Francis Pisani is a journalist and teacher who has gained expertise in new media from his study of its global impact on journalism. He was a member of a panel at the May 2005 Nieman Reunion whose task was to speak to some of the changes taking place in journalism today due to emerging technology. The panel, “Thinking About Journalism,” was moderated by Alex Jones, who is director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Edited excerpts from this discussion follow.
Francis Pisani: I would like to mention a few technologies that might get your attention even if they are not directly related to journalism. BitTorrent is a technology that breaks apart big files so that people will swarm to get to a small chunk. Once they have that small chunk, they have to upload it in order to get more. This means everybody has to participate using the technology. The thing about BitTorrent is that in June 2004—and I apologize for not finding a more recent fact—35 percent of the traffic on the Internet was due to BitTorrent. To put this in some perspective, http, which is the language of the Web sites and blogs we are talking about, was only 10 percent [of the Internet’s traffic]. So a user has enormous files that can be downloaded very quickly because they can be broken apart and then swarmed, so the technology allows people to download stuff very, very quickly.
Alex Jones: Would you give me an example of precisely what you’re talking about, something that would be broken up and then downloaded that way?
Pisani: A movie or a TV reportage, something like that. You can send several movies quickly. Traditional distribution of moving images on the Internet is from a center to different places. It has to go in one big chunk. It would take half an hour, an hour, two hours or so. With this technology, it takes a matter of minutes, and how people use it shows that they like to exchange video shot by others or by themselves, just as they do with text and images.
When I wrote my first story about blogs in 2001, there was an estimated 500,000. Today a site like Technorati.com indexes about 10 million of them. This is a huge phenomenon, and that’s why I talk about the “napsterization of news,” and how we have to think of what it means to have everybody participating in this and having the tools to do so. This is a key phenomenon for the future of journalism.
Jones: Who is going to pay for the news?
Pisani: One of the answers is that we might be slightly shifting from direct financing to indirect. Tomorrow a nonprofit organization might be the place to go in order to pay for serious journalism. I read yesterday that Craig Newmark, who created craigslist.org, a site of free classifieds that is now in 105 cities and 23 countries, is interested in backing, supporting and helping citizen journalism. He is working with Dan Gillmor, a former columnist for the San Jose Mercury who wrote the book, “We the Media,” about the power of citizen journalism. It’s a very interesting book that everybody should read. They are also working with Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, whose success is based on communities, networks and relationships. So we are moving towards a completely different world that journalists can only ignore at their expense.
Jones: You’ve posed the fundamental riddle because there’s got to be a way to pay for it. John Carroll [then editor of the Los Angeles Times] was telling me that his paper’s online service generates 50 million dollars and much of that is to the bottom line. But he’s got a news operation that costs many times that. And that’s the problem. There is no model yet for a business that seems to be in decline, such as newspapers, but that is also doing the lion’s share of the newsgathering and reporting. That’s where most of the action is, with exceptions, of course. But in most towns, that is the news utility and that’s where it’s got to be paid for, and if it isn’t paid for, it’s simply not going to happen.
Pisani: With citizen journalism, one of the very important dimensions is that people bring the news. People contribute with information. And Dan Gillmor’s expression I think is very powerful: “My readers together know more than what I do.” This is complicated, but I acknowledge that we have to address this question. The economy of this is tied to the fact that people do it because they want to do it, they want to contribute, they want to share.
Before I came here, I wrote on my blog that I was going to talk at the Nieman conference and asked people to provide answers to some of the questions I’d been sent to consider. And people wrote to me very interesting things. One of them told me that nothing is better than sharing. Another told me that blogs in France are much more popular than in the Nordic countries, but the connectivity is much higher in the Nordic countries.
So my question became whether technology is more important than society. And the answer is no, it’s a mix in which society and culture play a huge role. In France, a tradition of debate goes back to the 18th century. So people bring ideas forward, and they are not paid for that. They provide a huge amount of information and opinion, of course.
Jones: One of the things that Francis Pisani has been thinking about is this question of the glut of information and sort of the confusion that that breeds, or fatigue perhaps. What do you think, Francis?
Pisani: Participatory media is a big culprit in information overload, which is basically this issue. More stuff is produced than what we can ever see, and so the need for filters is very important. One of the beauties of blogs is that they are not only tools for expression, but they are also useful to filter information. The blogs one reads are chosen, and through this selection they become a great knowledge management tool. Blogs are picked according to what a person is interested in—the point of view of a person or the subject the blogger is dealing with. This can be seen as a first level of using blogs. At a second level, we have RSS that started with blogs and, let’s see, I’d like to ask journalists in the audience which of them uses RSS in a daily fashion?
Very few hands are raised.
Jones: The fact is that most of you probably don’t know what RSS is.
Pisani: That’s exactly my point! RSS means Really Simple Syndication. Basically it is a technology that allows a user to select information (or part of it) published on a Web site and bring it to one place of the user’s choosing. There are now programs that do that and Web sites that allow that to be done. Someone can build a Web page on bloglines.com, for instance, by saying “I’m interested in the technology section of The Washington Post. I’m interested in the front page of The New York Times. I am interested in my friend’s blog.” I can choose 500, or I can select five. To read them, I only go to one place, and it does it for me. So blogging, with the technology of RSS, is a filter mechanism.
Jones: Even with the power of the blogs, it still seems to me that the power of defining what is really important still lies with the mainstream media and especially the major national media. I’m reminded of the Trent Lott moment when blogging sort of came of age in being able to keep a story alive and focus the story and focus the media ultimately on what happened with Lott. That would not have happened without the blogs, but nor would it have happened without the mainstream media getting involved. The role of the blogs was to force the mainstream media to take notice of something. I think that is still basically true.