Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is it Just Me, or Is the Movement to Save Journalism Too Damned White?

Autumn is the time of year when journalists and media educators fire up their Vision Machines and apply for grants and fellowships. Since the media eco-system is in massive flux, the past few years has seen a growing number of hyper-local and citizen-journalism projects receiving funding from organizations like the Knight Foundation. Too few, however, are designed by journalists of color, and aimed at addressing the news and information needs of black and brown people in the US and around the globe.

Here's the story of one person who is seeking to change that.

I recently had a great conversation with Ron Nixon. He is a reporter at The New York Times, and a friend. Like me, Ron is concerned about the future of the news business, and more pointedly, about opportunities within the evolving media eco-system for journalists of color.

Can I tell you how refreshing it is to know someone who is not just thinking about how journalists of color are faring in this new landscape but who is actually doing something to improve conditions for journalists here and abroad?

Take a look at Ujima Project, an investigative reporting and research initiative for African journalists and others who cover the continent. It is the brainchild of Ron and colleagues at the non-profit Great Lakes Media Institute, in Kigali, Rwanda.

Based on a newly-minted principle that Ron calls "reverse transparency," Ujima is an online database of information on the spending and workings of African governments, non-governmental agencies and businesses operating on the continent.

Ron coined the phrase "reverse transparency" after he'd spent years covering development and emerging technology in Africa -- and kept running into major hurdles whenever he sought to obtain relevant data and statistics from officials in the countries where he was reporting, including Nigeria and Rwanda.

"There's no such thing as 'open records' laws, or open access to government data in many African nations, not even in Botswana, which is a darling of US development efforts," Ron told me recently. But what can be obtained is information from the US and the European Union, and many other nations that do business with African countries.

"The problem has been that the information that is available is all over the place, and takes a lot of work and time to figure out where it is and how to get it. But with this [Ujima Project] database, it will now be available in one place," Ron said. For example, there are lots of NGOs spending billions of dollars across the continent to fight HIV/AIDS, and to provide education programs designed to influence public opinion about the causes of the disease. But for journalists in Africa seeking to track the progress and efficacy of these initiatives, knowing where and how the money is spent can be hard to ascertain, Ron said.

"While these NGOs are there doing good work, you still would like to be able to see where their money goes. But there is no transparency, since many of the NGOs avoid dealing with the governments, for many reasons," Ron said.

"So, for example, when you learn that there's a company in Boston that has a contract worth eighty million dollars to do AIDS work in look at that and think,'So where is all that money going?'" Without disclosure from the Kenyan government, journalists there can't be sure if that Boston company is directing the money to appropriate efforts.

At the same time, Ron says, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US State Department, and a handful of other American agencies must approve and vet such arrangements.

These agencies have open records policies for key relevant information on international aid groups and the African nations which do business with them. Thus, by using Freedom of Information Act requests, open records rules, and available online data from American and participating EU nations, the Ujima Project is building a comprehensive, one-stop-shopping resource to help journalists on the Continent "follow the money."

You may be interested to know, for instance, which African nations are buying military weapons and "toxological agents" from U.S. companies. You can find that out at Ujima.

Funded in part with small grants from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Open Society Institute; the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Media, the project in beta was unveiled last month in South Africa.

On hand for the unveiling, along with Ron Nixon, dozens of African journalists and academics, was Adam Clayton Powell, III, of USC's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. In his role as Vice Provost of Globalization at Annenberg, Powell had attended the Highway Africa Conference, an annual development, media and democracy gathering sponsored by Rhodes University in Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Powell said he was impressed by the demo of Ujima, and told me he believes the Project can emerge as a "go-to" resource for journalists and investors working on the continent.

"Transparency is an issue everywhere, no more so than in Africa, where lack of transparency is a barrier to development," Powell said in an email interview over the weekend. "Assistance and investment just won't take place unless grantmakers and investors can follow management and administration -- and see where their money is really going."

The database's main target group of users, though, is journalists, in which case Powell added, " with everything online, the [information at Ujima] is the start not the ending of reporting on a subject. Given the leads in the Ujima database, reporting can become that much more efficient and effective."

The project went up in beta form early in September, and was developed by Ron and by programmers and designers at AppFrica, Appfrica Labs, a softwear and development firm in Kampala, Uganda. Ron built most of the programming himself, and entered the information in portions of the site's databases painstakingly, line by line.

"There were a few times when I felt the RSI happening, but it had to be done," Ron said, laughing.

Going forward, though, as the estimated ninety-plus investigative journalists currently working for news organizations on the African continent begin to use the site, Ron estimates that Ujima's collections of data-sets will broaden, following an increase in demand.

The "reverse transparency" operating principle of the the site can be replicated, too, in the Middle East and in Asia, with journalists taking advantage of the open-records laws of Western nations that fund projects in those parts of the world, Ron said.

He and his colleagues have applied for a grant from the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge contest.

The members of the Selection Committee for that august organization may be interested to know that "Ujima" is the Swahili word for "collective work and responsibility."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Up From Slavery, Indeed

POTUS' and FLOTUS' Most Excellent Week Ever

I set out early this morning to post the top three reasons why the Oct. 8 front-page New York Times story on Michelle Obama's slave ancestors is a signal achievement in American journalism.

I get to it, below. First, a word about President Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:

Don't waste your brain power on the Inside-the-Beltway chatter that will ensue.

Here in Washington, D.C., the President's receiving a Nobel will be cast in the usual horse-race framework, i.e., the Peace Prize represents a redeeming "win" for the President, after his "humiliating loss" of the Chicago 2016 Olympics bid. The Republicans and their increasingly-unhinged constituents will ignore it, or attempt to use this honor in some twisted way to de-legitimize the President, and their enablers in cable talk-land will give them oxygen to feed that incendiary narrative.

But that story-line is not merely false, lazy, and destructive, it is also petty and mean-spirited.

President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize, according to the release from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, for his extraordinary efforts to make the world a safer, more equitable place for all.

As the Committee put it:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

To which we all should say, Amen. Don't give the anti-Obama lunatics any light. Don't fall into the game of "win" or "lose." Don't sleep on the historic significance of the President's Nobel Peace Prize: It means, among other important things, that the American Renaissance is nigh.


Speaking of historic significance, here are the top three reasons why yesterday's front page New York Times story on First Lady Michelle Obama's family history is a watershed in American journalism:

1) It demonstrates in clear, unadorned language and images how present the “peculiar institution”—slavery – remains within our body politic.

2) It belies the widespread if unspoken belief among top news editors and publishers (and the awards and fellowship committees that laud them) that white journalists are better equipped than black journos to deliver “serious” reports about race, and the history of racism in America. No, I am not hating on the authors of "The Race Beat," which received a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, or on Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, who recently received a MacArthur "genius" grant for his reporting on Civil Rights era racial crimes. I simply point out that black journalists at legacy media organizations rarely enjoy the same latitude -- and frankly the trust -- of white editors and publishers that would allow them to focus on such coverage.

3) It throws a big bucket of water over the prevailing, shockingly dumb idea that inexperienced, under-paid bloggers and “citizen journalists” can match well-paid, experienced, ethical journalists at producing accurate, well- written, exquisitely contextualized work that resonates beyond the 24 hour news cycle.

In my next post, I will unpack each of these. For now, big, big props to the Washington, D.C. Bureau of the Times: Yesterday's edition featured a trio of high-performing (if little known) Times reporters who happen to be African-American -- Rachel L.Swarns, co-author of the FLOTUS's slave ancestors story, and Ron Nixon and Ginger Thompson, who teamed up on a stunning (if somewhat less sexy) Page One story about the influence of lobbyists in the unfolding drama of the ousted Honduran president.

If you haven't heard of these three Timespeople before now, it may be because they tend to avoid the crap-tastic circus of political talk shows that insanely has come to define the worth of journalists in Washington, D.C. Yes, in the past 24 hours, Swarns has made select television appearances to talk about the First Lady's Roots story, including a hilarious turn on MSNBC's "Hardball, with Chris Matthews" last night. (I don't recall ever seeing Matthews so well-behaved: it was as if Swarns' understated, dignified style had miraculously dampened his mania for the duration of their talk.)

Still, habits die hard in these parts. And I suspect that bookers at these cable programs will get a rude awakening if they now think they can count on Swarns to be the go-to "black NYTimes DC Reporter Who Will Talk About Race." Ladies and gentlemen of the Inside-the-Beltway glitz-media classes, it is time to re-think more than just your Rolodexes.