Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires
Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Of course we’ve been tracking the fires in the Austin area, especially the massive complex fire in Bastrop, and I’ve been thinking how to make sense of the disaster. Marsha and I drove toward Bastrop, Texas Monday to get a better look, not expecting to get very close (we didn’t want to be in the way). We drove within ten miles – not close, but close enough to capture photos of the massive tower of smoke: Jasmina Tesanovic was there the same day, and posted her thoughts here.

The whole area is a tinderbox after an unprecedented drought, and a great, now dangerous, feature of the Austin area is that cities and suburbs here have pervasive greenspaces, and we’ve built residences and other structures close to, and surrounded by, foliage that is now potentially explosive.

The current disasterous fires have a climate change signature; they’re products of the record Texas drought – at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, global warming. They were fanned by strong, oddly dry, winds from tropical storm Lee, and while no single storm is specifically related to global warming, their increasing number and severity may be related. While I’m not looking for a climate change debate here, it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right, and leaders have ignored scientific consensus for so long that prevention is no longer an option. We should be thinking about adaptation, but that’s not happening, either.

In fact, we’re not prepared for disaster. Marsha and Jasmina returned to Bastrop Tuesday hoping to volunteer, and Marsha spent much of Wednesday as a volunteer at one of the evacuee shelters. So much is happening so quickly, it’s hard to manage – and there’s no clear leadership or structure. The fire has destroyed 1,386 homes, and it’s still burning. Much of the attention and energy is focused on core concerns. On the periphery of the disaster, there are too few leaders or managers and too many details to manage.

This is a metaphor for global crisis. Economies are challenged and systems are breaking down; at the same time, we have real crises of authority. At a time that demands great leadership, we have no great leaders. Politicians left and right are stumbling. In Texas, which has needed great insightful leadership for some time now, the governor dismisses science and leads rallies to pray for rain.

In difficult times past, great leaders have emerged. Where are they now?

Taking a Wikileak

In my obligatory post about Wikileaks as the story du jour, I point to the great set of questions Dan Gillmor has posted in his column at Salon. These are especially lucid. I like especially Dan’s point about the character of the communications that were leaked, that many of the messages are gossip. Journalists are dutifully reporting “facts” gleaned from the leaked material without necessarily digging deeper, verifying and analyzing. Of course, they don’t have time – the information environment moves too quickly, he who hesitates is lost, accuracy be damned.

Then again, journalism is so often about facts, not truth.  Facts are always suspect, personal interpretations are often incorrect, memories are often wildly inaccurate. History is, no doubt, filled with wrong facts and bad interpretations that, regardless, are accepted as somehow “true.”

The high-minded interpretation of this and other leaks, that people need to know what is being said and done by their representatives in government, especially in a “democratic society,” is worth examining. We’re not really a democracy; government by rule or consensus of a majority of the people doesn’t scale, and it would be difficult for the average citizen to commit the time required to be conversant in depth with all the issues that a complex government must consider.

Do we benefit by sharing more facts with more people? (Dan notes that 3 million or so in government have the clearance to read most of the documents leaked – this seems like a lot of people to be keeping secrets… is the “secret” designation really all that meaningful, in this case?) But to my question – I think there’s a benefit in knowing more about government operations, but I’m less clear that this sort of leak increases knowledge vs. noise.

I’m certain about one thing: we shouldn’t assume that the leaked documents alone reveal secrets that are accurate and true. They’re just more pieces of a very complex puzzle.

Information spill?

We’ve all zeroed in on a set of established platforms for interaction, primarily Facebook and Twitter. Icons linking to Facebook and Twitter pages are standard on many web sites now – suggesting a consensus about where people are hanging out. Many experience the Internet through one or both of these platforms, and a few scattered others (.e.g YouTube, Yelp, blogs etc.). Increasingly we see world-views based on shared content and hyperlinks. As it becomes the new normal, social media is just media, no need to make the distinction. We can end the obsession with tools and forms on the production side, and focus on content. On the consumption or demand side, we have a problem of abundance, of having more quality content than we can track and manage. Filters are crucial, but imperfect. Maybe we still need some work here.

How do we characterize the flow of media? In this context, we invoke the words “push” and “pull.” John Hagel describes pull as ” creating platforms that help people to reach out, find and access appropriate resources when the need arises.” This morning I met with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune, and he used the opposite word, talking about pushing media to readers where they are, rather than expecting them to come to you – “web site as destination” is obsolete in the world of social media.

I think they’re both correct. Is this a 21st Century media koan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Whatever the case, I don’t think we have a handle on the evolving flow of information online, any more than BP has a handle on the flow of oil from the MC252 spill (if you can call a explosive hemorrhage of oil a “spill”) in the Gulf of Mexico.

Redefining journalism: the International Symposium on Online Journalism

Journalists have been curious, and often anxious, about prospects for the future of news in an era of user generated content, fragmented abundant media, and cheap or free web-based advertising platforms. Nobody doubts the importance of in-depth news reporting, but the business model’s unclear. Many publications are moving online, which may reduce some physical costs but also reduces advertising revenues. There’s still the cost of content development. Sure, you can leverage user-generated free content, which can be very good, but the time and attention required for excellent reporting can’t be free. Said another way, to the extent writing is done without compensation, it tends to be shallow and incomplete. And reporting without editorial process and fact checking is subjective, not authoritative. Reporters may try to be objective and fair, but that’s very hard to do outside a process of vetting, checks and balances.

Academics that study journalism are studying and thinking about the changing present and the future. Several gathered in Austin last week for the International Symposium on Online Journalism. I was there the second day. It was a great event; I came away with my brain churning – though I’ve had an interesting thread of complementary career paths in my life, my original goal was to be a journalist, and I’m most passionate about writing.

You can see my complete tweets (over 250, I think, in one day) here. I also jotted down some notes just after the conference; here are some thoughts based on those notes:

I felt I was hearing a consensus that news is a public good, and news reporting will increasingly be funded, coordinated, and curated through nonprofit entities. I’ve been focused quite a bit lately on Texas Tribune, which is an innovative Texas news organization operating as a nonprofit. Its CEO and editor, Evan Smith, told me at the conference that he’s feeling positive and excited about the future of journalism and the kinds of experiments we were hearing about at the conference.

Former for-profit newspapers are focusing more on infotainment to build and sustain attention and revenue – it’s harder for them to fund hard, in-depth reporting. One potential model would be for nonprofits to report in depth, and provide reporting through content syndication partnerships with for-profits. That may be one wave of the future.

Another interesting experiment presented at the conference:, a site set up to source public funding for news stories suggested by – I think the best word to use here is particpants. We were talking a lot about participatory journalism, which could manifest in any number of ways. Anyone who can read, write, and has access to a computer can potentially report news. What works as journalism is, I think, a matter of context. Is the reporting feeding into a journalistic process of some sort, and what sort of analysis/vetting do you have within that process? I’m all for broader sourcing of facts and perspectives, but how that mix becomes journalism in today’s world of social and collaborative media is still being defined.