Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Open Media Boston offers social media as alternative to 'corporate media model'
Open Media Boston (OMB) is an online media outlet that launched last March to cover local "news, views, arts and entertainment" from a progressive political perspective, according to its mission statement. The "social media" publication showed up last spring and has since grown to an audience of about 10,000 viewers a month -- with some participants often opting to submit their own stories, which are posted on the website after being filtered through OMB's small editorial staff.
Open Media Boston is based out of Encuentro 5, a hub for progressive movement building in Chinatown. There, the publication's founder and editor, Jason Pramas, has held free classes in the locale's computer lab instructing newcomers how to use the OMB website.
So far, Pramas said, there are around 150 users who submit content for publication and a total of 250 users are registered. The website offers those who submit content the choice of several rights licenses to their work.
At the weekly OMB editorial meeting, held at the Holyoke Center Arcade in Harvard Square, Pramas could be found eating a big, floppy piece of pizza while bouncing ideas between his two editors -- David Goodman and Jesse Kirdahy-Scalia -- about how to improve their news service. Pramas is 42 years old, with shaggy dark brown locks and long eyes. He, like his two compatriots, have to work in non-journalism jobs to get by. They all say they make sacrifices but believe that publishing intellectual property should produce capital.
"Creators should expect to be paid," Pramas said. "And so you’ll notice a very important part of our site is all the different rights licenses we make available for people to choose. We do not take people’s rights to their work at all. We only take their rights to display it on our site and to store it on our servers. That’s it. So people can choose copyright, people can choose various Creative Commons licenses, the Free Art License, the GNU FDL license and others. That’s very important to us. We want to train people to expect to keep their rights in an age where media conglomerates make creators sign galactic rights contracts.
"That’s what they're actually called," he emphasized, with a chuckle.
OMB, however, is taking in less than $200 in ad revenue a month and is not able to provide income to any staffers at this point. But, Pramas said, "We want to pay people for participating in our media outlet as soon as we can."
Now, the fledgling OMB staff members believe they need to garner support and earn trust in the community. To improve upon its news cred, OMB joined the New England Press Association in August.
“We are building a news publication," Pramas said. "Whatever our editorial policies and our politics, which are to the left, we’re trying to get back to the old school world of news publications where, yes, publications, at least ostensibly, believe in fairness and accuracy. But the conceit of objectivity where papers are supposed to be somehow entirely neutral -- even papers that push this the most have an editorial policy. The New York Times comes down on the side of Democrats and enlightened capitalism -- and what we call a neoliberal editorial line. We come down left of that; but the broad left. We aren’t saying we’re the Greens, or Socialists, or Communists, we are anarchists, or whatever. What does that even mean in this day and age?
"We have a left editorial policy but at the same time we have a news section that’s a news section," Pramas said. "I mean it’s doing AP-style, just-the-facts-man journalism. But, our editorial policy steers us to cover particular stories that we don’t feel are getting covered by anybody else."
In practice, Pramas said, that means OMB reports strongly on the the nonprofit and labor sectors. Carving out a niche, Pramas and his compatriots said they believe the mainstream media does not understand how to cover protests.
"Every year there's this truck that leaves Fenway Park to deliver equipment down to the players in Florida during spring training," said Goodman, news editor for OMB, who also produces "Radio With a View," broadcast from MIT. "Every year [Boston Globe Sports Columnist] Dan Shaughnessy writes a story about it. It’s the same story every f’ing year. But they won’t cover a protest every year. They say if it happened once already that's pretty much the story. Well, what about First Night? It's the same thing every year and you cover that the same."
Now, the progressive, antiwar, poor people-loving realm of leftist online independent journalism in Boston has had some presence way before OMB ever came on the scene. For years, there was Boston Indymedia, the local bureau for the pioneering national collective of grassroots journalists who publish under a unifying domain on the Internet.
But Pramas came at odds with what he thought was Boston Indymedia's unsustainable infrastructure and undisciplined, or misguided, coverage of social movements, in which grassroots reporters participated in the events they were writing about. Pramas said he had been involved in Indymedia a bit but the first thing he disagreed with was how they handled a presidential debate.
"Nine out of 10 Indymedia journalists [outside the a presidential debate in 2000 held at UMass Boston] were not only covering it, but many were with the protesters and inciting the police," Pramas said. "I had a fight with them about that. Over time you won’t just have people of good will participating in a project like Indymedia. You have people of not good will."
(A representative from Boston Indymedia was not able to respond to Pramas's critique through email; the boston.indymedia.org website had been down throughout the reporting for this post; and the number listed at Indymedia.org for the Boston bureau has been disconnected when a reporter called it during two weeks of reporting. The Boston Indymedia website rebooted, with a message noting "serious problems" with the website that are being fixed, and that they thank users who continue "making the media." A second email address listed on the Boston bureau's website was contacted with no response as of Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. If any members of the Boston Indymedia staff read this post, please, contact me at email@example.com and I'll gladly insert your response.)
It was with this in mind -- and then seeing a gap in overall news coverage -- that Pramas decided to take it upon himself to enrich independent online journalism from a leftist stance by introducing OMB. He remembers in July, 2007, believing there was a "media vacuum" in regards to local news and felt that Boston Indymedia was not filling it.
"Coverage of Boston itself is really getting worse," Pramas said. "Newspapers and news channels -- all the local TV channels -- are less and less able to cover their beats, the city, what’s going on. A lot communities, too, disenfranchised communities we call them, poor communities, often communities of color, or immigrant communities -- like Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester -- although they do have some local media in them, they don’t get covered very well. The community papers do their best. They do a good job but they don’t get much play outside of their neighborhoods. Which is kind of too bad."
Pramas said that some of the strength of OMB comes from its editorial strictures. One substantial way OMB has moved from the Boston Indymedia model, so as "not to reinvent the wheel," Pramas noted, is through its efforts to rein in profligate user comments and through its policy to restrict submitted content with no perceived news value.
"Anonymous people can’t submit to our site," Pramas said. "You have to come on a site and get an account, which is free. Anyone can do it as long as they put their real name down and a little bit about themselves. [Boston Indymedia's] thing is that, first of all, anybody can publish, no matter what, right to the front page of their website. We have an editorial board that vets content, that filters submissions."
Pramas points to VoiceOfSanDiego.org and the New Haven Independent as examples of successful independent news services that have burgeoned in recent years.
"Voice of San Diego, which started in 2005, by some younger mainstream journalists, they, and the New Haven Independent, started over the last few years saying, 'Well, we don’t really see our communities getting covered and are not able to have staff employment at newspapers consistently," Pramas said. "We now have the technology for people like me to go out and get a content management system."
Pramas noted that, there is now a demand for progressive literature and that it can be satisfied on a professional level with the "content management systems," software to organize a website, instead of the elaborate HTML coding required in yesteryear.
"In a day and age," he said, "when a majority of the population is certainly against the War in Iraq, wants to be able to have a national health care system, a majority of people want peace and prosperity and don’t want corporations to run amok and destroy our prosperity, by shooting small we don’t gain anything. If there’s going to be a challenge to the corporate media models out there they cannot be small challenges. We cannot just sit there and criticize them if we are not willing to do what their doing and to do it better."
Pramas recruited a team of volunteer website developers in August 2007, and the developers took until March 2008, to launch the beta version of OMB. Within two months it was full launch.
For funding, OMB turned to the Media Working Group (MWG), a nonprofit based in Kentucky that offers funds along with other services to nurture nascent media and arts projects.
"Jason is a veteran journalist," said Jean Donahue, president of MWG. "He is pretty brilliant politically so we wanted to see him get his journalistic vision out there because Boston doesn't have one like that. It's a very important niche for information."
Pramas came to OMB after years of involvement in anti-war and anti-apartheid activism alongside studying journalism. He was editor at his high school newspaper in Peabody. He worked at the Boston University Daily Free Press (before being thrown out of school for erecting faux shanty towns on campus in a demonstration calling on the school to divest in apartheid South Africa). He floated around through a few alternative college newspapers, like the Gadfly at the University of Vermont. Then he founded New Liberation News Service, a revival of a college-based wire service supplying alternative news bulletins on social movements. He even created a national magazine, As We Are, aimed at working young people -- not the privileged elite -- with a circulation maxing at 10,000.
Dan Gillmor, director of the the Center for Citizen Media, though offering caution to activists involved in journalism, had only words of encouragement for social media outlets like OMB.
"The issue about activists is a really important one," Gillmor said. "It's not one that tends to get described in the best ways. What I mean by that is it's perfectly cool with me that activists do their own media. A lot of the best journalism has fallen under the category of advocacy journalism and I have no problem with that. The key thing that that with advocates that do journalism need to think about is to apply all of the principles of journalism including fairness and transparency to the work they do. Advocates are generally transparent about their world views; their not always entirely fair to those that disagree with them. They can be more effective if they do that. There's lots of market place for all kinds of people to participate in all kinds of ways. People are going to have to decide for themselves on what they can trust and rely. Each site needs it's own rules of the or road."
OMB has a clear policy when it comes to its editing and institutional will. When it comes to "unitary decisions," Pramas said, he is "where the buck stops."
"With the Indymedia type of organization," he said, "with a collective editorial board that doesn't even vote on decisions -- it makes them by consensus -- they are going to take a really long time to respond to crises."
Asked if he had faced any crisis thus far, Pramas said no. But there have been portents of potential problems, he said. Pramas points to a recent encounter with Red Mass Group, a conservative blog based in Massachusetts.
A user of Red Mass Group had called -- at least jocularly -- for an investigation into Pramas's financial connections with controversy-embroiled City Councilor Chuck Turner. Pramas quickly responded on the OMB blog, brushing off the writer as a member of the "junior division of the Republican attack machine," and the encounter as a "sort of a benchmark" for the developing publication.
Kirdahy-Scalia, tech editor for OMB, joined the crew in June as an intern and was promoted to his current position in August.
"I’m actively pursuing articles, trying to get friend and colleagues to write on tech issue, to scare up some video game reviews," Kirdahy-Scalia said. "It has been fulfilling. It’s different from academic writing. The only writing I had been doing before was academic. A lot of the academic writing I did was on social media. I think it’s tremendously important and really has the potential to shift how we name things and understand things in our society. And so I was excited to have a platform to write and to have someone [Jason Pramas] who would be on my ass weekly for something."
"I’ve really liked it," Kirdahy-Scalia continued. "The coolest thing is to see the tracking to see who is referring the page and to see that I’m the top result on Google News. I wrote a vegetarian alternative article for the holidays. To see that my article was translated into German and is being linked to comment on some German blogs was great."
In the ambitious plan for world domination, Pramas said, "Open Media" groups would sprout in small cities across the country before building a State House, City Hall and Washington bureau. But first things first: He wants to work up to 10,000 website visitors per day within a couple of years.
At the end of a recent editorial board meeting, Pramas said it this way: "You start with a very stripped down, streamline concept. You putter along as best you can with the resources you have. But you always try to be as professional as you possible can with the product. Over time you turn it into a Cadillac, a Lexus. You make the little go-kart into a nice, sleek, ultimately, electric kind of solar-powered hover craft, you know, with the jacuzzi and everything else. That’s where we’re at. We’re building a community."
In the spring, Pramas said OMB is collaborating with teenagers in Roxbury at Mandela Homes to train them on how to create content for the website.
"You can train people with some basic literacy who can talk to people without getting too shy about it," Pramas said. "You can do that. As we do it we bring new communities online and if we continue this to it’s logical conclusion, we will end up with a news publication that can really cover the city broadly, maybe even to the point that the mainstream media may not have been able to do it. And this is not a political statement. A right wing publication can do this. A centrist publication can do this. The technology does allow this.
"When we’re talking about building a modern news publication, you're talking about building a community. It’s a long curve to ascendancy. We’re achieving take off velocity. And to do that we have to prove our concept. We have to show that this is going to work. Now we’re getting pretty sure it’s working. Now we have to monetize it. Now we have to take it to the next level."
Update: This is version 2.0 of this blog post. There were corrections for style and spelling. The post presented at the original time stamp changed slightly into this report filed at 6 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2008.
Go beyond the blog text and get into the Open Media Boston editorial process through this photo slide show.