Law in the Internet Society

Freeing Journalism

-- By JohnClayton - 09 Oct 2020

It is time to free journalism. I speak not of journalism the institution—that long-lionized fourth estate whose ruins lie all around us. Rather what must be freed is journalism as an endeavor—that is, the iterative process of news gathering and knowledge creation that anybody, anywhere, can participate in.

The Net has facilitated this reimagining of what journalism means. “The News” now emerges not from a few institutional gatekeepers, but from an amalgam of professional reporters, ordinary citizens, and activists. The results can be powerful. But they can also be dizzying and discordant, a chaotic bombardment of news 140 characters at a time. Journalism’s future as an tool for human learning depends harnessing a new, networked press that is egalitarian, prodigious, and distracted.

To free journalism—that is, to remake the social endeavor of news capture, synthesis, and sharing—we must identify its restraints. They exist, first, in the vestiges of the for-profit institutional press: namely, a continued reliance on obsolete, ad-based business models. But the ends of journalism are also thwarted, ironically, by the very tools that have democratized the media ecosystem. Smartphones that document police brutality surveil their users’ every move. Facebook and Twitter purportedly elevate the voices of citizen reporters while diluting the social value of journalism—reducing it to yet another lure for human attention, dangled alongside disinformation and other online detritus.

The journalism that we need—that we must pursue—is one that enables wide-reaching citizen participation, while resisting those who would hijack news reporting to serve despotism and surveillance capitalism.

Beyond Institutionalism

Abandoning ad-based models

I was once part of journalism the institution. I saw the crumbling up close. The for-profit journalism model requires ad revenue, which requires eyeballs. So we chased them—we spent hours pushing our articles on social media and perfecting headline SEO. We still tried to produce quality reporting, but the stakes were clear. At one job, my salary fluctuated based on how many pageviews my stories generated.

Professional reporters retain a vital role in a free journalism. Sites like ProPublica? show that non-profit and subscriber-based media—freed from the chase for ad dollars—can produce superior content. We must go farther, however. Journalism in the internet age is dynamic; it no longer ends when the newspaper goes to print. The News is constantly becoming, and all of us can play a role in pursuing it.

Lessons from free software

Free software produces a better product because users are encouraged to improve a program’s source code. Likewise, a free journalism should leverage creative commons licensing and collaborative platforms like wikis to generate more dynamic reportage. Examples already abound. Consider the Tunisian blogger collective Nawaat, which curated and made freely available hundreds of censored videos during that country’s uprising.

A free journalism can also invite readers into the process of making The News. Imagine hybrid platforms that house professional accountability journalism, while also offering dynamic spaces for citizens to contribute their own content (or that of others). Paid or volunteer editors could sort and verify crowdsourced content to preserve journalistic standards. Most importantly, these sites can be run cheaply, allowing them to rely on user contributions rather than advertising or paywalls.

The Technology of Free Journalism

Leaving behind the social platforms

Regardless of what form they take, journalism-specific platforms should replace Twitter and Facebook as the main loci for creating, sharing, and consuming The News. Journalism requires context and continuity—the ability to locate, link, and preserve information culled from disparate sources. Not only are the social platforms ill-equipped for this; they actively subvert the ends of journalism, as Shoshanna Zuboff writes, through a philosophy of “radical indifference.” Whereas journalism rejects equivalence—the truth must be separate from fiction—tech platforms care little about the social, moral, or qualitative aspects of a news item. Rather, all that matters is whether a post captures attention, thereby maintaining the flow of human data. Sourced reporting and disinformation appear alongside each other in timelines; to most people, they look exactly the same.

We must build dedicated, collaborative sites where communities can gather to engage in journalism. Furthermore, legal regimes can preserve the role of citizen and crowdsourced reporting in these spaces. For example, any reforms to Section 230 should be carefully calibrated to avoid tort liability regimes that would disincentivize models of hybrid journalism.

Smartphones as journalism tools

The tools of newsgathering, like platforms that host The News, should share the values of a free journalism. Smartphones democratize news capture and dissemination. But they also expose users to invasive government and private surveillance. When journalists are arrested—as has occurred with dramatic frequency in the U.S.—police can use smartphones to map activity and identify sources. And increasingly sophisticated spyware may enable hackers to access a phone’s content, or even spy on users in real-time using the phone’s microphone and camera. While encryption apps like Signal can facilitate secure communication, they cannot stop such malware or prevent mobile apps from harvesting a reporter’s data.

News organizations have an obligation to ensure the integrity of technologies utilized by their reporters. Secure hardware is not enough; journalists’ smartphones should also utilize alternative, open-source operating systems to prevent spying by Google or others. Likewise, reporters and editors should proxy all online activities through secure personal servers, which can help protect their data and the identity of their collaborators.

As Zuboff writes, the tech platforms have inserted themselves “between publishers and their populations.” A free journalism must remove these intermeddlers.


Achieving a free journalism will not be easy. Law and technology can help foster a media ecosystem in which The News can be securely captured and made available to all. The first step to a free journalism, however, is to reconceive what news reporting is and can be. We must embrace journalism not as the product produced by a few gatekeepers, but as a social process of knowledge creation and sharing—something that every person can benefit from and participate in.

I think this is an excellent manifesto. It's a tad Whitmanesque in places, but Walter Whitman was indeed a journalist, at the Brooklyn Eagle that still existed in my lifetime. So probably that's all right.

I don't think the smartphone as a piece of hardware can be bettered for journalism at present. It should run a freed Android OS that doesn't have any relationship to Google, for which LineageOS and /e/ would be possible current choices, so the hardware is collecting reality, not spying on the journalist. Cybersecurity for those handsets should be a very high priority, which implies strategies of protection that aren't the ones people usually think of. Individuals working in journalism should have FreedomBox or similar systems, proxying everything through a secure personal server that can be made from something no more expensive than Raspberry Pi, and which helps to protect the computer networks of her employers or collaborators, security from bottom up like the information flow itself.

Twentieth century news organizations were fundamentally disrespectful of reporting, too, which was one of AJ Liebling's basic themes in his extraordinary efforts at press theory, criticism, reconstruction and literary improvement. In keeping with the rest of your social constructionist approach to remaking journalism, the technologies two can and should have that quality.

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r4 - 15 Jan 2021 - 14:44:39 - JohnClayton
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