MIT Communication Forum – The Emergence of Citizens’ Media – 9.19.06

This was the first in a three-part forum taking place at MIT. It featured Alex Beam of the Boston Globe, Ellen Foley of the Wisconsin State Journal and Dan Gilmore of the Center for Citizen Media. The forum was presented by the MIT Communications Forum and moderated by David Thornberg, professor of literature and the director of the Communications Forum.The attitudes of the panelists were interesting: Dan wholly believes in the move to citizens’ media, Ellen seemed pretty negative on the whole concept and Alex didn’t really seem to care one way or the other.

After Dave set the stage, each of the panelists shared their thoughts on the issue.

Dan Gilmore

He views the rise of citizens’ media as creating a richer world of journalism – but still one that would include newspapers. In his mind, new tools for production, distribution and access have opened up and democratized the process of creating media. Consumers are becoming the producers and vise versa creating a read/write web; it isn’t just blogs – rich media: podcasts, vidcasts, etc. are equally accessible outlets – even the Pentagon is doing podcasts.

This advent of citizens’ media is converting journalism from a lecture into a conversation; but in Gilmore’s mind, the traditional media don’t always do a very good job of listening. This is an issue because often times the readers know more about a subject than the reporters do; and understanding and using this can create opportunities.

One of the other challenges faced by the traditional media, according to Gilman, is that in the world of open access, the audience has plenty of content choices. People can now aggregate news to create “The Daily Me”, and can go a step further by being able to interact with their customized content.

Another strength of this new journalism for Gilmore is the fact that it has become more difficult to keep secrets. At the same time though, the issues of accuracy and trust remain central to the news and the media regardless of the format or source.

Gilmore believes that traditional media will adapt – creating new kinds of communication and communities, creating opportunities for media consumers to contribute content, offering hyper-local news; but if the traditional media doesn’t pick it up, someone else will.

An important role for the traditional media, according to Gilmore, is to help people be better citizen journalists. The Ohmy News in Korea is an example of this – with more than 40,000 contributors and plans to expand to other countries. Other news organizations are asking people to provide comment and content; but even if the media doesn’t ask, the citizens will do it themselves.

This isn’t a new trend, the Zapruder film is an excellent example; but that was one man and one camera. Now, and in the future, events will be captured by dozens or hundreds or richly connected contributors. This mass of people capable of reporting will change the way people experience events. As will new technology.

Gilmore sees Web 2.0 as creating new kinds of content and commentary that blend information from many sources. One example that he offered was chicagocrime.org, which uses real-time crime data and google maps to provide a geo-spacial view of criminal activity. Likewise, commentary is also changing. People are able to blend and edit content to create something new (Bush/Blair “Endless Love” for example).

Gilmore does see some challenges in the world of new journalism. There is too much information and people have to find a way to surface the signal over the noise. There needs to be a move from “daily me” to the “daily us” and it needs to be based on more than just popularity – reputation and authenticity play an important role too. Media consumers – even if they are also creators – need help with media literacy and in recognizing that not everything they see is true.

The real threat in Gilmore’s eyes isn’t a journalistic one; it’s the migration of ad dollars to sites like ebay and the impact this will have on the survival of the traditional news business.

Ellen Foley

Foley was happy to be sharing the stage with Dan and Alex, neither of whom she know but both of whom she had read.

Foley hails from the middle of the country – where they are very involved in new media – very nimble and very interested in what their readers have to say. She disagreed with Gilmore on the role of citizen journalism. In the mid-west, she explained, there is a “good neighbor” culture of looking out for each other that has translated into their journalism; this may have propelled them ahead of some other newspapers in terms of the way they listen to and respond to their readers.

She believes that they have “TLC” for their readers. When she started, there was a theory that the reporters were the smart people – now they know that this isn’t the case. Journalists job is to share information with readers – not only what they need, but also what they want.

Foley is wary of listening to people that don’t work in newsrooms and that don’t understand the reader or the economic realities of the news business when it comes to managing the transition from the dominance of traditional media to the emerging mix of traditional and new media. She thinks that the change between the slow, thoughtful world of the press to the fast world of Internet journalism is interesting; and that it is creating a tension – not only between the two types of media but also between the consumers of information. This second tension is largely along generational lines. Resolving this tension is key.

She isn’t worried about the future of newspapers, I am worried about the future of journalism

Foley, in her role as the editor, recognizes that the news in is a business and one with limited resources. One of her challenges is to figure out new business models that might work. She mentioned jellyfish.com (a new commerce site – but it isn’t clear to me how this relates to new business models for the news industry). Despite having to work within a limited budget, her paper is still doing new media for which it is being recognized. For example, every day, they allow readers to vote on what should appear on the front page; the readers constantly select heavy duty news – the BP pipeline vs. Paris Hilton – the readers are smart – that’s why she sends reporters out tot talk to them every day.

For Foley, the mission of Journalists is to tell the truth; she wants to use the new technology to tell the truth Another mission is to make a difference – creating a community conversation; they still talk about issues in her community and the newspapers are where that conversation starts. If papers go away, it would be a sad day for her community and for future generations. One of her goals is to make sure that traditional journalistic values survive into the future.

Alex Beam

Of the three, Beam was the most off-the-cuff in his comments, the most detached from the issue of citizens’ journalism and the most neutral on the topic. He began by discussing the current ungainly commingling of the Globes two web sites and how content is selected for Boston.com. He took exception to the idea that it was good to let readers select which articles would appear on the front page because he doubts the wisdom of crowds.

He discussed Times Select as an attempt to address some of the economic issues that Foley raised while acknowledging that the Times has been mocked for the decision in the blogosphere. In his eyes, this is just something that the news, an industry, needs to cope with it because circulations are at their lowest but readership is at its highest. Beam envies that the Times is selling content and mentioned that the Globe had once considered putting Red Sox coverage behind a pay wall on the site.

He is generally skeptical on citizens’ media. He is interested in what his readers think – maybe for new ideas or to correct his thinking – and has seen Internet “schemes” that are interesting (he cited a Yahoo video producer); but to him, Craig Newmark’s (of Craig’s List) idea of journalism just isn’t that interesting. His concern is that unmediated journalism isn’t OK if it is just going to spout a pack of lies.

Envy the NY Times for for selling content – we considered selling red sox content

Q&A

Following the panelists comments, there was a Q&A session:

The problem of old and new business models

According to Foley 20% of revenue comes from subscribers, the other 80% is advertising, the Web contributes about 5% of revenue while the Sunday paper does about 95% – it is her cash cow; the people who run the news industry are only looking at the Web as a place to make money – they think about news as “inventory” to sell ads around. She views the credibility of her paper’s content as being their competitive advantage in the face of citizens’ journalism; but fears that this isn’t given as much attention is it needs.

Gilmore sees the day of the cash cow as over; this is because the papers were monopolies and their investors don’t just want to maintain the status quo but want to see growth. The problem is that there are now non-news competitors (eBay, google, etc.) that going after discreet parts of the ad pie in ways that are often deliver better results for the advertisers that the newspapers; and they don’t have to do journalism.

Foley responded that her concern is that it will become difficult for people to manage without the information that newspapers provide, and that while she is trying to provide that information and keep the cash cow alive, these competitors were stealing her IP and her ad revenue.

Gilmore didn’t think there was much that can be done about it. These other sites were taking the advertisers because they could do a better job of serving them.

Beam mentioned that he was working on a story on NPR, which is, for the first time, seeing a decline in listenership. Their audience is aging but few people within NPR want to tamper with the model that has been so successful, In Chicago though the NPR station is taking some risks and will offer a view of how traditional media might court younger consumers.

Gilmore thinks that part of the issue is that people assume that news should be free and wondered why newspapers just don’t move to a giveaway model.

On Balancing listening to readers with educating them and providing a broader spectrum of news content

Beam says that the Web as been amazing at delivering this breadth; and at the same time, economic realities have meant that the Globe has become less able to do this (due to staff cutbacks).

Gilmore believes that one thing that papers could do is to point readers outside of their domain to provide content and perspectives so that they can become more of a guide than an oracle; if you send people away to someplace good, they will come back.

Foley thinks that she needs to give readers not just what they want but what they need; she is trying to be a broad based media and fears that if her paper tries to be a content guide it will loose the ability to create community conversation.

On the value-add of traditional journalism

Beam sees the issue as being that the news industry hasn’t found the price point for mediation and judgment. He finds it interesting that the NY Times is asking people to pay for opinion rather than news.

Foley believes that mediated journalism is that of confirmation rather than aspiration and that the commentary people pay for at the NY Times is based on established fact rather than unmediated information. how long are we going to be interested in the old technology of the newspaper? I like it – you can read it, throw it away,

Gilmore took exception with the implicit statement made (by Foley) that bloggers are just trying to get their opinions out there and pointed out the some traditional news outlets are doing the same thing. He also pointed out that there are many many blogs that are great and valid news sources. He acknowledged that most blogs were not journalism; but that of the tens of millions of them out there thousands were doing a great job of reporting on specific topics. He doesn’t think that one has to pick a side in considering traditional vs. citizens’ journalism.

By the end of the session (which included additional questions and side topics not reflected here) no one had answered the question of whether newspapers would survive. It was clear that within the news industry thinking around the topic of citizens’ journalism is evolving; and that it involves more that reporting style but also impacts the definition of the news and the economics of the entire industry.

Additional detials on the forum (including, at some point, a podcast and vidcast) are available at http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/citizens_media.html.

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