Foglio's Field Notes

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Archive for the ‘media’ Category

Worldchanging.com Acquired by Architecture for Humanity

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Well, the cat’s finally out of the bag — Architecture for Humanity has acquired my former employer Worldchanging.com. As a member of AfH’s Worldchanging transition advisory group, I’ve been sworn to secrecy for several months. But now I’m thrilled to be able to share this announcement with you:

Architecture for Humanity Acquires Worldchanging.

Will merge with the Open Architecture Network to develop a robust center for applied innovation and sustainable development.

San Francisco, CA (September 19, 2011) Architecture for Humanity is honored to announce the acquisition of Worldchanging, a leader in solutions-based journalism, and to merge its’ assets with the Open Architecture Network to create a robust and informed network to bring solutions to global challenges to life.

It’s an exciting match, since design increasingly includes discussions of policy and planning, communication, social justice and science; issues that once fell outside the traditional bounds of architecture are now at the heart of professional practice. Bringing these two worlds together is a logical next step in sustainable development.

Cameron Sinclair, Executive Director of Architecture for Humanity, says, “We are thrilled to connect with the Worldchanging community in order to expand the ways we can continue to make a difference across the world. Each project we do requires innovative solutions, resourcefulness, and passion.  It’s a perfect fit.”

Architecture for Humanity is thankful to the Board of Directors of Worldchanging for their hard work in helping create a smooth transition.

“I am grateful to the Worldchanging Board of Directors for their active stewardship of Worldchanging during this transition” said Stephanie Pure, Board President of Worldchanging. “Thanks in part to this positive team effort, Worldchanging has a bright future with Architecture for Humanity.”

Over the next six months Architecture for Humanity plans to transform their current Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org, an on-line network that empowers architects, designers, builders and their clients to share architectural plans and drawings, into a robust platform that provides dialogue and tools to support a shared vision of a more sustainable future across sectors.  The combined strength of these communities, both created out of the TED Prize, will help spur innovation, learning, and best practices.

The new site, which will be managed by an independent entity, will include project management tools, offer case studies on innovative solutions and provide tools for aid and development organizations evaluate their programs in the field.

“Last decade was about imagining the solutions that could help us meet big planetary problems,” said Worldchanging co-founder and former Executive Editor Alex Steffen. “This decade will be all about putting those solutions to work. This exciting new version of Worldchanging is set, I believe, to become the online epicenter of applied innovation.”

Over the summer, Architecture for Humanity met with over sixty writers, contributors, stakeholders and supporters to envision the transition of these sites. “Worldchanging has helped frame the global conversation on sustainability over the past seven years, and we couldn’t be more excited for Architecture for Humanity to take the reins and continue to push the boundaries of what we can achieve together,” Worldchanging co-founder Jamais Cascio noted “I can’t imagine Worldchanging being in better hands.”

Many of the original writers to Worldchanging, including co-founders Jamais Cascio and Alex Steffen, have signed up to contribute to the new site. We look forward to a bright green future together.

Read the full announcement here.

Written by leifutne

September 19, 2011 at 2:43 pm

RIP: Worldchanging.com

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Dearly beloved, please join me in a moment of silence to honor the life and untimely passing of another member of our media family. On Monday, November 29, one of the most important websites of the past decade, Worldchanging.com, announced that it will close up shop by the end of 2010. The main reason? The non-profit organization never was able to achieve financial sustainability without editor Alex Steffen maintaining an insane schedule of speaking gigs (more than 400 in the past 5 years). I’m proud to have been involved with Worldchanging, as a fan, contributor, employee and friend. I will miss it dearly.

In its seven-year run, Worldchanging has been an important intellectual watering hole for people interested in the intersection of sustainability and innovation. Under the banner of “tools, models and ideas for building a better future” the site has produced an impressive archive of nearly 12,000 articles on a broad range of subjects, from architecture to agriculture, climate science to microfinance, nanotech to urban design. Fortunately, that archive will live on, says the announcement: “It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.” Also, a revised and updated edition of the bestselling 2006 book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century is due out in March 2011.

Worldchanging served as both a launchpad for important new voices — like Cameron Sinclair, Dawn Danby, Sarah Rich, David Zaks and Anna Lappé, among many others — and a new platform for some venerable old hands — like Gil Friend, Terry Tempest Williams, Joel Makower, Jon Lebkowsky and Jay Walljasper. The list of contributors to the site and its eponymous book reads like a who’s who of some of the most respected thinkers and doers in sustainability circles. Worldchanging’s contribution to the public conversation about our common future is undeniable.

I first learned about Worldchanging shortly after its launch in 2003. The site quickly became my favorite source for story ideas about emerging trends in technology and social innovation during my last few years as a writer and editor at Utne Reader. I loved the focus on solutions that co-founders Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio and their team brought to a range of subjects I care about deeply, which they nicely captured with the optimistic catchphrase “bright green.”

I went to work for Worldchanging in late 2006, when I left Utne Reader and moved to Seattle. I joined the team as Publisher, alongside Steffen as Editor (Cascio had left early that year), just before the launch of one of the organization’s crowning achievements, the 600-page book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, a compendium of ideas and solutions in the spirit of the old Whole Earth Catalog. The book would become a bestseller and was translated into French, German and several other languages.

We were trying to leverage the attention generated by the book, and the momentum from a major grant from the folks at TED, to grow the site from its origins as a group blog into a professional, multi-channel idea factory. And we wanted to do it our own way, bootstrapping our growth through a variety of diverse revenue streams without having to rely on the largesse of foundations or large donors (and avoiding the inevitable strings attached). We created a series of local blogs covering the green innovation scenes in places like LA, Chicago, Austin, New York, Minneapolis and Canada. And we had big dreams of launching audio and video podcasts, conferences, book series, and turning the contributor team into a speakers bureau and consulting team. My job was to focus on building new revenue streams — initially reader donations, content sponsorships, and ads — to facilitate that growth and ease the pressure on Alex to bring in speaking fees.

Our efforts saw modest success, though nothing anywhere near what we had hoped. I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely ready for the role. I had some successful experience in both software sales and nonprofit fundraising. But I had no training or experience in media sales. I had agreed to unrealistically high revenue goals and had to learn on the job while setting up a sales operation entirely from scratch with no budget. There were other challenges inherent to the site’s content and the business model we were pursuing in an ad-driven media landscape, which I’ll elaborate on below.

In March of 2007, six months after I started, I left the staff mainly for personal reasons — my wife and I had moved to Guatemala to foster the baby boy we adopted later that year. In the three years since then, Worldchanging has continued to produce some of the best, most important content available, despite its continued financial struggles.

In the end, I believe Worldchanging’s demise was due in large part to the organization’s inability to craft a business model that could surmount several challenges endemic to the current ad-driven media ecosystem. (Again, I haven’t been privy to the inner workings of the organization for the past three years. So my analysis could be way off base, or at least out of date):

  • Too General-Interest for Advertisers: In an era when sponsors insist on carving audiences into ever-smaller and more specialized niches, Worldchanging was never quite niche enough. The site was simply too broad, too eclectic, too general-interest for advertisers to fit into their ultra-narrow targeting algorithms. This is not a problem with the content, but with the advertising model. More financially successful sites in the green space focused heavily on a marketable niche, like product reviews (Treehugger), business (GreenBiz.com), architecture and design (Inhabitat) or green news and politics (Grist, which also had major foundation support and a 5-year headstart). We were also reluctant to go after most big corporate brands with large marketing budgets. We didn’t want to help them greenwash their images. And most of the cool green companies were too small and were spending all of their meager ad dollars on search engine ads. This is one of the great tragedies of the modern media ecosystem: general-interest publications, whether online or in print, simply can’t compete. It’s the shadow side of narrowcasting.
  • Not Enough Traffic: Online, as in print, there basically are two ways to attract advertisers — scale and targeting. With enough traffic, you can overcome the niche problem. But we were never big enough to do that. And a couple months into my tenure at Worldchanging, after implementing several stats programs, we learned that our real traffic was significantly smaller than what our raw server logs were telling us. With more time and capital we might have successfully carved out a clearer niche in advertisers’ minds.
  • The “Blog” Problem: Even with some of the brightest minds in the field writing for the site, and despite our efforts to reposition it as an online magazine, advertisers were reluctant to sponsor what they saw as a “blog” where most of the content came from volunteers with no editorial calendar or strong professional editorial filter. Advertisers crave predictability.
  • Focus on Ideas: The site also suffered from its focus on ideas rather than products — something Utne Reader always struggled with as well. In the name of editorial integrity (to his credit), Alex steadfastly refused to add features like green product reviews — the sort of content advertisers will pay top dollar to sponsor. In 2007-08 there was a valiant attempt to appeal more to sponsors while maintaining editorial independence by introducing a stable of weekly columns, with writers paid to cover certain beats. I was gone by then and don’t know the details of the impact the move had, but obviously the new editorial model did not succeed in turning the Worldchanging ship around.
  • Progressive Funders Reluctant to Fund Media: As my friend Bill Weaver says, media makers are the modern sorcerers. Changing the stories we tell can change the way people think. Yet foundations and investors interested in social change have never seemed to get the need to support media. Conservative foundations and corporations supporting the status quo got this long ago, which is why we’ve been outgunned for a generation by the right-wing media and punditocracy.
  • The Economy: It sounds cliche now, but unfortunately it’s true. The cruelest irony of the Great Recession is that so many of the organizations that are rethinking our social, political and economic systems are entirely dependent on funding derived from the existing, unsustainable, consumption-driven economy. And those sources of funding are drying up on every front, whether it’s dwindling consumer spending, shrinking ad budgets, or cutbacks in foundation grants because of the downturn on Wall St.

I’m sad to have to write these words. Though just as sadly, I’m not surprised. Worldchanging changed my world in so many ways. My hat’s off to Alex, Jamais and all of the incredible visionaries who had a hand in this project over the past seven years. Thank you, thank you, and again, thank you. I look forward to seeing what we all created together live on in some form, and I wish you all success in whatever comes next.

Written by leifutne

December 3, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Open Gov West Conference, March 26-27, Seattle City Hall

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Open Gov West is just three weeks away! Hosted by Seattle’s new mayor Mike McGinn and organized by my amazing friend Sarah Schacht, ED of Knowledge as Power, this confab promises to be one of this year’s hottest local/regional gatherings on open government, Gov2.0, transparency, citizen engagement, open data and all sorts of related awesomeness. I’m proud to say I’m a co-convener. If you hail from the Pacific Northwest, or are just interested in Gov2.0 and can get yourself to Seattle for this, I hope to see you there.

Check out the press release below for details. And to register or find out more, visit the conference website, http://opengovwest.com.

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PRESS RELEASE

Open Gov West – setting the standards for Gov 2.0 in Seattle

Open Gov West is a regional two-day conference on open government hosted by the City of Seattle and Knowledge As Power on March 26th & 27th, 2010 at Seattle City Hall. Coordinated by Knowledge As Power and supported by Mayor McGinn’s office and Seattle City Council members, this important gathering will bring together decision makers, technology companies and citizen activists, city and state government, agencies and organizations from across the Pacific Northwest. The conference opens at Seattle City Hall on March 26th with a government work summit, producing open government recommendations and resources.   Day two will be an “unconference” where presentations are given by conference participants. Attendees at day two range from innovative open gov organizations, government CTOs and citizen activists. The two days will provide opportunities for governments and organizations to collaborate, reduce costs, and plan open government strategies.

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‘Gov 2.0’, utilizing technology to increase transparency and access to government, is rapidly developing at city, state and federal levels of government.  As yet there are no universal standards for how governments present data, or how citizens can most effectively communicate with government.  Some recent examples of information provided by governmental and agency websites are overly complicated and poorly structured, more confusing than illuminating.

Sarah Schacht is Director of Knowledge As Power, a convener and organizer of Open Gov West.  She began researching the application of web communications in politics as an undergraduate. A decade later, her research and work across the North America has shown why the Open Gov West conference is important: “Governments must meet the needs of modernized citizens seeking greater access and transparency.  The danger is in each government ‘re-inventing the wheel,’ overspending on technology when they could have modernized their systems in collaboration with fellow governments.
This is the time for open gov initiatives to meet the needs of citizens and governments—freeing both from outdated technology”.

Governments throughout the greater Pacific Northwest and Canada have recently launched open government directives. Open Gov West is an opportunity to bring leaders in technology innovation, government and civic engagement together at the start of the open gov process, to establish shared standards and partnerships.
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Open Gov West is organized by Knowledge As Power (KAP), a 501c3 whose mission is to help individuals become informed and effective within the legislative process. By providing online legislation tracking and citizen-to-legislator communications tools, KAP helps busy individuals easily and meaningfully participate in the lawmaking process.  KAP’s service currently covers the Washington State Legislature and will soon launch a service for the Seattle City Council.
http://opengovwest.com
http://knowledgeaspower.org
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For more information, contact Sarah Schacht, Executive Director, Knowledge As Power at 206-909-2684 or director@knowledgeaspower.org

Written by leifutne

March 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Issue Ads: New way to fund journalism, or a fool’s bargain?

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Last weekend at the Journalism that Matters-Pacific Northwest conference, Bart Preecs proposed an intriguing new business model for funding coverage of the Washington State legislature. He pointed out that issue advertising — those  is the only ad category that is growing right now. Last August, BusinessWeek blogger Jon Fine wrote:

For the foreseeable future, and for that matter probably forever, we are in a world where major legislative battles will be accompanied by major ad campaigns… Through mid-August, $436 million had been spent on issue-related ads this year.

That roiling font of cash is awfully enticing, especially in a down economy where the job category of “professional journalist” is beginning to look almost as anachronistic as “typesetter” or “bootblack.” According to Bart, $52 million was spent in 2009 on lobbying the Washington State government. Just one percent of that could fund a decent online journalistic operation, adding several full-time reporters to the state capitol press corps. To capture that revenue, Bart proposed creating a web-based directory listing all of the organizations that spend that money. Each directory page would include info about an organization and a summary of its legislative priorities and positions. It would also include links to other organizations opposing its positions on those issues. As in the Yellow Pages, the listed organizations could pay a premium to sponsor a large section of the page, which could include their own written statements on the issues, perhaps with links to their position papers, or banner or video ads about their positions.

I have a couple of concerns about this business model:

1. I’m not sure it’s viable. What is the incentive for a lobby group to spend money on a premium listing, especially on a directory page that includes links to their opponents, when they can already get their messages out unfiltered via existing TV, radio, print and online ad buys? Organizations like the Washington Hospital Association or the Washington Association of Realtors are generally more interested in drawing public attention to the issues as they frame them and often shy away from attention to themselves. That’s why there are so many “astroturf” (fake grassroots) front groups. This raises questions about who the intended users of this directory would be. The general public, or political insiders? For the general public, such a directory would be a great resource, bringing more transparency to the murky sausage-making that happens in Olympia. But those advertisers aren’t promoting transparency with their dollars. They’re trying to sway legislators’ votes, which too often means clouding the issues by rallying public opinion around hot buttons like “big government,” “cap-and-tax,” and “socialism!” If, however, the site is targeted at political insiders, maybe a subscription model, or a freemium service would be better.

2. Increasing reliance on issue-ad dollars to fund political journalism may be bad for political journalism (and for democracy). Lobby groups are boosting their ad spending for a reason. It gives them a platform to deliver their messages directly to the public, unfiltered by journalistic scrutiny. The vast (and growing) majority of that money is coming from well-heeled interests often pushing messages that are very harmful to the public and the planet. Consider, for example, the barrage of ads last year against Obama’s healthcare reform proposal, or the Employee Free Choice Act, or the campaigns greenwashing nuclear power, so-called “clean coal,” and companies like Exxon and BP.

Such ads make this progressive’s skin crawl. And the FCC can’t regulate them for truth the way the FDA regulates health claims or the FTC polices truth-in-advertising for consumer products. I fear that creating more real-estate for such messages will outweigh the public good from the journalism those ads help to underwrite.

I realize it may not sound like it, but I’m a staunch advocate of free speech, an actual card-carrying member of the ACLU. And I’m not naive enough to think I can just wish those ads away.

What we need is to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast media. For online media like the lobbying directory Bart proposes, we need a code of ethics and some new practices around truth-in-advertising. I’d suggest:

  1. All advertising must be clearly marked as paid-for by the sponsor, for obvious reasons; and
  2. User comments should be enabled on all political ads. User comments would allow advertisers’ claims to be challenged in the same forum where they appear, and would engage the audience actively in the discussion/debate on the issues. Some online ad networks, including Federated Media, have tested ads that enable user comments. I would personally be impressed with advertisers who are willing to engage in a conversation with their audience in this way. But I have doubts about it’s attractiveness to most of the big money advertisers, which brings us right back to square one.

I commend Bart’s initiative. We are all desperately seeking new business models to fund the political journalism that is so vital to a functioning democracy, and drinking from the firehose of issue ad dollars is tempting. But unless we can come up with effective ways to safeguard against unethical ads and promote greater transparency, we may be making a fool’s bargain.

Written by leifutne

January 13, 2010 at 6:25 pm