A Home in the Digital World
December 12, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.
Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.
In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.
For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”
Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.
Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low. Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.
Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.
Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.
Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.
Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.
Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.
On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”
If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.
Gaithersburg, Maryland Mayor Jud Ashman gets to the crux of the problem with the possible FCC action in his recent testimony against it:
As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in:
• Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by
• Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way.
• Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.
In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.
But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.” If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.
Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.
In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.
Readers can find a letter template and simple instructions for how to file your “reply comments” with the FCC on the Somerville Media Center website: somervillemedia.org/federaassaultonlocalmedia/.
It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
October 17, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”
Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.
Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.
Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.
Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.
Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.
The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.
Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.
For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.
Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.
We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.
It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
September 26, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Many people have taken to loudly bemoaning the supposedly sudden arrival of “fake news” since the 2016 presidential election… while becoming belatedly aware of the accompanying slow decline of print newspapers that are—whatever else one might say about them—the beating heart of American journalism.
Every other kind of news media owes its existence to these “dead tree” publications. Traditional radio and TV news outlets, and every form of digital news operation on the internet, are all possible because print newspapers—most commercial, some nonprofit—have been fielding thousands of reporters in hundreds of cities for decades. Doing the kind of deep ground-level reporting that makes all the hot (and more often shallow) takes on other media possible.
Advertising has been the main source of income for commercial print newspapers since the mid-19th century, and the advent of web-based online advertising blew a vast hole in that revenue stream. Precipitating, in no small part, the downward spiral in their fortunes over the last quarter century.
One result of newspapers shrinking and all too often ceasing to exist has been what one might call the rise of the marketers. With fewer and fewer full-time reporters doing their jobs, marketing firms have leapt to the fore. Offering a flood of “free” content to every conceivable type of news operation. Ceaselessly expanding the empire of the original fake news in the process. A fake news that, make no mistake, has existed for as long as there has been news.
Because rich and powerful institutions have always hired marketers or their equivalents. And marketers—in thrall to whichever institution hires them—are paid to lie to the public. And are therefore the polar opposites of (most) journalists. Especially journalists at an independent metro newsweekly like DigBoston.
As a journalist-owned, journalist-run newspaper, we send reporters out into the communities we cover every week in search of information that’s as close to whatever truth may be happening as it can be. We then do our damnedest to faithfully report what we observe to our audience.
So, we can say with certainty that no human organization is good all of the time. Least of all the big corporations that run our society. But big corporations are the very institutions that spend the most money on paying marketers to spew propaganda at every level of news media.
And increasingly, understaffed and underfunded news outlets take even this worst of free marketing copy—this disinformation, this fake news—and run it. Day in and day out. The public, for their part, can be forgiven for having trouble discerning reasonably honest reporting from unreasonably dishonest marketing copy. There’s nothing new about that either. Some people are critical about any news they encounter. Some are not. But marketing has gotten so sophisticated and so pernicious that even the wary have trouble telling the difference between journalism and propaganda.
At DigBoston, our audience doesn’t have to worry about that quandary. We exist to report the news in the public interest. In our own way, and with our own unique broadly left-leaning voice, to be sure. But we take our job very seriously, and we work very hard week in and week out to do it to the best of our collective ability. For 20 years and counting.
Given that, if you know nothing else about us, know this: We do not run the propaganda that paid marketers fill our email inboxes with 24/7. Like this morning’s stupid, stupid example entitled “Wondering about a sponsored post.” That is, “wondering if you all are brainless enough to run this marketing copy for free and pretend it’s a real article by an independent journalist.” To which my colleague Chris Faraone gave our standard mocking reply, “$2,000 a post”—a price we know no marketer will ever pay.
However, we’re a free newspaper. As such, even more than those bigs that have a number of different ways to make money, we rely almost completely on advertising to keep publishing.
We offer advertisers a lot for their money, even in today’s viciously competitive media market. Our ads are obviously cheaper than larger publications. More importantly, though, they reach people who read, who support music and the arts, who are tastemakers, and who… patronize our advertisers.
Because of that fact, our existing advertisers love us. And we love them back.
But we need more of them. We need to grow our news operation if we’re going to give the many communities in Boston and environs that we cover the constant attention they deserve. To do that we need to be able to pay more full-time reporters, and part-time ones, too. To do that, we need a bigger business staff and more salespeople.
All of which is only possible if more institutions that could advertise with us—all the local businesses and charities who serve the communities we cover—step up and do so.
Rather than spend advertising dollars on marketers who straight-out lie to people and harm our struggling democracy rather than help it.
Folks interested in advertising with DigBoston can email our sales staff at email@example.com.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
August 21, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
On Saturday, a few hundred left-wing activists showed up to protest a tiny ultra-right wing protest held on City Hall Plaza around the anniversary of last year’s tiny ultra-right wing protest on Boston Common. That earlier action being completely dwarfed by the tens of thousands of people that turned out in opposition to the racist and fascist views of its organizers. This year, many counterprotestors hailed from Black Lives Matter, Stand Against Hate-Boston, and the Boston Democratic Socialists of America. And their mobilization was just as successful as the previous one in putting the wannabe master race to flight (to the suitably distant summit of Breed’s Hill where they briefly screamed at the stone monument patriotically named for an adjacent hill… dogged by some of their antagonists).
There are certainly times when people need to stand up against the ultra right. This demo was one of them. So the counterprotestors are to be commended. Although I still stand by my column of last year in which I explained why I’d like to see left activists focus more on positive political organizing than reactive street actions.
To my point, however, I have long made a habit of reading comments on online articles. From which I often glean a good deal of useful information. And I naturally expect a certain amount of gonzo earthiness from the often anonymous wags who weigh in on issues of the day. But whenever anti-fascist activists are in the news, I note that the insanity ratchets up by an order of magnitude. And responses to such coverage contain more than the usual share of genuinely disturbing views. Nowhere is this more true in the local press than in the comment sections of Boston Herald articles.
So I thought it would be… um… let’s call it educational to choose the best of the worst online comments made on the Herald’s quite reasonable piece on the weekend’s protest and counterprotest, and dissect them in the public interest. The authors’ names—real or otherwise—have been changed to initials so as not to further embarrass the clueless.
Clowns? No..Patriots standing against Leftist Anti-Free Speech… Anti-Constitution… Anti-Life… Anti-Freedom… Anti-Constitutional Republic Useful Idiot Communists.. look at the Soviet Flags in the Photos…..who act like Racist Brown Shirt Nazis crushing free speech… attacking those who disagree with them violently… That is what the Nazi SA (Brown Shirts) did in the 1930s Germany…as they call the oposition Nazis…
So, the ultra-right wingers who are happy to exercise their free speech rights against freedom are for freedom? And the left-wingers who exercise their free speech rights to protest people against freedom are anti-freedom? And left-wingers’ willingness to physically defend communities under threat from the ultra-right makes them the violent ones? As opposed to the ultra-right networks that are the only one of the two sides racking up death counts in the US in recent memory? And the left-wingers are the nazis?! Okely dokely…
Boston: once young Patriots met under a huge pine tree – to plot a course of Freedom from the tyranny of an English King – and his Parliament,…Saturday young fools with no concept of God, History, or world events think they marched to squash and shut down “Hate Speech”… They are Soros’s expendable cannon fodder, acting EXACTLY like Hitler’s Sturmabteilung!
First, the Liberty Tree that this post is definitely referencing was an elm. Second… what?!
Until we redefine the terms ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, white people will not have free speech in this country. This is obvious from multiple news articles.
Well, it’s obvious from multiple online ravings anyway.
Awful reporting. Conveniently left out the part where free speech activists averted violence by marching to Bunker Hill Monument where we held a very successsful rally, opposed only by a tiny handful of screechy Black Lives Matter activists.
This is apparently a post from one of the ultra-right protest organizers referencing the out-of-the-way location that said protestors scurried off to after being heavily outnumbered by counterprotestors at their original rally site. And trying to make lemonade out of the lemons of abject failure. Pobrecito…
Haha so CLEVER Alexi! Poor thing, you’re one of those that paid to be brainwashed by a “professor-former screw the man 60’s hippie” weren’t you? Trumps free speech group. Haha.
That’s liberalism/socialism today. Just like Kristallnacht In Germany circa the1930’s , scream and yell and intimidate those who don’t agree with you. Same as the Nazis, like I said. Look at that red headed idiot all worked up in the photo. Here’s what the hippy professors and mommy never told you; you CAN lose in life. You did in 2016, will this year and so will the former Boston Herald, which is now a pop up ad space barely readable online and the Globe’s “Fredo Corleone”
An attack on the Herald reporter. And on college education in general. Conflates liberalism (which in both its original meaning, and in today’s parlance, generally indicates support for capitalism) with socialism (which indicates support for workers owning the means of production). Compares counterprotestors to nazis (sense a theme?). Concludes with amusing shot at the Herald. C+ for effort.
The antifa aholes use the same tactics as the pre-war German socialists did. Their brilliant propaganda minister felt they had to “control the streets”. This kind of violence was new then, and effective. Devious manipulation got a certain demented leader in power, but it’s not going to work now. We’ve seen this crappy movie before. Also, next Free Speech Rally, I’m gonna be there.
Assuming this poster means pre-WWII here. He seems to think that the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had a propaganda minister who wanted to control the streets during the two brief periods when it led the Weimar Republic. Sounds a lot more like a certain nazi propaganda chief of the same period—who only became Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1933. Which might explain why he’s blaming “socialists” for the rise of the nazis. Perhaps he means “national socialists.” Whatever. Anyhow, while it is true that SPD members controlled a fighting group catchily dubbed the Black, Red, Gold Banner of the Reich with as many as three million members by the 1930s to combat the Nazi Party’s SA on their right (with two million members by 1933) and the Communist Party’s Red Front Fighters’ League on their left (with 130,000 members at the time of their banning in 1929), neither they nor the communists actually mobilized their troops against the ascension of the nazis to power. Therefore, don’t think we’re watching the same “crappy movie” at all. Also doubt the poster will be at the next sad little “rally” for herp and also derp.
Wonder how much money Soros spent funding these miscreants
None. Arch-capitalist George Soros doesn’t typically give money to anti-capitalists, and doesn’t fund every smallish American rally to the left of Trump in either this or alternate dimensions.
You forgot “Pravda”, the fake news in this country engages in this Nazi style “reporting” daily.
And they are proud of it. Both sides are allowed by our Constitution to have their say in the public square, one side does so peacefully, the other side wearing masks and weiding weapons taunts them and attacks them. All the violence at these rallies is innitiated by one side and the fake media villifies the peaceful protestors. It’s all “Alice in Wonderland” stuff. Engals would be so proud of them.
This poster starts by comparing the American press of today with the Soviet Union’s main state propaganda organ. Not entirely false equivalence considering the frequently submissive behavior of the top echelons of that press—especially the New York Times and the Washington Post—in the service of the billionaires that effectively control the US government. But not true of all journalists or of independent news outlets like this one. The rest of the post infers that the left-wing counterprotestors are the violent side and that local news media is being unfair to the ultra-right wing protestors in not reporting that imaginary. We’re certainly through the looking glass with this one; so the Alice in Wonderland reference is unintentionally apt. Not sure who this “Engals” person is, though. But I’d like to buy them a vowel.
The lack of press coverage of the Communists is really horrifying. That a regime that murdered many more people in support of an evil ideology than the Nazis did is openly supported on the streets of Boston, and is treated by the press and the left as the good guys, is outrageous & scary.
This poster is rehashing the roundly refuted figures promulgated by the anti-communist lead author of The Black Book of Communism a couple decades back. A person so desperate to make the total number of deaths supposedly caused by communism between 1917 and the book’s publication in 1997 reach 100 million people—and outnumber the death toll from capitalism (and, not coincidentally, nazism) in the same period—that he made a bunch of highly questionable editorial decisions. Like including the estimated death tolls of famines in communist nations in his total, but ignoring the much larger estimated death tolls of famines in capitalist nations—notably India, as famed left scholar Noam Chomsky subsequently pointed out using economist Amartya Sen’s numbers as that nation dropped its socialist pretensions. Communist governments certainly killed many innocent people during the period in question, but the thrust of this comment seems to be that nazism isn’t so bad after all. Right? Yikes.
May 16, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
In this edition of DigBoston, our Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone has already written at some length about how Medium—which is essentially a glorified blog farm with a puzzlingly opaque social media component—screwed our nonprofit, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), a few days back by precipitously terminating the paid subscriptions of dozens of our monthly supporters on the platform.
After we questioned the company’s action, a low-level flunky claimed we had been given a whole entire week’s advance notice in an email that we subsequently explained we never received. After we very publicly cried bloody murder, and got our plight written up in Nieman Lab and Columbia Journalism Review, Medium leadership offered us, and a number of other small publishers, four months of the income we would have made had they not kicked us to the digital curb.
There are many problems with the way events transpired, but the worst one is the fact that mere mortals such as ourselves do not control our presences on corporate social media bigs in any way, shape, or form. The billionaires that own them—that became rich by creating “walled gardens” under their micromanagement and have stubbornly resisted the creation of public and nonprofit social media alternatives—are the only people that could reasonably be said to control them. Even though many of them have built their fortunes on technology originally created by publicly funded basic scientific research that they were allowed to essentially steal. Not dissimilar from leaders of the former Soviet Union that were allowed to privatize once-public industries and become billionaires themselves. Distorting the politics of various successor states toward oligarchy in the process.
And, under today’s robber baron capitalism, billionaires of any provenance are extremely difficult to bring to heel with any kind of public regulation or taxation. Let alone criminal charges.
Medium is hardly the worst, or anywhere near the largest, of the social media scofflaws in question. Its founder, Ev Williams, seems to be a thoughtful and genial enough fellow for someone in his position. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. … Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”
Truer words were never spoken. Especially when it comes to a person who has used his power and privilege to change the business model of Medium—a corporation that’s been valued in the hundreds of millions—on more than one occasion.
So, BINJ and the other affected publishers are the latest victims of the caprices of a billionaire. Who ironically wants to help improve media with the selfsame company that just made life more difficult for a group of struggling media outlets.
It is precisely for this reason that both the nonprofit side (BINJ) and for-profit side (DigBoston) of this operation that I half-jokingly call the “Greater BINJ-DigBoston Mediaplex” are working to help build alternatives to corporate social media. As we announced in an editorial a couple months ago.
We believe that digital media can only move forward by returning to the most promising visionary thinking of the earliest internet pioneers. Including the idea that only a decentralized communication network can be truly democratic. And that the ethos of democracy must be baked so deeply into its architecture that it can never be displaced.
Our enterprise can only play a small part in this “strategic retreat.” But we are pursuing that initiative with vigor. Both by moves we are making to change how BINJ and DigBoston use the internet and by trying to organize our peers in the news industry to change our collective digital lot for the better.
The former effort involves transitioning away from Facebook—which we adjudge to be the worst of the social media giants—and toward first Twitter then other more democratic social media as it emerges. The latter effort—to which we’re dedicating a small conference this weekend—involves helping construct the democratic social media alternatives we hope to ultimately focus on.
But even if such voluntarist endeavors succeed in scaling up to control some reasonable percentage of the relevant markets, they will not stop huge social media corporations and the billionaires that control them from continuing to have far more political, economic, and social power than is healthy for a democratic society.
So what will stop them? Not breaking them up into smaller companies. As economist Gar Alperovitz points out in his book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, old-fashioned trust busting always ends up with the smaller companies reforming into new giants. Thanks largely to “regulatory capture”: Big corporations colonizing regulatory agencies with insiders and then doing what they want—as we’ve seen most clearly of late with former telecom exec Ajit Pai getting the top seat at the FCC, then killing net neutrality.
Which way forward then? Alperowitz says that even the libertarian economists of the Chicago school—most famously Milton Friedman—identified the futility of breaking up huge companies. Leading Friedman’s mentor Henry C. Simons to quip, “Every industry should be effectively competitive or socialized.” Failing to do so, he and other Chicago economists thought, would lead to an ongoing series of societal crises. Which would certainly include the new kinds of crises that corporate social media has sparked. Notably “surveillance capitalism” where consumers’ every move is being monitored and thought anticipated in the service of maximizing profit in ways never before seen. With all the resulting negative outcomes—like social media addiction and political chaos—externalized to a failing democratic system largely controlled by an ever-shrinking number of multinationals and financial concerns.
And how best to socialize corporate social media? Alperowitz suggests turning the companies controlling the commanding heights of any sector of the economy into public utilities. So it must go with major social media companies. They must be converted into a heavily regulated and government-managed utility in such a way as to maximize democratic decentralized digital communication and provide it as cheaply as possible for the good of all. While, I would add, activists on the ground continue to develop a constellation of independent social media projects run by nonprofits, cooperatives, and social benefit corporations around the new government-funded network to allow for maximum information and technological diversity—and keep a future public social media utility honest.
Some kind of national security state panopticon is not what we’re aiming for here. Rather, the new utility could be run by elected regional boards with mandated seats for key community constituencies and space for lots of meaningful grassroots input.
Doing all that—plus related work to socialize telecoms and cable companies—will take a massive protest movement. Like most everything that involves uprooting entrenched institutions and replacing them with new, more popular institutions. And that movement will have to be international. It’s the only way to go. Because social media corporations are multinational, and most governments—corporate-dominated as they are—won’t do the job on their own. Not without a protracted struggle.
Going forward, DigBoston (and BINJ) will be looking to ally with good organizations willing to fight hard on these issues. And we’ll be sure to let readers know which groups we think are doing the best work as they emerge on the political stage.
So, stay tuned to these pages. We’ll be doing our damnedest to guide you through what is sure to be a wild ride.
Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston, and the network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.