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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The State of Grassroots Journalism

Dan Gillmor is author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People” and founder of the Center for Citizen Media. He is a well-known and vocal proponent of “citizen journalism” – as he puts it: “the democratization of the tools and the distribution [of journalism] – the idea that anyone can do it.”

Japan has a number of its own citizen journalism projects, notably a “public journalism” site, which is part of Internet entrepreneur Horie Takafumi’s Livedoor News Web site. But despite Horie once vowing to “kill Japanese newspapers and TV,” citizen journalism seems to have barely landed a blow as yet. Site traffic is modest, and professional journalists have seemed critical and wary of the new competition. By way of contrast, in neighboring South Korea, citizen journalism Web site OhmyNews has more than 40,000 citizen and full-time reporters and once logged 25 million page views in a single day.

Japan Media Review spoke to Dan Gillmor about citizen journalism in the United States, South Korea and Japan. As well as considering why citizen journalists have had so little success thus far challenging Japan’s “old” media, Gillmor spoke about how citizen journalism has the potential to change media everywhere.

This is an edited transcript of interviews conducted by telephone and e-mail.

Japan Media Review: You have just set up the Center for Citizen Media. What is the project’s aim and would you describe it as “civic journalism”?

Dan Gillmor: Civic journalism was really about news organizations setting public agendas and being more directly involved with community affairs. The public civic journalism that people talked about was exclusively about big organizations or the local equivalent of mass media doing the agenda setting. The thing that I am focused on is bottom up as opposed to top down. I am involved with the citizen media idea – the democratization of the tools and the distribution – the idea that anyone can do it. I’m very anxious that the existing media organizations participate in this themselves and encourage people in their audiences to participate.

JMR: How does that compare to a project like OhmyNews in South Korea that started off in opposition to the mainstream media?

DG: It was exclusively independent of the main media when they set it up. Their whole goal was to be an alternative, and it was under conditions that are not at all like the conditions in the U.S. You had three newspapers that had a substantial majority among them of all the circulation in Seoul and much of the country. That’s a monolithic media quite unlike anything in the U.S. And those three were very much tied to the power structure in a very fundamental way. While the media in the U.S. tend to be kind of corporate, they are not in general locked into the power structure.

JMR: Do you have any idea why Japan hasn’t come up with any citizen journalism project on the scale of OhmyNews?

DG: I don’t think I am an expert enough on Japan, but Japan has had a very different history with the Internet until the last several years. Internet access was very, very expensive. At the same time the Japanese were one of the two or three world leaders in mobile communications, so a lot of what people have done there that is advanced has been in the mobile area. 2 Channel [a popular Internet discussion board], which is probably the most interesting early experiment, was pretty radical for Japan.

JMR: 2 Channel is hugely popular - reportedly the world’s largest Internet discussion board - but it has been heavily criticized by the Japanese media.

DG: I can understand why. A lot of anonymous chatter is not the same as citizen journalism. At a very basic level, if one doesn’t stand behind one’s own words it is possible that it is journalism, but it is likely that it is not.

JMR: How do you progress from an anonymous and chaotic bulletin board like 2 Channel to a citizen journalism movement?

DG: There is a lot of interesting information on that site and a lot of data, but it is not something I would call journalism. You can learn a lot [on 2 Channel] - from what I understand from people who have told me about it. The problem is that if you are wise you start off with the bias that it is likely to be false, and that maybe there is some truth in there, but who knows? At least that’s my bias when I see anonymous [postings].

JMR: Isn’t that also a problem in citizen journalism?

DG: We are going to have to change what we think of as media literacy, among other things. You have to change attitudes on two sides. One is persuading people who are doing citizen journalism, that if they really want to do journalism that it involves more than just writing down their views. It also means more responsibility on the part of the audience to not assume that everything written is going to be true.

JMR: What are your impressions of the civil journalism movement in Japan?

DG: I would say that there is clearly some interest in this in Japan. They published my book [“We the Media. Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People”] and to my astonishment put me on the cover of Aera [a Japanese weekly magazine]. [Takafumi] Horie endorsed my book, which was really amazing. He has clearly been pushing the envelope on this.

JMR: There are several citizen journalism projects in Japan, but the media seem to be somewhat standoffish.

DG: Ask them what would happen if they did [support citizen journalism]. Would the [press] club throw them out? In a place where access is so dependent on being a member of this club it is easy to see why major media are taking it slowly.

JMR: Are the Japanese media scared of losing their monopoly?

DG: Well, they are scared of it here too. But the bigger issue in America is not the competition journalistically. I think that’s a side issue. The changes here are coming about almost entirely because the business model is unraveling and everyone is scared. News companies, the bosses, are thinking, ‘Oh my God, we are losing all our advertising,’ and the journalists are starting to realize that their jobs are in real jeopardy. People are experimenting, it’s not like anyone has found an answer.

Classified ads in particular are disappearing onto the Web and newspapers are losing their single most profitable revenue. That’s tending to focus their attention: local newspapers in particular, but [also] advertising in general.

JMR: The Japanese media is much more centralized than the U.S. media with few local newspapers reliant on classified ads. Could that help explain why citizen journalism hasn’t taken off here?

DG: So it will take longer for the business questions to become obvious. They will eventually. It’s a big upheaval.

JMR: Why is the involvement of professional journalists in citizen journalism important?

DG: They need to do more listening and conversing and a little less lecturing. That’s because I think news is fundamentally a conversation and not a lecture; and when journalists realize that they do better journalism.

It would certainly help a lot, give it more obvious legitimacy. The failure to participate won’t stop this, but the participation will certainly accelerate it and maybe will help save the media from otherwise major potential catastrophe.

JMR: And that goes for Japan too?

DG: I assume it’s true [for Japan too]. I am confident that this is true everywhere, that journalists will do better journalism if they think of the process more as a conversation than as a lecture. Period. Having said that, these things will develop in different ways in different places.

JMR: What is the connection between citizen journalism and democracy? How about in a country like Japan where the same party has been in power almost uninterruptedly for over half a century?

DG: I think it's a fairly simple connection. The more engaged someone becomes with current events, the more likely one is to be a well-informed person. And being well informed is the key to being a good citizen.

JMR: Many people have criticized journalistic standards in citizen journalism. How do you respond to people like [South African academic] Vincent Maher who say that “citizen journalism is dead”?

DG: I thought in the end that he and I agreed on more than we disagreed on. What’s going on now is a snapshot in time and it is going to change. I think that if we can do this right, it is just going to get better. [That’s] in terms of journalism. I don’t have any predictions in terms of the journalism business, that’s a much tougher question.

It’s fair to say that a lot of what people have tried to do has failed, but that doesn’t mean that the idea is a bad one, or that the trend is going to stop. Anything that is radically evolutionary is not going to proceed either on a straight path or on an exponential curve. It’s going to have ups and downs on the way. But I think that the overall trajectory is positive.

JMR: What will be the next step for citizen journalism?

DG: I think the next steps will be more acceptance by the major media, a thousand different experiments, a lot of learning and adaptation. When I said evolutionary I really meant that. It’s a process of many different things being tried, many if not most of them failing, and sticking with the ones that work. The newspaper and the broadcasting media and magazines did not become what they are overnight. It was decades and centuries of refinement and trying different things and staying with what works and discarding what didn’t. It would be silly to attach too much meaning to a snapshot.


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