'Giant zero' journalism

by Doc Searls, Doc Searls Weblog

We'll start with Corporations Co-opt Citizen Journalism, by Frank Beacham, who concludes,

I predict that in a world overflowing with dreadful citizen-made images, talented photographers and videographers will survive. Perhaps they will not be on the payroll of the traditional news organizations. Yet, they will always be in demand by a group of discriminating consumers who will pay for their services.

News dominated by citizen journalists will be just like the neighbor who makes you sit through a viewing of his 300 vacation snapshots or baby pictures from Costco. Your eyes will begin to glaze over, followed by an urge to scream.

Beware of news organizations that think they can replace professionals with citizen-made free content. It will stink. Always has, always will.

I found that through The Fatal Attraction of Free, by Dan Kennedy, who says,

There is, however, a significant flaw in the corporate-defined citizen-journalism model. Good journalism may be hard, but technology is easy. And rather than giving it away to Yahoo, Reuters et al., most citizen journalists are doing it themselves.

Dan also points to Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News? — The rise and prospects of hyperlocal journalism, from the Knight Citizen News Network. It's a big report. A press release about the report begins,

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Local news web sites offering content generated by users are securing a valuable place in the media landscape and are likely to continue as important sources of community news, according to a report released today by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism.

"Citizen sites are developing as new forms of bridge media, linking traditional news with forms of civic participation," said J-Lab director, Jan Schaffer, author of the report, which was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

These sites, which take many forms, have rapidly emerged since 2004. But rather than delivering comprehensive news and "finished stories," most sites are "forming as fusions of news and schmooze" that pay particular attention to key issues in their communities, Schaffer said...

Most citizen media ventures are shoestring labors of love, funded out of the founders' own pockets, and staffed by volunteer content contributors. While they¹d like more readers and revenues, site founders nevertheless professed a solid resolve to continue: 51% said they didn't need to make money to keep going; 82% said they planned to continue "indefinitely." Nearly all would welcome reinforcements and the ability to make even token payments to writers.

Kudos to KCNN: the whole report is in .html rather than .pdf. (Kevin Marks: HTML is now the default document format. Exactly.) My only complaint: they apparently didn't talk to Edhat.

Dan's bottom lines:

I think it's likely — or at least I hope — that the very real problem identified by Beacham will turn out to be self-correcting. Corporate media executives who genuinely want to use citizen-media tools to build community and experiment with new business models will be rewarded for their efforts.

But those who think they can profit by suckering amateurs into giving away their content will soon discover that what they've created a host of new competitors.

A commenter under Dan's piece points to NY Times publisher: Our goal is to manage the transition from print to internet, by By Eytan Avriel in Haaretz. An irony-packed excerpt:

Will it be free?

No, Sulzberger says. If you want to read the New York Times online, you will have to pay.

In the age of bloggers, what is the future of online newspapers and the profession in general? There are millions of bloggers out there, and if the Times forgets who and what they are, it will lose the war, and rightly so, according to Sulzberger. "We are curators, curators of news. People don't click onto the New York Times to read blogs. They want reliable news that they can trust," he says.

"We aren't ignoring what's happening. We understand that the newspaper is not the focal point of city life as it was 10 years ago.

"Once upon a time, people had to read the paper to find out what was going on in theater. Today there are hundreds of forums and sites with that information," he says. "But the paper can integrate material from bloggers and external writers. We need to be part of that community and to have dialogue with the online world."

Then there's Mark Glaser's report on We Media, at PBS's MediaShift. Sez Mark,

My personal definition of "we media" is the movement toward an empowered audience, who can customize their media experience and create their own media, leaving behind the old model of the mainstream media control.

Later he points out,

The conference was marketed as being a conversation among various players in the media industry. As the conference site put it: "The program includes a series of roundtable discussions and a variety of participatory activities involving communities, individuals and organizations to help participants understand and address the challenges of a changing multi-media world."

But some individuals, who wrote complaints on the We Media website, were put off by the $1,000+ walk-up registration fee...

It's true that there are other low-cost unconferences such as BloggerCon, where there are no fees and no sponsors, and the space is donated. But this is not what We Media is aiming for. I chatted with the conference organizers, Dale Peskin and Andrew Nachison (a.k.a. the new media Blues Brothers), this morning before the confab started, and they explained the high cost of We Media...

Nachison said that registration fees only pay for 20% of the costs to put on the conference, with sponsor money making up the rest of the income. Their group, iFocos, is non-profit, but they obviously aren¹t looking for charity here. This is about business, and how the media business is changing, and it¹s not just the army of citizen media people.

I got to Dan and all the other stuff above through We are the Web, at howardowens.com. Howard, looking at all the above, offers this summary:

There¹s a book end of attitudes about big media companies and distributed media. On one end is the suggestion that MSM¹s only interest in UGC is as free content, and on the other end, the meme that MSM is just big, dumb media that somehow stands apart from social media instead of a part of we media.

He concludes,

If people didn¹t get something out of their contributions, they wouldn¹t write, shoot and submit. Not all compensation is monetary. MSM companies that make available a distribution channel for UGC assume the financial risk associated with the effort (a risk not shared by contributors), and provide a valuable service to contributors looking to reach a wider audience than might be available to a solo act. Yes, MSM getting into UGC are hoping that the effort will generate audience, and hence revenue, but it¹s a complete misunderstanding of the economics of the matter to say the whole process is just a rip off. You¹ve got to start some place, and maybe some day UGC will generate sufficient revenue to justify monetary compensation for contributors, but for most newspapers still incubating UGC, that just isn¹t possible right now.

Of course, I¹m one of those corporate MSM guys who believes in UGC, so you might think I have a conflict of interest here.

Here¹s the thing though: As I watched the Web 2.0 video, I revisited a thought: "We are the media." And by We, I don¹t just mean the so-called citizens of citizen journalism. We also includes the MSM. Like it or not, every MSM outlet is part of the conversation. Some are reluctant or even resistant contributors to the conversation, but every report in MSM is ripe for citizens to expand on, comment on or react to.

Those of us who work on the MSM side of the conversation also believe that in building the means of participation we aren¹t just looking for free content — we believe in the conversation. That should mean something.

I found Howard through I, Reporter, which I found through a search for Gannett+citizen+journalists, because I was wondering what happened with Gannett's CJ (or crowdsourcing) efforts since I last wrote about it.* I was doing that as part of an offline dialog with Sheila Lennon, who has been working for some time at the juncture of newspapering and blogging.

All this was also on the front of my mind, since several people had spoken or written to me about a Frontline piece — I'm guessing it's either the whole Newswar series, or Part III: What's Happening To News. One of my correspondents, Dave Winer, makes a point he says Frontline misses: we are the sources, going direct.

Exactly. That brings me to a related point, which is about the Net as an environment.

This is what I told the public media conference in my closing remarks there: The Net is a giant zero. It puts everybody zero distance from everybody and everything else. And it supports publishing and broadcasting at costs that round to zero as well.

It is essential for the mainstream media to understand that the larger information ecosystem is one that grows wild on the Net and supports everybody who wants to inform anybody else. It no longer grows inside the mainstream media's walled gardens. Those gardens will continue to thrive only to the degree that they do two things: 1) open up; and 2) live symbiotically with individuals outside who want to work together for common purposes.

Framing is a huge issue here. We have readers and viewers, not just "audiences" and "consumers". We write articles and essays and posts, not just "generate content". "User-generated content", or UGC, is an ugly, insulting and misleading label.

"Content" is inert. It isn't alive. It doesn't grow, or catch fire, or go viral. Ideas and insights do that. Interesting facts do that. "Audiences" are passive. They sit still, clap and leave. That might be what happened with newspapers and radio and TV in the old MSM-controlled world, but it's not what happens on The Giant Zero. It's not what happens with blogging, or with citizen journalism. Here it's all about contribution, participation. It involves conversation, but it goes beyond that into relationship — with readers, with viewers, with the larger ecosystem by which we all inform each other.

As I've said before (and I said it again at the conference), we don't just "deliver information" like it's a Fedex package. We inform each other. That is, we literally form what other people know. If you tell me something I didn't know before, I'm changed by that. I am not merely in receipt of a box of facts. I am enlarged by knowing more than I did before. Enlarging each other is the deepest calling of journalism, whether it's done by bloggers, anchors or editors.

We are all authors of each other. What we call authority is the right we give others to author us, to make us who we are. That right is one we no longer give only to our newspapers, our magazines, our TV and radio stations. We give it to anybody who helps us learn and understand What's Going On in the world. In that world the number of amateur informants goes up while the number of editors on newspaper staffs goes down. Between these two facts are many opportunities for symbiosis.

"Curation" and "curative" are words tradition-bound journalists like to use when they defend their institutions. But these are museum words. They suggest collections of artifacts behind locked doors in basement collections. The New York Times may have a financial success with Times Select, its online paper. But Time Select is a walled garden with a locked gate. You can't look up anything there in Google, because its "content" is trapped behind a paywall. Only subscribers can see it, and there's a limit on how much archival material they can see without paying more.

The majority of papers today still lock up their archives. It's time to stop that, for the simple reason that it insults the nature of the Giant Zero environment on which they now reside. They can make as much or more money by exposing those archives to Google's and Yahoo's indexing spiders, by placing advertising on them, by linking to them and bringing interest and visitors to them, by making them useful to other journalists (many of whom will be bloggers) seeking to write authoritatively about their communities and their communities' histories.

Established media institutions have enormous advantages. But they can't use them if they continue to live in denial of the nature of their new world — and of the interests, talents and natural independence of the other inhabitants there.
[Later...] *Greg writes,

Re: Gannett's "crowd sourcing," here in Poughkeepsie, the Journal keeps bugging readers to blog for its site on its terms, but doesn't seem interested in acknowledging local bloggers who are already covering these area/issues on their own. Community opinion matters only to the extent that it's expressed under the Gannett roof.

Our own Daily Nexus at UCSB (where I am a research fellow) just published a piece today that covered placeblogging, with narry a link and hardly a mention of Edhat, which has been doing an awesome job for years as both supplement and alternative to the daily paper here in Santa Barbara. Credit where due: The piece does give props to the excellent work being done by the Independent, our local weekly.

article originally published at http://doc.weblogs.com/2007/03/06.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey