Free, Link Economies and Moving From Politics to Emotion

October 18th, 2010  |  Published in Medill Community Media Innovation Project

This was originally posted on the Local Fourth blog as part of my participation in a community media innovation project at the Medill School of Journalism.

One aspect of spending so much time working on this project in Evanston is eating at a lot of Evanston restaurants. Today, the project coders went to Bat 17, which has become one of my favorite places for lunch in Evanston. Just after lunch, we had some tough conversations about how a site built on the platform we’re developing might be sustainable and why, if we’re able to drive content to local publishers sites, we don’t charge them for that privilege. One example of how another local business (one big takeaway from the Block by Block conference was that online local news sites need to convey that they’re small local businesses too) leveraged free stuff to get more business was right there, digesting away in my stomach.

Bat 17 has free coffee, not just for people stopping to eat, but for anyone who wants to stop in. Their reasoning is that people may come for the free coffee and decide to stay for lunch, or appreciating the service, come by after work or class for a few drinks. I don’t have the numbers, but it seems like a smart move because the restaurant has been full the couple of times that I’ve been there. The restaurant also makes a big deal about sourcing ingredients from other local businesses like Bennison’s Bakery.  Rather than competing in the Evanston food space, the two businesses have  a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Sourcing from Bennison’s gives Bat 17 local credibility (according to the Bat 17 website, Bennison’s has been around since the 1930s) and also drives business to Bennison’s. If local news organizations want to compete with the emerging Paneras of local news, they need to find platforms for mutual benefit in the same way that Bennison’s and Bat 17 have used sandwiches. I want to think that we’re imagining such a platform.

Another good analogy for the link economy is this YouTube video. It illustrates that part of what builds a business’ reputation isn’t just what it sells – it’s also its knowledge of who can best provide the goods or services it can’t offer.

A few weeks ago, Terri Gross interviewed John Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” on her show “Fresh Air.” Though the title of the show was “Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name In Fake News,” Stewart had some insightful things to say about real news:

GROSS: Did doing the show make you more political than you ever expected to be – more politically aware, more politically engaged?

Mr. STEWART: I think it made me less political and more emotional. The closer you spend time with the political and the media process, the less political you become, and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption. So its – I dont consider it political because political – I always sort of denote as a partisan endeavor.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: But we have – I have become increasingly unnerved by just the depth of corruption that exists at many different levels. I’m less upset about politicians than the media. I feel like politicians, there is a certain, inherent – you know, the way I always explain it is, when you go to the zoo and a monkey throws its feces, its a monkey.

Mr. STEWART: But, when the zookeeper is standing right there, and he doesn’t say bad monkey…

Mr. STEWART: Somebody’s got to be the zookeeper. And that’s – so I tend to feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates.

I found Stewart’s juxtaposition of politics and emotion particularly intriguing and it made me think of some of the comments I had read while exploring the online news ecosystem in Evanston. Many comments expressed anger, frustration or fear about things that were happening in the city, but many also seemed designed to overwhelm opposing viewpoints. People were voicing their concerns or trying to raise their pressing questions, but these perspectives where often overshadowed by the conflict, sometimes with the commentors losing their own valuable insight amidst a rant. People respond emotionally to the things that happen in their life. I think part of the media’s job should be to validate that emotional experience, but it needs to take care to not exploit it.  In his book “What is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism,” Jack Fuller even suggests that emotionally honest reporting becomes more important in an age of media overload and responding to increasingly emotional media stimuli.

The point of our platform, which drives rich context for local news through questions, concerns, answers and responses all tied to discovery from local media, isn’t to de-emotionalize people’s responses to the news in their community. Instead, by forefronting brief questions and concerns that distill responses to their most direct form, I hope the platform can validate people’s perspectives while offering a path to discovery of new information.