A year ago, Dan Gillmor was in a plum position. He had been a technology journalist and columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, in the heart of Silicon Valley. He had written the Bible of grassroots journalism, We the Media, describing how weblogs and other new media forms were democratizing media and giving power to the “former audience” who was now participating in creating media.
Gillmor even took the bold step of leaving the Mercury News and starting his own grassroots media startup funded by angel investors. The company’s first site, Bayosphere, was supposed to be “of, by and for the Bay Area,” with average citizens tasked with covering the minute details of life in the San Francisco area. But the site got sidetracked into technology coverage and national politics, and never had a feel for the local issues by the Bay.
Last week, Gillmor had to make the painful public revelation that the venture hadn’t panned out. In a long, detailed post on his Bayosphere blog, Gillmor described in excruciating detail what went wrong on the path to citizen media nirvana.
“The evidence strongly suggested early on that this was not likely to be a viable publishing venture for some considerable period without partnerships to bring in both readers and contributors,” Gillmor wrote. “But long discussions with potential partners — including several whose participation would have been game-changing in a journalistic and business-model sense — didn’t pan out.”
Gillmor then listed some of the lessons he learned in the Bayosphere misadventure: citizen journalists need direct assistance; citizen media tools are too techie for average folks; and there must be genuine incentives to get people to do work for you, beyond just “you do the work and we’ll take the money.” And Gillmor’s most personal lesson was that he just wasn’t in his element as an entrepreneur.
Despite his disappointing experience with Bayosphere, Gillmor hasn’t given up on citizen media, and he hasn’t given up one iota on his belief that average folks can expand, fact-check and report on events in their neighborhood and beyond. Far from it. Instead, he is the founder and director of a new non-profit Center for Citizen Media along with the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
While the Center for Citizen Media is still in its infancy, its Board of Advisers is a who’s who of new media and academic journalism. Perhaps the non-profit setting will help Gillmor continue to be an ambassador for citizen journalism without being ground up in the gears of the day-to-day business of running a startup company.
I caught up with him late last week, and we had an email exchange about the changes in his life. He didn’t want to discuss the Bayosphere experience beyond pointing me to his long blog post on the subject, but was open to questions on the new Center for Citizen Media. (Of course I couldn’t resist sneaking one question in about the pitfalls of running a citizen media startup…)
Q: Why did you decide to start the Center?
Gillmor: Given the upheaval in traditional media, I saw an opportunity to create a relatively independent perch to offer some analysis and help, both to the established players and the new ones in what we’re calling citizen media.
It’s important to remember that the upheaval isn’t only about the traditional news organizations’ shareholders and employees. It’s much more about the readers/citizens — when I say “readers” I include listeners and viewers, etc. — and serving their interests will be my overriding goal.
Q: What do you plan to do beyond the blog? Conferences, training seminars? What’s the role for the universities?
Gillmor: I want to be project-oriented, as opposed to building a big infrastructure. Three main areas:
1) Research, Analysis, Advocacy. People like you know all about this, but the vast majority of folks have no idea what “citizen journalism” means, why it’s important or how it works. So I want to help get out the word and help figure out where it’s all going. I’d like to figure out, for example, if a bunch of citizens blogging together can build up as well as tear down. We’ve seen a lot of the latter, but too little of the former.
We’ll do or commission original research into some of the key questions, including the impact on public knowledge and opinion. What are the obstacles, such as legal and financial, and how can we help people avoid them?
2) Best Practices and Tools. Among my many goals in this category: connect innovators in far-flung places; identify gaps and fill them (everything from attention to financing and teams), identify and propagate the best practices globally to those who don’t have the time or resources for R&D [research and development]. This will include tools as well as practices.
One thing I’m anxious to do is use our site as a test bed (or maybe playground) for cool ideas and tools. Anyone who has ideas, I’d love to hear them.
3. Education, Training, Advice/Consulting. We’re open to everyone here: citizens who want to participate in the process; media professionals who want to use these technologies and want to work with citizens; companies that need to understand what is happening; and anyone else who cares.
We won’t be just telling them what’s what. We want them to join us to help figure it all out. I hope to build teams of folks — via collaborations for the most part — who participate in a variety of ways. If we do it right, we can bridge some of the chasms between the public interest and commerce, management and labor, media and audience.
At the moment, I think I’d rather leave conferences to other folks who are better equipped to do them. As for my university partners, needless to say I’m honored by their support. Both [Berkeley and Harvard] have lots of smart folks who are interested in this phenomenon, and want to help make it happen in a good way. I’ll be working with students and faculty as much as possible, and hope to get some collaboration going between the two universities. I’m working with the Berkeley folks on new-media instruction ideas as well, and will be teaching a (specific subject yet to be determined) course there next fall.
Q: How far along do you see the evolution of citizen media? Are we in the beginning stages or maturing somewhat?
Gillmor: We’re early. I don’t know, using the baseball metaphor, whether we’re in the first or second inning, but I don’t think we’re beyond that.
That said, this is likely to be an accelerating process. The tools are getting fairly robust, and as the major media see their business model unravel (and for the most part fail to adapt, to my amazement), extremely smart people are moving quickly into the field.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for running a citizen media operation, either independently or within a news organization?
Gillmor: This is a long, long topic. My recent posting discusses how one independent site saw it. I still believe big news organizations could thrive in this environment, given their historical and current reach in their communities. For reasons that elude me they’re basically not trying.
The biggest challenge for everyone in this space is keeping our eye on something crucial: This is all about shifting from the lecture toward a conversation — and also remembering what I’ve been calling the first rule of conversations: You have to listen. We all have things to offer, but we all have more to learn.
And, again, we have to stress the bottom line on which everything else rests: It’s about the audience (even if they’re participants). If there’s not enough worthwhile to bring them in, the rest is relatively unimportant.
Q: Do we need a new name for citizen media?
We need many names for it, most likely, because it’s about creating, communicating and collaborating. That covers a lot of ground. I mean, look at the differences among things like wikis, solo blogs, podcasts, discussion groups, mashups and the like. Even within those categories, the variety is enormous.
What they all have in common is the idea of a web that’s read-write, though, where we can publish almost as easily as we can read. Citizen media will live, and I believe thrive, in an ecosystem that includes lots and lots of styles and aims.
Q: What is the end goal of citizen media and how can it eventually transform our society?
Gillmor: People will pick their own goals. That’s the best part of this, in a way.
For me, in the context of journalism, this is about moving toward two things. First, we can’t afford to have an ignorant citizenry; the stakes are too high.
Second, I’m convinced that the process of becoming more engaged with current events can lead people to become more active, and even activists. Self-government, if I’m right, is becoming something we do every day, not something we react to (mostly on Election Day, if we even vote). I think that would be a positive development, maybe even a vital one.