Thursday, July 07, 2005

Us and Them

An interesting piece today by Sherrie Gossett on Media Monitor titled "Newspapers Losing Advertising and Readers." Gossett writes about the pressure that blogs and citizen journalism (particularly online writing dedicated to local politics and issues) are putting on newspapers and inevitably their ad revenue. But in passing she makes the remark that bloggers and citizen journalists are just as skeptical about "being drawn into a partnership with establishment media" as the establishment is about them. That's true enough, but the point misses and uncomplicates the basic motivation that has driven so many people to writing on the Web once the technology made it doable. No better example can be found than today's outpouring of reports, thoughts, and photographs covering today's terrible events in London.

This writing is patterned on the reportage of establishment media, but it adds the vast call of voices everywhere present today: the "there there" of the firefly e-feelings noted in Leon Sterling's thoughts on New West and responded to in part by Nick Gould's CoFactors blog yesterday. Establishment media can't possibly compete with this immense outpouring of observations, reportage, mere witness (and images, too. A New York Times article that's just gone online discusses the instant uploading of images when the terrorist attacks took place. Dan Gillmor is quoted, saying: ""A lot of what's being done by the citizen-journalist will be most useful as people start pulling together the best images and stories," he said. "There was a cliché that journalists write the first draft of history. Now I think these people are writing the first draft of history at some level, and that's an important shift.") This crucible of expression instantly goes beyond skepticism and antagonism to the ecological fact of the writing and mediacasting phenomenon that isn't going away.

In the ecology of journalism, an "us" and "them" approach to "citizen" writing and old media is, as I've just suggested, already beyond the point. Consumers turn to every source for news and commentary. The web of human response, in all its richness, is expanding explosively, and the self-limiting boundaries of the press will inevitably be forced to become moe porous. They are already. (What happens to the general reader's threshhold for accuracy is a concern too early to answer empirically.)

But as today's tragedy in London shows again, participatory content is established alongside the old establishment. Readers increasingly care less about the branding of experience than the whole expression of experience.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The participatory journalism juggernaut--or merely itch

There's a smart and sensitive piece today at New West by Leon Sterling about what he calls "e-feelings." He's talking about the urge to communicate through blogs, through e-mail, through participatory journalism (which is exactly what his post is on the New West site). And he worries: "Today, our beliefs are like fireflies – they shine for a few brief moments, but then they disappear, and no one knows where they went."

But what is crucial about the fireflying of feelings is that they do indeed add to the great inventory of anecdotal thought that can supplement static content. The brave promise of this new content source is that it does (at least) three things: first, it levels the opportunity to publish; second, it adds a multitude of voices and perspectives; third, it brings precisely this evanescence, this sense of fleeting thought and all of its freshness to readers. And a fourth thing that is inevitable: it will turn readers into writers.

Not all of that writing will be good, decent, well observed. Some it may even be dishonest. But in the broadest perspective of the tectonic shift now just beginning to alter the publishing landscape, the wave of new voices will be electrifying. There is not enough of it yet.

Leon Sterling is concerned that this content will disappear too easily unless archiving is stepped up. Yet I wonder. Certainly in the case of citizen journalism that is integrated as a content source into established online publications, this content should be archived with all the other articles--assuming that copyright is cleared before publication. And then there is the other direction for this content--forward-thinking editors will begin to find sensible and clever ways to port this content over to their print publications. The best of these evanescent thoughts will have more than evanescent lives.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Convening communities

Editors of print magazines are in the midst of having to confront the second wave of online mediacasting. The first, of course, was the initial one-way web. The two-way web, as Susan Mernit, my partner in 5ive, and I say, is about convening communities.

The question that should be confronting print editors as they move forward with their web editors is this: what inflections of an article or feature package's content extend to the two-way web in order to convene community?

This fundamental shift is not only a business driver, built on the traffic premise. It represents an imaginative shift in the editorial enterprise. The most creative and remarkable editors are beginning to see the impact of this. As they know, it not only has impact on their websites. It should and has impact on what they do with their magazines.

The trend is already becoming clear in newspapers and sites such as Backfence.com, that are looking to readers to become collaborative writers. Today's NY Times piece on the Greensboro News-Record, www.news-record.com, and the Bluffton, South Carolina newspaper site, Blufftontoday.com, are among the vanguard of understanding the way that readers can be brought into a participatory process that will enliven publications in a climate that seeks, no less than reality TV (but with far more substance), a greater role for the consumer.

That democratization is being pushed by the tools of commerce is no surprise. But we are only now beginning to understand the creative possibilities for editors. This is a different kind of long tail, but it is a long tail of incredible length.