Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, responds to e-mails from readers about the first of his columns on how technology has revolutionised public participation in the media.
Reader: I'm a journalist who lives from his money earning by writing for newspapers, no public relation or advertising. After years of enough money (US$1000 - 1300) earnings monthly, the editors have now introduced citizen journalism, and it's about $200 monthly less money. I tried to find other editors, but they say, they need no supplementary journalists because of citizen journalists. Witry, Trier
Dan: I'm surprised to hear this, because so few professional news organisations have done anything serious with citizen journalism. (As part of a research project, I'd like to know about the ones that have.) In any event, the competition is not so much with citizens as journalists; it's with companies that are carving away at the revenue base of traditional, advertising-supported media. This will be the topic of an upcoming column, incidentally.
Reader: Open flow of information balances power by levelling the playing field between authoritarians and those repressed; be it a landlord or a country - there is no place to hide. Marie, Fairfax, Canada
Dan: I hope you are correct, but right now the evidence suggests that governments are doing everything in their power to make this an uneven transparency, at best. While governments insist on the right to know everything about us, governments increasingly are putting information about their own activities behind walls of secrecy. Perhaps an army of citizen journalists can have some impact.
Reader: While all the comments about fragmentation of the media and so on are perfectly valid, people seem to be forgetting that most blogs are just really boring. Pete N, United Kingdom
Dan: Absolutely true. But most bloggers aren't writing for a big audience. Many are writing for family and close friends for whom the blog probably isn't boring, even if it is to you and me. Given the huge number of blogs, however, if even a tiny percentage are not boring we'll end up with a large number we'll want to read.
Participation vs democratisation
Reader: Why do you equate public participation in the media with a process of democratisation? Yes, in a democracy you have a right to speak your mind, and a blog makes that easier. But for the process to be democratic your views need to be noticed and taken into account. All we have here, for example, is a long stream of people airing their views - nothing particularly democratising about that. Neil, Kent
Dan: If you mean that every voice must be heard equally, I can't agree. What's important here is the potential for everyone to have the opportunity to be heard. The more persuasive voices will be the ones that capture our attention, because others will point to them. A potentially global audience is a major change from the past.
Reader: What interests me in relation to "media democracy" is how the new interactive media might over time feed into mainstream media, particularly in terms of news and political reporting. Now wouldn't it be interesting to have a rating/voting system on political news! David O, Amersham, UK
I'm hopeful that mainstream (I prefer the word "mass" to "mainstream") media will adopt the tools of conversational media, and then bring the audience more squarely into the journalism process itself. Part of this process is listening to those who challenge what they're reading (viewing/hearing) in the mass media, which is a feedback system of some power already.
Rating and voting systems have already started to appear, albeit in fairly crude form. I'm looking forward to systems that combine popularity and reputation (of voters as well as news sources) to help us judge what's worth reading.
Something for nothing?
Reader: All this is about news organisations like the BBC and other getting free content. Why pay for it when thousands of people are willing to give it away for nothing. It is not about democracy. It is about money. If the people submitting content got paid for their labours then so be it. But the people that get funded by taxation should set best practice.
Striking images of the 7 July bombings were taken by amateurs
We have to pay the BBC for their content. By law. But they are asking for you and I to just give them content for nothing under the guise of democracy. I feel that if content is worthless then the BBC should give us the same deal as they are asking from us. We give them photos/film for nothing. They give us news/programs for nothing. Fair is fair auntie. Justin Leighton, London
Dan: I, too, have my doubts about business models that say, "You do all the work and we'll take all the credit (or money), thanks very much." Many people submitting what you call content will be happy to do so with no compensation other than a pat on the back. Others will want and deserve more.
Several new companies are hoping to become brokers or agents for the citizen journalists (especially photographers) who capture newsworthy events. Doing this in a timely way, given the nature of breaking news, is just one difficulty. I assume we'll see some creative solutions.
New and old media
Reader: There is a very good reason why newspapers have editors. It is to make the news readable and understandable - and journalists are professionals! Blogs and even wikis by definition are poor quality writing. They have their place, but won't replace existing media. Jo Edkins, Cambridge, UK
Reader: The problem with new free media is that, whilst it gives everyone who wants to participate a voice, very few of us can actually write well enough to grab people's attention time after time. I suspect that the old commercial media will survive despite new free media by using the very same new media as a recruiting ground for new journalists who have proven they can write and capture people's imagination. Ben, Bristol
Reader: I'm getting tired of Dan Gillmor endlessly harping on about how old media are dead, and the future is citizen journalism. Yes, we have blogs, but what about the 'zines, community TV/radio, bulletin boards, samizdat pamphlets etc of previous generations.
And has Gillmor bothered to look at the way old media have changed over the past years? There's very little chance of them being swept away by citizen journalism. Pedestrian Scribbler, London, United Kingdom
Dan: May I remind folks that I wrote:
"The democratisation of media creation, distribution and access does not necessarily foretell that traditional media are dinosaurs of a new variety. If we are fortunate, we'll end up with a more diverse media ecosystem in which many forms - including the traditional organizations - can thrive. It's fair to say, though, that the challenges to existing businesses will be enormous."
The business challenges are indeed enormous, but I value what mass media do well as much as anyone. We need it now more than ever. Part of the future is citizen journalism; I'd be the last person to wish for the end of traditional media.
Reader: Democratic it maybe, but the big issue is reliability. As readers we've become used to trusting at least some media outlets. This may be naive, but we generally assume that a journalist working for a genuine news outlet is trained and has conducted proper research. You can't make that assumption with net content. That said, with much of the news media becoming increasingly blatant in its editorialising, perhaps there's not that much difference. Adam Morrissey, Sydney
Dan: This is indeed a vital question. We need to learn a new kind of media literacy, or at least apply the old kind to the new media. This will work, for a time, to the advantage of traditional media as news consumers look for things they can trust or, at least, trust more than random web content.
Bridging the gulf
Reader: The gulf between the professionals and ordinary people is now glaring. The traditional media has become obsessed with speed, with pathetic exclusives, live feeds of nothing and how nasty and partisan they can be. It is now the amateurs who are asking the hard insightful questions, refusing to be brushed off with evasions, and actually maintaining the principals of journalism which the papers and others have cast aside in their quest for market share.
This sort of public involvement would not be half so widespread if the traditional media were doing the responsible, challenging, neutral and representative job we expect of them. Alex Kiss, Manchester, United Kingdom
Reader: How can I agree with Dan? He writes and gets his writing published, I write and no-one can see what I have said. Unless this gets past the moderators, but does Dan have any moderators? Not Jack No
Dan: You can get past the moderators by being your own publisher, such as by starting a blog of your own. Again, as noted, this doesn't assure that many people will read what you write, but you can find an audience if what you do has wider appeal.
Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media, a book about technology and the development of grassroots journalism. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media.
Dan is writing a series of columns for the BBC News website.
Do you agree with his views? What do you think of his answers to readers' questions?