Social Media

But they is us

Susan Mernit pointed to an SF Weekly article on Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Though she liked what the author, Ryan Blitstein, had to say, Susan expressed concern that he did not mention any women in the article–especially among the media critics. I’ll get into Susan’s concern later, tying it into something else I’m writing. For now, though, I want to look more closely at what Blitstein wrote about Newmark, the old media, and the new citizen journalism.

In reference to Newmark’s obvious financial success, as compared to Craigslist’s seemingly profitless persona and the somewhat negative impact this success has had on newspapers, Blitstein wrote:

It’s hard to reconcile Newmark’s utopian vision with Craigslist’s real-world revenues and the site’s effect on the media. To his credit, Newmark is obviously struggling with the issue. He doesn’t want to cause job losses, or contribute to journalism’s decline, and he hopes to use his power and money to fix the problem, but he isn’t sure exactly how: “I don’t know much about what to do about it, except to accelerate change. The news industry is experiencing serious dislocation. It’s happening. The faster it happens, the faster we get to new technologies, the more money and more opportunities journalists and editors will have.”

For nearly a year, he’s been talking up the use of new technologies, especially the potential of online citizen journalism. Now, he’s finally ready to put his money where his mouth is by funding a new venture. “It needs noise, buzz, and some smartass like me getting people to talk,” he says, animated as a preacher, so excited he nearly jumps out of his chair. “And I have to dwell on this, and this is big, and this may be the biggest contribution I ever make.”

Blistein carefully questioned the assumptions about the inherent goodness of the new citizen journalists–not because citizen journalism is not capable of contributing to the good of all; but because citizen journalists will never have the facilities, discipline, and opportunities to follow through on more in-depth stories:

Citizen journalism may become a helpful supplement to mainstream reporting, especially in smaller towns, just as bloggers help elucidate news on specific topics for millions of readers. But the more important (and more challenging) the stories are, the more likely it is that citizen journalists won’t have the wherewithal to complete them. “Citizen journalism will not be the Fourth Estate,” Cauthorn says. “It’s not going to sit down and stare across the room at an army of lawyers for some government official who’s outraged that you’ve written about his misdeeds.”

But if citizen journalism can’t replace the traditional media, surely its effects are innocuous, at worst. Not ncessarily so, as Blitstein points out:

In the best case, Newmark is joining a movement that will someday be of moderate help to the mainstream media. In the worst case, citizen journalism’s optimistic supporters, in neglecting the problems of the public institution that is the mainstream press, may leave America with both a failing news media and a mediocre technology that offers little assistance on essential stories.

Oddly enough just after reading this article, I received a link from Jonathon Delacour this morning to another writing that covers somewhat this same theme (found via a post at Drunken Blog). The writing was a weblog post titled, Party like it’s 1999, by photojournalist Jim Lowney. It in, Lowney talks about meeting with his old friend Tim Blair at the Open Source Media launch party.

A little corvid out in Reno mentioned yesterday that the mad Aussie journo Tim Blair was back in the Big Apple…Better yet, there was some sort of blogger conference complete with a free cocktail party or wine time or such…Blair said it was the launch of something called Open Source Media, formerly known as Pajamas Media, a massing of bloggers in some business venture.

What is *Open Source Media? The site says, among other things:

Where journalists once gave us “experts say,” blogs give us the experts themselves. And where faceless, “objective” editorial boards once handed down opinions and endorsements, bloggers sound off, the numbers on their public sitemeters lending them unassailable credibility as voices for the rest of us.

(emphasis mine)

It purports to be some form of formalized citizen journalism and it’s advisory board has members both luminous and not within weblogging circles. However, it was the staff that gave me pause; staff such as Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Charles Johnson. If you’re unaware of that name, let me give you Mr. Johnson’s weblog: Little Green Footballs. And who is CEO? Well, none other than Roger Simon. Looking through both the Advisory Board and staff, the only person who seems to be missing to truly give this new effort that necessary ‘rottweiler/pit bull’ feel, is Josh Trevino. But have no worries at his absence: he’s over at yet another example of citizen journalism, Spot On. (Well, Michelle Malkin could do equally well, but she’s busy writing definitive history books.)

At the post launch party, while attempting to have a quiet smoke with his old friend, Lowney recounts his experience with most of the attendees:

The September 11 attacks quickly became the meat of the conversation. But these nice folks didn’t mention the horror or death or the survivors or the wounding of a city or brave firefighters or fatherless children. They didn’t even offer a personal tale of the day. There were no “I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard” stories.

The talk went straight to the media coverage…I believe many of these people have come up with the information equivalent of the biggest mistake in dirty politics. As we know in politics, it’s not the alleged crime but the cover-up that takes you down. To some of these bloggers, it is not the story that matters but the coverage. And they want to use the coverage to take down whatever news outlet doesn’t fit in their world.

And they want to use the coverage to take down whatever news outlet doesn’t fit in their world. What news outlets? The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald and the BBC among them; even my city’s own St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In their place, we’ll have Open Source Media and Spot-On and Newmark’s effort with Jarvis, not to mention Dan Gilmor’s Bayosphere effort and all the others–most either funded by eager venture capitalists or adoring fans; most run by people who have ‘made it big’ in weblogging more by being colorful pundits than by being journalists.

To aid them, we’ll create new applications that will allow us to discover the differing opinions, the divese voices, and, above all, the Truth; applications based on the same technology that now helps us discover fresh, new voices, and that obscure but essential story.

Earlier in his writing, Lowney detailed how he was introduced to a group of the launch attendees by Blair:

Blair was making up stories about me in Bosnia and then said something about covering 9-11.

“So, you went right from the war in Bosnia to 9-11?” asked one woman. The woman next to her also eagerly awaited my answer.

I just looked at them and said not exactly.

In his article, Blistein references Wikipedia, seen as a combination validation and poster child for mass editing and other cooperative efforts:

Many citizen journalism proponents believe the best method is to let users do everything — reporting, writing, and editing the stories with minimal oversight. The shining example of the self-correcting site is, the online encyclopedia with 818,000 “wiki” Web page entries written and rewritten entirely by a volunteer user community. Users argue over facts and opinions within forums, and the site generally avoids “edit wars” over the content of pages.

As evidenced in my previous post, ‘edit wars’ are only a click away at any moment. In fact, we have discovered, over time and in sad, tedious detail, the subjects where an edit war is most likely going to take place are the most vulnerable subjects, and the ones where we need an assured neutrality the most.

In response to today’s Wikipedia happenings, Dave Winer made what I felt was one of the best statements about the entire event. As you read it, though, consider replacing Wikipedia with Wikipedia and citizen journalism:

the bigger problem is that Wikipedia is so often considered authoritative. That must stop now, surely. Every fact in there must be considered partisan, written by someone with a confict of interest. Further, we need to determine what authority means in the age of Internet scholarship. And we need to take a step back and ask if we really want the participants in history to write and rewrite the history. Isn’t there a place in this century for historians, non-participants who observe and report on the events

No worries, Dave. I’m sure Malkin’s available.

*As Karl reminded me in comments, the launch of Open Source Media was not without its own contention about the group’s ‘authority’ in regards its name. See Philly FutureBuzzmachine., the original Open Source Media holders–yet another citizen journalism effort. (Do take note of the 3.5 million venture capital dollars necessary to run this not-for-profit media enterprise.)

In the end, the organization changed its name back to Pajamas Media. Whew, democracy was saved for all. After this experience, perhaps they would be good candidates to clean up the Wikipedia entry regarding podcasting’s history. They’ve had a lot of recent experience changing text.

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