The Gen Post is the weekly newsletter of the Global Editors Network. Published every Tuesday, it features a top level editor giving an in-depth analyis of the hottest trends in the world's leading newsrooms.
Dan Gillmor :"News organizations haven't made much progress in adapting to the new media ecosystem"
Dan Gillmor is an internationally recognized author and Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and also Director of the Center for Citizen Media. He is a GEN board member, and will speak at the News World Summit in Hong Kong. He serves on boards of directors or advisory boards for several media-related nonprofits including the Knight New Media Center at USC and UC-Berkeley, Global Voices Online and NewsTrust. We interviewed him about his last book, Mediactive, and the state of journalism.
How has the journalism ecosystem evolved in the past few years? How would you describe it nowadays?
It is more diverse in some respects, but less so in others. Traditional news organizations are shrinking in the U.S. and much of the developed world, though they're growing in some other parts of the world (such as India).
The most important element of change in the ecosystem, and the one that fuels my optimism, is the large number of startups. We're seeing more experiments than ever in ways of creating and providing information, though we need more experiments in new business models as well.
In your book, you give advice to citizens on how to be a part of this ecosystem. What about newspapers, and other traditional media organizations?
My advice was also to news organizations. In one section of the book, I discuss how I would run a news organization, and strongly believe that traditional media companies could do most if not all of these things. For example (as I wrote):
"We would invite our audience to participate in the journalism process in a broad variety of ways, including through crowdsourcing, audience blogging, wikis and many other means. We’d make it clear that we’re not looking for free labor—and work to create a system that rewards contributors beyond a mere pat on the back—and that we want above all to promote a multi-directional flow of news and information in which the audience plays a vital role.
To that end, transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: Every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know”—a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organization’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes—and every story has holes.
We would embrace the hyperlink in every possible way. Our website would include the most comprehensive possible listing of other media in our community, whether we were a community of geography or interest. We’d link to all relevant blogs, photo streams, video channels, database services and other material we could find, and use our editorial judgment to highlight the ones we considered best for the members of the community. And we’d liberally link from our journalism to other work and source material relevant to the topic under discussion, recognizing that we are not oracles but guides."
Those are just several of the things I'd do. You can find a much longer list of items is in the book.
Do you think they also evolved and adapted to this new media ecosystem?
I don't think most traditional news organizations have made much progress in adapting to the new ecosystem. Although they say they understand the changes, the evidence is persuasive that they haven't gone from understanding to action, with few exceptions.
What should they do to do so? How could they take advantage of the new ways of consuming and personalizing the media?
The fundamental realities of tomorrow's news ecosystem are that a) news is conversation, not lecture; b) audiences can and will participate in the process, whether or not traditional media invite them; c) journalists are becoming guides more than oracles; and d) the principles of honorable journalism matter more than ever, because trust is our most important asset.
For example, do you think the newsrooms are adapted to this ecosystem? What would you advise the editors-in-chief to redesign their newsrooms?
Indeed I would. But I wouldn't say specifically how, because this is another area that needs vast amounts of experimentation.
Traditional newsrooms reflected the manufacturing-era method of creating media. Is that still the best configuration in a digital-first era? Probably not, especially given the degree to which the way we create our content is changing, not to mention the reality that people can work from almost anywhere, not just inside a newsroom.
Again, however, we should be looking at how journalists are arranging their work areas in new ways — and how non-journalists who have information-creation roles in other businesses arrange theirs — and sort out the best techniques for our own operations. I'd like to see some research on this.
You say in your book that entrepreneurs will save journalism? Again, what about the traditional media? Can they reproduce a stratup environment within their organizations, with journalism labs?
Traditional media organizations haven't been hotbeds of entrepreneurial thinking, except in one sense: journalists' natural tendency to look for what is new. What newspapers and other traditional media can do is employ people who have an understanding of the startup culture, and create new products and services to supplement the ones they've had.
You have to decide whether to partner, buy or build when it comes to new initiatives. I think partnering is a good first choice. You can buy (or license) technology or content, and given the number of startups there's plenty of supply. I rarely recommend building it yourself, because you're unlikely to be competitive with someone else who a) has better technical talent at hand; and b) is more focused (and nimble) than you can possibly be.
That said, it's always a good idea to give people inside your organization a way to be entrepreneurial. What the business gurus call "intrapreneurs" can be tremendously valuable over time. But they need incentives, and they need the license to fail without career-limiting penalties.
Do you think traditionnal media should also teach and learn mediactivity to their readers or journalists?
Yes. I believe it should be part of our core mission as journalists. As I wrote in the book, it's a vital role that has been
"largely absent from the journalism craft, to its detriment: a recognition that media has a role in helping people develop critical thinking skills, and that journalists—explaining what they do and why—can be among the best teachers.
Traditional media have done a generally lousy job of this. They’ve been content to produce their products and (at least until recently) rake in the money, without much concern for helping audiences understand what journalists actually do when they do their jobs well.
I’m not talking here about gratuitous bragging, especially when there’s little to brag about (which is all too often the case). But the better a news organization does its job in solid or superlative ways, the more important it may be to let the audience in on the hows and whys. The result might include more support and funds from the community for professional journalists. But for the future of journalism, the more important outcome would be a greater appreciation of why everybody needs to do this work."
I suspect that if traditional media organizations had taken on this role a long time ago they'd be in better shape today. But it's not too late — and the need is huge.