The Structure of Social Journalism

Shortest way I can describe how I think journalism must change: the internet is not just for distribution, but production too. I’m not saying that “citizen journalists” will be making all the news. I suspect a complex collaboration between many people, including something like a newsroom full of pro journalists. In this article I’m going to explore what that might look like, by asking what the component tasks are that make up “journalism”, and thinking about who can do those most efficiently. And I’m going to sketch out the design for a piece of social software to support this.

Here’s a list of things that professional journalists do:

  • decide what should be more broadly known
  • decide what should be more deeply investigated
  • collect information from sources both public and private
  • check that information for factual accuracy
  • construct narratives to make sense of that information
  • produce content to convey those narratives
  • publish and market that content

This list is by no means definitive or exhaustive. It’s just illustrative, a starting point for a thought experiment. Who could do each of these things best? And what tools to do they need to do it?

Having a network of people producing journalism around a newsroom is not a new idea. Jeff Jarvis has been discussing networked journalism since at least 2006, and naturally I think he’s on to something. In this essay I want concentrate on process and roles. If cheap networks make new types of collaboration possible, they also set the stage for new types of specialization. I think one of the problems of the traditional, mainstream media newsroom is that it it tries to handle the entire journalistic process internally, even the parts that it’s not actually very good at.

An example

On November 25, a video appeared on YouTube which appears to be the testimonial of a young woman recently fired from the credit card collections division of Bank of America. She had been allowing the bank’s most desperate customers to enroll in fixed-payment debt recovery schemes. Many of these customers are currently paying 30% interest as a result of recent rate hikes, so this was a great kindness. It was also against company policy.

The video is powerful. It’s an amazing first-person testimonial of the greed and heartlessness of large corporations.

So is this journalism?

Continue reading The Structure of Social Journalism

“Low-Profit” Corporations Enable Social Venture Capital

A “low-profit limited liability corporation” is allowed to make money, but can also accept tax-deductible loans. Michigan,Vermont, Wyoming, Utah and Illinois passed laws this year defining a new type of corporation called an L3C, creating interesting new investment incentives and legal protections for socially-conscious market entities.

Chicago tax attorney Mark Lane, who helped get low-profit legislation passed in Illinois, suggests that we think of the L3C as a structure for socially-conscious venture capital.

In this video, Lane painstakingly presents the details of this new type of corporation. On first reading, it does seem like a plan that only a tax attorney could love. The L3C is, in some sense, little more than a carefully designed IRS category — but it could channel a lot of new money to social entrepreneurs. The trick is that private foundations would be allowed to deduct certain kinds of loans to L3Cs just like donations to non-profits, but the L3C would hope to make a profit and eventually return the money with interest. Given that foundations have to give 5% of their net worth to charity every year anyway, it’s a huge win for them to give it as a speculative loan rather than a grant.

The “low-profit” structure could also ease a classic dilemma between public and private operations. Public entities and non-profit corporations are legally obligated to operate in the public interest, but can be horribly inefficient due to the lack of competitive pressures and, often, shielding from financial accountability. Meanwhile, private corporations live or die on their efficiency but can be sued by investors if they fail to maximize raw profit. The L3C is something in between: a business that is required to operate in the public interest and can accept of tax-deductible investments, but can also pay a profit to partners and investors.

This hybrid funding model may prove especially useful in the production of public goods, the things that benefit everyone but are difficult to get anyone to pay for. The L3C has been proposed for groups working in education, small industry, biotech, arts, and journalism.

For more, see overviews from Social Earth and the Non Profit Law Blog.