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Journalists and Communities: What I Told AJR

UPDATED

Below, you’ll find a pointer to Will Bunch’s American Journalism Review story about journalists’ disconnection with the communities they cover. He interviewed me by email for this piece, and quoted from what I told him — accurately and in context — at the end of the article.

For an even larger context, here’s what he asked, and what I replied (edited to remove redundancy now that I’ve added links to previous postings).

Q: When you worked in newspapers, especially at a larger metro with a mobile staff like the Mercury-News, did you feel that reporters and editors were well-connected to the communities that they covered — engaged in the community and in conversations with citizens that led back to better news coverage. If not, how did journalism suffer?

A: It’s hard to speak for others. But my impression was that we were fairly well connected to the tech and local government folks, and less so to others. There were obvious exceptions, including several local columnists.

For me, the conversation started quickly. I was writing about technology in a place where a lot of it was being invented and improved, and everyone I covered had email early on. The readers were not shy about telling me what I was missing or getting wrong. That was when I realized (duh) that they collectively knew vastly, vastly more than I did — and what a great opportunity I had as a result.

When I started a blog in 1999, I started hearing from even more folks. Tech was and is more than ever a community of interest, not just geography, and I was learning things from a global audience by that point. I can’t overstate how much the blog was valuable in expanding and deepening the conversation.

None of that was to the exclusion of standard reporting, such as picking up the phone and going to see people in person. I got some of my best stuff over lunch tables in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and San Francisco, and in hallways at conferences.

But count me in as a huge believer in the value of online tools to deepen ties especially with communities, local and global.

Q: What did you learn with Bayosphere and in researching your book about the walls between journalists and citizens in their communities? Do you have concrete suggestions for breaking down those walls? Should their be limits on what types of activities a journalist should take part in — i.e., political activity (some journalists like Len Downie don’t vote, as you probably know)?

A: If we’re talking about breaking down walls between traditional journalists and communities, we’re actually making some progress. Whether it’s too late to matter is a separate issue, but it plainly won’t hurt.

As I’ve suggested before, newspapers in particular can have a huge leg up on doing this, and have more options. But broadcasters can do some of these things, too.

The first thing, whether you’re a newspaper editor or broadcast news director, is this simple test: Go to Flickr, Technorati and YouTube and search on your community name. You will find a parallel universe of media, being created by people in your community for themselves and each other. Then see what’s happening on Facebook and MySpace and other social networks. And see what old-fashioned (!) email lists, such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, are covering hyper-local topics. (Our old Palo Also neighborhood, consisting of several hundred homes, had a mail list where people regularly broke news of interest there, news that would never have risen to the attention of the Palo Alto paper, much less the Mercury News or Chronicle.)

Second, stop pretending your organization is an oracle. It’s not. You don’t know everything, and even if you did you couldn’t publish or broadcast as much as you’d like to. Pointing to outside sources of information — especially local blogs and other media — is a great start. It doesn’t mean that you endorse what these folks are saying or vouch for it, but it does mean that you recognize that others in your community are creating media with at least some information other people might want to see. Be the portal to everything. Point widely beyond the portal on individual stories and topics, and not just to source material, which more and more organizations are finally doing. Point to your competitors’ best stories when they beat you on something local. (I routinely did this on my blog, pointing to the SF Chronicle, NY Times, WSJ, trade journals and other tech outlets, because it was what my readers expected. I sent them away to the best stuff I could find, and they kept coming back because they knew I’d do that.)

Third, make sure your audience can respond and, in many cases, join the journalistic process. Comments are only a start. Moderation is a fine idea, but use a light touch. My rule for conduct is simple: We’ll be civil. We can disagree sharply, but we will treat each other with respect. Beyond comments, do what more and more organizations are (belately) doing: Ask the audience for information that can lead to better journalism. But if you’re turning people into unpaid freelancers, don’t be surprised when they start posting what they know on their own sites, not yours.

Newspapers have at least two more huge opportunities.

First is to open the archives, with permalinks on every story in the database. Newspapers hold more of their communities’ histories and all other media put together, yet they hoard it behind a paywall that produces pathetic revenues and keeps people in the communities from using it — as they would all the time — as part of their current lives. The revenues would go up with targeted search and keyword-specific ads on those pages, I’m absolutely convinced. But an equally important result would be to strengthen local ties. (Note: I discussed this in much greater length in 2005 in this posting, “Newspapers: Open Your Archives”.)

Second, expand the conversation with the community in the one place where it’s already taking place: the editorial pages. Invert them. Make the printed pages the best-of and guide to a conversation the community can and should be having with itself. The paper can’t set the agenda, at least not by itself (nor should it), but it can highlight what people care about and help the community have a conversation that is civil and useful. (More on this in another 2005 posting, “Where Newspapers Can Start the Conversation”.)

BTW, one word for the notion of journalists not voting: ridiculous.

0 Comments on “Journalists and Communities: What I Told AJR”

  1. #1 John A Arkansawyer
    on Jul 30th, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Dan, when you say this:

    Third, make sure your audience can respond and, in many cases, join the journalistic process. Comments are only a start. Moderation is a fine idea, but use a light touch. My rule for conduct is simple: We’ll be civil. We can disagree sharply, but we will treat each other with respect.

    I agree. However, having spent time recently in the comments section of a local newspaper, then comparing my observations with those of others, I’ve reached the tentative conclusion that comments sections of local newspapers are cesspools. Have you seen what I’m talking about? Can this be made better? I really wonder.

  2. #2 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jul 30th, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    re: “First is to open the archives, with permalinks on every story in the database. Newspapers hold more of their communities’ histories and all other media put together, yet they hoard it behind a paywall that produces pathetic revenues and keeps people in the communities from using it — as they would all the time — as part of their current lives.”

    At some point we need some numbers here. I imagine that publishers holding back from opening the archives are not doing it because they deliberately want to screw the public. They perhaps get more money by selling it them to Factiva, Highbeam, etc. If there is an economic justification for opening up archives, it should be made.

  3. #3 Quote « Josh’s Net Journal
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 5:44 am

    [...] Quote Newspapers have at least two more huge opportunities. First is to open the archives, with permalinks on every story in the database. Newspapers hold more of their communities’ histories and all other media put together, yet they hoard it behind a paywall that produces pathetic revenues and keeps people in the communities from using it — as they would all the time — as part of their current lives. The revenues would go up with targeted search and keyword-specific ads on those pages, I’m absolutely convinced. But an equally important result would be to strengthen local ties. Second, expand the conversation with the community in the one place where it’s already taking place: the editorial pages. Invert them. Make the printed pages the best-of and guide to a conversation the community can and should be having with itself. The paper can’t set the agenda, at least not by itself (nor should it), but it can highlight what people care about and help the community have a conversation that is civil and useful. Dan Gillmor [...]

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 5:47 am

    Jon, exactly. I’ve noticed that the business-model of A-listers is to tell other people to change their business-model (“Everything You Know Is Wrong! It’s A New Era!”). Except the A-listers can profit whether or not their advice is good or bad, right or wrong – and hence, sometimes can be downright hostile to rigorous analysis (present company excepted, of course). But the actual numbers (when one can find them :-( ) are nowhere near as supportive as the breezy pontification.

  5. #5 Dave Mastio
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Glad to see you’ve got a feel for the future importance of editorial pages. The National Conference of Editorial Writers is working pretty hard on this and have managed to come up with both foundation and corporate support for ten pilot projects around the country to develop the ideas that will work to engage the community and then share them throughout the industry.

    If you can point me to past posts you’ve done on the subject, I’d like to share them with the NCEW listserve.

  6. #6 Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Journalists and Communities: What I Told AJR (via del.icio.us)
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 8:09 am

    [...] a page on del.icio.us Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Journalists and Communities: What I Told AJR 6:00 am – [...]

  7. #7 Newspapers: Don’t Give Up Yet! | How We Know Us
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 11:00 am

    [...] Dan Gilmore: Newspapers have at least two more huge opportunities. [...]

  8. #8 francine hardaway
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Comments are a tricky business, even for those of us who are used to them. I used to think unmoderated comments were possible, but rude people spoil it for everyone, so I am coming to the conclusion that moderation for things like personal animosities is necessary.

    I think there is an economic model for monetizing the archives, but it is the same one as monetizing the web site itself: ads. I always find a way around the pay wall, or I don’t go there.

  9. #9 Dan Gillmor
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Seth, Jon — the New York Times’ decision to open its archives is the case that will prove the point. If any paper could have justified keeping behind a paywall, it was the Times. In not many years, their stories will show up in the first few search results when the keywords are related to people and issues they’ve covered in depth.

    At the local level, where almost nobody buys articles from archives, I think the case is even more compelling. As I said a while back:

    Every newspaper of any quality has published hundreds of articles that readers can find nowhere else and which bloggers, among others, would surely cite and point to as a vital part of the permanent record of a community. These include investigative pieces, certain features and other stories. If available upon publication at a permanent URL, they quickly rise in search engine rankings, where others will find them later.

    I’m convinced that increasingly sophisticated Web advertising, especially keyword-based text ads, will create a revenue stream of some size for such stories. This will be especially the case when they’ve moved high enough in search-engine rankings to be found without searching the newspaper’s site, but that’s not crucial.

    A locally targeted ad based on a keyword will bring new kinds of advertisers to the newspaper: small businesses that couldn’t afford to buy space in the print edition. This is new money. It may not replace what papers are losing to the online competition, but it’s worth something.

    Many articles won’t have that broad appeal. But they will have special meaning to smaller numbers of people who will want to point to them from their personal sites. They will reinforce people’s sense that the newspaper is a medium of record in their lives. That’s also worth something.

    Maybe not a lot — but surely more than they’re getting now.

    I had a note the other day from the editor of a daily paper in the Midwest. He’s thinking about doing this. I hope he will.

  10. #10 Dan Gillmor
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    John, Francine and others — yes, comments can be a cesspool. But where’s it written that newspapers should just throw open the door and let people do as they wish? Moderation (in several senses of the word) is crucial.

    If I invite people into my living room and they spit on the rug, I invite them to leave. Newspapers could enforce simple rules of civility if they cared enough or were willing to put modest resources into moderation. That they don’t is puzzling to me.

  11. #11 Dan Gillmor
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Dave, regarding posts on inverting the editorial pages, here’s what I said on this about 3 1/2 years ago when I gave a talk to a bunch of Knight Ridder (RIP) editorial page editors. Excerpt:

    What are letters to the editor if not a stab at a conversation? They’re not very effective, because a) they are rarely as timely as they might be even in an age of faxes and e-mail; b) the conversation isn’t threaded so people can refer instantly to what inspired the letter; and c) most newspapers get more letters than they can possibly print, especially on topics that generate the most passion.

    Editorial pages should take that thumbnail of a conversation and blow it up into the real thing. The way they can do it is, over time, to invert the basic function of the editorial pages.

    In other words, turn the printed page into a guide to and “greatest hits” from the community conversation.

    The bulk of the debates and discussions will take place online and, crucially, also in public forums where newspaper people serve as moderators but not lecturers. Help frame the debate, not force it. Then use the print pages to reflect and amplify the conversation.

  12. #12 URBEINGRECORDED
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    [...] to Web 2.0 services and the ubiquitous advert monetization model of the digital economy. From Center for Citizen Media: “Newspapers have at least two more huge [...]

  13. #13 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Regarding: “I’m convinced that increasingly sophisticated Web advertising, especially keyword-based text ads, will create a revenue stream of some size for such stories.”

    OK:

    1) How much?
    2) How does this compare to the current archive business?

    THE FACT THAT BLOG-EVANGELISTS CAN’T ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS IS RIDICULOUS!!!

    Dan, I don’t want to dump on you personally, since you’re a nice guy.

    But this is not hard. There should be at least something, some grounded back-of-the-envelope estimate.

    Not “If we take 3 gills of pixie-powder and add it to 5 drams of fairy-dust, it’ll be enough for a unicorn in a magic kingdom”.

    Moreover, what about obvious downsides, such as that entire conjectured revenue-stream depends essentially on one company (Google), which can wipe it out arbitrarily?

    If there’s nothing but hand-waving, that’s a sad statement on how much substance there really is in the conference-club.

  14. #14 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    “What are letters to the editor if not a stab at a conversation?”

    A desire for the power of the megaphone to do pontification (not the same thing at all).

    Again, this is not hard.

  15. #15 Delia
    on Jul 31st, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    re: ““If we take 3 gills of pixie-powder and add it to 5 drams of fairy-dust, it’ll be enough for a unicorn in a magic kingdom”. LOL

    you are getting to be funny, Seth:) — haven’t noticed that side of you.

    Delia

    P.S. BTW, I can use some back-up on Craig Newmark’s blog (a post referring to what seems like Dan’s rosy presentation of the situation); thanks! D.

    re: http://onlinejournalismblog.blogspot.com/2008/07/is-dan-going-to-answer.html

  16. #16 Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 08/01/2008
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 3:53 am

    [...] Center for Citizen Media: Journalists and Communities: What I Told AJR [...]

  17. #17 Jon Garfunkel
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 5:20 am

    Dan– you’re not only a journalist, you’re a shareholder. Ask NYTCO. I may be misreading their Q1 financials, but I thought I read that pageviews went up 33% but online ad revenues only went up 16%. Martin Nisenholtz can well tell you what portion of revenues are coming from articles, Op-Eds, blogs and archives.

  18. #18 Dan Gillmor
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 7:26 am

    You don’t start a business or line of business knowing what the precise revenues will be. You make an intelligent guess and see what happens.

    Ask any local newspaper what kind of money it gets from archives. The answer will be vague (they never break it out in public) but the basic response is, almost nothing. The chance to get *something* is not much of a risk.

    Online revenues are going up at reduced rates of acceleration just about everywhere. And advertising goes in cycles. I’m taking a long view.

    By the way opening the archives would make sense even if was revenue neutral — because a newspaper is part of the community, and the archives are history. This is community engagement at a basic level, and one that the newspapers completely ignored in their monopoly days when they could charge extortionate ad rates.

  19. #19 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 8:51 am

    > You make an intelligent guess and see what happens.

    Great. Where’s the intelligent guess? Not a handwave. Not a “this Kool-Aid tastes so good, it stands to reason that it must be nutritious”.

    > The chance to get *something* is not much of a risk.

    To the contrary, you have to hire a web person, deal with server hosting and bandwidth issues, that all costs money. It’s not zero-vs-positive. There’s quite a risk of negative.

    > And advertising goes in cycles. I’m taking a long view.

    Would you EVER admit to being wrong? Or would the answer ALWAYS be that it’ll pay off the future? This is another one of the intellectual bankruptcies of blog-evangelism – it never admits we-tried-it-your-way-and-it-didn’t-work as refutation.

  20. #20 Delia
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    a milder way to ask the core questions Seth is asking — not that he would *need* to ask them milder — might be:

    Dan,

    #1. what are the “obvious ways” (that escape Seth and me, at a minimum) of breaking even? (you were implying at least breaking even is a given)

    #2. what would it take for you — what facts — to conclude that there would be a significant risk of not getting the advertising revenue needed even in the long run ? (and just how long a view are you taking? it *cannot* be …. forever…)

    Delia

    P.S. I can see an argument that even if you loose some money by opening the archives there would be positive externalities that would at least compensate for that but Seth is correct that you (or anybody else talking authoritatively on these issues) need to” show your work” (the concrete rational steps that bring you to your conclusion) or acknowledge that it’s just not a well founded guess… it may be a hope… or something else… D.

  21. #21 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    FYI, I have a column just published about one digital-sharecropping company’s troubles with aggressive advertising monetization.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/jul/31/wikipedia

    Money quote (pun intended!):

    “Unfortunately, Google ads in the footer pay pennies a click, and nobody clicks”

  22. #22 Delia
    on Aug 2nd, 2008 at 5:33 am

    good luck, Seth! If looks like you’ve got Jon backing you up, also… so I shouldn’t be too badly missed:)

    Delia

    P.S. If you ever get Dan to really answer, it would be interesting to hear it — otherwise, it just feels like running in circles… D.

  23. #23 Dan Gillmor
    on Aug 2nd, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Seth, I’m wrong often enough, and I admit when I am. You’re pronouncing me wrong before anyone’s truly tested this.

    I bow, in the end, to your unerring perfection.

  24. #24 Jon Garfunkel
    on Aug 2nd, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    My sense here, what would clarify things, is to actually survey publishers. Do they use permanent links? Do they charge for archives? Which sections of the site are being viewed? If they don’t offer archives, why? How much do they get from selling their archives to research databases?

    It seems to me there should by now be quantitative data on this. There’e enough money at stake.

  25. #25 Delia
    on Aug 2nd, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Seth is pointing out obvious fundamental flaws in the arguments. That doesn’t make him perfect, of course — just the voice of reason.

    e.g.

    Dan: The chance to get *something* is not much of a risk.

    Seth: To the contrary, you have to hire a web person, deal with server hosting and bandwidth issues, that all costs money. It’s not zero-vs-positive. There’s quite a risk of negative.

    and on and on…

    Delia

  26. #26 lucasjosh.com » Blog Archive » Opening the Archives
    on Aug 2nd, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    [...] From Dan Gillmor First is to open the archives, with permalinks on every story in the database. Newspapers hold more of their communities’ histories and all other media put together, yet they hoard it behind a paywall that produces pathetic revenues and keeps people in the communities from using it — as they would all the time — as part of their current lives. The revenues would go up with targeted search and keyword-specific ads on those pages, I’m absolutely convinced. But an equally important result would be to strengthen local ties. [...]

  27. #27 John A Arkansawyer
    on Aug 3rd, 2008 at 6:55 am

    While Seth’s objections are often well-taken, I usually miss the parts where he suggests a solution. That doesn’t make him wrong, but it reduces his utility.

  28. #28 Delia
    on Aug 3rd, 2008 at 9:29 am

    John, I think he *is* suggesting a “solution”: stop self-serving baseless pontification.

    This is what I’m getting from the following and this is what Seth has been saying for a very long time.

    ” I’ve noticed that the business-model of A-listers is to tell other people to change their business-model (”Everything You Know Is Wrong! It’s A New Era!”). Except the A-listers can profit whether or not their advice is good or bad, right or wrong – and hence, sometimes can be downright hostile to rigorous analysis (present company excepted, of course). But the actual numbers (when one can find them :-( ) are nowhere near as supportive as the breezy pontification.” (July 31st, 2008 at 5:47 am)

  29. #29 Jon Garfunkel
    on Aug 3rd, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    I’ll add another theory for the perceived tardiness of newspapers — perhaps they are actually undertaking efforts to make the archives free, and we don’t know about them.

    I bothered to read the trackback from Josh Lucas above. Trackback being as horribly engineered as it is, what you see above is just his copying your text. But he added a link at the end here:
    http://articles.latimes.com/

    Interesting, last time I checked, the LAT was notorious about breaking past hyperlinks. Apparently now they are giving article clean, permanent URLs and offering them for free.

    Strange, LAT is charging $3.95 for articles via ProQuest, here:
    http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/47589711.html?dids=47589711:47589711&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Jan+1%2C+2000&author=TIM+KAWAKAMI&pub=Los+Angeles+Times&edition=&startpage=8&desc=LAKERS+REPORT%3B+Big+Picture+Means+More+Than+a+Winning+Streak

    This article is for free here:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/01/sports/sp-49696

    and, figure this out. These same hyperlinks go to the same articles:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/aug/03/entertainment/ca-webseries3
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/newmedia/la-ca-webseries3-2008aug03,0,6183591.story
    http://www.latimes.com/technology/la-ca-webseries3-2008aug03,1,6570944.story

    (the last one is the one Google News picked up)