Will the Internet remain an “all you can download” buffet?

Last week I wrote about the incoming FCC plan for universal broadband access across the U.S., an expensive and somewhat controversial initiative that begs the question of whether high speed Internet access is not just a privilege but a right.

The plan has been hit by fierce pushback from major cable companies since it was announced Tuesday. No surprise there. A major provision of the FCC’s plan is to auction off spectrum once used for broadcast in order to expand wireless networks to rural areas not serviced by the private sector. The broadcasters who now own that spectrum aren’t about to just give it up for nothing.

Ironically enough, I found myself out to dinner with a group of Elon faculty and communications professionals that included a Time Warner Cable regional executive on the day the FCC’s plan was announced.  Naturally, he didn’t see the FCC’s current plan as the answer to the issue of broadband access. Nor was he crazy about Google’s initiative to poke its head into the ISP business by laying out “dark fiber” cables that can offer much faster access in urban areas.

But he didn’t dismiss the issue either, instead proposing that the problem with high-speed Internet isn’t one of access, but of demand. ISPs can extend broadband to rural areas but aren’t likely to get everyone to sign up, either because they can’t afford it or don’t see the value in the service. Even some in favor of universal access acknowledge, as Slate tech wrtier Farhad Manjoo does at the end of this piece, that only about two-thirds of those with access to broadband actually sign up. If the government can find a way to subsidize the cost through some form of tax credits, it would be easier for private ISPs to bring broadband to more of the country.

This concept is similar in spirit to one proposed in Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet: and how to stop it,” a book I’m now reading for class that offers a thorough look at how online access has been shaped through the decades. Zittrain is highly critical of non-generative models that limit what a consumer can gather online (think AOL 15 years ago or perhaps the iPad today). But he does point out that ISPs who wall off parts of the Internet could subsidize the cost of access by charging websites or search engines for a spot in their “walled gardens” of content accessible to customers. The revenue stream would allow the ISP to offer access at reduced rates, or maybe even for free.

Proponents of net neutrality probably cringe at this thought. The Internet should be open and free for all, they argue, without restrictions on content. That’s laudable in spirit, but the reality is that someone has to pay for the high speed access. If the government can’t afford to pay for the infrastructure, and it’s not profitable for the private sector, than the only solution is charging websites themselves for distribution. As long as consumers know they’re only getting a la carte portions of the Internet, they might be OK not having the all you can eat model. It’s better than having no access at all, which is the status quo for far too many in this country right now.

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High-speed Internet: a right or a privilege?

Americans have long accepted K-12 education as a right for all. Debate now rages on whether basic health care also qualifies in that category.

But what about high-speed Internet?

That’s the question that will leap to the forefront with the F.C.C. poised to announce this week an ambitious plan to spread broadband access to the entire country. This proposal has been eagerly anticipated for several months, and it came up frequently during my research last semester on the Digital Divide as sign of hope on bridging the technology gap in this country.

It’s not as simple as a government patch, however. The involvement of the public sector in the business of Internet service providers not only costs taxpayers billions, but it tiptoes into the realm of free-market meddling that arouses intense criticism for hampering business growth. Already major cable companies are lining up in opposition for the F.C.C.’s plans to auction off areas of the broadcast spectrum to allow more space for wireless networks.

Yet if governments don’t take some action, rural Americans will almost certainly keep lagging behind in connection speeds. It simply doesn’t make good business sense to invest in Internet infrastructure servicing areas with a low density of potential consumers. That’s why the F.C.C. wants to offer subsidies to companies that offer high-speed access to rural America. It’s the same principle that has caused nations like South Korea and Finland to roll out expensive initiatives to wire their entire countries so high-speed Internet access is a universal right.

Some more competition among the private sector could also help. Most ISPs have a near monopoly on their markets, leaving them little incentive to improve the speed and breadth of their networks. That’s a big reason why Google is entering the industry through buying up “dark fiber” cables capable of delivering Internet 50 times faster that what most customers are used to receiving. Some have speculated this is a bid not so much to break into the ISP industry but instead to force cable companies to improve their connections speeds, since a faster Internet directly benefits Google’s core products.

Yet even if Internet connections get blindingly fast in the city, they’ll still lag way behind in the country without some government intervention. That changes the way students in rural areas learn, what services rural businesses can offer and what kind of digital content rural residents are capable of receiving. A PR or advertising firm might have to deliver one set of heavy multimedia content (videos, interactive microsites) for one audience while similtaniously running a different campaign for rural areas that doesn’t involve files that won’t download fast enough on the rural connections.

There’s no question that life on the slow end of the Internet is drastically different, and the divide will only grow more pronounced as more and more of society’s business and social functions migrate online. But are the consequences of no high-speed access severe enough to merit major intervention by the public sector? Is it a right we must establish for all no matter where they live? The answers to those questions will ultimately determine whether the digital divide narrows in this country or turns into a chasm.

Unmasking our privacy, one tweet at a time

Illustration licensed through Creative Commons for transformative use. Find the original at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carrotcreative/ / CC BY 2.0

It was a brutal loss, the kind that sends UNC basketball fans into an emotional tailspin. Georgia Tech walloped the Tar Heels two weeks ago, adding insult to a season already full of physical and emotional injury.

There was no shortage of reactions. Commentators howled. Fans scowled. And the coaching staff seemed on the verge of exasperation.

The next day, two of the players found time to laugh at the misfortune.

It’s not a response you could have heard at a press conference or read in a newspaper article. The laughs came from the boisterous Twitter account of freshman guard Dexter Strickland, who posted a goofy pic of how he and teammate John Henson attempt to attend class incognito on days after losses.

Such a lighthearted tone fits right in with Strickland’s twitter stream, no matter how rough the season gets. He’s joked about the embarrassment of being stared at by the bus stop after a loss, or in hearing ESPN commentators criticize the team. That’s when he’s not tweeting about class, his pet snake, boring hotel rooms or accidentally walking out of the grocery store without paying for bottled water.

Strickland is no anomaly. His account is merely the most lively example of an entire team (notably Henson, Will Graves, Ed Davis, and Larry Drew) that has embraced Twitter as the method of choice to broadcast the daily details that never make it into on-the-record interviews. Following them this season has softened my perspective on Tar Heel basketball. As a UNC grad I still get emotional watching games, but the losses have been much easier to take after hearing unfiltered accounts from the players on the court.

We forget they’re just kids, barely out of high school. Twitter makes that fact abundantly clear, and instantly puts their growing pains on the hardcourt into perspective. It personalizes the players and makes it more enjoyable to root for them even during bad seasons.

It also takes fan voyeurism to a whole new level. Pro athletes have learned to filter their Twitter accounts somewhat, pressured by the leagues and franchises who write their multi-million dollar checks not to post anything offensive. But in the college ranks, even players for a program that has millions of devoted fans garner just a few thousand Twitter followers. It’s just far enough under the radar that their every word won’t be scrutinized.

But I wonder, is it only a matter of time before one errant post is torn apart online?

Twitter is no stranger to sports. I blogged several weeks ago on the BCS’ attempts to use it for PR purposes. Georgia Tech’s coach, following that lopsided win against UNC, even used it to lash back at critics and defend the performance of his team.

But when you’re dealing with youngsters, privacy becomes an issue and a concern. We’ve all said stupid things in college. We probably said stupid things last week. What if they got out into the blogosphere for the world to see? It’s an almost inevitable result once you’re accustomed to immediately broadcasting every thought. The nightmare happened just last month for University of Oregon wide receiver Jamere Holland, whose profanity-laced Facebook status updates cost him his collegiate football career.

The Internet is littered with such horror stories of the private error becoming a unerasable public humiliation. Many of the most horrifying are chronicled in The Future of Reputation, an excellent account by law professor Daniel Solove on the dangers of spreading too much information online. Discussing the book in class this week has served as an interesting counterpoint to the ethos of The Cluetrain Manifesto (another book assigned in my curriculum), which preaches the virtue of letting employees communicate directly to consumers without restrictions or filters.

Ideally we’d all like to hear an unedited account from the companies we buy from, the colleagues we spend time with or the athletes we cheer for. The tweets from UNC’s players have proven a wonderful way to lighten up an otherwise gloomy season. I hope they continue. But there’s a risk that can’t be forgotten with social media. As effectively as it can connect in an instant, it has the power to decimate reputations just as fast. That kind of power demands some degree of caution, or else victory in real life could be forever tarnished by stupidity in cyberspace.

Online: where advertisers no longer fear to tread

Imagine for a moment that you’re a small business owner. If you’ve survived this economic downturn, you’ve no doubt got passion, work ethic and a real talent in delivering what your company offers. What you probably don’t have is much of a marketing budget, or a lot of experience in conducting advertising campaigns.

Ten years ago advertising options would have been limited. You wouldn’t have the cash to be on the radar of major media companies, and there was no easy model to advertise online. It was pretty much Yellow Pages or billboards.

But now you’ve got two substantial choices. Those big media companies are desperate for ad dollars since car dealerships and retail chains are no longer thriving. So they’ve dispatched their attractive, charismatic ad reps onto your office with sweet talk on the “magic” of having a place in an established media brand. You probably grew up reading the newspaper or watching the TV program they’re selling space for, so the prospect is alluring.

On the other side is a nameless, faceless, utterly lifeless computer interface. In static pixels it promises to pair your ad to whatever specific audience you want to reach online. You decide where the audience will live and what they’re looking to find. You set your budget, and you only pay when potential customers click on your ads.

The verdict’s in, and it’s option two that is overwhelmingly proving the favored choice. That’s the approach taken by Google through its AdWords and AdSense programs that pair online ads to relevent search results or places them directly onto websites that have content matching the advertiser’s target demographic (my colleague Cory Morrison has a nice post summarizing how these programs work). Those programs now account for more than 95 percent of Google’s revenues, the cash cows for a company that rakes in several billion dollars of profit annually. For all the campaigning by legacy media that advertising can’t work online and nothing competes with the magic of a TV commercial, legions of business owners have voted otherwise with their marketing budgets.

This seismic shift in ad dollars is chronicled with precision in the fantastic book Googled. Written by Ken Auletta, a veteran in covering media issues, the book tracks the meteoric rise of the search engine giant, with the key turning point when the company figures out how to monetize its free search service by selling targeted ads.

For all the ways Google has upended the media pecking order, it’s in advertising where I feel it has made the most profound impact. Traditional media always depended on ads to survive. Newspaper circulation only accounts for around 20 percent of revenues. TV networks broadcast for free. Music labels and movie studios produce hits only if backed by expensive marketing campaigns.

But Google trashed that model by proving how a massive data network could more efficiently deliver ads. No more middlemen were needed. No need even for a big budget as long as you knew your target market. This single-handedly rocked the foundation of old media’s business model, and sent them scrambling to get online whether they liked it or not.

This has major implications for journalists and PR professionals, since the platforms where they deliver content are financed by ads. For too long their bosses haven’t embraced online platforms for fear they won’t produce ad revenue. In the pay-per-click model Google uses, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a website isn’t filled with good content it will get little traffic and thus produce little revenue.

Today, most legacy media companies say they can only charge 5 to 10 percent for online ads compared to print. But it’s hard to see that continuing. As the book points out, people on average consume 20 percent of their media online, yet only 9 percent of advertising spending is placed there. For all the billions the search giant has raked in by making online advertising simple, there are billions more to be claimed if someone figures out how to follow Google’s lead.

Could citizen journalism learn something from eBay?

Take any complex and controversial news story published online — today’s big headline on the final push to enact health care reform is a good example — and you’ll stumble across dozens if not hundreds of strong opinions in the comments section whether you’re getting the story from CNN, The Washington Post or any other reputable news source.

Stimulating debate, and providing a diversity of opinions, is a hallmark of good journalism. But even the most passionate advocate of “citizen journalism” is hard pressed to give credibility to story comments, many of which are anonymous screeds with few if any facts conveyed.

But what if we could legitimately evaluate the credibility of these posters beyond just clicking a “like” or “recommend” button? Those options merely state how many people agree with the opinion, not whether the information presented by that poster is accurate and truthful.

Such a system of evaluating credibility among thousands of posters seems impossible, but it’s already in place at any successful online auction site. Whether you shop for goods at an all-purpose auction site like eBay or a niche site like Etsy, an integral part of the process is evaluating the reputation of each seller. Without a system that’s reliable in determining which users can be trusted, the entire business model of brokering online sales falls apart.

While far from perfect, these systems take into account evaluations from every buyer on the site and compile them into algorithms that flag sellers with poor reviews while rewarding those who deal honestly. It relies heavily on user feedback of course, but since people are putting up their own money to participate in online auctions, they’re usually more than happy to weigh in on the merits (or lack thereof) of a specific seller.

Contrast this approach with the free-for-all that passes for discussion in the comments section of most important news stories. Outrageous claims are made alongside some more thoughtful observations, all mixed together in a format that offers no insight to which commentators are reliable sources.

For starters, news sites could at least report how many times a user has posted a comment or how often he/she has been tagged for abuse. The truly innovative could take a page out of eBay’s playbook and devise a way to credibly evaluate each poster. That system has proven it can build up trust to pay a complete stranger online. Maybe it can also build up trust in the credibility of citizen journalism.

The objections to objectivity

At the dawn of my journalism career, I sat in a college classroom and listened as a central tenant of my new profession was ripped to shreds.

Ripped apart by a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist no less.

That man was Allister Sparks, a distinguised reporter and editor from South Africa whose front-line work exposing the corruption in his nation’s apartheid government had won him international respect and acclaim. Sparks was now a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaching a small seminar course to a handful of undergraduate journalism majors that included myself.

Just a sophomore at the time, my reporting experience was limited to a single internship and a bunch of articles for the Daily Tar Heel. It was still enough time to have the idea of objectivity firmly entrenched into my code of ethics, to the extreme that I would measure the column inches I gave each speaker at a debate — regardless if one had more interesting or insightful things to say — to make sure my coverage was equal and no one could accuse me of bias.

But the notion of objectivity, so engrained in the fundamentals of my intro journalism classes, was promptly tossed out the window by Sparks. Over the course of several classroom periods we debated how merely providing balanced coverage of both sides does readers a disservice. Sparks argued that only subjective choices regarding what is honest, morally sound and relevent produced reporting on controversial issues that made a difference. Had he taken the neutral route, Sparks said, his reporting would have merely propped up the injustices of apartheid rather than pushed the nation to democracy.

That class didn’t instantly make me a convert. But it planted a seed that grew over the next eight years as I worked in print journalism. Time and time again the “objective” reports simply transcribed two opposing views without any insight into which had merit, while the meaningful investigative pieces carried a fact-based viewpoint that highlighted the important information while dismissing the trivial. Over time I came around to the idea that true objectivity in journalism, even if obtainable, could never deliver the change and enlightenment the profession seeks to create.

Others monitoring the industry have also come around to this idea. Among those is Robert McChesney, whose exhaustive critique of the modern media landscape continues to dominate much of my class discussions for graduate school. McChesney derides objectivity as a tool inserted into the standard protocol of “professional” journalism by elites hoping to maintain the status quo. If reporters are shackled from revealing too much information that favors a particular side, then even dishonest positions can maintain credibility in the eyes of the public.

It’s one thing to be fair and accurate in reporting. It’s quite another to ignore obvious truths because doing so would reveal your preconceived beliefs and bias on a topic.

Strangely enough, it’s this desire to be freed from objectivity that has propelled me into public relations, an industry McChesney (and many of my old journalism colleagues) deride as ethically bankrupt for spinning facts to suit an agenda. There’s no doubt that does take place in some corners of the industry. But at its heart PR involves spreading information and viewpoints that need to be heard. If I help a courageous non-profit raise its voice to a large audience — as my fly-in project to Panama seeks to do — then I am reporting with a subjective agenda, but one that helps a worthwhile cause.

Objectivity has its merits, especially with regard to research papers and governmental reports. But when it comes to making a difference in communications, often the subjective approach proves more powerful.

Is PR the new partisan press?

Last fall I was helping a political newcomer with her campaign’s media relations, and it came time to warn her of PR’s limitations. I tried to explain that the press release I had written for her would not be reprinted in the local newspaper, but hopefully paraphrased to the extent that her views would be heard.

I ended up proving myself wrong when the newspaper printed quotes from the press release verbatim, without even calling her for a follow up. So much for my cautious view of PR’s power over print.

This is exactly the type of situation that would make Robert McChesney, a media critic and scholar whose book I’m now digesting for class, cringe with disgust. Or maybe he would just shake his head with acceptance. McChesney frequently makes the point that the PR industry has an ever-growing sphere of influence over what “objective” media report as news these days. The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. In a televised interview on PBS, McChesney points out that in the 1960s there was roughly the same number of PR professionals and  journalists in the workforce. But now there’s a 3-1 ratio in favor of PR.

This statement left my classmates debating whether the papers they had worked/interned for would ever resort to the practice of printing press releases. The views were mixed.

Practices are mixed as well. The half-dozen community papers I’ve worked/interned for during the past decade would never quote a press release for a major story, but for briefs and featurey pages the prepared statement sometimes came through unfiltered. Other times the press release got a rewrite, but the content and message remained unchanged.

The more and more newsroom staffs are decimated by layoffs, the more frequent this practice will become. If a staff is going to produce some meaningful stories — or even just a fully filled edition — on a shoestring budget with declining manpower, that often means resorting to PR for the minor stuff. Ideally all media outlets would print only staff-written copy, but the economics of the industry today force these companies to cut staff or fall into the red.

Is this the end of objective, unbiased journalism? Perhaps. But it’s also a great opportunity for worthy causes to get their message out directly to the public, provided that they’re willing to create content. There’s a void right now that honest, engaging PR can fill. A non-profit can’t always find a reporter to tell its story anymore, but if it figures out how to tell the story on its own, there are outlets to find an audience.

This concept goes against the modern-day standards of the unbiased news outlets. But that model is quickly falling away, both because it now struggles to turn a profit and because most readers still see journalism as biased anyway. It’s worth noting that the news industry began in this country using a highly partisan model, where papers printed information with a specific agenda. McChesney even praises this model in his book, talking about how the multitude of strong views ensured that those in power would always be challenged somewhere.

Could a news industry where PR has a prominent place mark a return to the partisan model? Hopefully the arguments and agendas will be carried out with more civility and honesty than they did circa 1800, but we shouldn’t automatically fear journalism with an agenda. What matters in the end is that every voice — be it through a reporter or through PR — still gets heard.