In March 2002, at the annual PC (Platforms for Communication) Forum conference in suburban Phoenix, a telecommunications chief executive found himself on the receiving end of acerbic commentary from a pair of Weblog writers who weren’t impressed by his on-stage comments. Joe Nacchio, then the head of Qwest Communications, was complaining about the travails of running his monopoly. As he was speaking, Doc Searls, a magazine writer, and I were posting on our blogs via the wireless conference network and a lawyer and software developer, Buzz Bruggeman, was “watching” the proceedings from his office in Florida. At one point, Bruggeman emailed each of us a note directing us to a Web page showing this CEO’s enormous cash-in of Qwest stock while the share price was heading downhill. We noted this information in our blogs and offered virtual tips of the hat to Bruggeman.
Many people at the conference were also online, and some were amusing themselves by reading our comments. As these exchanges were posted, the audience’s mood toward Nacchio chilled. Were we responsible for turning the audience against him? Perhaps our blogging played a small role, though I’m fairly sure he was more than capable of annoying this crowd all by himself. But the real-time nature of this process was important and instructive, if not entirely novel in today’s communications-infused world. The essential element was the partnership with readers—a feedback loop that started in a suburban Phoenix conference session, zipped to Orlando, headed back to Arizona, and ultimately went global.
A Passive Audience Becomes Active
This exchange—and its consequence—reflects the power of blogs that is central to the participatory journalism of tomorrow. We’re learning new techniques, and the “we” needs to be understood in its largest sense, because enormous new power is devolving into the hands of what has been a mostly passive audience. I’ve been lucky enough to be an early participant in this form of participatory journalism, having been urged almost four years ago by one of the Weblog software pioneers to start my blog. It was a natural fit: I was writing about technology for a newspaper in Silicon Valley, where my readers were both highly knowledgeable and likely to be online.
My audience is never shy about letting me know when I get something wrong. Over the years, they have made me realize something that is now one of my guiding principles: My readers know more than I do, sometimes individually on specific topics, but always collectively. This is similar for all journalists, no matter what their beat is. And having readers’ feedback and participation presents a great opportunity and not a threat, because when we ask our readers for help and knowledge they are willing to share it—and, through that sharing, we all benefit.
If contemporary American journalism is a lecture, what it is evolving into is something that incorporates a conversation and seminar. This is about decentralization. Centralized news-gathering and distribution is being augmented (and some cases will be replaced) by what’s happening at the edges of increasingly ubiquitous and interwoven networks. People are combining powerful technological tools and innovative ideas that are fundamentally altering the nature of journalism in this new century.
There are exciting possibilities for everyone in this transition—for journalists and active “consumers” of news who aren’t satisfied with today’s product and for newsmakers. One of the most exciting examples of a newsmaker’s understanding of the possibilities has been the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the first serious blogger-candidate, who has embraced decentralization to the massive benefit of his nomination drive. Meanwhile, “amateur journalists” are busy creating their own brands, and the political beat seems to be where the most interesting action is found.
Meshing a Newspaper Column With a Blog
For the journalist who starts a blog, the challenges are different. Blogs usually reflect an individual voice. In my case, this made perfect sense since I was already a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News and therefore expected to share my voice and opinions in print. So when I began my blog, I dropped mini-essays onto it without worrying about compromising the objectivity that beat journalists at traditional news organizations try to maintain. Yet I’m convinced that almost any reporter could successfully do a blog, even if its purpose was only to keep readers informed about some of the little stuff that wouldn’t otherwise make the paper or broadcast. Think of the blog as an ongoing “Reporter’s Notebook.” Team blogs—covering larger topic areas—can also work well.
Based on my experience as newspaper columnist and blogger I’d urge newspapers and other media organizations to offer readers the opportunity to do blogs, such as Salon’s experiment, in which the online magazine worked with a blogging software vendor to let readers create Salon-branded blogs at a low price (about $40 a year). Not even a well-staffed big-city newspaper can hope to cover every aspect of civic life, but it has readers whose information and perspectives could contribute much to improving and broadening the coverage. But editors can still invite audience members to be part of the conversation in a much more genuine way.
The most worthwhile part of blogging is the conversation and the listening. I have regular readers who drop by my blog. Many get the headlines via RSS syndication feeds and offer suggestions or comments. (RSS is an XML data format that lets programmers create so-called “newsreaders” to parse and display RSS data, bypassing the browser entirely for more convenient access to the blog.) Sometimes I indicate what I’m working on and invite readers to tell me what they know about the topic. Naturally, if I think I have a story alone, I don’t tell my competition. But getting additional angles and ideas about a topic is never a bad idea. I generally learn more from people who disagree with me than from those who think I’m right. In an era when the public has a pervasive distrust of journalists, listening strikes me as a good way to improve our relationship with the audience.
A disruptive trend? Sure. Some of this journalism from the edges will make all of us distinctly uncomfortable and raise new questions of trust and veracity. Collectively, we will need to develop new hierarchies of trust and verification, using formal and informal gauges of reputation. Of course, lawyers will make some of these new rules. They always have, always will.
I also worry about the way today’s dominant media organizations—led by Hollywood and the recording industry—are abusing copyright laws to gain absolute control over digitally stored material. They want to shut down some of the most useful knowledge-spreading tools in this new era, such as peer-to-peer technology. Meanwhile, they are increasingly in league with governments that want to shield their activities from public scrutiny. As different kinds of online journalists emerge, governments and newsmaking organizations are making rules that effectively decide who is a journalist via the credentialing process; this isn’t new, but as more and more people declare themselves to be journalists, the issue will arise more often.
In a worst-case scenario, blogs and other participatory journalism could someday require the permission of Big Media and Big Government. Consider, for example, U.S. policies that are encouraging concentration of media organizations even as the number of Internet Service Providers (ISP) shrinks. In a few years, it is possible the only viable ISP’s will be phone and cable giants; they’ll be able to decide what gets delivered at what speed to online customers. That even Microsoft has joined a coalition demanding rules to prevent such conduct indicates how far this budding duopoly’s power could reach. That would be an outrage and a disaster for self-government.
I’m optimistic, however, largely because the technology will be difficult to control and because people like to tell stories. With this transition to participatory journalism, the news audience will be fragmented beyond anything we’ve seen, but news will be more relevant than ever. We’ll all need better tools to gather it collectively and then make sense of what’s been gathered.
In the end, this emerging media universe is not about the journalists. It’s about people’s ability to become more fully engaged as customers, families, neighbors and citizens. Blogs are only one of the tools of tomorrow’s multidirectional news media—a powerful early indicator of where we’re headed. It will be bumpy ride, but a worthwhile journey.
Dan Gillmor is technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. He is writing a book, “Making the News,” about the intersection of journalism and technology and is using his blog to get ideas and feedback from readers. His blog can be accessed at www.dangillmor.com.