I had a chance to speak to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on 9 May 2013 about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and lingering security concerns in the city.
Recently a friend of mine invited me to talk to a group of high school seniors about the future of journalism. She teaches a class on entrepreneurship at a school in New York City. Every month she invites entrepreneurs from a wide variety of fields to speak to her kids about the ups and downs of being your own boss. Some of her previous speakers have been plumbers, real estate agents, lawyers, florists and automotive technicians. I was invited to be part of her “entrepreneurial journalism” discussion day.
I’d been asked to speak about my craft before at school events, so I knew what kinds of questions to expect. Why did you become a journalist? Do you make a lot of money? What is the most memorable article that you have written? Who is the most famous person you have interviewed? And like clockwork, all of those questions were asked of me.
But there is always a first time for everything. One student asked a question that even a lot of other journalists don’t know how to answer these days.
“I was thinking about becoming a newspaper reporter, but my mom told me newspapers are going out of business because of the Internet,” this student said. “But then I thought I could be an online reporter, and then my mom said no one makes money off the Internet. So my question to you is this: does it still make sense to become a journalist today?”
At first, I was actually stumped by the question. I mean, I should have expected it, considering that, yes, print media is a dead business model, and not many print media outlets have figured out a way to make money off of online advertising. I guess I was just more shocked to think that this student believes that all journalism is dead, and it wasn’t a viable career anymore.
I told the aspiring reporter that journalism is going through a major overhaul right now, and statistics show that there will be a drastic decline in traditional journalism jobs in the near future. But the world will still need journalists to report the news. If reporters stopped writing articles and interviewing people on TV, then bloggers and the Twitterati wouldn’t have anything to blog and tweet about. How journalists will be delivering the news (and getting paid) is still an open question.
Nonetheless, I told the listening students that this is also a very exciting time for journalism, as many enterprising journalists are experimenting with new ways the news will be delivered in the future. This is where I began to talk about my own journey into entrepreneurial journalism.
About eight years ago I went to a technology conference, where I sat in on a panel discussion on blogging. At the time I was intimidated about starting a blog, because it seemed really hard to do from my perspective. But the “veteran blogging” panelists were talking about how easy it was to start one and build an audience. So after the conference I said to myself I should just start a Blogger account and get writing. I started my first blog called Global Wire. This was my little space to write about my favorite topics: foreign policy, press freedom, international development and human rights. After a while, I started developing an audience of people who also cared about these issues. I also started receiving requests from other bloggers to help them with editing and writing their blogs. One of those requests came from the founders of a then new website called DigiActive, a start up that reported on tech trends in the online activism space. For two years I had the opportunity to work with some of the best writers, journalists and activists from all corners of the world. It was also an exciting time because technology was just emerging as an essential tool for social change.
After leaving DigiActive, I wanted to expand on that energy of advocacy journalism and technology on my blog and turn it into an actual business – Global Wire Associates. The blog now focuses on reporting on technology and innovation for social good with five staff writers overseeing it. In the last year alone we had the privilege to interview thought leaders in the field and report from a variety of conferences, such as Rio + 20 and the Clinton Global Initiative.
Unlike other online news start-ups that compete for online advertising, we make money selling consulting services and produce Internet trainings and topical webinars. Recently we launched Global Wire Books, our digital book publishing imprint, and we are currently developing a toolkit on best practices of electronic waste (e-waste) recycling we would like to sell in the future.
Advertising has always been the backbone of print journalism, but the Internet has really thrown that relationship out the window. Unfortunately, most newspapers and magazines will eventually either have to significantly reduce their staffs or shut down altogether due to the changing advertising climate.
Now there is this new debate about the rise of “native advertising,” which brings up a whole bunch of other questions about ethics in journalism and business. For right now, I would rather stay away from all forms of advertising just to maintain the integrity of the site. At least when you sell your own products and services, there is more transparency and accountability about how the site makes money. Native advertising, on the other hand, can bring a level of deception and even shadiness to a news site. “Native advertising is an absolute betrayal of the core principles of journalism,” said elite blogger Andrew Sullivan recently at paidContent Live. I’m not saying I have all the right answers for dealing with the financial side of entrepreneurial journalism either, but it might be a good time to rethink how journalism is paid for outside of advertising.
But I have to say, for a group of high school kids, they were really interested in what I was doing. For the rest of the class, the kids bounced off their ideas with me about their own imaginary news start-ups. Just listening to their ideas gave me hope for journalism’s future. Yes, it still makes sense to become a journalist today.
I look forward to the Boston Marathon every year. I’m a runner myself. I basically do three 10Ks a week just to maintain good health and well-being. I have never run a marathon before, but I admire others who do put the work into pushing through the whole 26.2 miles. I had three friends who ran the race this year. For two of them it was their first marathon. The third friend was running his fifth marathon.
I wished the three well the morning of the race on Twitter. It was a beautiful, crisp spring day on Heartbreak Hill. I watched the race on TV. Based on marathon racing trends from the last few years, it was a pretty safe bet that both the female and male running winners were going to be from East Africa. So the excitement for me is whether a non-African runner can break the trend. At the start of the women’s race all eyes were on hometown girl Shalane Flanagan and her running partner Kara Goucher. Near the middle of the race, all attention moved to Portuguese runner Ana Dulce Felix who took the lead for a while. But at the end – as expected – Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo grabbed the win.
After Jeptoo’s win, I attended a couple of business meetings with clients and then went out to do some errands. I got home around 2:30 and turned on the radio. Around 3 o’clock I heard a breaking news report that there was an explosion at the marathon. I was at first puzzled, and then I heard the reporter say that it might have been a gas pipe or manhole explosion. I didn’t much think about it after that since explosions of that nature were pretty common in Boston. So I turned off the radio.
An hour later I turned on my television and began channel surfing. I quickly realized that the explosions were being covered on all channels. They all kept replaying the same footage of two explosions going off and everyone running in hysteria. I immediately thought to myself that these could not be accidental explosions. I had a quick flashback to Sept. 11, 2001, when I saw the first plane fly into Tower One, and I thought that it was an accident until the second plane crashed into Tower Two.
No, those planes didn’t fly into the buildings by accident. And, no, those explosions at the race were no accident either.
I immediately called my three running buddies to see if they were okay. Luckily, they had all crossed the finish line and went home a half hour before the bombings. I then called my family just to see if they were alright. They didn’t attend the marathon, but events like these make you want to be closer to your loved ones.
My eyes were glued to the television for the rest of the night. It was so bizarre to see the explosions over and over again all over the international media. I walk up and down Boylston Street on a regular basis. I go to the Trader Joe’s almost every other day and pop into the Apple store to play around with their “iThings” or to take a Final Cut Pro class. Every once in a while, I visited the Marathon Sports store to see if they had any good sales on running gear.
“That could have been me standing there,” I said to myself as I repeatedly saw the first explosion go off in front of that store.
I have never had any close connection to a tragedy like this before. Two of the 9/11 planes came out of Logan Airport, but I didn’t personally know anyone who died or was injured by those events. And then there is this feeling that if you don’t have a real connection to a tragedy of this nature, you kind of feel like something like this could never happen to you. But this time it did, indirectly. The bombings really got to me in a way that I have never experienced before.
This was literally terror in my backyard.
The rest of that week became even more bizarre. First, the search for the bombers seemed to go cold, as no one could figure out who could have done this egregious act. Maybe the criminals had already left town? The Boston Marathon is an international sporting event that attracts runners from around the world. At first I thought the criminals could have been from out of town. The suspect could have plotted the whole event by posing as a runner and literally slipped away with everyone else escaping the explosions.
Here began the online hysteria. Reddit and Twitter junkies suddenly became detectives, searching through shared photos and videos from the race. Is it that guy with the black backpack? Who is that guy wearing a blue robe? Whatever became of Abdul Rahman Ali Al-Harbi? Whatever became of Sunil Tripathi? Are those two men in black working for Craft International? What the heck is a false flag?
And then there was the media hysteria. All the misinformation about who the suspects were. Al-Qaeda? White Nationalists? Tea Partiers? Anti-tax activists? Pro-gun nuts? A white guy? A dark-skinned male? The suspects were found and arrested before they were not found and not arrested, according to CNN. The two Arab guys looking in a different direction from the rest of the crowd in pictures kind of sort of look like the suspects, according to the New York Post.
Finally the moment of truth came when the FBI released the images of the two suspects who were not only white, but were literally Caucasian.
And then there was the car chase/shoot out/lock down. That morning I happened to be out running in my neighborhood, when I heard the news on my iPod that one suspect was dead, and the other one was on the loose in the Boston area. There had been a shoot out in Watertown a few hours earlier. The suspects were throwing grenades and possibly had IEDs strapped to their chests. Suicide bombers? This can’t possibly be happening in Boston. Maybe I had mistaken the news for some event happening in Baghdad or Beirut.
No, it was happening here alright, and I needed to get home fast. As I headed back to my house, I stopped to tell people standing at bus stops to go home because the T was shut down and the suspect could be anywhere. I got home and locked myself in… well, not really. But the whole Greater Boston area was asked to stay indoors, as to not accidentally become a target in another possible shoot out.
For the rest of the day I was on my computer reading up on the suspects. I read about Chechenya’s troubled past, the suspects’ possible Islamic beliefs, their mother’s criminal record, their Toronto-based aunt and Russia-based father saying this was an FBI set up, and their Maryland –based uncle calling them “losers.” I was again glued to my TV, watching all the events unfolding in Watertown, while peeking out of my window at a street void of any traffic or pedestrians. It was sunny and 75 degrees outside – the warmest day of the year so far – and all of Boston was stuck inside.
Of course, when the lock down is finally lifted, the real drama hit its peak when the surviving suspect is found, in all places, a boat in someone’s backyard. I heard shots again on the television. It looked like this suspect was going out blazing. But instead, he surrenders to everyone’s relief. I can finally breathe normally again for the first time since the bombings.
However, I also know that there will be times as the trial proceedings are prepared and more information is revealed about the suspects and victims, my breathing and my heart will run fast at times. But I am going to run my 10Ks faster; not only because it relieves stress and inspires better self-awareness, but also because life goes on. We all have to move on, be stronger and overcome this adversity. I am willing to bet that twice the number of people will want to register to run the 2014 Boston Marathon. Who knows, I might just run that race next year too. There might be terror in my backyard, but not in my heart.
My team and I have been going to a whirlwind of tech conferences lately, the most recent one being the Global Conference on Citizen Voices for Enhanced Development Impact hosted by the World Bank in Washington D.C. last week. This gathering focused on innovative uses of technology and open data to support better engagement between governments and their citizens. From interacting with elected officials on Twitter, to finding details online about a new public infrastructure, digital media has made the world a smaller place, as citizens can now access information, track delivery of services and sound off about community problems all with a click.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim spoke to the crowd about the “science of service delivery” and how technology has broken down walls and created more transparency in how organizations are run today.
“Whether it’s bed nets, or medicines, or textbooks, or roads, we know a lot about what could make lives better—but not always how to ensure that these goods and services reach those that need it most,” Kim said. “If we can help governments and other actors overcome these failures in implementation, we could truly ‘bend the arc of history’ and rapidly bring millions out of poverty and boost prosperity. Citizens can help provide critical information for solving complex delivery programs.”
The World Bank has not been known for its transparency. As a matter of fact, many critics have said the organization has a long history of not being accountable to the public. Kim himself acknowledged that he protested the Bank 20 years ago about these issues. Since he took over the Bank last summer, Kim has pushed hard internally with a more open agenda with many new initiatives. The first ones being the access to Information policy, Open Data, and the Open Knowledge Repository – all of which are designed to increase access to information at the Bank and to make its research as widely available as possible. Also, the Bank created the Global Partnership for Social Accountability last year, “which is providing knowledge and financing to civil society organizations to strengthen citizen voice in development,” Kim said.
Jay Naidoo, Chair of the Board of Directors and the Partnership Council of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), reminded the audience that while technology has created unprecedented access, it is not the total picture and these issues still need to be put into perspective.
“I haven’t seen a country run by Facebook or Twitter yet,” Naidoo said. “The reality is that technology platforms are one part of the equation of building democracies and building deeper engagement.”
Jean-Claude Kibala N’Kolde, Minister of Public Works for the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke on how mobile technology has supported better governance in his country. The DRC has suffered a great deal due to the many civil wars and human rights abuses going on within the country. Many Congolese living in poverty felt left out of the process of how their communities were financed. Recently government officials started organizing community meetings in one area as an experiment to discuss budget issues with citizens through text messaging. Citizens continued to interact with these officials on their mobiles about other problems in their communities.
This new open relationship has been a success for both the government and its citizens. N’Kolde said citizens are now paying their taxes because they realize that the government can’t afford to pay for infrastructure issues on its own. Also, the government has reassessed its budget priorities based on citizen input, such as building a bridge the citizens want instead of a school the government wanted to build.
“There was a real responsibility among the citizens, as they felt empowered,” N’Kolde said.
There were many other examples throughout the conference about Government 2.0 globally. Luis Revilla Herrero, Mayor of La Paz, Bolivia, discussed how residents in his city play a proactive part in improving their quality of life and urban improvement services through the True Neighborhoods program, also by way of mobile technology. Ana Guerrini, a city official from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spoke about how citizens are pressuring government officials on Facebook to do better inspections for dengue fever.
The private sector was also well represented at the conference with lessons for public officials. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark mentioned that he created his popular site as a simple way to connect with others. Newmark views himself as a customer service representative first and spends an hour a day just dealing with customers.
“You don’t need to do big things; just what helps others get through the day,” Newmark said. “Listen, act, repeat forever.”
Luther Lowe, public policy director at Yelp, said that his organization spends a great deal of time thinking about how to be “transformational.” This week, Yelp launched a service where users can view public health inspection records for restaurants in San Francisco. To his surprise, the city’s public health department is not to pleased about this data being exposed because it might create friction between inspectors and restaurant owners.
This brings up other issues about transparency: how open is too open? Are there certain things that just should not be available to everyone online? Are there limits to good customer service? Is there a threshold customers and engaged citizens must meet to get the public and private sectors to pay attention to their needs? Is there a threshold public and private sectors must meet to be accountable to those they serve? These are questions we will continue to find answers for in the months and years to come. Many conference attendees online are also open to this discussion as well.
“Technology is like democracy itself: deeply flawed, but the best we’ve got so far,” tweeted Frontline SMS.
Today’s correct answer is tomorrow’s wrong answer,” tweeted Edith Jibunoh of the One Campaign. “Be flexible to the changing answer.”
Acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley was first introduced to his craft when his mother enrolled him in art school as a child while living in South Central Los Angeles. He used to visit museums and read art history books with paintings from the Renaissance age of chivalrous white men looking poignantly at their viewers. Wiley realized early on that these larger than life portraits were more about representing the levels of access, power and racial identity in society. Wiley has been on a journey to explore these issues ever since. He recently came to town to deliver a 10-year retrospective on his work and discuss the evolution of identity politics in art.
Wiley started his career taking pictures of black men in the streets of Harlem. He mainly focused on the power politics of hair and black masculinity. He would invite the models up to his studio, where they would also view the portraits in his art books, asking “who are all these old white dudes?” Like Wiley, most of the models were from areas that didn’t have access to this kind of art, which again explains the power dynamics in society.
Wiley took his craft to another level with the “World Stage” series, his best known work of fusing traditional art with the contemporary street life of men of color around the world. The series began in China, where he was invited to work in a studio in Beijing. Wiley had his African-American models assume poses from Chinese communist propaganda posters. He says the models and the original people in the posters seemed to share the same characteristics of false hope through their smiles.
“The idea is more than a painting on a wall; this painting is a social wall,” Wiley said. “I wanted to capture that social history.”
Wiley then took his World Stage, well, around the world. From Tunisia to Senegal to India to Brazil, Wiley has captured the contemporary black male experience like never done before. He recalled his time in Israel setting up shoots in the back of Tel Aviv night clubs and asking for drunken models. Many of the Israeli portraits are of Ethiopians and native-born Jews and Arab Israelis. Wiley says the experience opened his eyes up in many ways about the Arab-Israeli conflict. One frame of a painting of an Ethiopian poser says “Can We All Just Get Along” in Hebrew, referring to the Rodney King beating incident.
In Rio de Janeiro, the model interaction was much more challenging, as he had to travel through the favelas with a camera crew and security guards with AK-47s. He did one shoot at a woman’s home when word got out that an American was paying a lot of money for models, and a queue of people suddenly showed up at the house. In other countries he has visited, Wiley found many people to be reluctant or even hostile towards a camera crew coming into their area.
“Often times it’s hard to get models, but sometimes there are people who want to be discovered,” Wiley said. “There are people who are like ‘of course you found me.’”
Nowadays, Wiley doesn’t have a hard time getting models. He has been commissioned in recent years to produce paintings for the World Cup and Michael Jackson. Usually when he hosts opening receptions for his work, Wiley invites his models back to view the final products. Many of them love the work; in fact, some of the models use their portraits on social media profiles.
Wiley’s work has finally come full circle.
“I am always wondering if there is a social good in this work,” he said. “I meet young artists around the world who now feel it’s possible to be a part of this world.”
Cyber security gained attention again last week as both the United States and the European Union put forth strategies for combating the growing threat of cyber attacks. The European Commission released its new plan, An Open, Safe and Secure Cyberspace, which seeks to “ensure a secure and trustworthy digital environment throughout the EU” with three main strategies:
• Each member state must set up a computer emergency response team (Cert).
• Each member state must nominate a competent authority to deal with network and information security, to which companies would report breaches. These authorities need to have plans for dealing with major incidents.
• Specific sectors – such as banking, transport, energy, health, internet companies and public administrations – must adopt risk management practices and report major incidents.
During his State of the Union address, President Obama announced his new executive order on cyber security. While many have already panned the order for either being anti-business or being weaker than what his administration had proposed two years ago, Obama stressed the importance of moving forward on securing the nation’s networks.
“Now, we know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private emails,” Obama said. ”We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy”
Just in the last two weeks alone, Facebook, The New York Times and the U.S. Federal Reserve have become the latest victims of hacking. While some of the efforts to address cyber attacks should be applauded, have strict cyber security strategies become another contributor to the digital divide?
I happened to attend a great talk last week where Jenna Burrell, UC Berkeley professor and author of Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, argues that the fear of online fraud and hacking in Western countries are possibly creating Internet access barriers in developing countries. Burrell, an ethnographer by training, spent six years researching Internet cafe culture among young, middle-income Ghanaians.
She said that many websites that Westerners commonly use like Amazon, PayPal and Match.com have their IP addresses completely blocked in many African countries. Burrell said she attempted to log into Amazon and PayPal accounts while in Ghana and her accounts were either suspended or detoured to another page to confirm that she really was who she said she was. According to Burrell, the dating website Plenty of Fish blocks “all major traffic from Africa (yes, the whole continent of Africa!), Romania, Turkey, India and Russia.”
I have traveled to many countries throughout the developing world, and I have seen some of the issues Burrell has witnessed myself. I remember traveling through South Africa and Botswana a few years ago, and noticing that when I looked up certain e-commerce websites, I was also detoured to another webpage. The detoured page usually said that I was not allowed to look at that website. At first I thought there was a random problem with my Internet connection, until a Tanzanian business partner I was traveling with told me that it was common for the IP addresses of major online companies to be blocked because of this fraud fear. Interesting to note I have seen less blockage in countries where there is a high rate of Western tourists, like Thailand and Jamaica.
Mind you, online fraud and hacking is a big problem, and cyber criminals can be found in every corner around the world. We have all received those annoying Nigerian emails seeking financial help for a family member who wants to go to school in America. But it seems a bit harsh and unfair to punish a whole continent, let alone a whole country, for the criminal actions of a few people. Web address blocking also slows down the ability for many in the developing world to participate in the global economy, where so much about our way of life in general are more dependent on Internet access. The New York Times was hacked by Chinese infiltrators, but there isn’t a movement to block IP addresses of Western companies in China? In fact, since China is considered an “emerging market,” many major businesses have an online presence in the country, including Amazon and PayPal.
Redlining is the practice of denying access to services and products to a particular group of people. In the United States, redlining is mostly associated with housing and credit discrimination against low-income African-Americans. The severe IP blockage in Africa and other developing countries makes one wonder if there is some kind of cyber redlining happening.
However, when is country-level IP address blocking justified? There seems to be a fine line here between online censorship and free enterprise. Legally, one can’t tell a private firm where they can and can not do business. Companies such as Amazon likely do thorough market analysis of countries before they enter into a business relationship with them. One analysis may look at “risks” and maybe Amazon feels that Ghana is too technologically risky not only because of the higher risk of online fraud, but it is also not commercially viable since Ghana is mostly a cash-based economy.
Over the last five years, many African governments have started to require new mobile phone users to register their SIM cards in the hope of reducing cyber attacks. Nonetheless, more education is needed on this subject, especially in Western countries where Internet access can be taken for granted. I want to do my part by bringing this issue up to the attention of my readers. If you know of any IP address blocking going on anywhere in the world, you can report it to Herdict, a portal that “collects and disseminates real-time, crowdsourced information about Internet filtering, denial of service attacks, and other blockages.”