Citizen Gillmor

Dan Gillmor believed in citizen journalism enough to give up a job in newspapers to launch an online community project — which failed. But, as he explains to Julie Tomlin, he hasn’t lost his faith

A LITTLE over a year after he took the bold step of leaving the San Jose Mercury News to pursue his "passion" for the phenomenon of citizen media, Dan Gillmor posted a very frank letter on his blog outlining why his mission to encourage San Francisco citizens to report on life in the area had failed.

Acknowledging "I wasn’t in my element", as an entrepreneur, the former business and technology columnist outlined some of his conclusions as to why the journalism project that was supposed to be "by and for the Bay Area" hadn’t worked. He feels that citizen journalists need direct assistance; that the tools are too techie; and that there is a need for incentives beyond "you do the work and we’ll take the money" to get people to join in.

Gillmor also admitted he "erred" by taking the standard Silicon Valley route.

"I was trying to figure out how to make this new phenomenon pay its own way out of the gate, just as the traditional, deep-pocketed media, super-energised entrepreneurs… were starting to jump into the fray," he wrote.

But the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, a book examining the impact that the growing number of bloggers are having on the production and consumption of news, hasn’t given up on citizen journalism.

His disappointment over the Bayosphere project has not dented his conviction that the citizen media phenomenon is creating "near panic" in the traditional media. "These are really troubling times, certainly for newspapers, and I think television is starting to feel it," he says.

"Traditional media are wondering if there is something that would be good for their businesses in trying these things. I think the evidence is that traditional media are adopting the techniques of the modern media in a fairly rapid way, with lots of blogs, lots of podcasts, things like that.

"One reason the US newspapers are trying different things is, I think, that the business model is almost visibly crumbling for certain types of organisations."

Gillmor doesn’t want to discuss his failed project.

He says in an email: "I’m going to let the letter I posted speak for itself for the time being."

But he is happy to talk about the new project — the Center for Citizen Journalism , a new non-profit organisation that has a goal to "assist and enhance grassroots media, with a focus on journalism".

The centre is affiliated with the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University Law School.

Plans are still at the "organising stage", says Gillmor, but it will involve him teaching a course in Berkeley in autumn. The overall aim is to go into three main areas: research, analysis and advocacy.

"Re-inventing wheels is not my goal here," says Gillmor. "I’m very anxious to do collaborations with other people working in this area and help support what they’re doing."

The issue of ethics is "absolutely" something the centre would address, Gillmor says. "It would be essential and I do have some plans in that area, including a workshop this year on the question of trust."

The Wall Street Journal Online recently drew attention to Gillmor’s involvement as an advisor with Spanish internet start-up FON Technology SL — a position he declared when writing about the company in his blog.

Gillmor was angered by comparisons to the Bush administration’s payments to conservative columnist and radio host Armstrong Williams to promote its "No Child Left Behind" policy.

"That group made extraordinary efforts to be transparent," says Gillmor. "To be compared to Armstrong Williams is really disgusting."

While he admits his knowledge of citizen journalism in the UK is less comprehensive, Gillmor says what The Guardian is doing is "interesting" and thinks the BBC has done some "viable" projects.

But he was amazed when he saw the NUJ’s proposals for guidelines for "witness contributors".

"It looked like an effort of control rather than cooperation," he says. "Letting go of part of the operation is important, but I’m not suggesting that everything that traditional media should be wide open. Not everything belongs on a Wiki. Adding new techniques does not mean abandoning old ones."

But what the traditional media has failed to do "to any significant degree" is to "actually invite the audience in to the journalism," he says.

"That’s what I think they need to do, but that’s a much bigger step and I think it’s one that will take a lot longer."

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