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Columbia Talk: Evolving the News for a Digital Age

Thanks again to Columbia University for inviting me this week to give the annual Hearst New Media Lecture. The audience was terrific and asked great questions (I don’t have a transcript of that part, sorry.) What follows is the talk as I wrote it out, beginning after the various thank-yous to the folks who invited me (special thanks to Sree), though I did stray frequently from the written text. I’ll add the appropriate links as I get the time.

I’m honored to have been invited. I’m also grateful. During the past few years I’ve had the privilege of working in a field that really led to this conversation we’re going to have tonight. There have been ups and downs along the way. But it’s been a great ride so far.

I spent more than a decade at the San Jose Mercury News, the daily newspaper of Silicon Valley. One of the ways I tended to classify some of the people I met in the technology industry was by dividing them into groups we might call the managers and the engineers. That’s software and hardware engineers, not the kind who drive trains.

Here’s a story I once heard. Or maybe I saw it on the Internet. Whatever, it’s not original with me.

So it’s lunchtime, and some managers at a software company are on their way out to a local restaurant. One of them peers up at the flag, waving in a mild breeze, and wonders aloud how tall the flagpole is. Now this is Silicon Valley, where when you have an idea you’re supposed to act on it. One of them has a tape measure in his car, which he retrieves. The managers start hoisting each other up, attempting to measure the height of the thing, but they’re falling all over each other and generally making a mess of it.

Meanwhile, a couple of software engineers have stopped to observe the somewhat chaotic scene. They look at each other and nod, then tell the managers to stand out of the way for a second, which by now they are only too glad to do. The engineers lift the pole out of its stand, lay it flat on the grass, take the tape and measure the thing. They give the answer to the managers and head off to their own lunch.

One of the managers looks to the others, shakes his head and says, “Typical engineers. We want the height and they give us the length.”

I’m not an engineer, and I’m definitely not a corporate manager. But I like that story, because it reminds me how easily we see things in certain ways and fail to recognize or appreciate the alternatives.

This is called a “New Media” lecture. Two items: First, We are moving at light speed to a time when the expression “new media” will too many words, and we’ll drop the new part; it’ll just be media. I’m glad to see this school and the organizations that hire its graduates are adopting at least some of tomorrow’s techniques more quickly than I predicted. That’s good. Forward-looking folks are aware that there’s no alternative, not to mention the fact that the journalism will benefit.

Second, I want to make this a conversation sooner than later. Eveything I’ve been working on in the past few years is about an evolution of journalism from the lecture mode of the past to something much closer to a conversation. That’s a shift I consider absolutely essential for all of journalism’s constituencies.

I don’t have to tell anyone here about the turmoil in the news business over the past few years. If I noticed it a bit earlier than some, we can chalk that up partly to circumstance.

When I was writing my column for the San Jose Mercury News, We were a growing newspaper, loaded with ambition and the resources to do something about it. I was extremely well compensated — for a newspaper guy, at any rate — and free to follow my instincts. I used to wake up mornings thinking I’d won the journalism lottery.

Now the Mercury News is a much-diminished organization. It still has some of the best journalists and people I’ve know, is about to be sold to a newspaper group whose management will likely make the staff yearn for the days when the man some folks called Darth Ridder was running the company.

I’m not here to say newspapers have a right to survive. And I’m not here to say that professional journalists — that is, people paid to produce news reports — have a right to their jobs. Being in Silicon Valley helped me understand and appreciate this.

In our age of accelerating change, the force that the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” guarantees that the blend of innovation, free markets and individual liberty are inevitably disruptive to business models. Creative destruction, which has slammed into the journalism field like so many others, obliges us all to keep learning and reinventing our own lives and careers. There are scary parts to this, but if we welcome innovation, while nourishing free markets and liberty with fairness and social responsibility, we will do better than under other systems.

I am here to say a few obvious things. One is the blatantly observable fact that the practice of journalism is evolving — and at a pace so quick as to be stunning for such a conservatively run business. I’m also hoping to stretch some definitions, and maybe some boundaries, all in service of better journalism for the future.

On my blog in early 2005 I posted an essay-in-progress. It was called “The End of Objectivity (Version 0.91).” I suggested that the journalism of the new century would be better served if we all considered abandoning the worthy ideal of objectivity and replacing it with a collection of honored principles, only one of which was not already embedded in tradition. Now, by reinforcing those principles with the emerging tools of a Digital Age, we can create something even better.

By giving that blog posting a version number of less than 1.0, I wasn’t just making a techie joke. I was calling attention to another reality of tomorrow’s journalism. In a craft that’s shifting from lecture to conversation, the publication (or broadcast or whatever) is not The End. It is somewhere in the middle of an emergent system in which we all can keep learning, and teaching.

This is increasingly doable in part because of what has changed so much for so many: the collision of technology and media, which has helped democratize communications and is turning traditional notions of journalism in new directions. Now, I don’t mean democratization so much as in the sense of voting — though collective community thinking is an intriguing and valuable part of what’s coming. I mean it in the sense of wide participation.

The democratization starts with the tools of creation. They’re widely available — the computer I carry around came off the shelf with media tools that were simply unavailable a few years ago except to a highly skilled and well-paid professionals. These tools are increasingly powerful and decreasingly expensive, thanks to technology’s relentless progress, and getting easier to use all the time.

They’re also connected to a somewhat democratized digital communications system. I say “somewhat” because two of America’s most control-freakish businesses — namely the phone and cable companies — are working hard to hijack the Internet for their own purposes, in ways that are flat-out dangerous to innovation and, I’d argue, our very future. I’ll come back to this a bit later.

Today, at any rate, the democratization of tools and distribution has led to a related opening: of access.

Of all the major constituencies of journalism, the most important by far is what I like to call the “former audience” and what NYU’s Jay Rosen, author of the great Pressthink blog, has dubbed the “people formerly known as the audience.” (I don’t know which of us said it first, so I’ll give us both credit.)

We, the former audience, have been freed from the constraints of the manufacturing model of the 20th Century. And, more and more, we are taking advantage of our liberation. We never had to be satisfied merely with the newspaper dropped on our doorstep in the morning, or the half-hour broadcast in the evening, but it used to take some effort to assemble a more diverse and nuanced report. No longer. Now we can stop being couch potatoes and engage with the news. We can roll our own reports, from whatever sources of traditional and nontraditional media we wish, based on our own choices and recommendations from others.

Even better, we can join the emergent conversation. We can talk about and with the professionals, at least some of them. And if we wish — as more and more people do — we can create our own content and conversations. Not much of that latter effort is journalism in any traditional sense, but some of it plainly is, and amid the noise of the rest there is a great deal of signal, if we can just find and identify it.

The second most important of journalism’s major constituencies consists of the newsmakers, the people and institutions we cover. They’re learning that something new is happening to them. Members of the newsmakers’ own constituencies — of which journalists are just one — are engaging in conversations about the newsmakers and what they do, and the old ways of communicating are being disrupted. At the same time, the newsmakers can and should be using these conversational tools to engage their various publics, internal and external, and in general to be more transparent in a world that increasingly demands and rewards openness.

The least important major constituency of journalism is, well, us: the journalists. That is NOT do say we don’t matter. We do matter — a lot. Journalism is an honorable and vital craft. It’s essential to the welfare of a self-governed people, at least when we do it right. But we also know that journalism is about service. The public trust is a deeper calling than merely diverting readers, listeners and viewers from their everyday existence. At its core journalism must be about helping them conduct democracy’s crucial conversations.

Trying for objectivity makes some sense in a media ecosystem that lacks diversity. If a few voices overwhelm all the others, there is a public interest in playing stories as allegedly down the middle as possible. That means not favoring one side over the other — or others, to be more precise, as there are rarely just two sides to any issue. There have been sound business reasons to try to be “objective,” too, not least that a newspaper or network didn’t want to make large parts of its audience angry. No doubt, too, the lawyers have an easier time defending against libel suits when the organization can point to a process that aims for objectivity.

I’m in a mood, as the media ecosystem grows more diverse, to rethink all of this. I’d propose replacing the ideal of objectivity with some principles that may be easier to achieve. When we combine and augment them with new ways of presenting and discussing the news, they will be useful to journalists and news consumers of all kinds.

Incidentally — apparently I have to say this in these kinds of settings — I am not, contrary to some suggestions, out to boost citizen journalism by tearing down the traditional model. I hope to help create the conditions for a media and journalism ecosystem that’s more diverse, vibrant and competitive, that includes all of the above, and not replace one flawed system with another. We need all, and they all need to be better.

The principles that collectively go beyond objectivity are thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and transparency. Of course, they tend to bleed into each other, and in a several cases can even conflict or at least be somewhat orthogonal. I put this problem into the category of “Life is messy.”

We all know what it means to be thorough, to keep digging and never assume we know everything. We know that accuracy is getting our facts straight. We know fairness — however more difficult to quantify — when we see it. Independence can include being financially independent, or having independence of thought and an eagerness to challenge our own assumptions. Transparency, the quality least in evidence in traditional journalism, though it’s at long last coming into its own, is revealing biases and connections where they exist — a crucial feature of a citizen media where true independence from the topic may likely be rare — and exposing our inner workings to some sunshine.

Technology, deployed the right way, can give these principles a practical boost beyond anything we’ve seen in the non-digital media. Let’s look at at examples — a non-comprehensive list — of what might be possible.

If accuracy starts off as a simple matter of facts, traditional and “new” journalists alike could do us all a favor by telling us what they don’t know, not just what they do. On the Web, in a medium where space (and time) and layout constraints are less of an issue, we can take that a step further and invite the audience to fill us in, to help us get the actual rest of the story, or more of it.

We can also point directly, via hyperlinks — the elemental unit of the Web — to reference and original source materials as well as other information that supports, or maybe challenges, what we are reporting. In a journalism where being a guide counts as much as being an oracle, authority rises the more we point to other people’s work — if it’s the best material on the topic or adds vital nuance or information. Yet only recently have Big Media websites started pointing outside of their own domains, and there’s still obvious — and I believe foolish — worry about letting go of the audience. As blogging pioneer Dave Winer has said, and this is a paraphrase, “Send them away and they’ll keep coming back.”

And if accuracy means anything, it means correcting our inevitable mistakes quickly and prominently. On the Net, and with print in particular, we are blessed with an array of choices in how to do this. For example, we can use the “s” tag in HTML, which literally puts a strike-through line through the mistaken text, and then add the corrected material. Or we can just make it right, adding a tag line at the bottom of the posting explaining that such and such has been corrected. Audio, graphical and video errors can likewise be fixed in place.

(I’ll note here that the better bloggers are among the most avid correcters of their own mistakes; their reputations rise and fall on their credibility, at least for the ones I read, and a stand-up admission of error wins the writer points for credibility — at least if the mistakes don’t happen repeatedly.)

In all such online cases, we do what newspapers and traditional broacasts cannot do: limit the damage and prevent the next person who’s new to the story from getting the wrong information. I don’t know about you, but when I read the corrections on Page 2 of the paper about stories that ran two or three days ago, I don’t consider myself entirely enlightened. And, of course, when is the last time you recall a correction of an error on, say, the local TV station’s “news” program?

The Net’s superiority goes much deeper, though it has barely been tapped. For instance, I might like to be notified by e-mail if certain stories — ones I choose — have been corrected or updated in any significant way.

Let’s focus on the word “updated” for a moment. In the journalism of tomorrow, as I noted earlier, we don’t need to think in the publication or broadcast metaphors from the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape was the end of the process.

If Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood folks can create directors’ cuts of their movies, why can’t journalists do keep updating and improving some of their own works?

Ah, you ask, what about the historical record?

That’s an easy one. Over at the much-criticized Wikipedia, every version of the article — and I mean everything, down to the version where someone added a comma and hit the save button — is available to anyone who wants to see it. You can even compare adjacently edited versions side by side.

Let’s say I’m a reader who’s new to, oh, the turmoil in Nepal, where the King is trying to avoid civil war with apparently modest political liberalization. Let’s imagine, in my parallel universe of journalism, that the New York Times did its first in-depth story on the troubles there a couple of years ago and has been updating it on the Web to reflect new events — this in addition to writing current news stories.

Maybe, being fresh to the story, all I want to do is see the current version so I can catch up. Or maybe I’d like to read the the original article — call it the baseline copy — and then the current one to see what’s changed. Or maybe I want to see them mashed together, with the changes highlighted using colors for additions and strike-throughs for deletions.

The same could work for a blog posting by some well-connected Nepal citizen who’s covering the story from home. Do I want to go back through a year’s worth of postings? Probably not. But if he or she has an updated baseline posting, that would be another useful place to look.

The idea isn’t new, really. The Associated Press has been using what’s called the “write-through” forever — adding new information to breaking news and telling editors what’s new in the story. Let’s do that for everyone, on the Web page and in a comprehensive and easy-to-understand way.

Now making this work on the page is basically a software problem — if we want to do it. Maybe it’s a nontrivial problem, as my engineer friends might say, but it’s definitely solvable, and I’d recommend it.

Let’s talk for a minute about fairness. Why not give people better ability to reply to what we say about them, and the audience better ways to follow and participate in that conversation. Allowing, or better yet, encouraging people to post comments is a good start, provided the comment system is handled in a way that doesn’t degenerate into abusive name-calling from anonymous trolls. But how about letting the reader split the screen, and see how the person written about in the story responds alongside the original in context, if that’s the reader’s preferred way?

If the person talking back tells lies, journalists should note them, again in context. Fairness means listening to different viewpoints and incorporating them into the journalism, but it doesn’t have to include parroting or accepting lies or distortions. That practice — in whatever form — amounts to the lazy equivalence that leads some journalists to get opposing quotes and give them undue weight when the facts overwhelmingly support one side. As someone said, you don’t have to quote neo-Nazis for a story about the Holocaust.

How can technology support transparency? In many ways.

I don’t call myself a journalist anymore, at least not the kind I was when I was writing for big newspapers. But I still offer observations on the topics that are important to me. I also have a page on Center for Citizen Media site called “Dan’s Disclosures,” where I lay out formal connections, financial and otherwise, that I have to several people and companies doing work in areas related to my own. And if I mention them in my blog, I note the connection in the posting and add a link to the full disclosures page.

Transparency can mean asking for help. When I was researching my book, I posted the full outline — thousands of words — on my blog. Then, as I was writing, I posted chapter drafts. I was looking for help in writing a better book, and got it. Even my column sometimes benefited from this approach; I’d post a blog item saying I was working on some topic or another, and that my thinking was going in a certain direction, and what did my readers think about that?

No, I didn’t announce what I was working on if I thought I had a scoop, and I wouldn’t suggest that others do that in most cases. But there are plenty of situations where announcing one’s intentions ahead of time will produce better journalism, of whatever kind.

Transparency at Big Media can take the form of pulling back the curtains a bit, helping readers or viewers understand how news stories, and decisions about stories, get made. How far should this be taken? It would be absurd to expect reporters to scan and post on the Web the scrawlings from their notebooks.

But there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging our biases, whether personal and institutional, and letting readers make up their own minds about whether to trust what we then report. At the least, the black-box school of journalism, where information goes in and our oracular lectures come out, is no longer acceptable. Necessity requires some discretion, but the public rightly wants more transparency than it’s been getting.

With bloggers and other conversational media, biases tend to be up-front, though the blogosphere is hardly free of sleazy manipulation. People like the South Dakota bloggers who were on a candidate’s payroll without disclosing their interest should be shunned by readers, in my opinion.

Transparency can boost authority. At a time when saying “Trust me” without evidence is an invitation to mistrust and ridicule, we’ll gain more than we lose with transparency.

I’ve talked a fair amount about openness here. This is not only an issue for journalists in their own work. It’s one of the most important policy issues facing us all. If you think media consolidation is an issue today, it’s nothing compared with what we’re facing tomorrow.

Earlier, I mentioned a clear and present danger to the open Internet that has nurtured a more diverse media ecosystem. The threat, in America, is the dominance of the cable and phone companies in what we laughingly call broadband data connections. I say “laughingly” because the U.S. is falling way, way behind the rest of the developed world in providing broadband access, and one reason is the dominance of companies that grew up in an environment where they dominated their worlds, and really preferred it that way.

The cable and phone companies want to control not just the pipes through which our data moves. They also want to decide what will get delivered, in what order, and at what speed. They haven’t pulled this off yet, but they’re getting closer every day.

Yesterday, a committee in the House of Representatives voted down an amendment to a new bill that would have required what many of us call “network neutrality.” This is the idea that the people getting data — you and me — should make the decisions on what we get and in what order, and if necessary pay more for higher speeds. It should not be a decision made by Verizon or Comcast or Time Warner or the fake new ATT.

If they succeed in capturing the kind of control they want — and they’re closer than I would have believed possible — we’ll all be harmed.

I beg you to write and call your member of Congress and U.S. senators, and your state representatives — the duopoly is well-wired, in the wrong way, in our state capitals, too. Tell them you want an open Internet, not a walled garden or fortress where giant companies get to pick what innovations will succeed or fail.

So much for politics. But before I get to the Q&A, which is bound to be more interesting than what has come before, allow me to make one more pitch.

I’ve started a new Center for Citizen Media, affiliated with the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, and I have lots of ideas and plans. But I also need lots of help. If you’re interested in working on projects with me, please let me know.

6 Comments on “Columbia Talk: Evolving the News for a Digital Age”

  1. #1 Deaglan on WordPress » Blog Archive »
    on Apr 30th, 2006 at 12:18 am

    […] Dan Gillmor has posted a transcript of his speech at Columbia University this week. On my travels I have been recommending Dan's book We the media since its publication back in 2004. It has proved to be a great conversation starter as people begin to tune into the concept of citizen media and its implications for the future of mainstream media. All of the a    […]

  2. #2 Undercurrent
    on Apr 30th, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    Sound advice…

    Text of a Dan Gillmor lecture , where he gives some good advice on how to enhance “thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and transparency” in journalism on the web. Just what is needed: move on from slogans to detailed work. Hopefully……

  3. #3 eucap
    on May 2nd, 2006 at 8:46 am

    Citizen Journalism and net neutrality – great Gillmor speech…

    Dan Gillmor, the daddy of grassroots independent journalism on the net, has given a seminal speech on the role of blogs in maintaining transparency and independence of journalism. In Dave’s words, The cable and phone companies want to control……

  4. #4
    on May 3rd, 2006 at 5:00 am

    Dan Gillmor at Columbia…

    Dan Gillmor recently gave the annual Hearst New Media Lecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Here is the full text…….

  5. #5 H.A. Page
    on May 3rd, 2006 at 11:26 am

    Enjoyed your speech and glad you have put it up on the site as I’ve had requests for more information than what I blogged about…


  6. #6 I’m building something here. » Blog Archive »
    on May 4th, 2006 at 11:37 am

    […] Then last week, I saw Dan Gillmor speak at Columbia about New Media, and his seemingly automatic response to one of my questions was “Start a blog”. […]