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Dan Gillmor says the future of journalism depends on active citizens

'Weirdly optimistic'


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Part One: What's next for The News & Observer?

Part Two: With fewer reporters covering local news, upstarts try to fill the gaps

There are those who want to save newspapers and those who suspect the future of journalism lies elsewhere.

Dan Gillmor is in the latter camp. A former newspaper reporter, Gillmor doesn't believe in propping up the journalistic institutions currently struggling to keep their footing. He's devoted much of his career to developing the potential of citizen journalism, the practice by which consumers of media become its producers, informing one another using the tools at their disposal—blogs, smart phones, smart questions and focused curiosity.

It's not that Gillmor wants to replace professional journalists with part-time hobbyists. He advises journalists to embrace the input of their readers and viewers, instead of relying on official sources to understand what's happening in the world. At heart, he believes journalism is a practice, one that works best when done collaboratively, and one that citizens in a democracy can and should learn.

"I'm weirdly optimist about the future," he said recently to an audience at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. While he acknowledges that the economic crisis will likely lead to the loss of valuable news sources, he has faith that new sources will come online. "I think in the end we're probably going to come through with something better than we leave behind.

"The trends we're seeing mean we could end up with a lot of smaller players than we have now, which would be a great benefit to everybody," he said. "Microbreweries saved beer in America. In every field I can name, including journalism, I think we need microbreweries of ideas to figure it out."

  • Photo by for O'Reilly Media

Gillmor is a professor of journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication where he runs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media, a joint project with ASU and Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. From 1994 to 2005, he was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, where he wrote what is believed to be the first blog by a journalist for a traditional media company. His 2004 book We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People established him an authoritative voice on the subject.

With newspapers shutting down cutting back reporting staff, interest in citizen journalism continues to grow—as does skepticism. Gillmor knows there are many serious unanswered questions about the future of journalism, but one he wishes people would stop asking: Is blogging journalism?

"Oh, God, I can't wait for the day when that question disappears from the world, because it's just such the wrong question," he says. "Some blogging is journalism, most is not. Let's move on to something more interesting." It's easy to publish lies and baloney online. On the other hand, lies and baloney end up in print, too. Meanwhile, people all over the world are using smartphone cameras, YouTube videos and other forms of communication to report on news events they witness. It's neither difficult nor rare for laypeople to commit both random and deliberate acts of journalism.

The question isn't whether bloggers are journalists, Gillmor says—of course they can be. Joshua Micah Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo, is the best example of a consummate blogging journalist who harnesses the distributed reporting power of online readers to break stories—most notably the Bush administration's politically motivated firing of U.S. attorneys—that more traditional outlets neglect.

"The question we should be asking is, what is journalism?"

In Gillmor's view, journalism is defined by certain principles. Among them: skepticism, accuracy, fairness, thoroughness, transparency, independence and keeping an open mind. He believes we should replace the old, impossible notion of "objectivity" with informed, critical judgment. And journalists should treat the process as a conversation, not a lecture. That means listening to more than the official sources.

Gillmor spoke with the Independent during a recent visit to the Triangle. He spoke at UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communication on April 6, and at Duke University's DeWitt Wallace Center on Media and Democracy on April 7.

Independent: How did your experience as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News during the dot-com boom influence your approach to journalism?

Dan Gillmor: Being in Silicon Valley informed a lot of what I was doing, partly because it didn't take long to realize as I started writing that the readers knew much more than I did about my subject, and that they were delighted to help make me know more. That was the first moment of, aha! I had understood networks from back in the '80s when I was doing stuff online and realizing you could ask a question about something and 24 hours later have a bunch of good answers from many different geographies. That's powerful. Then the web came along which made this fundamentally amazing shift. The ability to do your own easy web pages through the early blogging software was another giant step forward.

It's true of every beat at every publication or broadcast outlet: Your readers by definition know more than you do, and that should not be something that scares anybody. It should be considered a huge advantage for doing better journalism -- or better anything, the collaborative possibilities.

So being there really helped. If I hadn't been in that culture, which is also a culture of taking big risks, I wouldn't have been in a position to do a lot of this stuff as early as I did.

A lot of your work has been dedicated to creating models and best practices for citizen journalism, to teach people who are not professional journalists how to do the work. Do you also see a way for citizen journalism to help traditional media outlets reinvent what they do?

Both. And I hope over time that this distinction between citizen journalism and traditional journalism, that the blurry part of the line will get larger, and I expect that it will.

That dichotomy is tough to shake when you've got reporters losing their jobs.

That argument was over years ago. It's really unfortunate that even now, some traditional journalists lump all bloggers into some category they consider useless. It's as idiotic as a blogger lumping all journalists together in a category they see as corrupt.

You can often tell on the face of it whether a blog is reliable and whether its writer has something informed to say. But you can't necessarily tell where they're coming from, if for instance they have some financial interest they're not disclosing.

I'll start by turning that around and say, what do you know about any traditional media organization's conflicts of interest, worldviews? You probably know less. I'm not ever excusing violations of what we would think are unethical practices, but everyone involved in media has work to do on this score. In the end it comes back in some significant way to the community learning for itself what it can trust, and individuals learning for ourselves what we can rely on.

Does it trouble you that there are students at this journalism school who are getting a great education and training and have the potential to do great work, but when they graduate may not be able to find jobs in their chosen profession?

Journalism education, when it's done right, is an excellent undergraduate liberal arts degree in critical thinking and communication skills with, one hopes, history and other things of background about how the world works. That's a great preparatory degree for a lot of things.

For people who are going into journalism, quite clearly the idea of a journalism degree as vocational training for traditional media jobs is at best problematic. That's why I think journalism schools generally need to be looking hard at making what they do much more cross-disciplinary, more entrepreneurial, and focused hard on the principles of what is critically important about what journalism should be but also thinking ahead on what the practices might be, which aren't going to be the same.

The students here today, I'm almost jealous of them. They're getting to invent their own careers. I wish I were their age and starting off because the opportunities now to literally create something new or recreate something of great value to society, to our communities and our families, it's never been as open as it is now. Some of them are going to invent the future and I can't wait to see what they do.

What is your next book about?

We've got the supply side pretty well covered. There are all kinds of media being created. Certainly there are lots of problems, but lots of opportunities, and it's pretty exciting what's going on.

One of the places we're really lagging is the demand side. All the supply in the world won't matter if people don't demand something better than they're getting. People who've been consumers of media have to become activists in their consumption. They can't just be passive consumers, because the result is the generally crappy state of journalism that we have today in all respects. There's a lot of great stuff, but people are just not getting what they need in part because they can't be bothered, and I hope we can fix that for the next generation or so.

I haven't stopped caring about helping people do good journalism, whether it's traditional or citizen or whatever you want to call it. But if we don't turn the consumers of media into active or activist-type consumers, which means in part taking actual responsibility for what we read as opposed to just letting it show up and not being satisfied, people will be missing something that citizenship should include, which is to be active in how you get your information.

That's going to be hard. I recently asked a journalism professor at a different school in this area about citizen journalism, and he was pessimistic. He had assigned his students to write an obituary about anyone they wanted, living or dead, famous or unknown, and he literally got back Britney Spears' obituary from more than one of his students. His feeling is that most people are so immersed in celebrity culture, they're far from developing the kind of critical thinking and active engagement you're talking about.

This is not going to happen quickly. But I do believe it will happen. All the terrible things going on at the national and international level are perversely an opportunity to get people to start to think about being this kind of active citizen. When you're comfortable, it's easier to be lazy. We've been a comfortable culture for a long time the last 10 years or so, doing it fraudulently because we've been doing it with credit cards. And mass media have been complicit in the damaging laziness we've shown intellectually as a people.

Individually, people are tuned-in, alert and smart about the things they really care about. But when it comes to big issues, we are a lazy and sloppy and uncurious people in this country, and that is going to be our ruin. Now that we see the stakes are high, and that a result of that laziness is contributing to the economic catastrophe that's in front of us, maybe that will get people to stop being so ready to just think that the news is the thing that comes on TV at 10 o'clock at night.

What would a more active citizenry look like?

I start with principles that are core and fundamental. Those are the things that don't change. The place I start is: Be skeptical of absolutely everything. But the second principle, or corollary to that, is, don't be equally skeptical of absolutely everything, because that's foolish and dangerous. If we're learning about something we have a particular interest in, we have to do a little reporting ourselves. We have to absolutely seek out more than one source, as much as possible, but absolutely for anything where we're going to make a decision.

Another principle for which I'm really in debt to my friend Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices Online, who says that we all have to go way out of our personal comfort zones and look for things we know we're A) not going to agree with and B) things we just don't' know anything about.

That's the opposite of the trend toward people creating their own partisan echo chambers, seeking out only the points of view they agree with.

Everyone says it's an echo chamber and for many people, media is an echo chamber. But online we have an opportunity that was never possible in the echo chamber of partisan television, for example, which is the hyperlink, to go beyond. But I think it still will take actively convincing people to seek stuff out. It's about being independent as a person and curious. And you have to learn how to use media, and how media is used to influence.

Would you call this media literacy?

I'm trying desperately to find a different expression.


First of all, it's too narrow. But secondly it comes out of a tradition that rightly or wrongly is thought to be ponderous and preachy.

It assumes that people are illiterate?

Well, it's just a phrase that puts me to sleep. You say, 'media literacy,' and it's better than Ambien. And I have enormous respect for people in the field. Critical thinking is a much better goal than media literacy. Literacy of the kind I'm talking about is much more of an activist thing, it's not just the reading and writing and research; its jumping in.

What have you learned from the experiments you've worked in citizen media? What works best?

I cant' tell you exactly what works yet. We're still early in this. We know a lot of things that don't work. The critical thing seems to be developing actual community, and that's incredibly hard. The people who can do that are rare and will be in high demand.

Participation doesn't just happen. People who've made this work have been relentless about working to have actual community go on in these services and places or wherever and many different kinds of things are involved. It's still a new kind of thing. This isn't like traditional media because there will be no formula or even small number of formulas that will work, partly because there are no barriers to entry and the minute something good shows up people will copy it, which is wonderful. It's going to be a rapid, iterative process. It will settle out to a few things that will achieve critical mass and they'll be by and large winners in some economic way, but we're going to have many, many different models not just a couple or a few.

What are some specific sites that have made community work?

There are so many, I don't want to name only a couple. But you start with the obvious ones like Craig's List. Yes, it's classified advertising, but it was built on community from the beginning. The community of Craig's List prevents it from going off the rails. They're always fighting an arm's race against bad people who want to abuse it but the community of Craig's List helps police it. The BlogHer network is all about community values. In fact they're beautifully written down in the community participation guidelines, which are all about civility as the founding principle.

We are really early in this evolution from what we had to what's coming, The thing I'm quite comfortable about is that the ecosystem, which feels like the right word, of journalism that's going to evolve will be more diverse and therefore more healthy than the relative monoculture that we've had for traditional journalism. There will be a lot of losses along the way, and a lot of pain and a lot of trouble. It's going to be incredibly messy. But I'm just as confident as I can be that we will come out of it if we work at it.

But it will take working on the demand side as well as the supply side. I've been resisting this for a long time, because I've been thinking, we're creating lots of great supply. However troubling the bad stuff is, we're going to have more really good stuff. And we need to have more good stuff than we have. But if we're raising generations of people who think the news is what Britney does, then by the time they figure out what happens in the halls of government and in the boardrooms of corporations and in other places that actual matter to them, if they wait that long it can be too late.

What happens if it's 'too late'?

In a time when we need everyone's intelligence to be focused as much as possible on saving a free market economy and saving form of government where liberty is supposed to mean something, if we have a disinterested and even ignorant population, then we're not going to save either our economic system or our political one.

People are smart enough. This isn't about smart versus stupid. This is about some fundamental parts of being a citizen or letting stuff be done to you. I hope that the insecurity we all feel now as a result of national and international events will cause people to turn some of that concern into being better informed about what the causes are and about what they can do to live smarter themselves and to insist on accountability from others.

A lot of the possibilities for improving both the supply and the demand side seem to presume that the Internet will remain wide open and network-neutral. Are you concerned that will not be the case?

I'm extremely concerned about this, and do not take it for granted that we'll have a network that permits free competition. In fact, unless people wake up soon, and push their members of Congress hard on this, we're more likely to have a network whose providers try to turn it backward in time to resemble cable television.

I'm not in favor of any of the network-neutrality proposals I've seen to date, due to the likelihood of unintended consequences, but we clearly need strong supervision to ensure the kind of openness that will give us all a chance to create our own media and ensure that others can find it.

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