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<br /><a href=”; style=”font-size: 12px; line-height: 20px; font-weight: normal; text-align: left;” target=”_blank”>Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream</a>

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Challenging Big Money in Public Elections: #NCMR Reflections

This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on lessons I’ve learned through my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA at CAN TV and my time spent at the 2011 National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR).

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”- Thoreau

If there’s any one issue that liberals and conservatives can agree on it’s that there’s too much money in today’s politics. Following the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, campaign finance reform  finally reached a crisis point. Without any restrictions on the amount of donations companies and other big money can give, unlimited funds began running towards political candidates of all parties. Lawrence Lessig, one of the headline speakers at #NCMR, issued a call to arms against this form of corruption.

Lessig pointed to the fate of popular Open Internet legislation as an example of the influence this big money already has on political issues. The movement towards network neutrality and an open Internet was a popular one, with support from hundreds of thousands of Americans and politicians from both parties. While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to promote net neutrality legislation, saying it is essential to development, diversity in the media, and equality of access to information. And yet, despite Obama’s election and widespread bipartisan support, this issue is now politically dead.

What happened?

According to Lessig the root of the problem boils down to this: Private funds drive public elections.  In order to better their political chances, politicians always “lean towards the green,” instinctively adjusting their views to maximize the opportunity for them and their parties to become the party in power.

“There’s no quid pro quo bribery here,” he said. “It’s a corruption of the independence of these institutions.”

This corruption takes many forms, according to Lessig:  “Revolving door” jobs for regulators; Cronyism that values loyalty above competence; And unlimited political contributions. After all, members spend 30-70% of their time trying to get reelected or to support their party. It shouldn’t be surprising that their need for funds to get re-elected would impact their decisions.

In a democracy that’s supposed to have a Congress “dependent on the people alone,” he said, these factors lead to a startling fact: only 11% of Americans have confidence in Congress. There were more people who believed in the British crown during the Revolutionary  War than believe in Congress today.

In order to confront this issue, Lessig launched what he’s calling #rootstrikers, a web-based project that allows everyone to document the influence of money in politics. Whenever participants stumble upon a news item or other story that demonstrates the impact of money on politics, they can share it with social media and tag it with “#rootstrikers.” Then a centralized database collects these articles in one place where people can review and share them. By bringing all of these stories into one place, he hopes to convince more people to take up the mantle of campaign finance reform.

Key Points:

  • Private funds drive public elections- big business, big labor, and big banks provide most funds for candidates.
  • Members spend 30-70% of their time trying to get reelected or to support their party.
  • 11% of Americans have confidence in Congress; There were more people who believed in the British crown during the Revolutionary war than believe in Congress today.


“There’s no progress so long as private funds drive public elections,” Lawrence Lessig

“Every single issue we care about is blocked by the same fundamental rot… We won’t get anything real from our government until we change this”- Lessig

Here’s the video of Lawrence Lessig giving his speech

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New Tools for Citizen Journalism: #NCMR Reflections

This is the third in a series of posts reflecting on lessons I’ve learned through my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA at CAN TV and my time spent at the 2011 National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR).

One of the most fundamental questions “the media” face is how to meaningfully engage the legions of bloggers, YouTubers and other users who are now undeniably a part of the club. For many, the answer is giving these individuals the tools they need to convert from mere “bloggers” to true “citizen journalists.” Which begs another question: what the heck is a citizen journalist?

The answer offered by many of the panelists at the “Creating and Sustaining Citizen Journalism” workshop was that any amateur (as in unpaid) person engaging in an act of journalism- shooting video, gathering interviews, writing articles- can rightfully be called a “citizen journalist.” Instead of seeing these individuals as the competition, most outlets are searching for ways to bring them into the fold. One compelling model demonstrated by Jason Barnett of is “citizen-fueled news.” In The Uptake’s newsroom, citizen journalists are given different roles based on their experience level and individual interests. Entry-level reporters are given the  “witness” title, where their main responsibility is to gather raw information and stream video live from  newsworthy events. Then journalists in the newsroom and others watching the footage online make note of interesting clips from the video and turn those into stories. This can lead to some compelling front-line type coverage and can paint a more complete picture of events as they unfold.

For instance, the video below, from protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention, was streamed live even as protestors (and the producer) were hit with tear gas. Barnett added that this approach also has the added value that their videos can’t be confiscated by police- which is an issue in such scenarios.

In addition to providing the raw material needed for stories, citizen journalists can also help fill the gaps in media coverage that many communities face. Nicole Belanger of Cambridge Community Television said that her Cambridge has no local newspaper or television station so their access center established NeighborMedia,  a community-driven news website. By providing training in reporting and writing, CCTV works with citizen journalists to produce quality stories and cover the local issues that interest them. This support includes one-on-one training, access to equipment, and other services. According to Belanger, their goal is to “Provide citizens with the tools to be civically active,” and build a bridge between their public access tv channel and their website. NeighborMedia has been pretty successful, with people from the community submitting stories on a wide range of issues.

I think this approach also reconciles to a certain degree issues that the Huffington Post and other mainstream outlets fail to address: incentives and compensation. By offering free training and access to equipment, media access centers are investing in their people just as their reporters invest their time and effort into producing content. While in an ideal world they would be paid for their work, there is definitely a value to the professional skills that they can develop as a result.

Finally, an advantage of working with citizen journalists addresses a core issue all journalists face: access. Carlos Pareja of Peoples Production House pointed out that citizen journalists can often have access to communities that reporters don’t. Think of the kind of access a young person has in talking to their peers, versus a professional reporter talking to them. Obviously, they can get a more candid response. They also possess a deeper understanding of the communities they’re covering, and this can add a great degree of depth and background to their coverage.

All in all, I think citizen journalists are already contributing a great deal today’s “media” as it is, but in order to gain the most benefit from them (and mitigate any harms), it’s vital to provide them with the structure, know-how, and tools they need to contribute. This is a unique niche that I think many community media organizations are beginning to fill, and while there’s probably no one “correct” solution, we are already benefiting from their stories and passion.

Key Points:

  • Different levels of content contribution make it easier for users to “dip their toes in”
  • In distributing content, build different user profiles and ask with surveys, dedicate different content to each platform
  • While citizen journalism initiatives can be started by anyone, they gain access and credibility through affiliations with “mainstream” established journalistic institutions
  • The entire process should be transparent and distributive, sharing the work load with users


“Content is king but collaboration is Queen” -Susan Mernit, Oakland Local

“First ask the community what they want, and then build it,” Kwan Booth (@Boothism), Oakland Local

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Open Source as a Philosophy: #NCMR Reflections

This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on lessons I’ve learned through my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA at CAN TV and my time spent at the 2011 National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR) back in April.

I’ve been getting more and more into open source through working at CAN TV and seeing the great work that the Open Media Foundation and others are doing in the media access community using open source software. “Open source,” if you don’t know, is basically a collaborative method of development. Instead of being held as a secret, the blueprints for open source products are shared so that others can copy, mash up, and then improve them; they ultimately share them back with the community. The more people that participate the better the product becomes, and the more everyone benefits.

Open source is usually associated with software, but the same principles are applied to other products as well. As one of the panelists on the Open Sourcing Community Media panel, Craig Sinclair of Amherst media, said, “Open source is as much about philosophy as it is about technology.” This was a lesson that I thought is one that all nonprofits should take to heart. So many problems organizations face on a day-to-day basis are shared by hundreds, possibly thousands of nonprofits. And yet, their solutions to those problems are often not shared. Each organization eventually re-invents its own version of the wheel. Through a more open source-style approach, each individual action can benefit the common good.

As far as community media organizations are concerned, many are looking to open source tools as a way to engage in “broadercasting,” or using digital tools to expand the reach of public content. Fellow DASCorps VISTA Anne Jonas showcased Miro Community, a very cool tool for creating community video websites. I’ve been experimenting with it for CAN TV and I think there’s great potential. While it’s easy to find videos for any interest, it’s hard to find any that are truly local. By bringing these videos under one roof, Miro helps make the Internet local. Jen Gilomen of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) showed how they use open source tools in their access center to manage equipment, upload videos to their website, and have them backed up digitally. These tools, of course, were first developed by people other than BAVC, and after making some improvements on its own, BAVC shared them back with the community. Thus it comes full circle.

Key Points:

  • Community Media centers need to be a “hub” of media production online and offline, a key component of the “new localism”
  • Need to develop media that connects, educates, empowers, and enables people to produce content.
  • “Open Source” isn’t limited to software- increasingly, open source is for hardware too.


“Community Media Centers should be a testing ground for all these new ideas.”

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National Conference for Media Reform 2011: Here I Come

One of the best perks of being in the Digital Arts Service Corps is that you get to one national conference of your choosing. So I decided to check out this year’s National Conference for Media Reform in Boston. Like the website says, the event brings together media “movers and shakers” to “meet, share ideas with and be inspired by thousands of people who care about the future of media, technology and democracy.”

Sure, it sounds like a lot of hype, but it should probably be a lot of fun too. Stay tuned for updates on the great sessions that I check out.

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From VISTA Pulse: Calling All VISTAs

The following post is excerpted from VISTA Pulse, a blog run for- and by- AmeriCorps VISTAs

Friends, VISTAs, Americans, lend me your voices (tweets, YouTubes, blogs, etc).

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but certain recent events have called into question the future of Americorps. Now, as current federal employees we’re not allowed to formally “lobby” on either side of this issue, so I would never ask you to do that. However, speaking as a VISTA, I think one of the biggest problems of AmeriCorps as a whole is people simply do not know what it is, who we are, or what work we are doing in the community.

Even the AmeriCorps Pledge doesn’t help clarify things- “Getting things done” for Americorps doesn’t exactly spell it out.

So, here’s my simple proposal, fellow VISTAs: let’s write our own history. In the age of social media and such interconnectedness, there’s no reason for us to remain silent. At the very least we can tell OUR OWN stories, and maybe we can inspire others to take the less-trodden path and dedicate themselves to serving others. Maybe we can ensure that public service remains a priority in this country.

Read More (or watch the video below)

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