(UPDATE: Since I posted this on Nov. 24, the two misspellings in the newspaper column discussed below have been corrected, without a hint (in the online version, anyway) that there was ever a mistake in the first place. The other inaccuracies and questionable information remain in place.)
My heart goes out, at least a little, to Tom Bohs, editorial page editor of the Jackson Sun in Tennessee. He is undoubtedly wishing he’d spent a little more time on a column he published this week.
His piece, entitled “Citizen journalist, pick your beat.” featured some standard, boilerplate stereotypes — such as people with mobile-phone cameras who contribute what they shoot to “real” media organizations like, uh, the Sun — with just the barest effort to acknowledge the enormous variety and in some cases quality of non-traditional offerings that are diversifying the media ecosystem. Overall, the column comes off as yet another semi-informed member of the old guard wishing he could turn back the clock. No big deal.
So why am I feeling some sympathy for Bohs? It’s because of his column’s final four paragraphs, which may well have earned him a spot in the Irony Hall of Fame, or at least the Media Criticism wing.
To give you a little perspective, however, the guy who folks say invented modern citizen journalism is former San Jose Mercury News journalist Dan Gilmour. He was a technology columnist for the newspaper which operates deep in the heart of Silicon Valley. He allegedly wrote the first newspaper online blog. Then he wrote a book about citizen journalism titled ‘We the Media.’ Then he got out of the news business.
I’m not sure what that means. Today, Gilmour runs an operation called the Center for Citizen Media at UC Berkely. I guess he figured with all these citizens running around doing his job, he needed to find a new line of work, teaching them to do his former job – for free.
As the news business continues to evolve at the mercy of technology, citizen journalism is going to play a major role. Here is a simple guideline to help you evaluate what you read on the blogs and forums, chats and tweets. It is a guideline old school journalists still live by: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.
I hope our new era of citizen journalists adopt the standard, as well.
Oh, my, where to begin…
- I don’t know which folks say I invented modern citizen journalism. I’m not one of them. I’ve definitely been among the many people who’ve worked to help it happen, and to make it as good as possible for everyone involved.
- My last name is spelled Gillmor, not Gilmour.
- I “allegedly wrote the first newspaper online blog”? (Copy editors: All blogs are online.) Not sure what the “allegedly” is all about, except possibly to suggest some faint unseemliness or false claim. Who’s alleged to have said it, anyway? Mine may well have been the first blog by a daily newspaper journalist, but that’s all I’ll claim.
- Aha, a true fact: I did write We the Media.
- No, I didn’t then get out of the news business. I started what turned out to be an ill-fated Bay Area news site, Bayosphere, which was definitely part of the news business. I started the Center for Citizen Media (see below for current status), one of the purposes of which was to help extend the news business. I’ve invested in and/or advised a number of enterprises — some for-profit and some not-for-profit — that have been deeply involved in the news and information sphere. I’ve been a paid speaker or consultant for several newspaper companies, and wrote occasional columns for the Financial Times (which I trust Bohs will concede is part of the real News Business) and still contribute periodically to other publications. My current position at Arizona State University is all about the news business: working with students studying journalism, business and other disciplines to help them create what we hope will be some of tomorrow’s lasting local-information enterprises. I’m more in the news business than I ever was as a columnist for a California newspaper.
- The Center for Citizen Media still exists, but is mostly dormant at this point. It was affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley (that’s Berkeley with an “e” between the “l” and “y”), as well as Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and is now affiliated with Arizona State. I haven’t been affiliated in any way with UC Berkeley for almost two years at this point, though I’m still fond of my former colleagues and students.
- At no point in my work on citizen journalism have I pitched it as a replacement for traditional journalism. From the beginning I’ve said it would be a great addition, in its myriad forms, to the ecosystem, and competitive only in some spaces. I’ve also said, again and again in talks and in public writing, that while I hoped citizens would help traditional news organizations by participating in community journalism, I was and remain flatly opposed to business models that assume citizens are offering nothing but free labor for others to monetize.
- Who’s running around doing my old job as a business and technology journalist? Lots of people, including traditional journalists and online-only creative types whose work has greatly increased the amount and in many cases the quality of tech information. Some bloggers are doing it for little or no money, for lots of reasons — they may be in the business; they may be building their brands; they may just love to cover a small niche — while other online journalists are making serious money at it, building important and well-funded new media organizations. The very last thing I figured when I co-taught a course at Berkeley was that I needed the job because citizen journalists had priced me out of the market. (When Bohs says “I guess”, that’s a point I won’t argue.)
- The news business is clearly being affected by technology. It is not at the mercy of technology. Journalists will continue to do journalism, using the evolving tools of the trade in enterprises that adapt to change, long after newspapers have faded from the scene. The only news people at the utter mercy of technology are the ones who have given up on themselves.
And now we come to Bohs’ stern advice — preceded, to be fair, by an acknowledgment that citizen journalism is here to stay — to all those who need to decide what to make of what they find online. Follow the lead of the pros, he says: Don’t trust it unless you’ve checked it out.
Bohs could have checked out everything he said about me and got so absurdly wrong, even without picking up the phone and calling. He could have used that new-fangled Google thing, where typing in “Dan Gillmor” — or even “Dan Gilmour” — returns links to dangillmor.com (the top one with the correct spelling, third on the list for the one Bohs used), where I lay out in some detail exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few years and am doing now, with links to the blogs where I’ve been saying what I actually believe about journalism and its future, not what other people may claim (or imagine) I’ve said. Even my Wikipedia entry, which has some small inaccuracies, has my current gig listed correctly.
This is why Bohs, who clearly cares about journalism, surely must have had a sinking feeling in his gut last night or this morning when he discovered his mistakes. I hope he’ll turn that into a renewed dedication to the principles in which he says he believes.