He bought his guns on the Internet

Gun Room at Philadelphia's City Hall

In casual conversations, we often hear someone say “I read blah blah on the Internet,” and if you ask for a specific source, you’ll often get “I don’t remember where.” So it could have been the New York Times, or it could have been an inexpert blog post: a comment qualified in that way has no authority or meaning. Same with “bought it on the Internet.”

I was struck by a comment MSNBC’s Chuck Todd made while talking about access to weapons in the U.S. He mentioned that James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora shooter, bought considerable guns and ammunition “on the Internet.”

My first thought was that Todd is a careless journalist (something I never thought before), in part because he used a phrase so vague. Also because he followed with a comment suggesting that Holmes dyed his hair bright orange “like Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman.” The Joker existed as a character before Heath Ledger played the part, and clearly does not have the bright orange hair we see in the photos of Holmes. Chuck, you’re thinking of Bozo the Clown. The Joker’s hair is green.

But I digress. The relevant question here is the significance of saying that Holmes bought his arsenal online? That anyone can buy guns? Could we argue that, had Holmes bought his guns from a physical gun store, the clerk would have noted his demented stare and refused to make the sale? I doubt it.

It doesn’t matter where he bought the components of his arsenal. He could have bought them anywhere guns (and bullet-proof vests) are sold. Or so I read on the Internet.

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: Spot.us, 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.