Archive - Feb 2010

February 28th

Thinking about Citizen Journalism

In 2008, I attended a New England News Forum where there was a long discussion about ‘Citizen Journalism’. After the event, I wrote a blog entry, I am not a Citizen Journalist. Today, I was on a conference call helping plan a ‘Citizen Journalism’ preconference to a national media conference and I received an email from an honor student majoring in English with a minor in journalism who had written to ask my thoughts about citizen journalism. It seems like a good chance to think a little bit more about Citizen Journalism.

The student asked several interesting questions which I thought it might be useful to put into a blog post. She asked, “What do you deem citizen journalism? Why do you think others view it as an insult?”

Let me start off by presenting what I see as idealistic and as cynical views of citizen journalism.

Ideally, every citizen of our great country should have access to what is happening in our government. They should be able to take this information and synthesize ideas about what our government can do better to meet the needs of its people. They should be able to write and distribute these ideas in an open discussion that we can all learn from. Not only should they be able to do this, but they should feel a civic compunction to do so. This is the ideal of citizen journalism I would like to see more of and aspire to.

On the other hand, there are plenty of bloggers that take third hand information combined with talking points crafted by one advocacy organization or another to produce poorly written and poorly thought out screeds about something politicians are doing wrong.

Professional journalists with degrees from great journalism schools, who are struggling to get by in these days of contraction of the news industry cynically point to such bloggers to illustrate why citizen journalism is bad and why you need paid journalists with good journalism degrees. As much as I deplore such writing as the anti-thesis of what good citizen journalism should be, I must admit that I’ve probably produced some ill-written nasty screeds myself.

To channel Joni Mitchell briefly, it’s citizen journalism’s illusions I recall. I am careful about how I use the phrase citizen journalism. If I am speaking with someone that seeks with me increasingly informed participation in our civic institutions, then I am glad to call myself a citizen journalist or at least admit to aspiring to be one. If I’m speaking with a grumpy old reporter who has recently been laid off, or is worrying about such a layoff, then I usually just call myself of blogger. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story that requires a bit of digging, I might even call myself an independent investigative reporter.

Ultimately, however, the phrase ‘Citizen Journalism’ isn’t what matters. What matters is more people getting better access to more information about events that shape their lives. We can all work together to make this happen, or we can sit at conferences arguing about various phrases. Personally, I’m more interested in the former.

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February 27th

Virginia’s Proposed Incumbency Protect Program

In 2006, political scientists studied a group of 180,000 voters in Michigan. Using a control group and four study groups, they researched what efforts would be most effective raising voter turnout. They found that people who were told that it was their civic duty to vote were six percent more likely to vote. On the other hand, voters who were sent letters describing how often their neighbors had voted in previous elections where twenty seven percent more likely to vote. In a Washington Post article, Your Neighbors Could Find Out, So You'd Better Vote, researchers talked about the implications of this research.

Gerber, who also works at Yale, said campaigns would have to use the technique with caution, because the last thing a candidate wants to do is annoy people who are going to vote for him or her. But Green said nonpartisan groups, even public authorities, might consider using the technique to boost turnout, especially in municipal elections that often bring out just 15 percent of eligible voters.

One non-profit decided to act on this. In October 2009, the Know Campaign planned to send out a letter to voters in Virginia informing them of how often their neighbors had voted in the previous elections. The idea of being shamed into voting did not sit well with people from Virginia and the Know Campaign was investigated by the Virginia State Board of Elections. An article in the Washington Post, Va. investigates legality of access to voter list reports:

Under Virginia law, the Board of Elections can furnish lists of voters only to the courts, the Department of Motor Vehicles, bona fide political candidates, political parties, political action committees and nonprofit groups that promote voter education or registration. The law further restricts access to voting histories, prohibiting the Board of Elections from giving the histories to anyone except candidates, elected officials or political party chairmen. Those who do obtain the lists are also required to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, promising not to disseminate the information to those not authorized to have it.

According to an article in PilotOnline

The State Board of Elections has already been sued once by the Know Campaign … That suit was settled, but the group has promised to sue again if the law is not changed to allow wider access to the lists…Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's office has advised lawmakers that the current law won't stand up in court because it gives candidates and parties privileged treatment over others seeking access to a voter history list.

Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake stated, "We had two options. We can make it available to everybody or we can make it available to no one." The idea of not making voter history available to candidates was a concern to some Delegates. They noted that it is already very expensive to run for office and losing the access to voter history would make it even more expensive.

Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, however, argued "Voting is a private function of a private citizen. If it costs too much money to run, don't run."

This sounds like the ultimate in incumbency protection. First off, carrying out one’s civic duty should not be considered a private function. It is a public responsibility. Yes, how people vote needs to be protected and kept private, but not whether or not they voted. We need to encourage citizens to get out and vote. In addition, we should not be placing additional hurdles to people running for office. Failure to encourage people to vote and placing additional hurdles to running for office are two effective tools for protecting incumbency.

Let us hope that the people of Virginia contact their elected officials and encourage them to make it easier to run for office and to encourage neighbors to get out and vote.

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February 26th

Public Notices and Covering The News

Last year, the Connecticut General Assembly considered An Act Concerning Posting Legal Notices on the Web Site of a Municipality. The goal of this legislation was “to relieve municipalities of costly mandates by authorizing the posting of legal notices on municipal web sites.” The bill made it though the Government Administration and Elections Committee and the Planning and Development Committee but didn’t get any further.

This year, it is back as part of An Act Reducing Costs to Municipalities with a goal of implementing the Governor's budget recommendations. This time, it seems to be getting even more attention. CT Mirror quotes Jim Leahy, executive director of Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association, who claims that “There’s no question some newspapers would go out of business” if they lost the income from these legal notices.

Paul Bass commented on the article saying

Print papers have had a scam going for decades: way overcharge for legal notices that nobody reads.
Politicians allowed them to do it because they didn't want to anger corporate monopoly publishers. They wanted good press.

Now the corporate owners that fleeced the public (including cash-strapped governments and low-income people filing legal notices at exorbitant rates) want the public's sympathy. They want a bail-out. And ill-gotten money to keep their dying business models afloat a little longer.

George Gombossy, who has also made the transition from print to digital writes in his article, Newspaper Bailouts: The Truth Comes Out, Ct Newspapers Need Paid Public Notices To Survive:

If Leahy wants a bailout for newspapers he should ask for it instead of leading a massive PR effort to fool taxpayers and the General Assembly into thinking that requiring the spending of millions of dollars a year in public notices in newspapers somehow protects democracy any more than posting the notices on the Internet.

Yet we need to wonder if George and Paul have additional unspoken concerns. Other online news publishers have commented to me about how they wish they could get a little bit of the public notice gravy train. Currently, it is reserved just for print newspapers.

We also have to wonder about the motives of some of the sponsors of the bill. In 2009, some of the same people advocating allowing municipalities to post notices on their websites instead of in local newspapers also supported An Act Concerning Posting of Information on Municipal Websites. The goal of the legislation was to “delay the implementation of the mandate on municipalities to post information on web sites.” It seems like they only want to post stuff on municipal websites if they absolutely have to.

Likewise, some of these same people have opposed making public funds available to candidates running for state office that the candidates can use to inform the public about the issues and their stances on the issues. Perhaps they just don’t want people to know what is going on in the state.

Given the upheaval in the news and the electoral processes, we need to continue to seek new ways to make more government information more accessible in less costly are more efficient ways. Perhaps instead of simply doing away with the requirement that municipalities publish notices in local papers, we should allow them to publish them on online sites as well, providing the online sites get sufficient traffic. Municipalities that have vibrant websites might be able to use their own websites. Municipalities with lackluster websites that do not attract traffic might find it more efficient to post their notices on some of the online news sites that are rapidly growing in the state.

Then there is the question of who will cover local news if this important subsidy is taken away from local news organizations. Perhaps the proposed change in requirements should only apply in those communities that have a basic level of coverage of boards and commission meetings and other town events. Towns could help meet this requirement by making sure that many of their board and commission meetings are broadcast on government access television as well as encouraging local bloggers and citizen journalists to cover town meetings.

The way news is covered in our towns and cities is rapidly changing. We need to find ways to make sure that with these changes we don’t end up with less information being available to residents and voters. At the same time, with a little Yankee ingenuity, we can perhaps promote competition, better coverage and even save municipalities important tax dollars.

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February 25th

Animal Welfare in Connecticut

There are several important developments concerning Animal Welfare in Connecticut that deserve special attention right now.


Topping the list is the parvo outbreak in southwestern Connecticut. According to Stratford's chief Animal Control Officer Rachel Solveira it is the worst outbreak in over fifteen years. According to an article in the NewsTimes, “The Stratford and Fairfield animal control centers both had to be quarantined twice in recent months after the disease erupted among their dogs.”

Dog owners should check to see that there dogs have been vaccinated. Typically dogs get a combination vaccination for distemper and parvo. These vaccinations typical cost around $20 and if all dogs were vaccinated, it would put a quick end to the outbreak.

An Act Concerning Certificates of Origin for Dogs...

Today, I also received the opportunity to follow up on my blog post about An Act Concerning Certificates of Origin for Dogs Sold by Pet Shop Licensees. I had attempted to contact the Department of Agriculture several times and received no reply. Yesterday, Legislative Program Mgr., George E. Krivda, Jr. called while I was visiting clients. This morning, I had the opportunity to speak with him extensively about the problems I have had emailing the Department of Agriculture as well as about the bill.

The problem with my emails not being responded to appears to be a technology glitch that has been referred to the Department of Information Technology.

In terms of the Certificate of Origin act, I received a lot of valuable information from different several sources. Public Act No. 09-228 went into effect last July. During this period, the Head of Animal Control took early requirement and it was sometime before the replacement was named and the program was implemented.

Currently, there are 128 Pet Shop Licensees in Connecticut that this law applies to, although it is not clear how many of them actually sell dogs. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 Certificates of Origin will be filed each year, with the majority coming in by fax. Currently, there is no ability to file the certificates electronically and there is no provision for the Department of Agriculture to produce reports summarizing the certificates.

At the public hearing Connecticut Votes for Animals (CVA), which opposes bill 5118 describes the original bill that created this requirement as the Puppy Mill Law. They say that “the purpose of the Puppy Mill Law was to prevent the sale of puppy mill dogs in Connecticut”. They raise a concern about the certificates being accessible under the Freedom of Information Act. The proposed legislation, they argue, would make the certificates only available to the Department of Agriculture when visiting Pet Stores, and not available to activists, or for that matter, reporters, investigating trends in animal populations.

Yet retrieving the 10,000 faxes through Freedom of Information Act laws, and analyzing them could be a difficult and expensive endeavor. To address some of this, “CVA has publicly pledged its resources to the Dept. of Ag. in order to ensure that Certificate of Origin information can be filed with the Department of Agriculture.”

A better option might be to enable and require electronic filing of Certificate of Origin information. This information could then be easily accessible by an interested party. While the state is short of funds, it may not have the resources at present to create this as part of the State Department of Information Technology infrastructure. However, building a sample form like this on Google Documents is quite easy, and I’ve set up an example:

CT Certificate of Origin Form (The Department of Agriculture is welcome to use this form if it serves their purposes.)

It may be that the legislature could temporarily suspend the filing of Certificate of Origin forms with the Department of Agriculture until such time that the Department of Agriculture has an electronic filing system in place, provided that the forms are not only kept by the Pet Shop Licensees, but that they are available through the standard Freedom of Information Act provisions, with the Pet Shops needing to provide the information to any third party that asks.

Any bill that makes the gathering and dissemination of important information more efficient, especially in these days of fiscal constraints seems like a good idea to me.

It has also been suggested that this legislation be modified to apply not only the Pet Shop Licensees, but also to rescue organizations bringing animals into the state. While there are some great animal rescue organizations that should not have an issue complying with this, there are other more questionable groups posing as animal rescue organizations to avoid complying with laws applying to Pet Shop Licensees.

An Act Prohibiting the Unreasonable Confinement and Tethering of Dogs

Another bill that was introduced, and yesterday was referred to the Joint Committee on Environment is An Act Prohibiting the Unreasonable Confinement and Tethering of Dogs. This bill would more clearly define what is reasonable confinement and tethering of dogs and raise the fine for confinement or tethering that is not deemed reasonable. The ASPCA and CVA has concerns about some of the language of the bill and will provide suggested revisions to interested parties and at the public hearing on the bill.

Legislators for Animal Advocacy

It was also announced today that

State Representatives Annie Hornish (D- Granby) and Alfred Camillo (R-Greenwich) announced today that they will co-chair the newly formed "Legislators for Animal Advocacy," a bipartisan organization committed to raising awareness of animal welfare issues.

Reps. Hornish and Camillo both serve on the Environment Committee which will be considering bills 5118, 274 and others affecting animal welfare.

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#meego Community Website Meeting

Yesterday, members of the #meego community gathered in an IRC channel to discuss what sort of services the community needed. It was a well attended covering topics from build services and repositories to forums and mailing lists. Every once in a while the discussion would drift off into religious views about one system or another but the meeting was well run and rapidly brought back to the topic at hand.

According to the logs, forty-five different people spoke at the meeting, which hopefully brings a broad representation of the community as a whole. However, since it was on IRC and talking about the details of the services provided, it may well have been a self selecting crowd that left out the largest and most important group, the end users. Many of the decisions being made are likely to affect end user experience, and I believe many of the end users really don’t care a lot about whether or not a given application is completely open source, or if it depends on components that are not open source. I suspect that many of them, likewise, aren’t especially concerned with whether or not the people doing quality assurance are third party people that have access to read the source code or not. However, these seemed to be the issues that many in the meeting were most interested in.

The importance of the distinction between the developers perspective and that of end users was brought home to me by an article in Rethink Wireless today about a TNS report that found users are now swayed by apps as much as carrier brands.

Every day, I receive emails from various organizations launching new applications for the iPhone asking me to review and blog about the applications. I always respond with a question about their plans to be made available on other platforms. Typically the response is that maybe they’ve considered porting the application to Android at some point, but they’ve either never heard of, or not seriously considered porting to the N900, Maemo or MeeGo.

I remember years ago the difficulty of getting corporations to consider Linux and even now the difficulty of getting home users to consider using Linux. Given what I’ve seen of the MeeGo community so far, I have doubts about MeeGo ever getting beyond being a toy for hobbyists. This is unfortunate, because MeeGo has the potential to become a great platform and a chance to illustrate the advantages of open source development.

Can Intel, Nokia and LG step in and help developers focus on the bigger picture? I don’t know. However, until something like that happens, I’ll keep playing with my N900 as a great cell phone for hobbyists. I’ll kick around Moblin and eventually MeeGo on a netbook or two, but I’m unlikely to spend a lot of time taking what I’ve written and packaging them for wider distribution and I’m probably even less likely to recommend Maemo, Moblin, or Meego to anyone except my geekiest friends.

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