Citizen Media Observer Says: Don't Speak. Point!

The randomness that sense of never quite knowing

An Article from Knight Forum

By Bruno Giussani

LUGANO, Switzerland (Jan. 25, 2007) — At a recent conference in California, Ethan Zuckerman, the Harvard-based co-founder of GlobalVoices and an insightful blogger, was asked whether newspaper and television editors were still relevant in these days of participatory, "citizen" journalism.

He offered the best answer I've heard so far on that question: "Don’t speak. Point!" By which he meant: the days of journalists and editors "speaking on behalf of people" or "speaking to people" are over.

"Point to people and get out of the way," he said.

A pretty radical statement. But Zuckerman didn't mean that the days of editors and journalists are past. He was rather suggesting that with facts, information and opinions circulating freely and broadly, their role is changing into that of facilitator, coach, flow organizer.

The new power of editors and journalists will depend on their ability to take on new tasks: to animate a group of people; to develop ways to organize how information is gathered and used, with the participation of what used to be called "the audience;" and to help people navigate an information landscape that's increasingly crowded and constantly shifting.

If it sounds confusing -- and scary to some in the media -- that’s because it is. Nobody really knows how this emerging immediate, unmediated world will develop. But two things seem clear to me.

1) "Old media" and "new media" are not antagonistic but complementary, and engaged in a dialectical exploration that will change both.

2) Nobody holds the recipe for how a local newspaper or a national television network will reinvent itself in an environment of bloggers and amateur video-producers. We're heading toward a chaotic decade and a massive readjustment, with loosely organized groups gaining leverage in a fast-paced, ambiguous media landscape, while structured organizations come increasingly under pressure. We will have to figure out things as we go.

Here’s how Georgina Henry—who after 16 years on the print side of The Guardian now edits the newspaper’s collective blog Comment is Free—describes the new landscape: "The randomness, that sense of never quite knowing who's going to post when and what, is both the joy of the new site and slightly scary. It's the lack of control you feel you have at times - and control, I realise, is one of the hardest things for editors to cede."

Here are three ideas of things to come, three likely ingredients of the future of journalism. I have no pretense of being exhaustive (there are many more), and of course I'm totally open to contradiction. But as we work on figuring this out, these are the kind of trends that will transform the profession and its place in society in ways that are radical, risky and exhilarating. They demonstrate that journalists are not going away - but also that they need to change.

The assembled media - The video below shows The New Yorker's Malcom Gladwell speaking at the TED conference. Gladwell discusses spaghetti sauce. That's not what's relevant here (although do watch the video if you have time: it's 18 minutes of fabulous storytelling and you will learn a lot).

The reason why I'm showing this video is because I want to briefly discuss the importance of embedding and, through it, describe a critical structural shift in the media. The dictionary says that "embedding" means "to implant something within something else so it becomes an ingrained or essential characteristic of it." As you can see, Gladwell's video appears as an integral component of this article, and it can be played within this web page just by clicking on the "play" button.

Yet, it is not hosted on Knight Foundation’s server. We have not had to upload it, we have not shot nor produced nor edited it. You don’t need to download it or follow a link or do anything other than click "play." That's because the video is an embedded element. Despite the fact that it appears as part of this page, it actually comes straight from the TEDtalks server. All we had to do to include it in Knight Forum is copy/paste a string of code. That's it. It doesn't get much easier. And we could have picked millions of other videos from hundreds of other sources.

This is a powerful illustration of what is currently happening online: leveraging the full potential of the Web by building coherent ensembles from disparate elements. That's what techies call "Web2.0." This brings us back to the original vision for the Web of its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee: "anything being potentially connected to anything."

For bloggers, or for MySpace users, and for everyone having a presence online - including the news media - suddenly it has become extremely easy to incorporate features from other sources into their sites. Embedding one element within another is only one of the multiple ways of doing this (mashups and remixes would be others, for instance), but it makes linking look old school.

Embedding is a win-win situation: You upload something and embed it in your blog: Somehow it becomes "yours" --part of your own blog, of your story, of your online persona -- while remaining "theirs." It maintains their format and branding and extends their reach into your audience. Whatever way you turn it, that's extremely powerful. And—regardless of whether you're an individual with a laptop or a large media organization—it heralds a new way of creating, of assembling really, a news or entertainment product. The potential is virtually infinite.

The "read-write" media - The collision of new technologies and media is making the "audience" more involved; the tools to gather, treat and distribute information are now in the hands of multitudes. This is transformative.

The media, in the words of Dan Gillmor, founder of the Center for Citizen Media, are shifting from a "read-only" system to a "read-write" one. The most remarkable aspect of the interactive digital environment is indeed the progressive vanishing of the lines dividing the producer and the consumer of information, the writer and the reader. People with cameraphones are always more likely than professional journalists or photographers to be where the news happens, when it happens (witnessing, for example, 9/11, the tsunami and the London bombings, pictured below).

London bombings
Photo by Alexander Chadwick for AP
The London subway bombings as captured by a witness's cellphone.

The phenomenon is not exactly new: one of the most famous video footages, the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination, was exactly that: an act of random, amateur journalism. Nowadays people routinely carry photo and video devices and have access to the Web. The Zapruders of our time populate YouTube and MySpace and blogs and other similar places that are capturing their creativity and allowing its expression. Says Gillmor: "Imagine if we had 500 video witnesses of Kennedy's motorcade, and they were all connected to a digital network. We would have a very different understanding of that event. Well, that's what's coming".

But it's not coming by self-assembly. It needs nurturing if it is to make social sense and do more good than harm. In a recent game of "oldthink vs newthink" prompted by Mark Glaser at PBS MediaShift, Erik Sundelof, a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow, submitted the following:

Oldthink: We [journalists] create the content on our websites.
Interimthink: Everyone contributes to the site.
Newthink: Everyone can contribute to a site with "some slight editing." This "slight editing" can be done either by the community or by a selected group of editors [chosen] from the contributors. Many forms are available but still the editing part is crucial for most websites.

Sundelof offers here a crucial insight in the way media are developing. Despite the rhetoric of participation, most of the successful websites or blogs (and even some print publications) that have leveraged the participative model so far have done so by introducing some "soft structure."

The same is true, by the way, for all successful open-source software projects. "Just getting a lot of people posting [or writing code] is in itself not the solution," writes Sundelof. It just increases the level of noise, drowning the signal. So it seems that we're heading toward different forms of hybrid media, where a thin layer of structure is put on an expanding boiling pot of ideas, opinions, analysis, fact-gathering, fact-checking, reporting and creativity done by both professionals and amateurs.

The challenge, of course, will be to create that structure, to do that "slight editing" without choking the energy and the creativity in the boiling pot.

The media as places - One of the most abused terms of the last decade is certainly "community." Everyone from paperclip manufacturers to Microsoft these days wants to "build a community." The news media too. What's getting lost in the marketing jargon is the most obvious thing: you don't "build" nor "own" a community. You're part of it, or you're not. The best you can do, as Steve Rubel suggests, is to provide the "operating system" for it -- the context for people to meet and share.

For the media, the direct implication is that the newspaper and the television/radio channel are no longer a mere product --and that they have to relinquish their self-representation as "beacons" or "heralds." They have to become places. Places where people from the community converge, stop by, make connections and come back again to build a common future. Places where most of the social, informational, entertainment and economic value is created not by the journalists and publishers, but by the members of the community.

This is an idea that I've already expressed almost 10 years ago and that many others have also developed. It applies both online and offline: I'm stressing this point because I hear too many unwarranted obituaries for print and for broadcast.

What happens in these places is only partially defined by the "space managers"—the media outlets—and mostly defined by the participants (If you want to study how this works, the "Second Life" synthetic world is a good nascent experimental ground). Providing news and information is part of it, and the tools also matter, but mostly it's about allowing connections. Content has a social role; it becomes a pretext to create social networks. People don't connect in a void, they connect by sharing experiences or objects, and content (news, videos, pictures, music, links, books, games, opinions, etc.) is an extremely powerful social object.

This, by the way, is the intent of Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge: encourage the exploration of ways to connect communities using digital media. Because, of course, the most powerful content of all, is people themselves. A key role of the media in the future will be to provide the places—to become the platform—for people to link what they know with who they know, and to expand both their knowledge and their network.

###

What does all this say about the future of journalism? At least three things. First, journalists will be around for a long time. Secondly, they need not fear what's coming because it will be exciting and vastly expand their possibilities. But, thirdly, they will need to reinvent themselves as a skilled part of a crowd rather than as lecturers, to become more tolerant of ambiguity, to become fluent in both the tech innovations and the shifts in social dynamics that are driving the development of media.

There is a whole new media ecosystem growing around us. Its contours are still fuzzy, and will remain so for a long time. Its operating words will be social, hybridization, sharing, complementarity. If we do this right, the quality of information will go up. And so will the quality of public debate. What else is journalism here for?

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.