The Baby Is Crawling – ImportantCool’s Mission To Change The Media

ImportantCool "positioning" graphic created by Austin Mackll 25 November 2013 ImportantCool “positioning” graphic created by Austin Mackell 25 November 2013

ImportantCool is a project being undertaken by some 30 odd people around the world to fundamentally change the way the media industry works. We don’t just want to change which or what kind of stories get told. We want to change the methodology and conditions by and under which they are told, making the media itself freer and more diverse, as well as more transparent and accountable. We’re building a democratic and radically transparent media organisation of global scale which we hope will set a new world’s-best standard for how news-media is made. It’s early days, and we’re only just beginning to put our ideas, partially, into action. Even the minor progress we’ve made so far has come at a seemingly ridiculous cost in terms of time and effort. Some of us have been working on this project since early 2013. But we have faith in our ideas, and in our ability to use them to reshape the media industry, which is undergoing simultaneously a crisis and a renaissance, both of unprecedented scale. We believe that if we can change the media in the way we envision, we can also change the world. We’re certain that to do either, we need passionate, intelligent, and engaged people on board. We’re hoping that’s you. We’ve been surprised by the level of support so far, having raised enough to cover web-hosting, legal, and accounting costs, before even engaging in our first fundraising drive, which is imminent.  As I write this I am told that someone else has come on-board. Obviously, however, we’re hoping that these early patrons are the first of many. That’s an even bigger ask than it sounds, as we need more from these patrons than just their money. More on that topic later.

This article is written to mark two simultaneous (deliberately synchronized) milestones in our progress. The first of these is the beginning of what will be an ongoing syndication program: content from ImportantCool will be appearing on Thing2thing regularly as of now. This is something we’ve been planning at least since T2T’s Cathy Vogan and I spoke late last year . Since then we’ve published stories on, among other things, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Guardian’s shoddy reporting on the death of an indigenous activist in Ecuador (whom one of our editors happened to know personally), and the ongoing crackdown by the US-backed junta in Egypt. We do fun stuff too, like our guide to the best players on NBA 2K15 and suggested accompanying drinking games. We would’ve liked to have shared these, in real time, with T2T’s legion readership, but before we got your attention we wanted to sort out the second event this piece was written to mark: The “Beta 2″ launch of our website, which builds on “Beta 1″ or just “Beta” that we launched last year in August. Both use existing WordPress themes tweaked and integrated with other services already available online, and are run on a volunteer basis. That’s why we call them “Beta”. We’re planing to drop that qualifying prefix once we’ve built something closer to what we imagine the project could and should be. For one thing, by then, we’ll all be getting paid. We will also have built a much more sophisticated and original website (and accompanying mobile app) which will have a bunch of functionalities that, as of now, don’t exist anywhere.

Obviously to achieve either of these things we’ll need money. We, like many other online media projects, hope to raise that money by developing a loyal community of patrons. Unlike other projects, we intend to give these patrons a chance to meaningfully and democratically participate in the news production process. Indeed even if we had all the money we needed, this community of news-prosumers would still be necessary. We’re building them (you?) into the very center of our collective workflow. One of the major changes between Beta 1 and Beta 2 is the inclusion of an exclusive forum for ImportantCool’s patrons (supporters) and associates (staff) where we hope the members of this embryonic but exciting community will get to know each other, as well as us and the project, and where we’ll be discussing story ideas before they’re published, as well as other developments. That’s just the start of the engagement we hope to have with them – indeed even the scope and nature of this engagement is something patrons, especially the early ones, will have a say in shaping.

It’s important to note that people’s votes won’t depend on their level of donation, someone giving $5 a month gets the same vote as someone giving $500. For now at least we’re also giving votes to those who donate an active and verified social media account – allowing IC to share content through it. This is more than a way to get the word out; it is a way of broadening the patron community so the views of those with less disposable income are included.

Let me attempt to give you an overview of why IC is a project worthy of such dedicated support.

Three things make ImportantCool different from the behemoths we wish to challenge.

Unique Structure

One difference is our business model, which merges elements of traditional non-profit and worker-owned structures so as to give journalists maximum freedom and support in their work. As I’ve explained in a previous promo-video, this structure resembles a law partnership. For a long time a kind of worker-owner model has been used by law firms, since the labor that goes into it is very expensive and the capital investments needed are very low. In the age of digital distribution, when the expense of printing and/or broadcast infrastructure can be side-stepped, it becomes the obvious mode for journalistic outfits, too. Freed from the constraints of either a corporate or state backer, our journalists will set their own editorial direction, and patrons, rather than editors will decide which stories are most worthy of a budget (more on this later).

We will have editors, but they, along with copy-editors, archivists, social media people, and so on, will be elected by those who actually make the content, rather than appointed from on high, and will serve as writing coaches, fact checkers, and intellectual partners for our journalists, rather than setting an editorial or stylistic agenda. They will be support staff for the journalists, rather than their bosses.

Transparent Journalism

Another important difference is the way we make media. We’re interested in developing a concept which is at the forefront of journalism. Indeed the concept is so new, so incomplete, that it doesn’t even really have a name yet. The Editor In Chief of Wikileaks, Julian Assange calls it “scientific journalism”. He wrote in an editorial in The Australian:

WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?

We’ve shied away from that particular phrasing, however, feeling that it sets an impossibly high bar for journalism, as the repeatability of experiments which is key to the the scientific method is unattainable when working with the kind of one-off, organic, and uncontrolled, real-world events that journalists are expected to encapsulate. We do feel, however, that other elements of scientific rigor should be approached, like falsifiability and the interwoven expectation that the methods by which the conclusions are derived shall be laid out in some detail. I like the slightly weaker term “forensic journalism”. What do you think? Should we just stick with Assange’s definition? Become a patron and then tell us.

The norms of this newer, more accountable methodology are not yet fully established, but “full docs or it didn’t happen” is an excellent starting point.

This maxim is an obvious but fiercely resisted consequence of digital technology. Previously there was no practical way to deliver the full documents behind a story; the full version of an interview or statement which is quoted in a story, for instance. The constraints of space in the print mediums, and time in the case of broadcast, left no option but for journalists to brutally summarize, inevitably editorializing in the process. The plasticity and interactivity of online news mediums gives us no such excuse, and increasingly, since at least when Gary Webb published a collection of texts, photos, and audio files as supporting material for his “Dark Alliance” series, the best journalists have been backing up their claims with extensive, often leaked, documentary evidence. We seek to systematize and integrate this approach and make it the new rule, rather than the exception as it currently is.

So far it’s mostly been assumed that the “docs” referred to are the corporate or government documents that prove misdeeds of the powerful, like the Iraq War Logs and US Embassy Cables published on Wikileaks or the NSA documents given to The Intercept by Edward Snowden. This approach has been incredibly important in helping journalists do an important part of their job, shining a light into otherwise monolithic and opaque institutions and revealing to the general public the schemes and agendas of those to whom they are subject.

Telling us what these institutions want and know, however, is not all journalists are supposed to do. They’re also supposed to directly observe non-documentary reality and generate from that interaction new knowledge that didn’t exist anywhere before.

Indeed much of the intelligence gathered by governments through public and clandestine channels is buttressed, contextualized, and fleshed out by the work of journalists.

These two elements of journalism can be personified by the two journalists (both Australian, funnily enough) whom I consider respectively the the greatest journalist of this and the previous century.

This century’s great champion is no doubt Julian Assange, with his masterful use of digital anonymity to protect his sources and an ambitious, unquenchable, thirst for the dark secrets of the powerful.

From last century, and representing the other approach is Wilfred Burchett. Burchett’s work defies a short summary. Perhaps his greatest feat, and the one which most effectively demonstrates the importance of first-hand fieldwork, is his reporting in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Burchett broke off from the media pack that was meekly following General Douglass MacArthur around and, in defiance of McArthur’s ban on press in southern Japan, made his way at great personal danger cross-country to Hiroshima, being the first Western reporter and likely the first Westerner who was not a prisoner of war at the time to reach the city.  From there he wrote a story called “The Atomic Plague“: the first true account of radiation sickness to be widely read by the Western Public. People have called it “the scoop of the century”.

He wrote chillingly

The police chief of Hiroshima welcomed me eagerly as the first Allied correspondent to reach the city. With the local manager of Domei, a leading Japanese news agency, he drove me through, or perhaps I should say over, the city. And he took me to hospitals where the victims of the bomb are still being treated. In these hospitals I found people who, when the bomb fell, suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effects.

For no apparent reason their health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And the bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth.

At first the doctors told me they thought these were the symptoms of general debility. They gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting away from the hole caused by the injection of the needle.

And in every case the victim died.

Even with full access to the government’s most secret files Burchett would not have been able to describe these horrors with such gripping, terrifying detail.

So how do we incorporate the “full docs” forensic methodology into this first hand reporting?

One term we’ve taken directly from Assange’s vocabulary, but put our own spin on, is “artefacts”. I first came across the term reading through the transcript of the meeting between Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. During this conversation Assange said:

So, on the one hand we have live dynamic services and organizations…well there’s three things. Live dynamic services. Organizations that run those services, so that you are referring to a hierarchy. You are referring to a system of control. An organization, a government, that represents an organized evolving group. And on the other hand you have artefacts. You have human intellectual artefacts that have the ability to be completely independent from any system of human control. They are out there in the Platonic realm somehow.

Again here he is describing, most obviously, documents obtained from big institutions. We’ll be using the term for them too, if and when we’re the first to put them online. However that’s also what we call any other supporting materials captured or created by the journalist in their investigative work: field notes and interviews, courtroom sketches, original or aggregated data-sets, evidentiary photographs, and video and so forth, as well as copies of previously unreleased documents.

Diagram showing how artefacts relate to other IC entities. Composed by Cassie Findlay in Feb 2014 Diagram showing how artefacts relate to other IC entities. Composed by Cassie Findlay in Feb 2014

To make the level of original research behind each piece clear to the public, we distinguish these from material already publicly available, especially if it’s already online. We archive those separately however, to make sure we always have a true copy to fall back on. At the moment both are linked to from the text of the piece, with original artefacts also listed below. This goes for all mediums. In our first video-for-web doco, Amagonzo: The Most Psychedelic Town On Earth which myself and our Important editor (we also have a Cool editor), Christian Tym, produced about indigenous use of psychedelic plants in the Ecuadorian Amazon – apart from the edited excerpts included in the 20-minute final product, we include the full interviews with users of the drug and the shaman who administers it, as well the recordings from an entire ayahuasca ceremony. Only a small percentage of those who watch the “deliverable” 20 minute version go on to watch any more of these resources, and so their inclusion may seem to many, quite frivolous and almost indulgent.

However to some it may be quite valuable. Take the example of an indigenous activist who feels our film is a shoddy misrepresentation, warped by our dumb white racist assumptions. They would be able to go through and see what kind of questions we asked, who we decided to speak to and how, which bits we chose to cut out, and to use that to demonstrate to us and to the public that our reporting on the subject is flawed.

If it is easier for activists and other critics to pick them apart, then it’s harder for journalists to bullshit. If this practice were to become a new norm, much of the most irresponsible reporting would be more easily dismissed: if all a reporter has behind their big hairy headline is a vague statement from a government spin-doctor, that will be revealed for all to see.

Very soon we hope to be presenting these supporting materials, as well as key editorial decisions and discussions, in a more dynamic, visual, and original way, via writelines. A writeline will be a visual map of the work done on a story, starting with the pitch (and in some cases a patron commission, more on that later) and detailing the interviews, correspondence, research reading, and field work a journalist has done on a particular story. Here we are again mimicking the logic of a law firm, who send their clients detailed billings, which itemize actions and costs. Instead of individual clients, however, it would be our community of patrons who would scrutinizing where and how their money was spent.

An early (November 2013) draft design for a writeline An early (November 2013) draft design for a writeline

We’re also making the journalistic work behind a story visible to the general public, so they can see at glance who is flying by the seat of their pants, mixing their pre-existing assumptions with the field work done by others, or worse, press releases; and who, on the other hand is diligently and thoroughly researching and investigating their subject. Then people could decide who to believe on the basis of evidence, rather than on the basis of whose account fits best with their already established narrative.

In the medium term we hope to, with the help of the open-source community, create software that functions as a kind of journalism operating software, that records and incorporates research in real time. Once a new story file was started, websites visited, notes taken, testimonies recorded and email exchanges made, it would be registered in real time and recorded in such a way that made tampering with them in after-the-fact as difficult as possible. When the finished piece is ready there would be an automatically generated writeline, ready to accompany it. There could be two (or more) modes. One could be a “public investigation mode”, which would make the gathered artefacts and research reading available – either to the public or just to our patrons – in real time or as close as possible to real time. Interviews and news events could be streamed live in some cases,  allowing those most interested in a story to virtually accompany the journalist on their research. Another could be “secret investigation mode,” which would keep the work of the journalist secret until such a time that it is safe to publish, with their sources anonymized and source materials redacted as is necessary to maintain safety for all parties and otherwise stay in-line with journalistic ethics. We’ve already had to redact one interview, when someone who was not a subject of the story walked in, and unaware they were being recorded, began talking about an unrelated personal matter.

Of course this license to redact is itself a potentially dangerous breach in our policy of transparency, one into which we might try and shove all kinds of unpleasant or inconvenient facts. Our response to this risk is the proposal that, once we’re actually a big enough deal with such matters, we will hire external auditors, who – possibly along with a “jury” of sorts selected from among our patrons – will randomly review the original unredacted versions and either confirm that yes, the redaction is in accordance with our guidelines, or not.

Patron Community

The third thing that makes us different is our relationship with our funders. The two main revenue sources for traditional media as it moves online are advertising and paywalls. Neither is proving particularly successful. However, a third model, sometimes called “digital busking” has been gaining ground. It gives away its product for free, but asks people to donate what they can. It relies on people’s better nature in a way that is wholly foreign to the corporate news ethos of paywalls, understanding that people are more likely to pay to keep information in the fully public domain where it can do the most good, rather than to keep it for themselves while the rest of the public remain in the dark. Information has more value to them, when it is shared. People don’t want to pay just so they can know about important developments, they want to pay so everyone can know.

This instinct is one that for-profit news outlets will never be able to harness or serve as effectively as transparent egalitarian organizations oriented toward the public good. It is the same instinct that we believe will make those patrons who contribute larger amounts glad that they only have the same vote as someone donating a smaller amount or even just a Twitter account. Media for the wealthy doesn’t need donors.

ImportantCool takes the logic of digital busking one step further by giving the patrons an active say over where and how their money is spent. Each month (and maybe later, each week or day) journalists will pitch stories in a section of the site accessible only to patrons and associates (we call it the Engine Room). The pitches will include a budget that details both expenses and a cost for the work itself derived from standardized per word or per minute rates (set prices for content will be important to stop a race to the bottom where journalists attempt to undersell each other, as is often the case in the current industry). Patrons will then vote for the stories they think are the most interesting, important, or urgent and the most popular ones will get the money: expenses in advance and payment upon delivery. Early supporters of a story may also be invited to participate, once the piece is finished, in a debriefing/review discussion with the journalist, and perhaps where appropriate the subject(s) of the story.

These rather elaborate procedures won’t be necessary for everything published on the site, however. Sometimes, when a news event of some kind, a bombing, a speech or a ballgame, occurs, a journalist with an ongoing interest in that topic may feel so compelled to comment that you’d have to pay them not to. Or they might just have an idea they feel the need to explore in public. Sometimes a tweet or a Facebook rant won’t do. The obvious place for such an armchair think-piece, which requires little new research or expenditure but which can be very important, is a blog, and so ImportantCool will have these too. However, we do believe the value that such blogs add to the site should be recognized. To this end we conceived something called “internet points,” which associates will accumulate over time according to the page views these blogs receive. A residual income will be awarded to journalists depending on the number of internet points they’ve accumulated. We’re treating everything that goes onto the website during the Beta phases as blog posts in this regard, and will be retrospectively compensating our contributors through this “internet points” framework once we are fully operational.

One idea is that initially, the funds left over from each month’s editorial budget after the most popular stories have been chosen (there will rarely be a perfect fit) should be distributed among associates depending on the internet points they’ve so far accumulated. As time passes and our capacity grows, we hope to set aside funds specifically for this mode of remuneration.

Thus we would have two streams of content: one, the blogs, allowing our associates to provide commentary and analysis on the fly if and when they see fit (with editors expected to act promptly to help them deliver a top-quality product); and the other, commissioned articles, allowing for more in-depth, properly resourced and immediately compensated investigative work, which would be expected to be of a qualitatively different standard to on-the-fly blogs, vlogs, and podcasts. There’s a good argument that these commissioned pieces should also earn their authors internet points, so that if their work is continuing to attract fresh eyes to the collective project, they continue to be rewarded. What do you think? Become a patron and then let us know.

I hope I’ve given you some idea of what ImportantCool wants to be once it grows up. We’re a long way from there, however, and to make it we’ll need lots of love and care and support. That’s where you come in. Help us change the media. Help us change the world.

Become a patron. Click here. Do it now.

This story was written for ImportantCool. Click here to view the original and all supporting artefacts.

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