Sunday, April 16, 2006

We the Media/ Dan Gillmor

Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc.; 1 edition (August 2004)

Grassroots journalists are dismantling Big Media's monopoly on the news, transforming it from a lecture to a conversation.



We freeze some moments in time. Every culture has its frozen moments, events so important and personal that they transcend the normal flow of news.

This time, the first draft of history was being written, in part, by the former audience. It was possible—it was inevitable—because of new publishing tools available on the Internet.

I was in the audience, reporting in something close to real time by publishing frequent conference updates to my weblog, an online journal of short web postings, via a wireless link the conference had set up for attendees. So was another journalist weblogger, Doc Searls, senior editor of Linux Journal, a soft­ware magazine.

This book is about journalism’s transformation from a 20th century mass-media structure to something profoundly more grassroots and democratic. It’s a story, first, of evolutionary change. Humans have always told each other stories, and each new era of progress has led to an expansion of storytelling.

This is also a story of a modern revolution, however, because technology has given us a communications toolkit that allows anyone to become a journalist at little cost and, in theory, with global reach. Nothing like this has ever been remotely possible before.

Tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between pro­ducers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satel­lites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airwaves.

This evolution—from journalism as lecture to journalism as a conversation or seminar—will force the various communities of interest to adapt. Everyone, from journalists to the people we cover to our sources and the former audience, must change their ways. The alternative is just more of the same.

We can’t afford more of the same. We can’t afford to treat the news solely as a commodity, largely controlled by big insti­tutions. We can’t afford, as a society, to limit our choices. We can’t even afford it financially, because Wall Street’s demands on Big Media are dumbing down the product itself.

The former audience

Once mere consumers of news, the audience is learning how to get a better, timelier report. It’s also learning how to join the process of journalism, helping to create a massive con­versation and, in some cases, doing a better job than the professionals.

Little did we know that the morning’s events would turn into a mini-legend in the business community. Little did I know that the experience would expand my understanding of how thoroughly the craft of journalism was changing.

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1. From Tom Paine to Blogs and Beyond

(...) One early pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, inspired many with his powerful writings about rebellion, liberty, and government in the late 18th century. He was not the first to take pen to paper in hopes of pointing out what he called common sense, nor in trying to persuade people of the common sense of his ideas. Even more important, perhaps, were the (at the time) anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers. Their work, ana­lyzing the proposed Constitution and arguing the fundamental questions of how the new Republic might work, has reverber­ated through history. Without them, the Constitution might never have been approved by the states. The Federalist Papers were essentially a powerful conversation that helped make a nation.

(...) As the Gilded Age’s excesses began to tear at the very fabric of American society, a new kind of journalist, the muckraker, emerged at the end of the 19th century. More than most jour­nalists of the era, muckrakers performed the public service func­tion of journalism by exposing a variety of outrages, including the anticompetitive predations of the robber barons and cruel conditions in workplaces. Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities), Ida Tarbell (History of the Standard Oil Company), Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives), and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) were among the daring journalists and novelists who shone daylight into some dark corners of society. They helped set the stage for the Progressive Era, and set a standard for the investigative journalists of the new century.

(...) It was cable, a technology that originally expanded broadcast television’s reach in the analog age, which turned television inside out. Originally designed to get broadcast signals into hard-to-reach mountain valleys, cable grew into a power center in its own right when system owners realized that the big money was in more densely populated areas. Cable systems were monopo­lies in the communities they served, and they used the money in part to bring more channel capacity onto their systems.

The Web Era Emergent

Perhaps no document of its time was more prescient about the Web’s potential than the Cluetrain Manifesto,20 which first appeared on the Web in April 1999. It was alternately preten­tious and profound, with considerably more of the latter qual­ity. Extending the ideas of McLuhan and many others, the four authors—Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger—struck home with me and a host of other readers who knew innately that the Net was powerful but weren’t sure how to define precisely why.

“A powerful global conversation has begun,” they wrote. “Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

They explained why the Net is changing the very nature of business. “Markets are conversations,” proclaimed their first of 95 theses with elegant simplicity.(...)

Writing the Web

The scene was now set for the rise of a new kind of news. But some final pieces had yet to be put in place. One was technolog­ical: giving everyday people the tools they needed to join this emerging conversation. Another was cultural: the realization that putting the tools of creation into millions of hands could lead to an unprecedented community. Adam Smith, in a sense, was creating a collective.

(...) But Winer realized he was onto something. He’d found journalism wanting, and he bypassed it. Then he expanded on what he’d started. Like Justin Hall, he created a newsy page in what later became known as the blog format—most recent material at the top.

In the late 1990s, Winer and his team at UserLand Software22 rewrote an application called Frontier. One collec­tion of new functions was given the name Manila, and it was one of the first programs that made it easy for novices to create their own blogs. My first blog was created on the beta version of Manila. Winer has suggested that traditional journalism will wither in the face of what he helped spawn. I disagree, but his contributions to the craft’s future have been pivotal.

Open Sourcing the News

(...) Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor who has written extensively on the open source phenomenon, has made a strong case that this emergent style of organization applies much more widely than software. In a 2002 essay, “Coase’s Pen-guin,”27 he said the free software style could work better than the traditional capitalist structure of firms and markets in some circumstances. In particular, he said that it “has systematic advantages over markets and managerial hierarchies when the object of production is information or culture, and where the physical capital necessary for that production—computers and communications capabilities—is widely distributed instead of concentrated.”

(...) In my own small sphere, I’m convinced that this already applies. If my readers know more than I do (which I know they do), I can include them in the process of making my journalism better. While there are elements of open source here, I’m not describing an entirely transparent process. But new forms of journalistic tools, such as the Wiki (which I’ll discuss in the next chapter), are entirely transparent from the outset. More are coming.

An open source philosophy may produce better journalism at the outset, but that’s just the start of a wider phenomenon. In the conversational mode of journalism I suggested in the Intro­duction, the first article may be only the beginning of the con­versation in which we all enlighten each other. We can correct our mistakes. We can add new facts and context.29

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This eBook of "We the Media - Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People" (2004) by Dan Gillmor is licenced under Creative Commons (you may copy and distribute the work under certain conditions).

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