusional techno-utopians. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Indeed, both sides share a lot in common. What distinguishes though, is that while traditionalists are doom and gloom, we are almost defined by the sense of the possible. New things, new ideas, new approaches are becoming available every day. Yes, there will be new problems, but there will also be new possibilities and, at least, we can invent and innovate.

I’m just soooooo tired of the doom and gloom. It really makes one want to give up on the main stream media (like many, many, many people under 30 have). But, we can’t. We’ve got to save these guys from themselves – the institutions and the brands matter (I think). So, in that pursuit, let’s tackle the beast head on, again.

Last, night the worse offender was Goldhawk, who tapped into every myth that surrounds this debate. Let’s review them one by one.

Myth 1: The average blog is not very good – so how can we rely on blogs for media?

For this myth, I’m going to first pull a little from Missing the Link, now about to be published as a chapter in a journalism textbook called “The New Journalist”:

The qualitative error made by print journalists is to assume that they are competing against the average quality of online content. There may be 1.5 million posts a day, but as anyone whose read a friend’s blog knows, even the average quality of this content is poor. But this has lulled the industry into a false sense of confidence. As Paul Graham describes: “In the old world of ‘channels’ (e.g. newspapers) it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what everyone was getting whether they liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. Consequently, print media isn’t competing against the average quality of online writing, they’re competing against the best writing online…Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”

You know what though, I’m going to build on that. Goldhawk keeps talking about the average blog or average twitterer (which of course, no one follows, we all follow big names, like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly). But you know what? They keep comparing the average blog to the best newspapers. The fact is, even the average newspaper sucks. The Globe represents the apex of the newspaper industry in Canada, not the average, so stop using it as an example. To get the average, go into any mid-sized town and grab a newspaper. It won’t be interesting. Especially to you – an outsider. It will have stories that will appeal to a narrow audience, and even then, many of these will not be particularly well written. More importantly still, there will little, and likely no, investigative journalism – that thing that allegedly separates blogs from newspapers. Indeed, even here in Vancouver, a large city, it is frightening how many times press releases get marginally touched up and then released as “a story.” This is the system that we are afraid of losing?

Myth 2: How will people sort good from low quality news?

I always love this myth. In short, it presumes that the one thing the internet has been fantastic at developing – filters – simple won’t evolve in a part of the media ecosystem (news) where people desperately want them. At best, this is naive. At worse, it is insulting. Filters will develop. They already have. Twitter is my favourite news filter – I probably get more news via it than any other source. Google is another. Nothing gets you to a post or article about a subject you are interested in like a good (old-fashioned?) google search. And yes, there is also going to be a market for branded content – people will look for that as short cut for figuring out what to read. But please people are smarter than you think at finding news sources.

Myth 3: People lack media savvy to know good from low quality news.

I love the elitist contempt the media industry sometimes has towards its readers. But, okay, let’s say this is true. Then the newspapers and mainstream media have only themselves to blame. If people don’t know what good news is, it is because they’ve never seen it (and by and large, they haven’t). The most devastating critique on this myth is actually delivered by one of my favourite newspaper men: Kenneth Whyte is his must listen-to Dalton Camp Lecture on journalism. In it Whyte talks about how, in the late 19th and early 20th century NYC had dozens and dozens of newspapers that fought for readership and people were media savvy, shifting from paper to paper depending on quality and perspective. That all changed with consolidation and a shift from paying for content to advertising for content. Advertisers want staid, plain, boring newspapers with big audiences. This means newspapers play to the lowest common denominator and are market oriented to be boring. It also leaves them beholden to corporate interests (when was the last time the Vancouver Sun really did a critical analysis of the housing industry – it’s biggest advertisement source?). If people are not media savvy it is, in part, because the media ecosystem demands so little of them. I suspect that social media can and will change this. Big newspapers may be what we know, but they may not be good for citizenship or democracy.

Myth 4: There will be no good (and certainly no investigative) journalism with mainstream media.

Possible. I think the investigative journalism concern is legitimate. That said, I’m also not convinced there is a ton of investigative journalism going on. There may also be more going on in the blogs than we might know. It could be that these stories a) don’t get prominence and b) even when they do, often newspapers don’t cite blogs, and so a story first broken by a blog may not be attributed. But investigative journalism comes in different shapes and sizes. As I wrote in one of my more viewed posts, The Death of Journalism:

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

And finally, Myth 5: People only read stories that confirm their biases.

Rather than Goldhawk it was Christopher Waddell who kept bringing this point up. This problem, sometimes referred to as “the echo chamber” effect is often cited as a reason why online media is “bad.” I’d love to know Waddell’s sources (I’m confident he has some – he is very sharp). I’ve just not seen any myself. Indeed, Andrew Potter recently sent me a link to “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline.” What is it? A peer reviewed study that found no evidence the Internet is becoming more ideologically segregated. And the comparison is itself deeply flawed. How many conservatives read the Globe? How many liberals read the National Post? I love the idea that somehow main stream media doesn’t ideologically segregate an audience. Hasn’t any looked at Fox or MSNBC recently?

Ultimately, it is hard to watch (or participate) in these shows without attributing all sorts of motivations to those involved. I keep feeling like people are defending the status quo and trying to justify their role in the news ecosystem. To be fair, it is a frightening time to be in media.

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

And I refuse to lie. It sucks to be a newscaster or a journalist or a columnist. Especially if you are older. Forget about the institutions (they’ve already been changing) but the culture of newsmedia, which many employed in the field cling strongly to, is evolving and changing. That is a painful process, especially to those who have dedicated their life to it. But that old world was far from perfect. Yes, the new world will have problems, but they will be new problems, and there may yet be solutions to them, what I do know is that there aren’t solutions to the old problems in the old system and frankly, I’m tired of those old problems. So let’s get on with it. Be critical, but please, stop spreading the myths and the fear mongering.

Today in the Globe: Facebook's Political Reach

I have the following piece published in the Globe and Mail today. It isn’t going to further endear me to Michael Valpy (who is already not impressed with me)… but felt another perspective on the issue was needed. He, like many traditional columnists, is not a fan of social – or digital – media. Indeed, he has argued it is destroying our country’s social cohesion and democracy. Those familiar with me know I feel differently . By allowing us to self-organize, connect to one another and to our politicians, social media is enabling a different and very powerful type kind of social cohesion and democratic expression.

I respect Valpy a lot and hope we get a chance to sit down and talk social media at some point. Given our collective interest in journalism and statements like this, it feels like it would be fruitful for both of us. Hopefully it will happen.

Facebook’s Political Reach

Yesterday, Michael Valpy posted an interesting piece about a Nanos poll showing Canadians – including younger Canadians – question how much influence political Facebook groups should have on any government.

The problem with the piece lies in the headline: “Facebook forums shouldn’t sway government, young Canadians say.” It suggests that online activism – or social media in general – isn’t credible with the public. This, however, isn’t what the poll showed. Indeed, the poll says little about the credibility of Facebook, particularly compared to other forms of political activity. It does, however, say a lot about social media’s dramatic growth in influence over the past five years.

Critically, the poll didn’t compare forms of political activity. If one had done a similar poll asking whether Canadians believe a demonstration should sway the government, or if direct action – such as when Greenpeace hung a banner from Parliament – should alter government policy, would the numbers have been dramatically different? I suspect not. Governments have electoral mandates – something Canadians broadly agree with. Most political activity, both on and offline, is designed to shape public opinion and ultimately, people’s decisions at the ballot box. That is a threat influences government.

Consequently, it may not be the medium that matters as much as the number of people involved. Do people believe the government should pay attention to a 1,000 person rally? Likely not. Should they pay attention to a 10,000 person Facebook group? Likely not as well. But at a certain point, with large enough numbers, almost any medium matters. Would people think that the government should reconsider a policy in the face of 10-million-person petition? Or a five-million-person Facebook group? Possibly. What about a 500,000-person march? Even this might prompt respondents to reconsider their response.

Ultimately, the Globe article jumps to a negative interpretation of Facebook too quickly. This is understandable in that traditional news organizations are still coming to grips with social – and digital – media. But by allowing us to self-organize, connect to one another and to our politicians, social media is enabling a different and very powerful type kind of social cohesion and democratic expression.

More interesting is how split Canadians appear to be over political groups using Facebook “to share ideas, information and to help mobilize their activities” (30 per cent have a positive view, 30 per cent have a negative view and an enormous 40 per cent are undecided). Here is a technology few Canadians knew existed five years ago, and it is already viewed favourably by a third of Canadians as a way to engage with political groups. As people become more familiar with these online activities I suspect comfort levels will rise, since many people often don’t initially understand or like new technologies. This survey shows us online political organizing is moving into the mainstream – perhaps even more mainstream than a protest or a petition.

So should Facebook influence the government? The prorogation debate shows it already can. But do people believe Facebook should be less influential than other (more traditional) forms of political activity? In this, the survey reveals very little. Indeed as Nik Nanos, the pollster who conducted the survey, adds at the end of the piece (and in contrast to the title): “we still haven’t come to grips with what [Facebook groups] really mean.”

The Next News Media Metaphor – The Sports Team

Many things going on that I want to talk about… Excited about working on Mozilla Drumbeat, a project the Mozilla Foundation that is getting ready to launch. Open Data stuff at the City of Vancouver (some new things are afoot). Watching (in the background) In the Loop – amazing, hilarious and dark. But, for now ruminating on my conversation today with Mathew Ingram (currently of the Globe, soon to be with GigaOM) and an interview I did with a Ryerson Journalism Review writer on the future of media and newspapers.

One of the things that struck me about newspapers is that their conundrum is even greater than we think. Mathew and I were talking about how the “magic” and “mystique” of the newspaper has disappeared. There was a time when we could pretend that columnists in the Globe actually had 300,000 or 400,000 (saturday) readers. But this was in an era when we couldn’t actually measure readers. We pretended (and still do) that each newspaper got read, sometime multiple times.

It reminds me of the memorable opening scene from Googled: The End Of The World As We Know It by Ken Auletta and below described by Erick Schonfeld:

The first scene is a 2003 meeting with Mel Karmazin (then CEO of Viacom) at the Google campus with a sweaty Brin, Google’s other co-founder Larry Page, and CEO Eric Schmidt. At the end of a his visit, Karmazin tells them he is appalled that Google is “fucking with the magic” of the media business by actually telling advertisers which ads work and which ones don’t.

The internet is has fucked with the magic of newspapers. And that’s scary for anyone who grew up under the old model. Forget about the advertising (that’s the part google messed with). What about the simple ego bash and job justification crisis of suddenly being able to see exactly how many readers looked at your piece and how long they chose to stay. And what about discovering that that number is nowhere near what you’ve been telling yourself for years.

The era of collectively lying magic is over. The average globe weekday circulation is 330,145, the Star’s is 446,493 and the Post’s 209,211. How many of those papers got read? Half? (the morning was too busy, kids had early practice, didn’t have time for a coffee break today, no one grabbed it from the airport lounge or hotel room). Of the remaining papers, most readers skim the paper and maybe read one or two of their favourite columnists plus a news story or two that really catches there eye. In short I suspect most columnists maybe get read, in print, by 60K people. But we don’t know, cause there are no good metrics.

Online, the world is different. The editors know who is getting read and who isn’t. No ifs, ands or buts. Suddenly your value to the newspaper (financially) becomes very clear, very fast. Valuable columnists and reporters attract what website people call “uniques” (e.g. a unique person visiting your website – each unique visitor may click on several articles and thereby generate a number of pageviews). Advertisers care about the unique visits, since 100,000 different people seeing an ad is worth a lot more than one person clicking around the site 100,000 times and seeing their add over and over again.

And what attracts lots of unique visitors? The same things as what drives everything else on the internet. Reputation and thus… brand. The most successful writers (or, er… bloggers) are those that people wake up everyday saying… I want to read her! This is even more true today where there is SO MUCH content being created most readers simply cannot separate the noise from the signal (even with twitter, which is probably the best tool). So having a strong brand is essential. This should be a good news story for newspapers and media companies since they have established brands and so, in theory, should have a leg up on bloggers like me.

The problem is – I suspect – that the brand that matters doesn’t solely or even primarily reside with the newspaper. People need someone to connect with – a newspaper is a nice filter, but it offers no connection, no intimacy. The personal brand of columnists and journalists will likely become equally, if not more important than the newspaper.

But this doesn’t mean newspapers are dead. Just that they need to be sure they know how to manage talent in an era where that talent’s brand is more and more important.

And we have a model for that. Sports teams.

For years Sports Teams have had to increasingly co-manage their own team (media platform) brand with the brand of the players (writers). The rise of the sports superstar has altered how sports franchises work in much the same way they may the newspaper biz.

So the bad news is, the talent is going to consume more of the value generated by news organizations. The good news is threefold. First, good newspapers have always managed talent – so there is some skill and process already in place around this. Second, newspapers now have real tools by which to measure their columnists. Who’s being read and who isn’t? Essentially, every managing editor should pick up a copy of Moneyball stat. A good newspaper is going to have its senior talent – its stars, if you will. But it also needs to have a mix of people on the second and third line it is grooming for later – in case a star gets injured or, is simply too expensive to justify.

Finally, there is a larger and deeper talent pool to draw from. Not only are there the local papers and a number of niche community papers to look at, there are an army of bloggers (many of us aren’t that good, but what we lack in talent we make up for in sheer numbers). And successful bloggers come with established audiences and the advantage of maturing in the online world and not the “magic” pre-internet media environment. They are used to looking at the hard numbers of pageviews and unique visitors. The opportunity to write more seriously, get mentored, and access a platform that can deliver more eyeballs will be tempting to anyone who writes well.

But I suppose none of this is that shocking. In a world where human capital is increasingly the most important asset and where personal brands are more easily established, maybe every organization is going to look more and more like a sports franchise.

Using a media bias tool to calculate our political "drift"

Nicolas T. sent me a cool link to Fairspin, a website where readers rate the bias of news articles.

This is the type of site that works better the more people who use it – the larger the readership the more likely the bias measurement will reflect that of the population’s.  Indeed this is the sites biggest challenge – it could be taken over by readers of a certain political stripe who over rate the news bias  against them, discrediting the sites ranking system.

Looking over the site I got an additional thought. The Vancouver Sun and/or the Globe and Mail sometimes have an editorial from 50 or 100 years ago. This got me thinking that it might be interesting for a site like this is to take random stories that were rated on the site and put them back to users in 2, 5 and 10 years. The reason to do this is to see if readers in 10 years rate the bias differently then they do today. This might give us an additional read to see how what is perceived as “right” and “left” evolve over time.