Why We Need “NOVpartisan” Instead of “Nonpartisan” Civic Media

Franklin_with_caption.pngThe truth is not getting play in our media according to New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg.  An increasingly partisan press is the culprit, he charges in an Independence Day column.  Dangerous political outcomes are afoot.  But do we really think conventional “nonpartisan” journalism can shift the balance toward truth?

If truth is losing out to falsehood we need stronger stuff on the side of truth.  That is why I assert we need “novpartisan” journalism produced on a new kind of media platform.  The need is urgent.  Some of the same technologies that make a new platform possible can be deployed to promote falsehood.

I coin the term novpartisan to signify a novel, alternative way of producing civic content but also novel way of being part of a party.  Novpartisan is “partisan” not by blindly adhering to an external party, faction, cause, or person. Novpartisan is partisan in the sense that it develops and cultivates common interests in civic action among its participating audience members.  The audience itself becomes a party or a better informed faction of a larger party.

The full scale, first mover opportunity is still wide open.  Our time is ripe for new enterprises that use modern technology to supply active citizens with useful information and create better ways to experience citizenship.  Social, business, technical and political trends favor new forms of media and new means of political influence and participation. 

New civic media must focus on what citizens want - not what you or I think citizens need.    Obviously, novpartisan civic media can’t magically satisfy citizens’ desires. At best the new platform can systematically approach them by degree.

Citizens want citizenship to become a challenge they can master.  Citizens want good answers to hard questions; understandable solutions to complex problems; trustworthy prescriptive and explicatory information that can be easily absorbed; autonomy and control; and they want citizenship to be pleasant and satisfying.  Our current media is not much help.

Conventional nonpartisan and partisan media models produce similar information.  Conventional media misses what citizens want because the business models of both partisan and nonpartisan models are advertising based. Advertising revenue is the primary method to make a media model viable.  Advertising models turn editorial content into a cost center that must attract and hold audiences in service to the advertisers.  That function shapes the information more than any editorial intent to be nonpartisan or partisan.

True power is the key missing link between true satisfaction and the many laudable efforts to address civic interest with new civic tech or civic media.  The goal of civic media should be to provide information and media experiences that result in true satisfaction.  The new platform has to be perceived as much better than ad-supported platforms to induce audience members to pay more and engage more with the form. 

People with the means to create a medium that generates true power for citizens have been reluctant create such a medium.  Their reasons are both political and economic.  If they have the means, they usually want the power for themselves.  The economic case is simple – people want to be compensated.  Real satisfaction is secondary and even potentially threatening to the advertising model.

The political reluctance to generate power for citizens is more complex than the economic.  In part, that political reluctance reflects interests in deluding citizens for private benefit, usually economic.  Satisfying citizens with the power of truth is not in the interests of those who benefit from falsehoods.

Another part of the political reluctance stems from a nonpartisan ideal dating back at least to the creation of our republic.  The complex web of calculation and compromise that allows groups to aggregate individual interests into a common interest is a mechanism with many random, unconscious, and irrational factors.  The founding fathers wished for a better human nature even as they created our republic to deal with the reality.  Their wishful thinking persists.

Deep distrust of democratic process and republican structures is, however, the most formidable barrier to facilitating citizen power.  People don’t like to share power with people they disagree with.  People with any sense of personal power can be reluctant to equate themselves with their fellow citizens.  The humility of equal citizenship is not a natural impulse

Democratic (little “d”) and republican (little “r”) values coexist with tribal moral codes, passed down over millennia, which deny that all people are born equal.  Ancient and modern values of charity and benevolence appear to conflict with the cold republican formulation of individual rights.  Modern usage conflates individual rights with a long list of “nice to haves” which many are reluctant to forego.  Elaborate social structures mask the role of force in developed societies, freeing many from any realistic reckoning of basic political economics.

A commitment to reason and science is the one attribute of the novpartisan media opportunity that seems to unlock and overpower political reluctance.  Savvy journalists, political operatives and academic observers may scoff at this role for reason and science.   They know all too well the rough and tumble reality of politics. 

What experts immersed in the current order underestimate is the rough and tumble reality of reason and science.  It is no accident that modern disciplines of reason and science emerged, in part, from an effort to develop an alternative to trial by ordeal as a source of justice.  The alternative to rudimentary reason and science was to throw the suspected witch in the pond and see if she sank!

Science is a social system, not simply a discipline for individual minds.  Like any other human social system it is complex and highly variable but it has produced results more dramatic any other social development.  The fruits of science have been a major factor in human increase and prosperity.  On balance, people have good reason to trust the systems of reason and science rather than mystical revealed truth or truth declared by authorities.

What I have found, in countless conversations, is that a commitment to reason and science, alongside democratic process and republican structure, is the essential and distinctive element of the novpartisan media model.  There are enumerable possible configurations of the general model but without the three legged support including a commitment to reason and science the model doesn’t seem attractive enough to become a significant civic media alternative. 

The novpartisan model also requires robust use of modern technology to be practical.  Imagine a form of civic media as a specialized type of social media wherein:

  • The enterprise has some of the character of a public radio station but with paying members who actually have a direct role in the governance of the outlet 
  • The enterprise structure includes internal representative and deliberative functions; executive functions and adjudicating functions, operating transparently according to a clear charter
  • The enterprise is location based down to the precinct and even neighborhood level for information development and distribution as well as internal governance
  • Audience or member participation includes processes by which contributors are tested or vetted e.g. classed by earning certain internal certifications
  • The enterprise issues specific calls to civic action governed ultimately by members
  • Participation includes options for civic games and certifications yielding status and recognition within the civic network
  • Scientific norms of data transparency, attribution, replicability, professional and earned authority are applied to civic information.

None of these characteristics would be practical without technology.

Testing this novpartisan media concept is admittedly a daunting prospect.  We can have no doubt that significant subsets of active citizens are ready for new solutions.  We know that redirecting a small percentage of time and money which active citizen’s invest in their civic interests could amount to huge sums.  We know that systematically mobilizing active citizens could be highly influential in voting and other civic affairs.  We also know that civic affairs are often extremely difficult to understand and properly report and that useful coverage developed exclusively by paid personnel is beyond the means of most conventional nonpartisan and partisan outlets.  And we know that particular civic matters are often interesting in any detail only to small subsets of activists , compounding the challenges of developing conclusive civic information.

Do we not also know, however, that digging deeper in the conventional nonpartisan and partisan veins is unlikely alter political outcomes?  Conventional advertising-based models have been tinkered with for over 200 years and layered with waves of new technology including high speed presses, telegraph transmission, Linotype machines, film, radio, TV, cable, fax and now of course the internet.  Isn’t it time to test a new way of getting at the truth that takes full advantage of modern information technology?

If truth is losing out to falsehood we need a more potent participatory media on the side of truth – we need “Novpartisan” journalism.

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