A Conversation Between Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen

by Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen is an associate professor of journalism at New York University, where he has taught since 1986, and a critic and writer concentrating on democracy and the press. Dan Gillmor is a widely syndicated technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, and the author of O'Reilly's recently released We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. Jay and Dan sat down recently to discuss the current state of journalism and the impact technology is having on traditional media.

Jay Rosen: I'm here in Toronto at the annual Journalism Professors Conference. Dan Gillmor and I are on the 25th floor of the Sheraton Centre looking out at the Toronto skyline. We're going to talk about some of the themes in his book, We The Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, and larger themes that surround the book. Ted Koppel, who's the best interviewer on television, only prepares one question. And then he lets all his other questions flow from the conversation. So, that's the approach I'm going to take.

A few months ago, the Baltimore Sun published an article about a young weblogger named Brian Stelter, who does Cable Newser, a very interesting weblog about the cable news industry. Since that time, Cable Newser was bought by Media Bistro, and it's now TVNewser. So this kid has himself a little business.

But in the Baltimore Sun article that profiled him — he's a student at Towson University in Maryland, so it was a local story — the article contained not a single link to his weblog when it appeared in the online edition. You couldn't get to Cable Newser from the Sun, even though the article was all about Cable Newser.

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And it struck me that this is a good illustration of something: There is plenty of journalism on the Web but there is very little journalism of the Web. And the Sun's article, I think, illustrates that. It's on the Web but it definitely is not of the Web. So, my first question to you is, what are the characteristics or features of journalism when it is of the Web? What are some things that would identify journalism once it becomes, let's say, organically an expression of the powers and advantages of the Web?

Dan Gillmor: Well, you hit on the first one. And the number one thing about the Web is links. That is what makes the Web the Web. And I will give one small defense to the Baltimore Sun, because I'm sure their publishing system — which was written when publishing newspapers was a manufacturing business as opposed to what's going on on the Web now — probably doesn't have a way to easily figure out what a URL is. I know the one we use at the San Jose Mercury News knows that if we put something in parentheses and it starts with WWW, it says, "Oh, that's a URL," and puts a link there. But if you don't start with WWW, it doesn't recognize it. So, this is a work in progress.

The second thing that I think the Web demands — or at least encourages — is the idea that when you publish something, it is the continuation or even the beginning of a conversation. It's not the end of the story, but part of an inquiry where we figure the truth out together. So, that would be my second element.

Other things that make the Web different are the ability to be extremely timely. Or, if it's not timely, extremely detailed, including pointers to source material. I come back to linking, to the notion that the authority increases when you link to things that support or illustrate what you're talking about with source material. There's more of it now, and we can go back to more original material.

Rosen: OK, linking is in many ways the heart of the Web. It's the thing that's really powerful about it. Linking is what Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, was really doing. That was what was new. And the current situation for the mainstream American press is that the art of linking is certainly not part of newsroom culture. Most news sites don't contain a lot of links. Most mainstream news operations have rules against it, or a policy of keeping people within the domain. The thinking is that we need to capture readers and present a full-service product, a full-service news report. Therefore, why should we link out? Because if we don't, we'll lose readers. The traditional attitudes and policies mean that a lot of mainstream news organizations are falling behind or not showing up as part of the discussion in, for example, search engines. For example, The New York Times — the newspaper of record whose whole business and franchise is built on the authority of their reporting — is not the authority on the Web, by the simple measure of Google. If you search for important topics and themes on Google, you're not going to find New York Times articles in the database. They're not going to show up on your first page, or maybe even your 30th page, because their links expire. And this is extraordinary to me, that an operation as intelligent and as important as The New York Times would, in a sense, default in the Google space. I know there are historical reasons for it. They believe they can capture revenues down the line by selling their archive.

But I wonder, first of all, how long can mainstream news organizations ignore the power of linking? What's it doing to them in the long run? How is this going to change? Or is it not going to change?

Gillmor: I don't think all mainstream organizations ignore it. If you look at the BBC and The Guardian in England, in particular, I think they are the prototypical example of how to do it right. They looked early at the nature of the Web, the nature of links, the question of permanence — or what passes for permanence, in what is by definition an impermanent medium — and they said to themselves and then to the rest of us, our links will be perma-links [a permanent link to a specific article, which will remain valid after the article has been archived]. in a way that counts. We won't muck with the link once it's there. And, as a result, a lot of their stuff gets cited.

I think that organizations like the Times are caught between two worlds. The Times' archives are behind this "pay wall." And that's a real moneymaker for them. But there are some sites that are pay-per-view from the get-go, like The Wall Street Journal, which for all practical purposes does not exist in Google. But at some point I think most news sites are going to say, "We can do better on revenue by making all of the archives available for free with perma-links, with the bargain being that we will have targeted advertising." When you do a search on keywords there will be things popping up in the story or alongside the story that are like Google's ad sense, or whatever comes along that is better than Google ad sense. And we may find out — I'm speculating, I don't have a model for this, that keywords and ads are a more profitable way for traditional organizations to monetize what is quite expensive to produce. It would have a secondary effect that, in the end, becomes a primary effect: the site becomes even more credible and even more a place to go when you need to know things.

Rosen: In your answer to my first question, you said, besides links the another thing that makes journalism "of" the Web is that publishing is a stage. Publishing the news is one stage and then many things follow from that. And that does conflict a little bit with the traditional routines in journalism. As you know, when you're a reporter you work hard on your story. You have a deadline. You send it in. It's edited. It's published. And very often, it's on to the next story. And the way the Web works kind of cuts against some of the rhythms of daily journalism. So, why should journalists care about this "after-action," this dialogue that results on the Web? And how can they incorporate that to start doing better journalism? I assume that what you're talking about is, comments come back. Reactions, elaborations. Links to an article show some of its wider significance in the Web sphere. So, how can journalists start using that second stage to do better work?

Gillmor: The first thing we'd need to do is listen, pay attention to what is being said. To really get out of the lecture mode that we've been in and to recognize that something new is going on that will benefit not just our journalism — which of course we want to do — but benefit the people who are reading or listening to or viewing our journalism. Those are the people who we say we want to serve. So, the conversation part of it — the listening part, the responding part — is not just for journalists. It's for all of us, it's for everybody. And it comes back to what I've made a kind of a cliché in my own world, which is that my readers know more than I do.

Rosen: I want to ask about that cliché, because I don't think it's a cliché. I think it's a major insight. First of all, tell me what happened to make you realize "My readers know more than I do." And why didn't it just freak you out?

Gillmor: Well, it did freak me out at first. But what happened was, I went to Silicon Valley in 1994 to write about technology. And I wrote about it in a place where most of the people I was writing about were already on email. And invariably they knew collectively much more than I did. You know, you write about tech in Silicon Valley, by definition your readers know more than you do. And I saw that happening, and I thought, "Hmm, this is really different." And then I thought about it and realized that it wasn't different at all, that it had always been true. That whatever the subject I was writing about, the people who cared enough about it to read it knew more than I did-- collectively. It was only now, however, that there was a quick-response mechanism -- this feedback loop established through email at first and then later through other tools, that made it possible for them to let me know, in a hurry. And I can assure you that people in the Valley are never shy about letting you know when they think you're wrong or when you're missing something.

Rosen: So, it's not just, "My readers know more than I do." It's, "My readers know more than I do and I can tap that because they will tell me."

Gillmor: Exactly. The ability to find out things that you don't already know and then to incorporate them into what you do in the future — it's a great advantage for any journalist. I think all journalists on any beat need to understand that this is an opportunity. It's not remotely a threat. And journalists have skills that the people writing to us may or may not have. And why don't we, in the best sense of the expression, all take mutual advantage of this situation to do a better job?

Rosen: Well, let's cut a little deeper into that. Because even though what you say is logical, and good advice, I can think of lots of reasons why "My readers know more than I do" might be resisted by journalists. For one thing, the basic transaction in mainstream journalism is understood to be -- I'm the journalist. I know things because I've done my reporting. I've inquired, I've asked questions, and I've hunted down documents. And you don't know. You weren't there. You're not a reporter. You don't have the time. You're off living your life. And so the whole idea of informing the public, informing the readers, assumes that the news organization knows and its customers — as it were — don't.

And secondly, the authority of the journalist — the way it has evolved in the United States — is very much tied up with the journalist knowing things that others don't. Having access that others don't. Witnessing things that others can't — a press conference, etc. And it's almost like in the deep grammar of American journalism, the assumption is that knowledge moves from the news organization to a public that lacks it. So, it's not surprising to me that "My readers know more than I do" is hard to grasp.

Gillmor: But nothing you just said is fundamentally less true today than it was before. For the majority of the readers, they are learning something they don't know from someone who's done some homework. From someone who is either self-trained or has picked up some skills that are not typical skills in our society. And someone who has access that many other people do not. My point on all this is that for the journalist there is a new opportunity to learn more and to do better journalism as a result. The role of journalist is evolving. The news didn't suddenly turn into a conversation, but it's becoming part of this thing that's not a lecture anymore; it's more of a seminar. And I'm very happy with the professional journalist retaining a certain amount of authority — the good ones — and I want the good journalists to keep going and doing the things they do well. I think it would be tragic if the investigative powers of the Big Media were suddenly to disappear.

Rosen: OK, so you have been a journalist for how long?

Gillmor: Coming up on 25 years.

Rosen: And you expect to do this for another 15, 20 years I hope?

Gillmor: It seems that I've found my calling, but then again, I had a different career before this one [playing music]. So, I never foreclose any change.

Rosen: OK, but nonetheless, you have a lot of pride in your profession, you have a lot of love for journalism. I know you, so I know you have close colleges and you certainly feel a loyalty to this craft, to the San Jose Mercury News. Given what you have learned in the writing of this book and what you have seen in your travels around the country, do you worry about the future of journalism as a profession?

Gillmor: Yes, absolutely. There are separate issues when we talk about the future of journalism. They're related, but they're largely separate. There is the journalism question, which you've talked about at some very eloquent length in your own writings, about whether we're on the wrong track in what we do and how we do it. And there is also a business question, the demands of Wall Street that tend to force publicly owned journalism companies to do things, such as squeeze investment to meet profit expectations, that may not be in the best interests of the journalism, over the long haul especially. That's capitalism.

I don't have a good solution to that business question, except to note perhaps that when you look at what most people would regard as the three consistently best newspapers in America — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post — each of them is under an ownership structure in which the managers are not beholden to the short-term demands of Wall Street but rather to the long-term view they hold of their businesses. And I think that's probably not a coincidence, that they are the three widely acknowledged and best, though I should caution that the LA Times — which won more Pulitzer Prizes last year than anyone else and is a hell of a good newspaper — a brilliant newspaper, in many ways — is owned by one of the more greedy companies. But, no pronouncement here is perfect across the board. You can do very good journalism at publicly owned institutions. We do it at Knight Ridder, but there is pressure.

All that said, we are part of a high-margin business. And Wall Street really loves those high margins and wants us to keep them. And we are facing new competition on the business side for the various revenue streams — apart from circulation — that are the bulk of the money that comes in. Advertising is not one monolithic block of revenue, it's a whole bunch of revenue streams that add up to a big collection. Every one of those, every one, is under attack by people who are effectively more nimble than we are, who are willing to live in most cases on lower margins, and crucially who find journalism — the notion of journalism — to be an utter distraction that they don't want to have any part of. Now, that's a potentially deadly combination. We're starting to really feel it.

It was obvious five years ago that the world's largest classified advertising site was going to be eBay, and now it is. In many major cities there are online classified advertising sites that are eating into what has been far and away the most profitable part of newspapers.

And it's not just newspapers that are facing new competition because of technology. I mean, I would not want to be in the 30-second advertising spot business right now, because I own one of those hard-disk video recorders — not TiVo, but another one — that has a button that says, "Makes 30 seconds disappear in a blink." I record everything I watch now, and when I get to the commercials, I go, "boom, boom, boom, boom," four times on the clicker, and two minutes have disappeared. And if there's still a commercial, I do it again until it's back to the program.

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