I know that as journalists we have to adapt rapidly to new ways of doing things, but you’ve really thrown me in at the deep end – you’ve chosen five online articles instead of five books, and we’re doing the interview on Google chat rather than by telephone.
I like to do things differently. For example, using PressThink for longform blogging – which wasn’t the normal thing at the time, in 2003.
Will you give me an overall sense of what you are saying about changes in journalism with the articles you’ve chosen?
Well, first there’s been a shift in power. The users have more than they did because they can publish and connect to one another, not just to the media. Second, the people formerly known as the audience are configured differently. They are connected horizontally as well as vertically, which is why today we speak of social media. This is what I sometimes call “audience atomisation overcome”. Third, the media still have power and journalism still matters. In some ways the essence of it has not changed. But a lot of what journalists did became bound up with particular forms of production and distribution. Since the web has radically altered those forms, it has radically changed journalistic work, even though the value of good journalism remains the same – timely, accurate, useful information that tells us what’s happening in our world over the horizon of our personal experience.
Let’s look at the first article you’ve chosen, which dates from May 1999. It’s by Dave Winer, and is titled “Edit This Page”. Can you tell me why it’s on your list? I don’t come from a tech background, so it was quite hard for me to follow.
OK, I will explain why this piece is so important. The summer and fall of 1999 is when blogging software first emerged. Prior to that time, web publishing existed, but you had to know some code to have your own page on the web. There were people doing a kind of proto-blogging, but they were geeks. What Dave Winer is talking about in this piece is how we can make the leap from the “read only” web – a web that most people can only read – to the “read-write web”, a platform where the average person is both an author and a user of stuff others author.
The key moment is in the title: “Edit this Page”. If every page can be easily edited by the users, then the users can be publishers. And the static web gives way to something much more exciting and participatory and social. For example, if we combine the ease of self-publishing with domain expertise – people who know a lot about a given area, like the mortgage industry – what do we get? We get not only niche blogs by experts, but also a different power relationship between them and the professional media. Dave later summarised this as: The sources can go direct. All this was being sketched out in May 1999, before anyone realised what a force blogging and social media would be.
, a “news for nerds” website, to improve a story about cyber-terrorism.
So here we see another form of the power shift. The users have more power, not only because they can self-publish but also because they can pool their knowledge, and criticise superficial treatments in the professional media. Knowing this, Jane’s decided to make the users co-authors, which expresses the new balance of power I just talked about.
That site, slashdot.org, was one of the first really effective online communities. So this piece in Salon, also from 1999, is an example of an extremely important insight that my friend Dan Gillmor had, again in 1999. Gillmor first got turned on to how powerful blogging would be when he saw a demo from – guess who? – Dave Winer. Winer showed him how “edit this page” worked. He talked Gillmor into starting a blog at the San Jose Mercury News, where he was a columnist and reporter on Silicon Valley. As the first newspaper journalist to have a blog, Gillmor realised something crucial: “My readers know more than I do.” In the aggregate, that is. This is the same thing Jane’s realised.
And it addresses a problem that traditional journalism always faced, which is that as a reader, whenever you read an article about something you know a lot about, the journalist normally gets it wrong.
Exactly, which over time wears away at the trust that is necessary for serious journalism to exist. So combine “my readers know more than I do” with “open source journalism” and “the sources go direct”, and you have a reply to that problem.
I can see how it applies to specialist areas – cyber-terrorism, drugs, finance. But does it also apply to general news?
In some ways, yes. Except we have to modify it to, “Our readers are located in more places than we are”, or, “Our readers are more connected to each other than we are”. Put them together and what do you have? News, like an earthquake in LA, that breaks first on Twitter. Or coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that was originally dominated by users with cameras who were on scene.
What about the identity of the readers? Say it is something specialist, and some of the people who are advising you on the story have an agenda you don’t know about. Do we need to know who they are?
One of the big unsolved – but not necessarily unsolvable – problems in the new pro-am [professional-amateur] system is that it does not come to us with a working reputation system. So yes, “Who are these people?” is a problem. Anonymity is a problem. The flood of garbage is a problem. What some call the echo chamber effect is a problem. There are dozens of these practical problems. The new system isn’t a turnkey device. It has huge weaknesses.
Next on your list is a 2004 speech by Tom Curley, head of the Associated Press news agency, to the Online News Association. He talks about the content of journalism needing to be freed from the “expensive containers” we’ve created – newspapers, broadcasters and websites. Why is this speech important?
It’s important because one of the captains of the news industry, the CEO of the AP, was grappling with the enormous disruptions brought by the digital tools that have re-made his industry. He takes note of the power shift. He recognises that with push-button distribution via the Internet, journalistic routines that were a reflection of the old distribution model have less value. He says that journalistic work has to change because the value we add isn’t in the same place anymore. And this is coming from the centre of the news system, the boss of the AP, the baseline for all news reporting. He says, “The users now decide.”
He also points out that “the Internet has become our new business environment, not just another medium for distribution”. When did the heads of news organisations really start taking that on board? Has everyone taken it on board now?
Yes, another important thing about this speech is that Curley points out how the news industry tried to preserve the business it knew from before. For example, by re-purposing content from the print platform and putting it online. Which allowed it to avoid, for a time, the consequences of these disruptive shifts. The shift happened in late 2004, early 2005. That’s when the people running large news organisations finally realised that digital is the future and it’s way different than the business we knew. Has everyone faced up to that now? No. There are plenty of holdouts.
Many of the journalists who see paywalls as The Answer, or who think that if the business had simply avoided the original sin of putting its stuff online for free, then none of this would be happening. David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former journalist for The Baltimore Sun, has been proclaiming this very loudly. But he is merely speaking for a cadre of his former colleagues.
Your next choice is an article in The Guardian, from 2006, “What is the 1% rule?”. Why did this make your list?
Because we need to appreciate how radical the disruption is and we need digital realism. “Anyone can” does not mean “everyone will”. What’s possible for the users does not tell us what most users will actually do. The 1% rule is digital realism, and that is just as precious as the realisation of how different everything is.
And what is the 1% rule?
The rule says that 90% will just use the service – read only, if you will. Only 10% will contribute anything at all, and only 1% will become deeply engaged as regular contributors.
And that’s pretty accurate?
Well, the rough proportions, if not the exact figures, are accurate across different publishing environments.
I still can’t believe that Wikipedia succeeded so well, on the basis of people contributing. Could there be a Wikipedia for news?
I was going to include Wikipedia as one of my five links, for that reason. I think there are special problems in news that make it way harder than creating a Wikipedia for news, which has been tried. For example, if I get to that edit of an entry at midnight because I am too busy to go online before then, that is fine for Wikipedia, but not so for news. I go into these problems here.
Your last article, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, is from 2009 and is by Clay Shirky. I did laugh at Shirky’s response to newspaper people who always argue they have benefits for society as a whole: “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ was never much of a business model.” What particular aspects did you want to highlight?
There are several things. Clay shows how the basic outlines of what was to come were visible way before 2004 and 2005 when they dawned on the news industry. He says there is no general model for the news business to replace the one that the Internet broke. That’s key. And he points to the need to experiment with his wonderful line, “Nothing will work but everything might”. He is trying to show that there is hope even when every illusion the news business had about itself is shattered. And even when the crisis – a broken business model – is upon us.
It gives us all hope, doesn’t it?
Take a look at how many links that article has [listed at the bottom of the page]. It’s unheard of. How does 1,219 links to a single blogpost happen? It happens when a writer captures a few big truths and pulls them into language everyone can hear.
So we have a 10-year arc – 1999 to 2009 – and five stopping places, inflection points, along that arc. I finished my book What Are Journalists For? which was in many ways a pre-web book, in 1999, and I turned my attention to the web and what it was doing to the ideas and practices I cared about. 1999 was the start of something for me. These are the key inflection points in my own work that correspond to the others we have talked about: 2005, 2006 and 2009. Do you now know why I chose these five articles?
Because you’re telling a story?
True. But what I meant is, do you see what each adds to the story? Beginning: Winer and Leonard – new world. Middle: Curley – puzzling through the changes. End: Arthur and Shirky – realism and hope.
In terms of doing our job as journalists, do we have to be tech geeks now too?
The more you know, the better off you are, but I think it’s wrong to say that every journalist has to become a technologist. Rather, journalists have to de-couple their essential practices from the particular forms of production and distribution to which they had become artificially attached. They have to come to terms with the power shift. They have to make use of new tools that give them more power, and open up creativity. And they have to create a more open professional culture, because their world is going to be disrupted again and again.
I re-watched All the President’s Men recently. I noticed that a lot of what those reporters spent their time doing – cold-calling people, ringing on doorbells, trying to understand the connections – could now be done instantly online.
Much more of the world is within reach of the working journalist today. But it’s still important to hit the streets, see for yourself and talk to people face to face.
Finally, I wanted to ask you how far along we are now in terms of this participatory journalism. But you’ve already given it a C-minus. We should just link that post again, right?
Yes, it’s a report card on digital journalism.
Interview by Sophie Roell
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