Illuminations Blog, JTM News

Spacebridge: Google Hangouts circa 1983

On Wednesday, February 12 at 11 a.m. Pacific time, Journalism that Matters will host a hangout with Evelyn Messinger to discuss using technology to engage people in public conversations. Please join us.

It’s a common belief that the Soviet Union did not begin to crumble until Mikhail Gorbachev took power and instituted the Glassnost policy in the mid 1980s, but perhaps the first cracks in the USSR developed a few years earlier as part of a rock festival that JTM-alum Evelyn Messinger played a role in bringing to life.

On May 28, 1983, at the US Festival that Steve Wozniak produced in a remote spot just outside the sprawling reach of Los Angeles, festival participants attended a panel conversation conducted over satellite video between people in both the USSR and America. Though the panelists were celebrities and intellectual luminaries, the program incorporated questions from regular Americans and their Soviet counterparts.

Branded as Spacebridge, the hour-long program ripped away at cultural preconceptions. The participants soon saw each other as fellow human beings as they quickly united over a fear of nuclear war and a love for sports and music, which would culminate in an international concert simulcast in both countries.

“I would like to say that today, you’re not only talking about the fact that we can talk to one another, we’re actually doing it,” said Evgeny Velikhov, a panelist in Moscow who is credited as an academician. “We conquered a very terrible enemy and at the same time another enemy arose who unfortunately is still here with us. This is nuclear weaponry. Sometimes it seems to us that these are muscles. Actually they aren’t muscles. This is really a cancer and we have to perform an operation as quickly as possible to liberate ourselves from this cancer.”

Messinger would go on to help produce about 20 more Spacebridge programs over the years leading up to the 1991 dissolution of the USSR, and she has continued to focus on using technology to catalyze conversations across different communities throughout her career.

“In the beginning it was really hard to get them on U.S. TV, but you go to Moscow and it was a sensation,” said Messinger. “The idea that we would allow Russians to speak on American television was just crazy.”

None of the spacebridge programs aired on national television in America until Phil Donahue hosted “A Citizen’s Summit” in 1985. While filming the first of two spacebridges Donahue hosted, a group of protestors picketed outside the Seattle television studio.

“They have this phrase ‘all new ideas start out as heresy and end up as orthodoxy,’ and that’s exactly what happened.” said Messinger.

By 1987, Peter Jennings began hosting “Capital to Capital,” a series of spacebridges for ABC News featuring members of Congress and Soviet leaders. The five-part “Capital to Capital” series focused on issues including international security, the environment and human rights.

“I’d have to say that this played some part in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Messinger. “I got totally hooked on this stuff thinking, ‘Wow! We can change things.’”

In 2003, as webcams and high speed internet grew in popularity, she adapted that technology in a live interactive television program for Link TV called SNAP.

More than three decades after the first spacebridge connected citizens of the USSR with people in America over a satellite connection, it’s now possible for anyone with a laptop and a high-speed connection to join a video chat with people all over the world using a tool like Google Hangout.

Last year Messinger and a handful of her colleagues received a grant from the National Center for Dialogue and Deliberation to launch Real Dialogues.

What “if you could set up a way for people to know that they could go into a facilitated conversation when something happens?” she said. “What I had proposed was to set up and test an ongoing office-hours of google hangout.”

Although they still haven’t yet realized Messinger’s vision of regularly scheduled office hours with a facilitator over Google Hangout, Real Dialogues did host two Hangouts last year on the topic of raising the minimum wage. She said that while those Hangouts were successful, it wasn’t easy recruiting people who were interested in the topic and wanted to participate.

“I’m a TV producer so there was nothing in any of it that wasn’t what I already knew to make things work,” said Messinger. “There is the technical prepping. … The persistent problems are audio. You can fix the video pretty easily but audio is hard to explain to people.”

Beyond the technical issues Messinger said there are always concerns around how guests will behave and the risk that they will be disruptive. During her tenure in traditional television this issue was usually alleviated through the use of a green room or staging area where a producer would briefly interview the guest and make sure they’ll make a positive contribution. This isn’t necessarily quite as easy to accomplish using Google Hangouts.

When it comes to audio problems, it’s sometimes helpful to insist people use headphones, and Messinger said that on some occasions she’s actually sent headphones to her guests to ensure quality audio. Other times the best approach is to judicially mute the audio of whomever isn’t speaking.

Though the initial topic of the minimum wage was decided by the group because it seemed to be a hot topic at the time, it was no longer on the top of people’s minds by the time they were able to schedule the actual Hangout. Instead of pre-selecting topics for discussion, Messingeer is hoping someday to transform the project into one where people can jump on a Hangout immediately after major news breaks.

“I would still like to find a way to let people decide,” she said. “You could just let people talk and I don’t know what might come out of it. Movements might form. There’s a big disempowerment of citizens right now, there’s a real paradox.”

Even though the news is now interactive and readers can leave comments and even engage with the newscasters over Twitter, the power she witnessed with the spacebridge broadcasts remains elusive, Messinger said.

“The ability to engage is greater than anyone could imagine 20 years ago but the voice of the people is much much weaker than it used to be. The voice of the people keeps getting eroded further and further away,” she said. “It’s this sort of thing that could lay out the template for how citizen engagement could actually become a real ongoing force in political change.”

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 15

Welcome to the the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll explore the New York Times redesign, new tools for social networks to do reporting and offer a few of the best tips posted online this week.

New York Times New Look

The New York Times redesign has been described as subtle, and it’s true that I can barely notice the differences on the home page, but the minimal design of the article pages feels like a major departure to me.

Jeff Jarvis offered a mostly glowing review of the redesign for The Guardian, but suggests that the Times should’ve taken a personalized approach to curating the news. He also teased that the Guardian is deep into its own redesign.

But the big news is the introduction of native advertising, a move that left Andrew Sullivan comparing the Times to Buzzfeed. The first campaign the New York Times launched is one with Dell computers, and the newspaper went out of its way to highlight its sponsored status. In fact, an article in Adweek suggests that the Times may have gone too far in labeling the content as advertising.

“If, at the end of the day (and whether publishers and advertisers want to admit it or not), native advertising is meant to trick readers into thinking it’s actual editorial content, the Times’ overt labeling might seem to defeat the purpose,” writes Lucia Moses for Adweek.

Tricks of the Trade

News Tools

The Knightlab has launched Untangled, a set of tools to help reporters analyze social networks. The service lists a number of tools to examine how people are connected to each other and is curating stories produced using its tools. Another useful tool to help journalists navigate social networks is Pipl, which can be used to help verify the identity of account owners.


When JTM-alum David Cohn launched crowdfunding hadn’t entered the lexicon and the best way he had to describe his new start-up was to call it Kiva for journalists. A few years later Kickstarter was raising millions to finance blockbuster video games and movies and was on life support. Now the Guardian is launching a new crowdfunding endeavor for journalism called Contributoria and Cohn, who is now at, has tweeted his interest in the project.

Odds and ends & odd ends

Another look at First Look

First Look media, the company financed by Pierre Omidyar has announced its this past week. Bill Gannon, who has worked as the editor of Entertainment Weekly and taught at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, participated in an interview with Jay Rosen, another member of the First Look team, to discuss the role Gannon envisions holding at the new company.

Glenn Greenwald also shared new details about his own involvement with First Look Media after one of his supporters sent an e-mail expressing concern about the new project.

Jobs of the week

Billionaires, a Bloomberg publication, is looking for an editor.

St. Cloud State University in Minnesota is now hiring someone to chair its new media convergence department and to teach multimedia journalism.

NBC News has an opening in its investigative unit for a supervising producer.

KJRH-TV in Tulsa, Oklahoma is looking for a multimedia journalist to join its investigative unit.

The Missouri School of Journalism is seeking an assistant professor to teach magazine writing on a temporary basis.

The deadline to apply for a Nieman Fellowship is January 31.

JTM is looking for freelancers to write about successful journalism initiatives and is paying up to $250 per story.


The Illumination is a curated collection of stories about journalism innovation, notable job opportunities, grants and updates about Journalism that Matters. It is distributed to e-mail subscribers, through the JTM Google Group, and posted to the Illuminations blog.

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

Hack the Hood with Oakland Local

On Friday, January 10 at noon Pacific time, Journalism that Matters will host a hangout with Susan Mernit to discuss Hack the Hood and Oakland Local’s other initiatives.

If a news outlet is going to serve the community it must serve the community. Though the sentiment seems obvious — and is true by definition— it is a principle that Susan Mernit and her team at Oakland Local have truly taken to heart.10448905056_8683371a6b_b

Since its 2009 launch, Oakland Local has published a wealth of original reporting while aggregating additional content and showcasing reader submissions. The site is one of two major hyperlocal news sites that serve the 400,000-person city located six miles east of San Francisco.

The other, Oakland North, is one of three hyperlocal sites run by the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and focuses on the primarily wealthier neighborhoods in the northern part of the city. But Oakland Local has from inception sought to tell stories from every community including the poorer neighborhoods in East and West Oakland where the rate of crime continues to haunt the city’s reputation to outsiders.

The reporters and other contributors to the site comprise a diverse group that strives to be representative of a city where one quarter of its inhabitants are black, another quarter are white and another quarter latino. This diversity is demonstrated by the breadth of stories featured on the site. The remaining quarter is comprised of people identifying as Asian and those of mixed-race backgrounds, according to the 2010 census.

4894096506_1808dfce0e_bFrom coverage of the city council meeting, to the violence in the streets, to the rampant gentrification caused by the newest tech boom that’s pricing thousands of people out of San Francisco, Oakland Local seeks to tell as many stories from as many perspectives as possible.
But the people behind Oakland Local are doing more than telling stories. After establishing themselves as a news outlet, they began exploring how they could further serve their community.

“What can we do to help people in Oakland get jobs and get better jobs? What do we know that can support economic development?” asked Mernit at the time.

The answer turned out to be Hack the hood, a partnership between Oakland Local, The Center for Media Change, and United Roots Oakland. The program trains low income youth in multimedia and other tech skills who then apply that training to build web sites for local business and nonprofits in their community.

“The most important purpose of the project is to help the kids get skills,” said Mernit. “Most of the kids we dealt with had no soft skills. They didn’t understand how to look someone in the eye and shake their hand. They never had a job where they had to do that.”

9677009438_c9de1d12dd_bNot only do the students learn these highly marketable skills, but the program also introduces the youth to people working in the industry. Some of the students even had a chance to meet a Facebook employee from East Oakland.

For young people whose only exposure to real economic success are stories of the drug dealers, pimps, rappers and ball players from their neighborhood, I’d imagine that meeting someone from their neighborhood who is making enough from a legitimate career in order to thrive in the Bay Area could be quite inspiring.

“I think that the people in tech who responded to our requests for help really do understand the process of digital inclusion,” said Mernit. “People who work in tech in Oakland were really supportive of this project.”

The youth who participate are also paid for their efforts.

“We’re in a poor community,” said Mernit. “We respect their need for money— and their time.”

During the past summer the 18 students involved in the program created a total of 70 web sites and helped get these local merchants listed on social media.

Although this initiative would at first seem like an ingenious way to create new local advertisers who would otherwise have no reason to advertise on the web, it turned out that such an endeavor wasn’t actually practical.

“We thought about that,” said Mernit. “But we think local advertising is really broken so we haven’t expended efforts to get these local businesses up on Oakland Local. These businesses are pretty marginal.”

The site hasn’t given up on the advertising model, however, Oakland Local continues to run banner ads from several local businesses and the organization has a third site that may prove to be a solid revenue generator.

Oakland Local has partnered with the Kapor Center for Social Impact to create Live Work Oakland, a new site focused on the city’s burgeoning tech industry. The site includes technology-related news and prominently features a map of tech-related initiatives based out of Oakland along with a directory of the organizations included on the map.

In addition to that site, Oakland Local also has a program that combines in-depth reporting on Oakland schools with a variety of student-driven storytelling.

“A lot of it is driven by trying to find a sustainable business model,” said Mernit. “There’s just a giant self-limiting factor in trying to grow the ad base.”

But with so many projects linked together, Oakland Local hopes to become increasingly attractive to advertisers as it puts focus on expanding that revenue stream in the new year.

“We haven’t started to do that yet at all,” said Mernit. “That’s what we have to do toward the end of Q1. We’re still very much in the planning stage with all of that.”


On Friday, January 10 at noon Pacific time, Journalism that Matters will host a hangout with Susan Mernit to discuss Hack the Hood and Oakland Local’s other initiatives.

Disclosure: I have previously contributed stories to both Oakland Local and Oakland North.

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 14

Welcome to the the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll look back at 2013 and forward to the new year, we’ll share some tips and job opportunities along the way.

Illuminations Hangout Series

JTM is launching a new series focusing on the work of our alum that will feature a weekly story alongside a Google Hangout beginning this Friday, January 10 at noon Pacific Time. Our first installment of the series will look at Oakland Local and their Hack the Hood initiative which teaches Oakland youth highly marketable digital skills. The accompanying Hangout will feature Susan Mernit, the Executive Director and Editor/Publisher of Oakland Local. Please join us to find out how this sustainable hyperlocal site has creatively approached numerous challenges in order to make things work for more than four years.

Tricks of the Trade

Looking back

With the door slamming shut on 2013, many sites and news organizations looked back on their accomplishments over the past year. Here are a few of our favorites:

Looking forward

The new year is symbolically a time for new beginnings and that metaphor is often embraced by companies looking to launch a new product or design. Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, who previously ran AllThingsD, launched ReCode with investment from NBCUniversal News Group and Windsor Media, and the New York Times plans to roll out its new design on Wednesday. It seems part of the motivation behind the new design is to incorporate native advertising; I don’t think anyone a year ago imagined the New York Times would be about to begin running sponsored stories on its site.

Over at 10,000 words, Angela Washeck shares her vision for the ten things she’d like to see happen in the journalism industry during 2014. And in a similar vein, Jeff Jarvis shares his perspective on what’s possible for TV news in the new year.

A brave new world

But underneath the cautiously rosy forecasts for the year ahead remain the stories that reveal how elements of our planet continue to resemble Huxley’s dystopian vision. Not only in regards to the revelations unveiled by Edward Snowden but also at a more pedestrian level.

In Oregon, a student media advisor at OSU was reprimanded for filing a public records request in preparation for an exercise with her students and a newspaper in Tennessee ran a story about a phallic-shaped tree branch and then blurred out the branch in the accompanying photo.09089df4714debda46c60783a08feeb5

While it’s legal for a private citizen to attach a camera to a remote control airplane, the same activity may be illegal for a news organization, reports Jeremy Barr for Poynter after the Spokesman-Review published a video one of their reporters shot with his own gear on his own time. Meanwhile the future journalism project is reporting that in Saudi Arabia posting on You Tube may soon require a state-issued license.

By now everyone knows how Justine Sacco, a PR professional, destroyed her career by posting a shockingly naive racist tweet before boarding a plane to Africa, but it turns out that JTM-alum David Cohn was the first person to respond to her on Twitter. In a recent post Cohn reflects on how he somehow became the initial voice in what became a social media mob.

Sometime recently the team at Conan O’Brien discovered that anchors across America were pulling from the same script and began assembling montage’s that are both hilarious and unnerving. In the most recent example, reporters from across the country voice the same words over and over again: “It’s okay; you can admit it if you bought an item or two or ten for yourself.”

As Poynter reveals, that script actually originated with a syndication service called CNN Newsource. But the realization that this copy is being regurgitated without bothering to rewrite the material or check its facts is hardly comforting.

Odds & ends and odd ends

Jobs of the week

JTM is looking for freelancers to write about successful journalism initiatives and is paying up to $250 per story.

Did you produce a notable work of investigative reporting this year? If so be sure to enter IRE’s annual contest.

CSU Los Angeles has an opening for a tenure-track assistant professor of journalism.

The University of Miami is looking for a visiting professor to work with students on documentary projects aimed at increasing the visibility of the problems facing members of Europe’s Roma communities.

Seattle’s Neighborhood House is hiring a communications coordinator. 

Syracuse University is looking to hire a tenure-track assistant professor of journalism with broadcast and digital journalism experience.

The Freelancers Union is seeking a senior writer.

UrbanDaddy is hiring a freelance writer to review bars and restaurants in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 13

Welcome to the year-end edition of the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. I took a couple weeks off for the holiday, but we’re now back and will be sharing more stories about innovation and the evolution of the news and information ecology in the year ahead.

In this week’s Illumination we’ll look at the unanswered questions swirling around the death of a 17-year-old Reuters photographer, explore new tools to help tell stories and highlight some of the best year-end wrap-ups on what’s happened in journalism over the past year and what to expect in the year ahead.

Reuters under fire after death of young photographer

BcA49JlCMAAfM5VAlthough his age remains in dispute, Molhem Barakat may have been as young as 17-years-old when he was shot dead while covering the ongoing conflict in his country of Syria last week. Molhem was killed on December 20 while covering a battle over a hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

Corey Pein, an American investigative reporter based out of the U.K., has been  gathering information about Barakat’s death on an evolving post on his blog.

Apparently, Molhem started photographing the violence on his own cheap camera. Reuters eventually provided the teen with a better camera, but he reportedly continued shooting without the benefit of any protective gear.

He was paid $100 for uploading a daily set of 10 photographs and given a $50 or $100 bonus whenever his photos were selected as a Picture of the Day on the New York Times Lens Blog, according to a freelancer who met Molhem on an assignment earlier this year.

“If Molhem hadn’t been taking pictures, he may well have taken up arms. The Reuters team in Syria might have thought they were doing him a favor — and in some ways, I’m sure that they were,” said Pein in his blog. “Legally speaking, the agency had a responsibility to ensure that he was prepared for the work it was actively encouraging him to pursue.”

It’s unlikely that Molhem is the only young photographer working in a dangerous conflict zone without adequate protections for a major news organization, but his death has ignited questions over whether the agency’s existing policies are being followed and whether or not they are sufficient.

Looking back on 2013 and forward toward the new year

As 2013 winds down and the news along with it, many publications turn to highlighting work from the previous year and predictions toward the future.

At PBS Mediashift, Melanie Stone has profiled 5 exemplary college journalism projects from 2013 and Nieman Lab has identified their 25 most popular stories of the year.

Meanwhile, after Politico somehow managed to compile a list of 10 journalists to watch in 2014 that lacked any diversity whatsoever. NPR’s Code Switch responded with their own list of journalists, comprised of people of color, in an effort to right Politico’s failure. honored the end of 2013 by compiling a list of ways that journalists can prepare for the new year. And the Future Journalism Project has a short list of online image collections that are available for free.

New News Tools

Editorially is a new tool for collaborative writing that could change the way reporters work with other team members or their editors. Angela Washeck interviewed Mandy Brown, the founder and CEO of Editorially, for 10,000 words to find out how this new tool came about.

Another exciting new tool is StoryMapJS, which is a new project developed by the Knight Lab “to help you connect the places of your story into a media-rich narrative.” While StoryMap has technically been available for a couple months, it previously required some coding that would leave all but the most tech-centric reporter feeling a bit squeamish. Now StoryMapJS is simple enough that anyone can use it without knowing how to program.

Odds and ends & odd ends

Job(s) of the week, a female-oriented publication is hiring a managing editor.

WHDH-TV in Boston is seeking an executive producer of special projects.

Inside Edition is hiring an investigative producer.

The Honolulu City Beat is looking for an investigative editor.

JTM is looking for freelancers to write about successful journalism initiatives and is paying up to $250 per story.


The Illumination is a curated collection of stories about journalism innovation, notable job opportunities, grants and updates about Journalism that Matters. It is distributed to e-mail subscribers, through the JTM Google Group, and posted to the Illuminations blog.