No news is bad news

I just read James Warren’s article in The Atlantic, “When No News is Bad News,” and I’m a little inspired and depressed at the same time. Why should that be? Warren’s article hasn’t presented me with any information I didn’t know already. Newspapers are in trouble and can’t find a business model to save themselves, yet the work journalists do is vital to public safety and key to keeping our governments honest.

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Michael Skoler and the evolving newsroom

A video link is making its way around the blogs bookmarked in my RSS reader. Generally, when you see the same video linked on different journalism/new media blogs, you know it’s time to start paying attention. And pay I did.

The video is a 12-minute speech by Michael Skoler, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Journalism. He was speaking at a recent Neiman Foundation panel on the future of journalism. (Link) In the talk, Skoler describes three factors that newsrooms will have to content with in order to adapt to the “change.”

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ALA pushes privacy awareness

Ars Technica reports today that the American Library Association has begun a new push to teach people about personal privacy in libraries — making sure patrons know that what they do in a library could raise red flags with law enforcement and, then, making those patrons into advocates for privacy policy reform. The ALA’s beef:

“Law enforcement agencies at every level are exploiting fears about terrorism and child safety to encourage lawmakers to strip away statutory privacy protections for library records,” says the ALA. “This eliminates anonymity in the library, and encourages the mind set that ‘good’ people should have nothing to hide.”

That notion is ridiculous. There’s a sharp difference between “hiding” something and just wanting to keep it private, and a desire for privacy should never be taken as collusion with some mythical terrorist enemy. Go ALA!

Gas Problems

Gas prices have hit $4.006 per gallon in Alaska, AAA reported Wednesday. It’s the first state in the nation where the price of gas has crossed the $4 barrier. The average price of a gallon of gas in the country on May 12 was $3.722, according to the Department of Energy or $3.758 according to AAA.

Okay, these numbers get a lot of attention, but the number that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the price of diesel, the fuel that America’s shipping industry relies on. Six months ago, USA Today reported that the cost of shipping had gone up about 20 percent; at the time the article was written, the cost of diesel was $3.30 per gallon. This week, AAA says the average price of a gallon of diesel is $4.419.

In March, the owner of a nine-truck freight company in Ohio told the New York Times , “It’s killing us. Every day, I come in here and wonder if I have enough money to buy fuel.” Another trucker in Ohio, Ricardo Caraballo, told Times that the same $505 that once kept his truck on the road for two weeks now only fills half his tank.

The Times explains that the rising cost of diesel may have something to do with its increasing popularity around the world and points out that there are some money-saving solutions available to U.S. truckers (solutions that cost a lot of money, mind you). However, none of these explanations overwrites the fact that the very people who keep our country’s goods moving — often small, private companies and independent operators — cannot afford some of those expensive upgrades.

And we wonder why the price of everything is going up.

Mainstream Green

Susan and I were talking the other night about the number of “green living” commercials that have flooded the channels we watch regularly — HGTV, Discovery, and Food Network.

In one hour of viewing, we may see ads for one network’s Green Home Giveaway, Wal-Mart ads for CFL bulbs, GMC hawking hybrid Yukons, and Brita asking the world to get more responsible (by using their filters and not plastic bottles). This doesn’t count the commercials for the various green-themed shows that are popping up all over the TV dial.

Susan said that the green movement has hit its tipping point, and that from here on out, it will be inevitably and unavoidably mainstream. I think we’ll have to wait for the energy-production methods to hit the mainstream (as opposed to the energy-saving methods presently on the mass market) before we see a big change in society. But any way you look at it, “green” is here to stay.

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones making such observations. Arizona State University’s business journalism center released a report last fall about the surge in “green” business journalism. The study shows that of the 154 “green” stories published between 2000 and 2007, more than half were published in 2007 and three-quarters since 2006.

Slate Magazine noticed the green swell last July. Columnist Jack Shafer compared green journalism to its more nefarious cousin.

Often as sensationalistic as its yellow predecessor, green journalism tends to appeal to our emotions, exploit our fears, and pander to our vanity. It places a political agenda in front of the quest for journalistic truth and in its most demagogic forms tolerates no criticism, branding all who question it as enemies of the people.

Shafer’s point is that, often, we fail to question the facts behind green, believing instead that anything labeled “green” is inherently good. This is called “greenwashing” (another definition here, from Greenpeace, ca. 1992). The Wall Street Journal points out that watchdog groups around the world are starting to take note but says few of those groups have the authority to punish the greenwashers.

So I guess the lesson here is that while there is a strong push to take green into the mainstream, we have to remember that some marketers out there know how to misuse it. And while criticizing any effort to “save the planet” may seem like heresy, we have to remember to keep our bullshit detectors turned on, even when everybody else turns them off to save energy.

Lawmaker moves against the anonymous Internet

According to CNET, a lawmaker in Kentucky is pushing a bill that would require people to post only their real names to Web sites, lest the owners of the sites face legal repercussions.

Of course, this has a lot of people up in arms. The Internet has always been a haven for anonymous writing. Why would anyone want to limit that? Legal accountability, most likely, and a generation that dislikes the easy libel that the Internet often allows.

Why would we not want this kind of accountability? First of all, because the legislation would be worthless and impossible to enforce on locally, let alone a worldwide. Secondly, to maintain the discourse of a democratic society, there must exist an outlet for anonymous bitching. If all words can be traced to their source, and that source held accountable for all those words, the freedom of speech goes out the window.

Bank drops lawsuit against Wikileaks

The bank Julius Bear moved to withdraw its lawsuit against the whistle-blower Web site Wikileaks.

The bank said Wikileaks had displayed stolen, confidential bank documents on its site. A judge in California ordered the site taken off the Internet — meaning, as I understand it, that its name was removed from DNS registrars.

The New York Times reported that the same judge withdrew his order, “saying that he was worried about its First Amendment implications and that he thought it might not be possible to prevent viewing of the documents once they had been posted on the web anyway.”

Experts interviewed by the Times believe that this marks the end of the bank’s legal actions against Wikileaks, at least in the United States.

Now, this is a good thing. I understand that the bank was eager to protect its documents, but they went about it in the wrong way, ensuring that more attention would be drawn to the documents.

Also, another random comment: It’s pretty naive for a judge to think he can order a Web site removed from the Internet. Is such a thing even possible without physically deleting the files from the server where they are stored?