DIY JOURNALISM 

Dan Gillmor to Citizens: Write your own news—online

Frustrated with the local media? Looking for more coverage of your son's middle-school soccer team? Got a bake sale or a rally to promote? Why not write a few short articles yourself and publish them on your local citizen journalism Web site? If you don't have a citizen media site, make one. It's really not that difficult.

Or so say the burgeoning number of citizen journalism advocates. They'd like to democratize the media by encouraging members of the former "audience" to write and disseminate their own news. That's increasingly possible, thanks to faster Internet connections and easy-to-use cybertools.

In Vermont, independent citizen media sites already exist--in Burlington, Winooski, Richmond, Putney, Manchester and Brattleboro. And the state's traditional print media outlets are experimenting with ways to add reader-generated content to their products as well. One self-serving example: the Weekly Post column on the Letters to the Editor page of Seven Days, which each week features a post culled from a different Vermont blog.

Critics charge that these amateurs are ruining journalism. They contend that letting readers write the news is bad for democracy, because it threatens the crucial watchdog role professional reporters play in American life.

But citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor speculates that the opposite is true. Gillmor is the founder and director of the Center for Citizen Media, affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University Law School and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Gillmor penned the primer on the subject, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. He argues that encouraging readers to participate in the journalistic process will actually reinvigorate the traditional media--daily newspapers in particular are suffering from layoffs and circulation woes--and spur community involvement and activism.

Gillmor is a veteran newspaper reporter with a quarter-century of experience. Originally from upstate New York, Gillmor came to Vermont in 1969 to attend Middlebury College, but dropped out after three semesters to play guitar for a band called Road Apple. Seven years later, he enrolled at the University of Vermont, graduating in 1981 with a degree in political science.

Gillmor freelanced for the Vanguard Press and The Burlington Free Press before taking a full-time job in 1980 as the sole reporter for the Valley Voice in Middlebury, Vermont, under then-editor David Moats. At the time, Gillmor wrote all his articles on an electric typewriter. His stories were pasted up each week on actual pages before being sent to the printer.

The tools journalists use have changed remarkably in the past two-and-a-half decades; even rural reporters compose and file their stories from coffeeshops using wi-fi-enabled laptops. Gillmor, a long-time techie and "early adopter," has often been ahead of the curve. After joining the staff of the Times Argus in 1982, he became a stringer for the Boston Globe and The New York Times. He bought one of the first personal computers, and sent his stories out of state using a primitive modem.

Gillmor left Vermont in 1984 to write for the Kansas City Times, and later the Detroit Free Press. From 1994 until 2004, he covered the technology beat for the San Jose Mercury News, the daily paper in the heart of the Silicon Valley. He was one of the first mainstream journalists to start a blog, in 1999. Gillmor called his plum post "the greatest gig in the world."

So when he departed in 2004 to become a citizen media evangelist, news junkies took note. In a letter to his editor, Vindu Goel, Gillmor said he was sorry to go. "Something powerful is happening," he wrote. "It's in the early stages and I have a chance to help figure this out ... I hate the idea of leaving. But I'd hate not trying this even more."

Goel praised Gillmor in an announcement about his departure: "Dan has a rare gift among journalists: foresight," he wrote. "He can see what's going to be important long before other people, and he tells readers why they should pay attention."

These days, Gillmor is spreading the message that, thanks to the Internet, the U.S. media is at a crossroads. In the introduction to his book, he writes that the days of journalists delivering news as a kind of "finished lecture" are over.

"Tomorrow's news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar," he writes. "The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we're only beginning to grasp now ... Everyone, from journalists to the people we cover, to our sources and the former audience, must change their ways."

For reporters and editors, Gillmor says that means making the media machinery more transparent; engaging media consumers in conversations online; and soliciting their knowledge regarding the topic at hand.

In a phone interview from his current hometown of Palo Alto, California, Gillmor often says that as a journalist he's guided by the rule, "My readers know more than I do."

"It helped me with my book," he says of the adage. "It helped me when I was writing my column. I think it's true for all journalists, and it's really true in the wider sense that people outside your organization have a lot to tell you about how you can do better."

Gillmor advises that, rather than fight readers who want to contribute content, newspapers should design tools to facilitate the exchange. He says he'd like to see newspapers "provide a platform for the readers to do their own conversations. Everything from blogs to podcasts to bulletin boards. That would be a start." He suggests expanding the letters to the editor section online, so that the print version is a kind of "best of and guide to."

Gillmor muses that encouraging this kind of increased participation is good for our participatory democracy. "When people learn that they can express their voices," he says, "that they can actually make a difference in some smaller outpost like on the Web--even if it's just a conversation about some car they own--I think they then can go much more easily to the next step of becoming more active community-wise, in social or political activism." Gillmor is currently working on a book testing that hypothesis.

Embracing this reality will be good for business, he says. Gillmor notes that as traditional media organizations continue to struggle with declining profit margins, they'll need to adapt to the interactive online environment that consumers--particularly younger ones--increasingly expect. "Being guides as much as oracles to what's good out there--that may be part of survival," he predicts.

Not surprisingly, a long line of journalists has stepped forward to denounce this logic. One of the latest is Samuel Freedman, writing for the Public Eye blog on CBSNews.com. "I despair over the movement's current cachet," he writes of citizen media. "However wrapped in idealism, citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals."

Gillmor responds in a post on his Center for Citizen Media blog. "Like so many folks who appear to wish ill for citizen journalism out of hand," he writes, Freedman "turns the situation into an either-or matter, when the reality is that we're talking about an ecosystem that can and should support a variety of journalistic endeavors."

Gillmor insists that citizen media should supplement, not replace, traditional reporting. "I hope we'll still have big media doing the big stuff and the community watchdogging," he says.

Chris Grotke of Brattleboro shares that view. Grotke and his partner Lise LePage founded the independent citizen media site iBrattleboro.com in February 2003, after hearing their neighbors complain about dismal local coverage in the Brattleboro Reformer. The Reformer Web site lacks a citizen journalism component.

Today iBrattleboro has 1,361 users who post stories and comments, between 100 and 500 of whom contribute regularly. That's in a town of just 12,000. The site averages between 550 and 700 hits a day. Stories posted last week included a concert review, a plug for an event to combat underage drinking, and a notice about the town's Ultimate Frisbee League registration.

And iBrattleboro covers breaking news, too--most famously in December 2004, when a fire raged downtown one Saturday morning. Residents immediately posted their photos, stories and aid information on iBrattleboro. The Reformer, which doesn't publish on the weekends, didn't get to the story until days later.

"Monday morning, the paper comes out--'There was a fire!'" says Grotke. "Um, we know that."

Today iBrattleboro is one of the most successful sites of its kind in the country; Gillmor regularly cites it in his talks. It's a must-read for local officials, and for anyone who wants to know what's really going on in town.

Even Reformer reporters have confided that this is true. Grotke says the pros scan the site for story ideas. He calls this "trickle-up journalism." And he thinks it's great.

Grotke says he hopes sites like his can "free newspapers up" to do better, more detailed professional coverage of issues. "I hope that this will strengthen newspapers."

But citizen media is still very much in the experimental phase. For every site like iBrattleboro, there are more sites like iBurlington.com, which after a year and a half has just 193 users, about 10 of whom post regularly.

Even Bayosphere--Dan Gillmor's own citizen media site, which he left his job to found in 2005--has so far been a disappointment. Gillmor conceded as much in a detailed letter to the Bayosphere community in January.

"We envisioned Bayosphere as a place where people in the San Francisco Bay Area community could learn about and discuss the regional scene, with a focus on technology, the main economic driver," he wrote. "But as is obvious to anyone who's paid attention, the site didn't take off." In his missive, Gillmor explores the site's failings and the lessons learned.

He's apparently not discouraged by his experiment, however. "In the marketplace of many things, including ideas, this is how we make progress," he says. "We try things, we discard the ones that aren't working, we watch what does, and improve on that."

Gillmor has stepped back from Bayosphere since founding the nonprofit Center for Citizen Media at the end of 2005. He feels he can do more for the movement as an analyst and a spokesperson than as an entrepreneur.

That may be true. With his background and experience, Gillmor can offer an informed perspective on the phenomenon that most citizen journalists lack. It lends a certain authority to his pronouncements. Nearly everyone--from traditional newspaper publishers to bedroom bloggers--can agree on one such comment in his book: "This evolution ... will not be neat and clean."

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