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Berkman welcomes Dan Gillmor

It’s Dan Gillmor’s first day as a Berkman Fellow, and many members of the extended Berkman family have come out to welcome him to the Center. We’ve got a packed house here to listen to Dan articulate his vision for a Center for Citizen’s Media, which he’s launching as a joint fellow here and at UC Berkeley’s Journalism school. Dan is the perfect person to launch this project – a universally respected journalist, most recently as a technology reporter and columnist for the San Jose Mercury-News. His recent book “We the Media” has helped frame the concept of “citizen’s media”, an idea near and dear to my heart. And he’s one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever encountered on issues of the responsibilities and roles of journalists and bloggers. It would be hard for me to be more excited about a new Berkman fellow.

Dan leads off by explaining his key epiphany regarding citizen’s media: working as a technology reporter in Silicon Valley – “the belly of the technological beast” – you quickly discover that your readers know more than you do. They know when you’re wrong, and since they’ve all got email, they’ll be quick to “fill you in… to put it nicely.” At first, this is an intimidating situation for a reporter. But quickly you learn that this is a key part of how media works today.

The realization that the audience is part of the media equation is contemporary with the emergence of the read-write web, which Dan identifies with the rise of blogging in 1999. (For obvious reasons, I’d link it to homepage authoring in 1995, but hey, we’re allowed to disagree.) A talk Dan gave at ETech in 2002 – “Journalism 3.0” – led to “We the Media”, to his decision to leave the Merc and to a series of experiments with citizen’s media, including Bayosphere, which ultimately has led to the center he’s now starting. The center’s vision is to change media from lecture to conversation… and Dan believes the first rule of conversation is “you need to listen”.

The new center has three areas of focus:

– Research and advocacy. What’s happening in citizen’s media – and specifically, the overlap between journalism and citizen’s media? What threats exist that would hurt the emergence of the movement and how would one combat them?

– Best practices. Dan wants to help identify the good stuff within citizen’s media, collect it and amplify it.

-Education and training. The center wants to help people improve media literacy and learn how not to believe everything they read. One of his targets for education is mass-media organizations, who are moving into the citizen’s media space, but often making “panicked moves, not thoughtful ones.”

A set of questions from the assembled crowd gets Dan to make a set of predictions about the future of mainstream and citizen’s media. What follows are not literal quotes, but as close as I could get, limited by my listening and typing speed – errors are mine, not Dan’s:

– On editors: Editors are going to be really important in the future. We may use a combination of human and machine intelligence to complement the people we call “editors” today. But the essential goal of journalism – an informed citizenry – requires some sort of mechanism that can sort through the flood of information in a meaningful way.

– On ensuring that bloggers get taken seriously when they’re acting in the sphere of journalism: It’s more important that bloggers are credible, first and foremost, to their readers and their community. (I asked Dan how bloggers writing about Uganda’s elections could become more credible to international journalists…) Beyond that, Dan feels like bloggers working in the journalistic sphere could benefit from adopting some of the best practices of journalism: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency (which Dan acknowledges journalists could embrace a whole lot more.)

– On citizen’s media and social change: As people become more engaged with current events, they increasingly become activists. Readers start by assembling their own view of the media from different newsfeeds, then engaging with professional journalists through comments and online interactions, then become bloggers, authors and people who run community media sites. As we move through the process, the group of people involved shrinks, but their engagement grows. Quoting Wes Nisker, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own.”

– On citizen’s video: While there are interesting experiments going on with broadcast of citizen videos, it’s much harder to create a compelling podcast than a compelling blogpost, and probably an order of magnitude more difficult to create a compelling video blog post than a compelling podcast… or at least, it’s more difficult for people who aren’t digital natives.

– On the future of news: The folks who are figuring out the news of tomorrow are eight years old and living in Helsinki and Seoul – highly wired locales that help create digital natives. The US may lag behind in shaping the future of news because our screwed up legal/technical infrastructure prevent us from creating as many digital natives.

– On anonymity: Anonymity is very hard to stamp out, technically, and we want to preserve it for situations where there is serious risk involved to an author. But journalism is better when people stand behind their words. Conversations are better when people are not entirely anonymous – persistent psuedonyms are significantly better than complete anonymity for this purpose.

Dan says he has a mental “trust-o-meter”, calibrated from -10 to 10. A totally anonymous blogpost starts at -10 and rises if the poster establishes a believable identity over time. Someone signing their words starts at a +10 and drops over time if they prove themselves unreliable.

– On the accumulation of data: At some point, we’re going to have a President who blogged as a teenager. And there are going to be things on that blog – accessible on Google until the end of time – that would disqualify any politician from being elected today. In the meantime, we’re heading towards a world where everything’s on the record, and that’s a bad thing. We’ll need to establish zones of privacy where things aren’t perpetually on the record. In the meantime, once everyone has said something unbelievably stupid on the record, we’re going to need to cut each other a lot of slack. But there will be a messy interim before this happens, while “gotcha” still works.

– On getting paid: David Weinberger asks the question, “You say that editors will be around for a long time – who’s going to pay them?” Dan doesn’t have a comprehensive answer, but some ideas. Journalists respond well to comeptition – competition will probably give us better journalism. The threat to journalism is not from the bloggers, but is a business-side threat. Now that classified ads have moved to the web, and readers have gotten used to tivo’ing through ads, it’s a real problem to figure out who’ll pay for investigative journalism. Foundations will help pay for some reporting – see the Center for Public Integrity as an example of this model at work.

– On coverage of the world: I asked whether Dan was worried that a media strongly influenced by bloggers and citizen journalists would overfocus on topics currently popular in the blogosphere – technology and US politics. Dan’s less worried about these coverage issues than he is about the echo chamber issue – people seeing only the points of view they’re interested in seeing. He cites a study that suggested that people who got a great deal of their news online about the 2004 US elections were highly partisan, but also quite knowledgeable about their opponent’s arguments, suggesting that the echo chamber is not perfectly insulated.

To address some of the problems I’m concerned about, Dan has a wonderful idea: “Reinstitutionalize Serendipity”. By this, Dan’s referring to the story in the lower right hand side of the page – the story about something you’ve never heard of but end up reading because some editor thought you should know about it. “I had no idea I cared about most of the things I read on BoingBoing – and I don’t care about many of the things I read…” but the fact that you discover issued you’d never expected to explore shows serendipity at work.

I’m sufficiently fond of the zen koan: “Institutionalize Serendipity” that I’ve threatened to start a CafePress store selling coffee mugs emblazoned with the phrase. Fortunately Dan is a big believer in Creative Commons and I can sell his “intellectual property” with little fear of being sued…

11 thoughts on “Berkman welcomes Dan Gillmor”

  1. Thanks for the overview of Mr. Gillmor’s remarks. I like the “Institutionalize Serendipity” idea. I’d buy a mug. Do it!

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  6. Great summary Ethan on Dan’s first day. Looks as if Gillmor may be a real asset to several international bloggers and citizen journalists who follow Global Voices Online and The Berkman Center closely. It will be interesting to see how well Dan’s ideas and theories work for an entire planet vs. what he has been able to accomplish for citizen journalism in the San Francisco Bay area and across the U.S.A.

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