Tag Archives: citizen journalism

Recommended Reading: Mediactive, by Dan Gillmor

Image courtesy of  Mediactive.com.

I was lucky enough to grab an e-copy of Dan Gillmor’s book, Mediactive, on Amazon while it was 99 cents. Although the price has since gone back up to $5.99, the book is well worth it. It’s a great read for anyone who cares about the present and future state of journalism as it’s practiced in America, and works equally well for journalists and other nonfiction writers and those who simply wish to know about the world around them via the media.

Gillmor is the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship and the Kauffman Professor of Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. (And in interest of full disclosure, I’ve interacted with Dan in my day job at ASU, via a podcast on writing today and asking him to judge a writing contest for the magazine I edit.) Before coming to ASU, Gillmor wrote the book We the Media and was a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News from 1994 to 2005.

The main thing that makes the book so good is Gillmor’s ability to parse both the current state of American media and what skills citizens need to cope with the implosion of traditional journalism’s business models. As a consummate participant-observer in the new media landscape (and a veteran of the old-school newspaper industry), he’s well equipped to critique what went wrong with journalism over the past 20 years, why it hasn’t adapted well to the rise of the Internet and digital culture in general, and what exciting experiments are going on along the fringes that are poised to move to the mainstream soon.

Here’s what he says about the promise and the challenge of the media landscape in the early 21st century:

Welcome to 21st century media. Welcome to the era of radically democratized and decentralized creation and distribution, where almost anyone can publish and find almost anything that others have published.

Welcome to the age of information abundance. And welcome to the age of information confusion: For many of us, that abundance feels more like a deluge, drowning us in a torrent of data, much of whose trustworthiness we can’t easily judge. You’re hardly alone if you don’t know what you can trust anymore.

But we aren’t helpless, either. In fact, we’ve never had more ways to sort out the good from the bad: A variety of tools and techniques are emerging from the same collision of technology and media that has created the confusion. And don’t forget the most important tools of all—your brain and curiosity.

Mediactive is useful to both professional journalists and those who care about what happens in our society because he discusses skills needed by both media producers and their so-called consumers. He focuses especially intently on work being produced by those who are not traditional journalists, but who create media that gets into our virtual news feed, including bloggers or YouTube’s amateur broadcasters. While he often notes the shortcomings of such work, he generously praises citizen-journalists and nonprofit organizations for engaging in what he calls “almost journalism,” producing fact-filled background reports that shed light on stories the mainstream media misses.

I’ve read a number of articles and books discussing the state of journalism today, and I have to say that Gillmor surveys the media landscape far more clearly and less defensively than most of his peers. I particularly like his explanations of nuanced concepts. For example, he makes a persuasive case that media outlets should drop the charade of presenting themselves as bias- or viewpoint-free, and suggests reasonable alternatives. Here’s a sample of what he has to say on the issue:

Professional journalists claim independence. They are typically forbidden to have direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest. But conflicts of interest are not always so easy to define. Many prominent Washington journalists, for example, are so blatantly beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent in any real way, and their journalism reflects it.

Mediactive is potentially useful to a wide variety of people who care about journalism and other forms of nonfiction writing – reporters and editors, new media creators such as bloggers and podcasters, and ordinary people who care about what they read in the news and want to ensure they are truly well-informed. Gillmor walks newbie media creators through the essential tenets of trustworthiness (and provides an excellent refresher for the rest of us) without becoming pedantic or stodgy.  The book, like the thinking behind it, is fresh, and Gillmor has used his http://mediactive.com site to make the book a living document, adding examples and continuing the conversation on these topics in his blog.

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for May 28, 2010

Photo courtesy of SXC.

7 Easy to Miss and Fix Writing Mistakes
Meryl K. Evans, who writes a blog on web content, reminds readers of mistakes that even good writers make when reading and editing their own copy–and offers fixes for each one.

6 Tips For a Great Freelance Writer’s Vacation
Carol Tice, writing on the Make A Living Writing blog, gives good pointers for taking a real (= no laptop or mobile phone required) vacation without losing clients or your mind.

New Voices Invests in Nine Community News Projects
New Voices, an initiative of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, announced its most recent crop of grant winners. These projects mainly cover small cities and towns with hyperlocal journalism coverage. Each grantee will receive up to $25,000 to launch a news initiative and work to sustain it over the next two years.

10 sure cures for blogging burnout | WordCount
Michelle Rafter offers a number of really great suggestions for keeping one’s blogging fresh and consistent. I especially like her “cures” of using theme days and keeping drafts in your blogging software that can be posted when you need a new idea quickly.

The top cliches to avoid like the plague
Sally Jackson reports for The Australian. Journalist Chris Pash has spent nine years scouring newspapers and websites to find the media’s favorite hackneyed phrases, and this article gives the top offending phrases, as well as how Pash mined this data.

Three Annoying Habits of the Laziest Journalists on Twitter
Gawker has assembled a collection of irritating “don’ts” for journalists who are contemplating crowdsourcing their entire article via Twitter. Funny and pointed at the same time!

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Can this profession be saved?

Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve finally read the synopsis of Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson’s report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism, ” in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as a number of reactions to it. I appreciate that CJR let the authors publish such a rich (30-page!) summary of their 100-page report.

Downie, a former executive editor for the Washington Post and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, provide their take on what has led up to the current sad state of affairs at American newspapers, and to a lesser degree, at television and radio stations. They discuss the approaches of a number of new media operations (and are generous with links to the projects in question) and suggest several possible new business/nonprofit support models for the industry.

Whether you end up thinking the authors are offering sage advice to journalists, or are off in left field, you really should read the CJR synopsis or the report. It’s important that those of us working in the media have a say in what happens to our profession in the future, and the only way to do that is to be aware of where we’re at now and what people are doing NOW to adapt to the challenges and opportunities the Internet Era has brought us.

On the plus side

The report largely accepts that Web 2.0 and the other cultural factors that have disrupted American journalism are here to stay and cannot be magically “rolled back” by industry collusion (think simultaneous content firewalls on all major newspaper sites) or government mandate. I know this sounds mean, but this is a good sign!  I have been concerned about the number of journalists—including professors and veteran editors and writers—talking as if the Internet is something that must be, or even can be, “stopped.”

Downie and Schudson present a variety of options for fixing the current situation from across the business spectrum. They discuss multiple variations on publicly funded media, as well as foundation-endowed news projects and hybrid corporate/nonprofit news operations. By doing this, they are acknowledging that one model will not fit all in the future, and that journalists need to consider the context of their news operation or project when devising a funding plan.

The authors rightly identify local news coverage as one of the biggest casualties of the shifts in journalism over the past two decades, and do propose several ideas for reviving it. While local involvement and participation seems to generally be associated with our “bowling alone” culture, there are plenty of people who do care about it, and who now have fewer mainstream media resources for tapping into news about the community they live in.

On the minus side

I immediately noticed that there is almost NO discussion of the fate of the magazine industry, perhaps because that’s what my degree is in (magazine journalism) and because I have worked for nearly all my career as a journalist for magazines—either as a freelancer or a staff writer/editor. I believe that magazines had to face the decline of the so-called “mass media” far earlier than newspapers, after the death of “general interest” magazines such as Look, Collier’s and LIFE in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the time I was taking j-school classes in the 1980s, we were told that starting a magazine was much like starting a restaurant—if you know what you’re doing (business-wise) and can self-fund for part of the first five years in business, you have a good chance of making it. Notice that in that description there is no mention of whether the content (or the food) was any good, if competitors were using unfair tactics, or whether customers were reading (or going out for sit-down dinners) less and less. The focus was on establishing a niche and a business model first and foremost. Paying attention to the market, as well as knowing your craft well enough to produce a quality product, were also assumed parts of that model.

On a related note, Downie and Schuder make huge assumptions about the audience for news content and how they will, or should, behave. To be fair, this is something I’ve noticed over and over again when I read essays of this nature written by newspaper-based journalists. The report doesn’t focus much at all on what readers/viewers/listeners are telling journalists about how they’d like to receive their news, or what sorts of news they’d consider worthy of paying for online.

The authors even go so far as to proclaim that “American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment,” and wonder out loud in another section whether journalism is a “significant public good whose diminution requires urgent attention.” These are important issues, but this mindset, coupled with a lack of curiosity or genuine connection to one’s audience, comes across as preachy and pedantic—not the sort of vibe one wants to project to attract supporters to an important cause!

Finally, the report points out one of the largest challenges in journalism’s current crisis—we can’t seem to decide if we’re a profession best suited to entrepreneurial or philanthropic support. I like the fact that the authors include both for-profit and nonprofit approaches to new media, but the way in which they are presented serves to highlight the lack of business sense many of us in the field seem to exhibit. What is it that newspapers do? They’re businesses. Wait, no, maybe we should run them as nonprofits? Wait, maybe we can sell ads and get foundation grants, too?

Late in the CJR synopsis, Downie and Schuder use the term “independent news reporting” fairly specifically, and that’s really what they are concerned about, not so much journalism as an industry or business sector. As they note, “it may not be essential to save any particular news medium … What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.” (Emphasis in that passage is mine.)

It bothers me that so many of their suggestions rely on government intervention, although I share their opinion that stronger support for radio and televisions stations receiving money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be a good thing. I am a huge fan of public media; however, I also believe that journalistic enterprises can be successful as for-profit businesses. It remains to be seen how that will happen in the future—my feeling is that the “large public” that the authors seek to have journalism’s best work presented to may have already been replaced by a series of balkanized niches, each one hungry for content, but only within a narrow spectrum of interest.

Please use the comment section below to chime in about your reaction to the report, or the state of American journalism in general.

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Participatory Journalism … what’s it all about?


Photo courtesy SXC.

Four links, three new, one “classic,” related to civic or participatory journalism caught my eye this week. For the uninitiated, participatory journalism refers to the emerging trend of non-professionals taking to the Internet and creating blogs, podcasts, YouTube or Vimeo videos, websites, Twitter feeds, etc., that cover stories that used to be understood as strictly the province of traditional media, such as television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines.

These aren’t intended as a comprehensive introduction to this phenomenon, but rather relevant, and timely (or timeless, in one case) snapshots of where it’s headed.

The People Formerly Known as the Audience

This first post should be required reading for all writers and editors struggling to understand the shifts in the media landscape over the past 10 years. NYU’s Jay Rosen wrote this post in 2006 for his PressThink blog, but he could have written it yesterday. It’s all still so, so true.

He notes that the media platform shifts taking place have many journalists questioning their sanity, but that their former audience members are basically telling them to get over themselves:

“Many media people want to cry out in the name of reason herself: ‘If all would speak, who shall be left to listen? Can you at least tell us that?’

“The people formerly known as the audience do not believe this problem—too many speakers! — is (their) problem.

“Now for anyone in your circle still wondering who (they) are, a formal definition might go like this:

“The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.”

Rosen, speaking for most of the post in the voice of the newly empowered audience, tells professional content creators not to worry or complain, but rather, stay relevant and appreciate how content consumers have evolved into content prosumers (produers + consumers).

He writes,

“Look, media people. We are still perfectly content to listen to our radios while driving … Should we attend the theatre, we are unlikely to storm the stage for purposes of putting on our own production. We feel there is nothing wrong with old style, one-way, top-down media consumption…

“But we’re not on your clock any more. Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, has explained this to his people. ‘The users are deciding what the point of their engagement will be — what application, what device, what time, what place.’

“We graduate from wanting media when we want it, to wanting it without the filler, to wanting media to be way better than it is, to publishing and broadcasting ourselves when it meets a need or sounds like fun.”

Still writing in the guise of the audience, he ends the main part of the post (there is a terrific “after matter section” and loads of comments, too) with a gentle ultimatum to his fellow professional journalists:

“There’s a new balance of power between you and us.

“The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable. You should welcome that, media people. But whether you do or not, we want you to know we’re here.”

If you’re wondering what value there is in user-generated content, or if you’re clinging to the illusion that all these audience members are going to return to their seats and quit making their own media products, you need to read this post.

Mainstream Media Miss the Point of Participatory Journalism

Another group of journalists who might benefit from re-reading Rosen’s post would be the presenters at the Future of Journalism conference, an event held at the University of Cardiff in Wales earlier this month. Alfred Hermida, writing for PBS’s MediaShift blog, feels as if the titles of keynotes and workshops indicate even organizations considered leaders in utilizing user-generated content are still coming at it from the perspective of being the appointed “gate-keepers.”

Hermida writes,

“The advent of participatory journalism, or user-generated content (UGC), has done little to change the way the media works … The research paints a global picture of how journalists are seeking to maintain their position of authority and power, rather than create a more open, transparent and accountable journalistic process that seeks to work with readers …”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, a major player at the conference, illustrated the point being made very well.

“UGC has become institutionalized at the BBC as a form of newsgathering, consolidating the existing relationship between journalists and the audience … This institutional approach towards UGC was reflected in the BBC course on the topic, entitled ‘Have They Got News for Us.’ This session at the conference focused on how to scour comments, pictures and video from the public in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than on how to collaborate with the audience on stories.”

It’s true that crowdsourcing one’s stories is a new skill set, one that many of us haven’t mastered as writers or editors, and that journalism is a long way from empowering citizen journalists to make significant discoveries the way citizen scientists can.

But I agree with the unspoken subtext of this post, which is that a serious, peer-to-peer (or public-to-pro) discussion of the public’s role in shaping, collaborating and even to some degree co-creating the future of journalism has to begin, and soon. Rosen’s essay of 2006 (see above) presages it. And it’s clear that many people are finding value in user-generated content, however much we journalists may disparage its shortcomings.

Nerds, News and Neat Stuff

One way in which journalists are responding to the participatory media landscape is by creating new tools to empower readers to participate intelligently, a niche that fits very nicely with traditional media roles of diving beneath the surface of complex issues and providing context to help others understand an issue’s impact.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, recently posted some comments about the winners of this year’s Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism. Her piece takes a whirlwind tour through some of the more interesting innovations that are being cooked up inside and outside newsrooms, but the quote that stood out for me the most came from Ellen Miller, whose Sunlight Foundation is making data openly available on a huge array of things, from government contracts and grants, to lobbyists, to congressional bills, and even to the words used most frequently in the Congressional Record.

“Technology is not a slice of the pie of what we do, it’s the pan,” she said.

I think Miller “gets” this change to a participatory media environment and how journalists can enrich the conversation. The participatory nature of Web 2.0 apps and the tools that journalism’s new creative technologists develop aren’t just decorations to be sprinkled on top of the already pre-mixed media pie; they change how the pie is baked. And eaten!

Schaffer’s post is a nice sampler of developments from the outposts of journalistic practice. The focus on innovation is refreshing—while not all of the award winners are equally cutting-edge, these contestants are taking a look at their environment and filling unmet needs, instead of grumbling about how their audience (or former audience!) no longer looks to them for the same things it used to.

Bonus Link!

Civic News Networks: Collaboration v. Competition

Caveat emptor! I haven’t had a chance to watch this 45-minute video, a recording of a panel discussion at the August 2009 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. But it is moderated by Jan Schaffer of J-Lab (a center of American University’s School of Communication) and with a title like this, you can bet I want to hear what the panelists have to say!

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for July 21, 2009


Photo courtesy SXC.

Novelist Pens First Book on Smart Phone; Succeeds In Making Us Look Like Slackers

A fun and inspiring story from Laptop.com’s blog. Peter V. Brett, a fiction writer with a day job and a long commute used his travel time, spent mostly on the subway, to type in writing drafts on his “smart phone” (it had a tiny keyboard!). The manuscript became his first published novel, “The Warded Man.”

While I don’t agree with the sub-title of the article, the interview reveals an inventive way to keep up one’s creative output under challenging (time/space/equipment) circumstances! Brett has continued his phone-writing habit now that the day job is history—he’s working on a new book, and the presence of a new baby in the household has made it easier for him to sit at a nearby park and thumb-type away than to try to keep the keyboard-based racket down when he’s at home!

Information Literacy and Habits of Mind

From Michele Martin’s Bamboo Project Blog. Martin, a workplace learning and career consultant, provides interesting commentary on a study reporting that most people filter information to mostly confirm their pre-existing biases. Martin notes that even the habits we cultivate to be good info-processing creatures may set us up for biased thinking.

“In light of our tendencies toward homophily and pre-conceived ideas, it would seem there are deeper issues at work that we need to consider … when we are scanning, how do we combat our natural tendency to only “see” information that fits with our preconceived notions of the world? … In developing our filtering skills, how do we ensure that we are not filtering out information that doesn’t fit with our existing concepts and frames?

“I suspect that many, if not most of us, are likely to apply our filters in a way that shields us from data we may not want to consider. But this is not effective filtering behavior, particularly if we end up filtering out key data that would change our decisions or ideas about how things work.”

I think the study Martin is discussing has real impact when one considers the sharp rise in recent years in the number of people getting their news from Internet-based sources; depending on how the news is gathered and distributed (and by whom), reading updates from new citizen-journalism sites or politically oriented blogs may encourage even more bias-confirmation than ever.

Martin links to an earlier post she did on the challenge of Web-enabled homophily and while it is oriented primarily toward learning professionals and career-seeker clients, communications professionals (including journalists and bloggers) can gain a lot from reading both posts.

What to Do When You Don’t Have Deadlines
Linda Formichelli offers four solid tips for making self-imposed deadlines stick on her blog, The Renegade Writer.

I especially enjoyed the commentary on her suggestion to “tweet” one’s deadline goals on Twitter. One correspondent, Jacqueline Church, nixed that idea, asserting,

“I would strongly caution against tweeting deadline goals. It’s not something I want public to any and all editors and publishers. I have never missed a deadline but if they’re new to me, and see me procrastinating or struggling what kind of first impression is that?”

Church suggested instead broadcasting one’s self-imposed deadlines to a narrower audience, say in a forum at Inked In or another smaller online writing community.

The post by Formichelli is brief but good. Read it when you need a positive kick in the pants to get moving on your “enterprise” projects.

Bonus Links!

5 Evergreen Editing Tips
By Maria Schneider on her Editor Unleashed blog. Five classic blunders and the editing fix for each.

50 Free Resources That Will Improve Your Writing Skills
From the Developer’s Toolbox section of Smashing Magazine. Great compilation of writing-related resources.

50 Useful Google Apps for Writers
From the somewhat embarrassingly named Learn-gasm blog. A comprehensive roundup of Google apps that could smooth your online writing experience.

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Write This Way: Writing and Editing Links for April 27, 2009


Photo courtesy of SXC.

Getting Journalism Education Out of the Way

I have to thank Amy Gahran of Contentious for this link: It’s a provocative essay from 2002 on the potential obsolescence of journalism education by Betty Medsger.

Writing in Zoned for Debate, NYU’s faculty’s webforum on current issues in journalism, Medsger, the former head of the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University and founder of its Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, found in 1996, as she analyzed surveys taken for a national study of journalism education, that 27 percent of “new journalists,” people who had worked for one to 11 years said they had never studied journalism.

Further research by Medsger revealed that a majority of winners of major journalism awards, including Pulitzer Prizes, Alfred I. DuPont Awards for broadcasters, Nieman Fellowship and Knight Fellowships at Stanford University never studied journalism in school. Many of the winners majored in literature or history, with the rest majoring in a wide sampling of liberal arts and science disciplines.

What to make of these facts? Why have post-Watergate journalism graduates (of which I am one) not made the same sorts of impact as those who never set foot inside a j-school?

Medsger writes:

“The greater achievement of journalists who did not dedicate their academic years to learning how to fill the vessels of journalism, (in contrast to what goes in them), suggests a profound challenge to what journalism educators have assumed was their raison d’etre: training people in how to fill the vessels. The finding suggests that radical changes, or at least intelligent experiments with new approaches, are needed at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The way things are done now seems to get in the way.”

The rest of the essay suggests a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching journalism that seems positively prescient in light of the challenges that print journalists and other media professionals are facing in 2009. I believe Medsger put her finger on a long-term trend in journalism that has caused the industry to lose its way and struggle as its business model eroded out from under it—a focus on the how-to-fill-vessels technique end of things to such an extent that thinking about reader (or audience) needs has become, at best, an afterthought.

KCNN: A guide to crowdsourcing

The Knight Citizen News Network is an information-rich site for community-focused new media start-ups, run by American University’s School of Communication and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It has a number of helpful guides for citizen reporters and traditional journalists on how to use Web 2.0 tools to create high-quality local news sites.

“Crowdsourcing” is a term that’s gained much interest of late—Jeff Howe, author of a book by the same name, defines it as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”

In journalism circles, crowdsourcing means letting ordinary people help you with your writing research. It’s a complicated business to balance the power of “open source” reporting with the journalistic tenets to vet information thoroughly and the tendency to rely on statements from public figures as credible. This helpful guide explains the best way to do it without compromising accuracy.

The guide is part of a more comprehensive toolkit for citizen journalists on KCNN, which includes how to generate or uncover story ideas, credible story research, mining data banks for relevant corroborative material and finding and training good reporters. The site is full of useful tips for anyone wanting to do in-the-trenches public interest writing, whatever their level of professional training in journalism.

49 Creative Ways You Can Profit From Content Marketing

Writers, particularly those who have a defined specialty niche, often wonder about how to best showcase their expertise without sounding cheesy. Sonia Simone, senior editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication, has developed a comprehensive list of products that any author with a specialty (whether it’s a beat or something the author is considered a bona fide expert in) can use to create new information products or guide their content planning for their website, blog, webinar schedule, e-newsletter, etc.

Yes, a few of the suggestions are a little off-beat (example: write a column from your pet’s point of view on your specialty topic), but most of them represent solid new ways to connect with present and potential readers/audience members and keep them interested in reading (and buying) what you have to offer.

Bonus Link!

The #1 Untapped Income Source That Freelancers Forget

Skellie, writing on her newly revived (?) Anywired blog, has developed a nice post on how to take your freelance skills (and income) to the next level by offering consulting services to your clients.

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