What’s in a Name?

IMG_1433My recent conversation with Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Centre for Civic Media was, so far, the most interesting of all my visits with media scholars. That’s because it wasn’t at all what I expected from someone at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and someone with personal experience with start-ups.

Zuckerman is an academic, author, blogger and “internet activist”. He’s also director of the Centre.  That’s where I met him – at his office – first thing one cool November morning in Cambridge. He was wearing purple socks and sipping diet coke.

Zuckerman obviously cares a lot about journalism and holds a special place for public journalism. This we agree on. But he’s not such a big fan of the entrepreneurial kind – at least entrepreneurial journalism by Zuckerman’s definition.

“I no longer believe for-profit is the way to go,” said Zuckerman. “Entrepreneurial journalism is a myth.”

MIT campus

Click photo to see video inside MIT media lab

Zuckerman is pushing to “make it free.” He says journalism can be subsidized by foundations, governments or the “fan model”: such as subscriptions/donations for public radio.

This “entrepreneurial” discussion was a bit intense, and like I say, not what I expected. It was also a debate I was clearly not going to win. But that’s because I really think my meaning of entrepreneurial journalism is actually very close to what Zuckerman embraces – we just call it something different.

I believe entrepreneurialism is: innovation, a willing to take risks, differentiating from the mainstream, knowing how to brand, sell and figuring out how to make original reporting sustainable. Sometimes that’s for-profit, sometimes that’s non-profit, sometimes it’s inside a mainstream media operation sometimes it’s building a start-up.

“I call it Civic Journalism,” said Zuckerman of what to call it.

He says the entrepreneur is concerned with the bottom line – and fails to look at the “second bottom line” which is the evaluation of social good produced by a media organization.

But I wasn’t there for the debate. I wanted to hear about the cool stuff his group is developing at MIT.  So here it is:

vojo: This is the kind of innovative, socially conscious journalism Zuckerman is talking about.

“Vojo.co is a hosted mobile blogging platform that makes it easy for people to post stories from inexpensive mobile phones via voice calls…Our goal is to foster greater inclusion in the digital public sphere.” (website)

Between the Bars: This initiative provides a blog platform for prison inmates. These blogs start out as posted mail.

“It’s a way to reach out to those not in the traditional media,” said Zuckerman.

Between the bars has published close to 8,000 posts. These letters provide some “insight into life in the world’s largest incarceration system.”

Controversy Mapper: This tool helps breakdown complicated stories. Zuckerman: “Tools to look at who was influencing whom over the days of a story.”

It analyses how a big story spreads and evolves over a period of time. The team tracked the Trayvon Martin story on all platforms and social media. Read it.

This journalism research centre at MIT is obviously a great marriage between innovation and social good. Is it entrepreneurial? According to my definition it is. I think I need find a better name for this thing.

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