December 14, 2004

Dan Gillmor’s Interview in OhMyNews

I’m a little late in reading the interview of Dan Gillmor in OhMyNews, the South Korean citizens journalism publication that he credits as one of the inspirations for his book, We the Media, but the conversation reinforces what I said the other day: Dan’s departure from newspapers should be a wake-up call for the industry.

What Dan demonstrates in the OhMyNews interview is a level of thoughtfulness about the future of journalism and concern for engagement with the community that, while probably not as rare in most newsrooms as mainstream news media critics would suggest, is not commonly expressed by newspaper editors or reporters.

Here, for example, Dan talks about the evolvement of journalism from the model of a lecture to that of a conversation (emphasis added):

“What I've been doing personally on the blog for some time now has been all about that. The only way you can have a conversation is if you listen. That's the first rule of conversation. And I've had a wonderful time listening, even when they attack me (laughter). I typically learn more from those who think I'm wrong than from people who think I'm right. Especially when they tell me why I'm wrong.

”And then once you learn how to listen -- which is something journalists need to do better -- then we can then say that with the tools being created -- things like what OhmyNews is doing -- then we can say "Don't just respond to us but let's all talk together" and "Let's develop ways of taking that publication of a story and broadcast and make that the beginning of something."

The technical ability of people to participate in the creation of media – from video to gaming to news – fundamentally alters expectations citizens have of journalists. They are no longer satisfied to watch information loop endlessly through the traditional closed Mobius strip of newsgathering and reporting. Even though many people will continue to place value on the professionalism of journalistic institutions, these same people want access to the process and to the journalists behind it.

Moreover, news institutions no longer have the physical or financial capacity to fully cover the geographic breadth and demographic complexity of their local communities. This is especially true of newspapers, for which local news and advertising are the core franchises. Even the largest of regional newspapers cannot – or will not – add sufficient staff to keep pace with the sprawling exurbia that now surrounds most every large American city. Small newspapers in growing communities have even more difficulty finding the reporting power to cover the even civic institutions that provide the grist of traditional daily news coverage, much less the more interesting stories of people and issues.

As people become more disconnected from one another, and communities lose the common bond of urban identity, research shows people are hungry for news of the one thing that has always interested them most – other people, what the Readership Institute identified in its original impact study as “community announcements, obituaries, ordinary people.”

Participatory journalism can fill that need. Newspapers don’t need holders of J-school master’s degrees to cover county fairs or PTA fund-raisers. Let the readers provide their own news about these sorts of events. Some newspapers, such as the Bakersfield Californian, through its reader-written, dual platform section, The Northwest Voice, are doing just that. Just seven months old, Northwest Voice already has hundreds of reader contributors and is generating new revenue for the paper. "In a typical edition of Northwest Voice, 40 to 50 percent of our advertisers are new or were infrequent (newspaper) advertisers,” the paper’s publisher, Mary Lou Fulton, told the Washington Post.

It is this combination – of professional reporting and writing and of the eagerness of citizens to participate in the creation of their own news – that can make participatory journalism so powerful.

Here is how Dan Gillmor describes the potency of that mixture (emphasis added):

“I also want to bring … the understanding that professional journalists have actually learned a few things over the years -- things that actually work and we shouldn't just throw out those things that work as we go into this new era of citizen journalism. We should apply the best lessons from professional journalism -- which is not to say replicate it -- but to combine the best of the old with that wonderful energy and excitement out there in the grassroots. I think that would be wonderful if I could pull that off.”

Dan’s leap from security to innovation underscores a characteristic that he has and that newspapers need most – a willingness to try something new, to take a risk on an unproven idea. And that is their biggest loss.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 14, 2004 10:02 AM