NMK Forum: Dan Gillmor
Keynote speaker Dan Gillmor spoke on the subject of where we will find the next phase of journalism. His answer was that it was unlikely that this would be from existing media outlets.
Dan Gillmor is founder and director of the Center for Citizen Media, a project to enhance and expand grassroots media and its reach. The center is an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
Gillmor said that the possibilities for the disruption of established media are higher than ever, thanks to Web 2.0 technologies. At the same time, the cost of entry is lower. This means that the research and development of new forms of media is occuring, but not just in its established homes at media companies. These conditions are allowing for what Gillmor called ‘democratised media’. Democratic not in the sense of voting, but of participation, production and access. The consumer of media has now become a producer and a collaborator.
Competition for mainstream media is not just in the production of content, but also in the business models. Craigslist and eBay have devastated classified advertising revenues at newspapers. Expenditure on search advertising through Google will soon top television spend.
People are busily creating a ‘Daily Me’ as an alternative to the Daily Globe. The adoption of smart cameraphones is accelerating this. Almost everything we do can have an RSS feed attached to it and thus be published. Other people are taking those feeds to create their own Daily Me. There has thus arisen new forms of journalism that require fairly minimal involvement, such as Craigslist which creates a well-loved local community through the aggregation of small amounts of content. Sites like placeblogger perform a similar service.
Journalism is happening in other places. NGOs are performing acts of journalism through updates on their campaigns; a professor of economics’ blog is an act of journalism. This citizen media can help re-make corporate communications. Most press releases sound like a Turing machine mating with a lawyer, while company blogs, such as Steve Jobs’ recent criticism of DRM on the Apple website sounded personal and engaging.
The first rule of conversation is to listen. Journalists are not especially good at this: especially when it comes to listening to readers. The idea of reader’s comments appended to their work still ‘freaks out’ a large number of them. However, Web 2.0 technologies, the enhanced possibility for collaboration with readers, extend a great opportunity for improving the quality of journalism.
People are creating acts of journalism that aren’t based upon words or pictures but upon data. Adrian Holovaty at the Washington Post has created a site called Faces of the Fallen, that documents those lost in the Iraq war. There is a home loans default map started by an estate agent that tells a story about the fortunes of particular communities. There is a real-estate bubble map created by mashing up house prices with maps through Platial. There’s a most-hated pothole map created by residents of Bakersfield. These are all journalism within a community - they may not look like traditional journalism, but they convey information that those communities find extremely important. Professional journalists, if they want to move forwards, and perhaps survive, ought to be creating these things themselves. Every object has the power to tell a story - and this will be even more the case going forward, thanks to increased, cheaper use of mobiles and the adoption of RFID technologies for tracking and giving information about almost anything.
Journalists need to move from imagining themselves as oracles to guides. Realising that you don’t know more or better than other people is the first step to becoming a better journalist. Part of that is allowing publications to link outside their own sites. If you send people away to quality material, then they will come back to you for more. Newspapers and other media outlets should be using reader knowledge far more than they do. They should be asking for photographs; asking them to participate in investigations and adding their readers’ own experiences to stories. People will be making this records anyway and putting them in other places if media owners don’t do a better job of involving their readers. Often the objection of quality is raised, but it needs to be recognised that authenticity has a higher value than quality. Google News recently produced some interesting coverage of the Thai coup. It sourced photos that were being taken on the ground in flickr and then contacted the photographer and asked him to provide a simple voice-over for them.
In any case, experimentation now is so easy that it will happen whether it is sanctioned by mainstream media or not. Take the example of Sourceforge, the site for open-source software projects. There are more than 150,000 projects registered on the site and the vast majority have been failures. Only around 200 of these projects have registered more than a negligible number of downloads. Clay Shirky has said that, “The low cost of failure means … there are few institutional barriers between thought and action.” This is an excellent place to be: we can fail in a learning way and collectively be the source of more great ideas. It allows for a distributed R&D that can be open and creative and collaborative and can take risks. Exactly the same thing applies to journalism.
However, citizen journalism does raise questions over privacy and reputation that we’re not entirely recognising yet. Senator George Allen lost his job over a video on YouTube in which he made a racially insulting comment during a political meeting. There’s a chance that people will be remembered for the most stupid thing they ever did or said. Society needs to move on and adapt to this increased exposure and realise that, yes, people sometimes do do silly things. However, the way society adapted to American presidents that were Catholic, divorcees and drug-takers gives cause for hope.