UC Berkeley panel: New forms of journalism

Weblogs, community news, self-publishing and more

Following is a partial transcript of the panel on “Journalism’s New Life Forms,” held Oct. 27, 2001, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, at the second annual conference of the Online News Association. The panel was organized and moderated by J.D. Lasica. Panelists were Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, Rita Henley Jensen, editor in chief of Women’s Enews, Rusty Foster, founder of Kuro5hin, and Weblog pioneer Meg Hourihan.

Transcribed by Alex Gronke

JD Lasica: We have a distinguished group of panelists here today to discuss what we’re calling journalism’s new life forms. What I think they have in common is the propensity for interactivity; for personal, passion-based advocacy journalism; for alternative points of view that are often filtered out by the mainstream media. Yesterday we heard from ONA President Rich Jaroslovsky, who recounted an episode in the early 1990s when the major television networks were looking on CNN as this upstart bad-boy. He suggested that today’s news media look upon online news sites in much the same way — as bastard stepchildren who may or may not share the same values as traditional journalism.

I think it would be the height of irony if the online news professionals in this room look at these new kinds of untraditional journalism forms in the same way. I think you’ll find that there is a rich treasure trove of experts and points of view that the traditional news sites can take advantage of. There’s a page of resources that we put together with a long URL, so the easiest way to find it is to call up my Web site, jdlasica.com, click on the top link and you’ll come to a pretty elaborate page of pointers to articles that have been written about Weblogs and the intersection of Weblogs and journalism. In this Weblog sampler you’ll see some of the members of our panel who’ve got their sites up here as well as news Weblogs and Weblog directories and collaborative news sites. You can also find it on the UC Berkeley new media resources collection page, so as you can see this is all very incestuous.

The panel we’re going to do is different from a lot of the other panels today. We’re going to start with a short segment of exchanges between the panelists and then we’re going to open it up to questions pretty soon because the entire idea behind what we’re doing is about interactivity, so we want the audience to be part of the conversation.

Our first panelist is Rita Henley Jensen, the shy and retiring editor in chief of Women’s Enews. She has a little 90-second promo clip that we’re going to play right now to tell us what the site is all about.

Rita Henley Jensen: Hi, I’m Rita Henley Jensen, the possessor of the CD that didn’t work. I’m editor in chief of Women’s eNews.

At the large panel discussion, everyone was saying, “Where are the new voices, where are the new voices?” and for me our site is sort of the perfect demonstration of what the Internet has created in that our mission — we are a nonprofit — is only to create news, presenting new voices that you wouldn’t otherwise find on washingtonpost.com and MSNBC. And I invite you to go to our Web site and take a look.

I just thought it would be helpful since we were all talking about what happened after 9/11, and while everyone was asking me, ‘When are we doing Afghanistan stories?’ and ‘Where’s the anthrax story?’ On the morning of 9/11 we ran an excerpt of the U.N. commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson and her comments about the confluence of gender bias and racism at the special report issued as part of the international conference on racism that just ended in South Africa prior to the attacks in New York. I have not seen any discussion, not even on our own Web site, about possible connections, about the destruction of that conference on racism and the date of the attacks. Maybe it had to do with the New York primary. I don’t know, that’s where we were on 9/11.

J.D. Lasica: Our next panelist is Rusty Foster, who is the founder of Kuro5hin.org. Rusty used to live in San Francisco — he moved to a little island off the coast of Maine, so he came out all the way from Maine just for the conference.

Rusty Foster: I don’t have a voiceover promo or a soundtrack, you’re just going to have to deal with me. Has anyone ever seen Kuro5hin? [Two dozen audience members raise their hands.] Excellent. Cool. It’s unique for those of you who haven’t seen it. We’re a news and opinion site that’s written and edited democratically by all the readers. Anyone can submit a story, anyone can vote on submissions, and essentially the stories with the most votes are posted on the site. I don’t pick the stories. everybody picks the stories. I like to call it collaborative media.

In a way, all media is collaborative. We’re a different kind of collaborative. First, in the sense that a lot of people collaboratively write and help edit the site. But second, it’s collaborative in the sense that the story itself is not the final product, it’s just the starting point, because ultimately the goal of every story is to start discussion, to start a lot of other people saying what they think about it. A story isn’t considered complete when it’s posted. That’s just the beginning of the story, and then people post comments and discuss the story. And eventually, after a while, you have sort of a complete view of an issue because many people are talking about it.

To paraphrase Doc [Searls], media are conversations. I think one of the effects of the strategy of having a collaboratively edited site written and edited by anyone is that authorship and authority are called into question. The site itself isn’t a brand — it’s not, you know, CNN branding its name on something. It’s a way for people to talk to each other. If you read a story, you don’t necessarily know if it’s written by an expert or written by somebody who does research or just somebody who is interested in the topic. You have to decide for yourself and read the discussion. And you hear a lot of different voices.

The way journalism right now works in the mainstream media is an industrial process: There is a reporter who collects raw material. And think about the metaphors that we use when we talk about journalism. You collect raw material from sources, and then you package it into a product and you deliver it to eyeballs. It’s a very neat, very simple, very 19th century way of thinking about doing things, and in a lot of ways it works very well and the success of news media is evidence of that. But I think there is something missing from that model, and in my experience from Kuro5hin, it’s something that people need. They need uncertainty, they need messiness, argument and debate. And that’s not being provided by the mainstream media. The world isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem if you read a newspaper. The news media tend to distill issues into simple stories, and I don’t think that one wise man or woman, the reporter who’s gathered all the facts and presents you “The Truth,” can possibly encompass all the ways of looking at things.

JD instructed us to lob some grenades into the audience today, and here’s mine: I got some questions that I want you to think about and hopefully you can tell me if I’m wrong in a few minutes. Why is it that when I look at the mainstream news sources, all I mainly see are newspapers with pixels? Why is it, with the whole two-way channel of the Internet at your disposal, that still, all the online news industry is shipping industrially produced blocks of news? Why is it that when I look at CNN, washingtonpost.com, MSNBC, all I see are your voices? They are not bad voices, but they are a very, very small number out of the total. Why are you afraid of letting everybody else in? And I very much look forward to your responses and to your questions.

JD Lasica: Our next panelist is Meg Hourihan, the Meg behind megnut.com. Meg is a veteran blogger who’s also the cofounder of Pyra, which made the Blogger Web tool, so maybe you’ll want to tell us a bit about that.

Meg Hourihan
: Hi, my name is Meg Hourihan. I’m from San Francisco, and like JD said, I am the maintainer, writer, the sole voice behind my personal Weblog megnut.com. I’m also the cofounder of this start up, Pyra, where we created this product called Blogger. How many people here have heard of Blogger? [Four dozen hands go up.] Oh, good — most people. So I was involved with Blogger in the construction of the tool until January of this year, and then because of financial circumstances, everybody except my co-founder left the company. Now there is one person who is running the site still offering the service.

What Blogger does is it’s a tool to facilitate publication of Weblogs. And based on how many people have raised their hands for Blogger, I’m assuming everybody knows what a Weblog is. Raise your hand if you’ve heard of a Weblog. OK, for those that haven’t, Weblogs are Web pages with frequent updates, small bursts or chunks of text with new information posted at the top.

One thing that I think really makes Weblogs interesting and unique is that it’s the first format I’ve seen that’s native to the Web. So unlike a lot of the traditional things when the Web first came around, we saw a lot of the print paradigm. What Rusty was commenting on carried over to the Web — so you had essays, whole pages, all these metaphors we use in print manifesting themselves online. What a Weblog does is it works perfectly on the Web and in no other place because you can have frequent updates multiple times of day. Nothing is constrained by the length, you don’t have to fit something in 2,500 words to get it to fit in a certain location on a page. You can just keep adding new content, turning out new content, making it as long as it needs to be, and I think that this has a very liberating effect on the content that’s produced.

That’s my overview of Weblogs. I’m going to let Dan go next and then I’ll return to why I think Weblogs are journalism and how they go together

JD Lasica: The next panelist is Dan Gillmor, who is the technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and one of the veteran Webloggers, with a Weblog that he posts on the SiliconValley.com Website called eJournal.

Dan Gillmor: Thanks. Veteran means more than about a week old. I’ll just try and fill in a couple of things that seem apropos here.

One is that in the transition to whatever is coming in journalism, and I’m not sure what it is, I agree that the so-called industrial form is evolving and in my case it’s evolving because of a really simple concept — that I think applies to every traditional journalist if they just think about their beat — that my readers know more than I do. And collectively they know much more than I do. And I count on that. I think we all in journalism should start thinking about what we do in that context, and if we do that then we have to use the medium in a way that brings in their input. Our sources know more than we because they are our resources so we call them up and they call us, but we are into something that we can actually use this medium to our mutual benefit. It takes advantage of the fact that they know more than we do and that’s why occasionally I put up on my Weblog a note saying, ‘I’m working on the following topic, here’s what I think I know,’ and ask readers to tell me if I’m full of it or I’m right, and what I haven’t thought of and they tell me and then I do a better column as a result.

I also completely agree with Rusty that the conversation begins with the publication in many ways. And doesn’t end, and that the industrial form of news has been a luxury — we told you what the news was and you either bought it or you didn’t. We might print your letter to the editor and that would be the end of it. Well, that’s not true anymore, so we can again use this medium to instruct each other and to help refine what we think we know into something that is closer to the truth or at least gets more of the context involved. Traditional journalism, regular old journalists, everybody doing this should actually be using this medium for reporting and not just for creating their own stuff. I think it should be both, but I frequently go to Slashdot. How many people know Slashdot? [Most people raise their hands.] OK, it’s basically a site for people to talk about a variety of things, but technology is high on the list. If it’s something I’m interested in, I’ll read through the comments, and I’ll always come up with things I haven’t thought about, angles I haven’t thought about on the topic. Doesn’t mean I always believe it, but it’s something I can check out.

And the final point I want to make is that the need for readers to bring a much higher level of skepticism and a willingness for them to check things out for themselves becomes much more important as this medium evolves because it’s just not possible to know what is reliable until you’ve built up some reasonable level of trust in people. That you look at the — we’re going to have these hierarchies of trust. People are going to have to determine themselves the credibility of a source. It’s all healthy, it shouldn’t be a scary thing to know that your readers know more than you do. That should be pretty much a liberating concept. And I hope we move on from that premise.

JD Lasica: One last back and forth between the panelists and then we’ll open it up to the audience. Yesterday somebody at one of the sessions asked about whether or not we ought to be linking to sites that we don’t know anything about. How do you know whether these rinky dink little Weblogs, whether there’s a phantom behind them or whether there’s a real person? Aren’t there questions of reliability and credibility as they apply to some of these more non-traditional forms of journalism? Does anyone on the panel want to field that or take up anything else that has come up so far?

Rita Henley Jensen: Our viewpoint is that there has to be an editorial reason why we link, that we mention the person behind that site in the news story and we know them to be real and expert and that when someone solicits links from us we turn them down unless there is an editorial reason.

Rusty Foster: I don’t worry about it. Really, I think people should know that if you’re online, you should think for yourself. I don’t claim to be guaranteeing anything that people find at the end of a link, or anything that’s said on our site. People are saying stuff and you should discuss it with them and draw your own conclusions.

JD Lasica: Why don’t we open it up to the audience. There’s a microphone right there for anybody who has questions. Why don’t we start with this gentleman here. And please identify yourself first.

Scot Hacker, Webmaster for UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and writer for Byte.com: I’m a big fan of community publishing and blogs. I have my own blog and I run three separate community collaborative published domains. But at the same time I have to say that I agree with Walt Mossberg, that we need to be very careful in distinguishing the limits of journalism and what gets called journalism and what it means to have vetting and validation, as you were saying, and also to understand that journalism is an art form and a science and that is something that’s worthy of two or four years of study and many years in the field, and some people have dedicated their careers to becoming journalists, and then there is community publishing, and we just need to be careful and make sure our readers are aware that what we are doing is not posing as journalism.

Dan Gillmor: As the representative of the traditional media, I’m going to disagree with you. I can’t tell you what I don’t know: where the boundaries of journalism end. I’ve seen some fabulous examples of what you might call amateur journalism that I would rely on greatly. The gifted amateur in this world has got new power because of this technology and I’m all for it. I think that we have to be careful, we have to use our common sense, and if we are making a decision that is a significant decision in our lives, we have to do more work to find out if we can rely on what we’ve just seen or heard. But there have been people online who have discovered problems and answers to things that needed to be discovered long before the traditional media figured it out, so I’m really worried about trying to define journalism in some way that ultimately could lead to having to carry a card that says I’m a journalist, and who is going to decide that? I don’t want the government to decide that, so I want to be really careful on that question.

Unidentified member of audience: There is a certain guarantee that the public who reads a particular book or magazine knows the thing has been through a team of professional editors and researchers, etc. We don’t have any of that kind of credibility here.

Rusty Foster: In the early American colonies, we had … all the newspapers were essentially Weblogs — paper Weblogs. They were one guy working in his basement and printing out new editions whenever he had something to say. There is a kind of full-circle evolution going on here.

Rita Henley Jensen: I think that our problem has been that historically it’s been one guy. One guy who owned the newspaper or one guy who was the editor, and it didn’t seem that many Weblogs was a great way to get women’s voices out there. Historically, it’s been the guys who decide what journalism is and what news is and whatever we do to deconstruct that is all to the good. I haven’t heard any other discussions about racism — one little reference this morning about a distinct audience in LA and one little tiny reference about the digital divide. There hasn’t been a discussion really about breaking the barriers and getting beyond that one guy defining the news.

JD Lasica:
That’s what upsets a lot of people about the media, that they can’t get their own viewpoints across very often or very effectively. At the last session there was a discussion of the Sept. 11 attacks and there was no mention of Weblogs and a surprising absence of any mention of hundreds of other legitimate information sites on the Net. One got the impression that if you don’t go to Slate, or Salon, or Yahoo, that there is nothing else on the Internet. Well, there is. And I think Weblogs have done an excellent job of in the aftermath of the Sept. 11th attacks in terms of conveying human emotion and really gripping human stories of survivors and even first-person accounts of the attack, and they do it sometimes with a real crude honesty that doesn’t always pass muster with the major media’s good taste filter. So that, I think, is another valuable feature of small, independent sites.

Audience member Jonathan Mandel
: I ‘d like to illustrate ways I agree and ways I disagree from my own site and ask for your comment about it. I’m Jonathan Mandel. The site is called GothamGazette.com. It’s an independent nonprofit site about New York City.

We have a staff and we mostly hire professional journalists. We felt the need to open it up to our readers after 9/11 and so we could talk about 9/11. One of our readers, who is Muslim, had (inaudible) extremely useful thing that he did that was available. Another one of our readers said, “Urgent, you must not use your cell phones. Keep your cell phones off because if you turn them on the rescue workers won’t be able to communicate with one another.” You know, just a total nutcase.

So why must you call this journalism? Why can’t you just be like the newspaper, the puzzle, the letters to the editor, essays? Why is there a battle here? Journalism, the issue of credibility, is really important. Is this accurate, is this fair, is it balanced, and particularly now, when there is maybe a danger lurking in your mailbox. And on the other hand, the greater danger may be the panic from the lack of accurate information. It seems to me an odd business year, and I’m sorry I don’t have a really concrete question, but I was wondering if you could address this issue of do you think your sites are journalism? Why do you think it’s important to redefine journalism? Why don’t you call them something else?

JD Lasica: As far as whether Weblogs or other sites practice journalism or not, that’s really a red herring in my view. It’s really more of a question of whether the information is accurate, whether it’s credible, whether there is something of value to the users. Rusty, you’ve talked a little about this. Or Meg, do you want to jump in?

Rusty Foster: I kind of don’t care whether it’s journalism or not. Ultimately, it’s if you decide it is, cool — and if you decide it isn’t, fine. Whatever you want to call it I don’t really care. I agree with JD. It’s something you could spend days and months and years arguing about but ultimately I don’t think it gets us anywhere. You can look at articles and say, “That’s great journalism.” You can look at articles and say, “That’s a load of crap.” Does it matter what the process that produced it is? I don’t really think so.

Rita Henley Jensen: I think I would disagree. First of all, I know some people have the viewpoint that we are not journalists because we’re funded by an advocacy non-profit organization, and that is a way of discrediting what it is we’re covering. And some people say, “You are not a journalist, you are an advocate.” And I would place myself in my life and career as a journalist, and I’m committed to those values, and being a journalist for me is really a reflection of deeply held beliefs about the First Amendment, about the importance of ascertaining what is fact for all of us, and that is what our efforts are about, and my professional life has been about that struggle and I have a lot of respect for that.

Meg Hourihan: The one reason why I think it’s perhaps important to start looking for a better label for this, or not just calling it the Jumble or the puzzle or this other thing: It’s important for traditional mainstream journalists to recognize the value of sites like Weblogs and what they can offer. And I think if we start talking about this as journalism or a type of journalism there is perhaps a willingness to accept these new forms of online communication and collaborative discussion and incorporate that into the mainstream media. If Weblogs aren’t journalism, then is the New York Times going to start putting Weblogs on their site? And so if we’re defining what is valuable about this and how it will contribute to traditional sites, then I think that’s part of the process and why we are trying to re-label and reevaluate it.

Kevin McCain, editorial director of PC World magazine. The question that I have has to do with how you could apply these principles to very mainstream journalistic organizations like PC World. We publish a monthly magazine, we publish a Web site that does maybe 15 million page views a month. We have thought a lot about how to harness this. I mean I completely agree, Dan, with your point about the expertise of the audience. We thought a lot about how to harness that expertise. The only ways we’re doing it now is we’re letting people rate products, so we gather ratings of products from people who visit the site. And we are letting people rate vendors who sell those products. But we’d really like to get into things like letting the visitors help each other fix their computer problems and so forth. But our mission has to be helping people solve their problems. In other words, we can’t really stray far from that that — pretty much our raison d’etre. Is there a way that the kinds of principles and sites that you are talking about now, which obviously work terrifically well in alternative venues, could be applied in some form to a problem like this and put to real use for people?

Dan Gillmor: Yes, I think every publication or broadcast program could have a Weblog affiliated with it. In your case, why not have a Weblog that’s a daily consumer watch. One of the best things about PC World is the consumer watch stuff where you’re working on behalf of regular people. My God, what a great Weblog that could be — where people come back time and time again you have readers helping each other with similar or slightly different problems. So the interactivity is key and that’s just one little example I can offer. Your people who are evaluating new products, well, they should post stuff every day instead of waiting for the publication on the little items. Have a Weblog of personal technology that doesn’t fit into parts of your book. You can do a million different things — think of the medium in terms of the best use of the medium, the way the medium works best, and not worry about how it fits with the print publication, because on some level it doesn’t.

Rusty Foster(to McCain): I think a question I would ask you is, why do you care if your readers are going to support your mission or not? Why should they? Well, you know, your readers don’t have a mission — your readers are looking for information. If you were to just let them talk and not worry what they were talking about, the mission would grow out of that and maybe you’d find out that your readers have a different mission than you think they do or that you want them to. And is that a bad thing?

(Inaudible from McCain.)

Rusty Foster: I think you might be surprised — that people come there because they are interested in consumer technology and learning about it. And if you were to not really put any boundaries on what they talk about, that’s probably what they’d talk about.

Rita Henley Jensen: On our site, as you know there are people in the United States of America that feel very strongly about the issue of abortion and those people spend a lot of time on our site posting hateful — so far not extremely threatening but hateful email. And I am always asked, “Do you want to delete this?” And it’s always a hard question, it’s upsetting to me but so far I have always decided to let the hateful mail stay. But people hopefully appreciate what many women in the United States are now experiencing, and that is now a war that has not been on the front page.

Audience member Scott Rosenberg,
managing editor of Salon: My question is this. It seems to me today that there is a very healthy and effective kind of symbiotic relationship between the community sites, the Weblogs, and the professional and more established media sources. It’s typically on a Slashdot — I’m not familiar with Kuro5hin, but I think it’s similar. You have a discussion that’s set off by a link to a story on another site, and that story is a story that in most cases is by somebody who is actually paid a salary to do what we traditionally label journalism, and she or he has worked on it for a few days and then posted it and then broken that story or made that news that people on Slashdot are commenting on or that somebody with a personal Weblog is linking to and posting his or her comments to and that’s all great. I think that’s sort of what excites most professionals when they see Weblogs and see this sort back and forth that couldn’t happen before the Internet.

My question goes back to the professional publications and back to the Weblog world and the community sites: What do you do, as we’ve seen over the past year or two, now that the world of independent journalism on the Web is certainly shrinking? There are fewer sites to link to, very good sites that have folded that were breaking some of these stories. I know that Plastic, which is a community site that was started by the people who ran Feed and Suck, is a community site that is focused on broad subjects, not just technology, and I can tell they have fewer stories, they are posting fewer stories to link to at this point, so to me I am not hung up on labels of journalism professional, amateur, whatever, I do care about people having the opportunity to be paid to work for days or weeks on end to do really great research and writing and I don’t see that coming out of the community sites or the Weblogs.

Rusty Foster: MLP — mindless link propagation. The vast majority of what we post is original writing, actually. We do way more original writing and less of the MLP than Plastic or Slashdot does.

Dan Gillmor: Scott, you are absolutely right. And that’s a question — Who is going to do the actual journalism that people point to? — that has been an issue from the beginning of Slashdot. But if you notice, they are actually posting more original things than they used to. The “Ask Slashdot” stuff turns up very interesting work, so does their interview, they do a lot of interviews now that I read very faithfully. But I would also point out — remember the Kaycee Nicole hoax? The woman who was supposedly dying of leukemia that was unraveled, Webloggers who actually went out and did what I would call journalism: They went out to county courthouses to find out if this person existed and only after the Weblog community figured it out and then, and only then, did the national media pick up the story. I don’t now how much of that is going to happen but I suspect more, and I hope it’s more symbiotic than parasitic. And over time, but we have to find a balance and we have to find a way to support the traditional kinds of journalism where people spend a lot of money doing investigative journalism. It costs a lot of money. I sent my money to Salon, and I hope that other people are doing the same thing with the sites that they care about. We gotta pay for it sometimes.

Audience member George from Stanford
: I agree a hundred percent that definitions of journalism need to be enlarged and widened in ways that will quite probably unsettle the traditional journalistic establishment and news organizations. Unless it comes through the idea that we can sort of cop power from defining it all together and say, ‘Well, you know, its laissez faire.’ I’m not sure why I instinctively feel this way, but struggle at expressing myself. I think it does boil down to the fact that perhaps those who say, ‘Let’s not bother defining it, everything is fine, and let everyone else decide.’ That confidence it seems to me is premised on certain assumptions. It’s premised on fairly comfortable assumptions that we do operate in a society that has freedom of speech, and a lot of freedoms that we enjoy are in fact based on certain understandings about the value of journalism, and let’s not forget that the Supreme Court, for example, distinguished between political speech and commercial speech and I don’t think you would feel as comfortable about (inaudible) … didn’t bother to define it if you were under threat of litigation or other sorts of repression and it was put to you that they were going to apply commercial speech standards to you. At that point I am willing to bet you would struggle to point out that what you are doing is not commercial speech, it’s journalism — it’s what our founding fathers fought for — the First Amendment, etc. And you would struggle for a definition. So I am uncomfortable with the copout but I would still try and push you to define — if you were pushed, how would you try and define what you do as a public service? You may not even use the word journalism, but how would you define it in a way that you can tell your fellow man, tell society what you are doing counts, that it is worthy of full First Amendment protections, etc.? Why should anyone care about what you do if you are going to be so laissez-faire about it? I guess my question is directed mainly at Rusty because Dan did try and stake out a position.

Rusty Foster: Touché. That’s an excellent question. If I had to define it, I think I would call it conversation. I would be more comfortable calling it conversations than journalism. And I think the two overlap. You know, there is kind of an edge where the beginning of a conversation is kind of a news story. I wouldn’t call all of what we post journalism. You read the site and it’s pretty clear all of it isn’t, there is an awful lot of opinion editorializing — writing which is something that you’ll find in news media, but it’s not really journalism, at least the way I think of it. Some of it definitely is journalism, but if I had to define the whole thing I’d call it conversation, and I think conversation is covered under the First Amendment.

Rita Henley Jensen: You may want to check on that.

Rusty Foster: Yeah, I might.

JD Lasica: Is there a parallel between what you are doing and, say, talk radio, where people tune in because they like to hear the knock-down, drag-out exchanges? Except that on Kuro5hin there’s more of a multiplicity of voices and the level of conversation is much higher, because you care about quality—

Rusty Foster:
Because they care about the quality?

JD Lasica: Sorry you’re right, because the community that you have created has a culture that cares about the quality.

Rusty Foster:
In my original notes for what I was going to say, I actually used that metaphor. I think the closest that we are all familiar with is talk radio. Try to imagine if you had talk radio and 20,000 people could all call in at once and discuss with some sort of perfect version of Robert’s Rules of Order so they were never yelling over each other. That’s kind of what it’s like, mostly. I don’t know if that’s journalism or not.

Dan Gillmor:
Talk radio when it serves some common good as opposed to ranting about some topic of the day. After an earthquake here a few years ago, one of the best sources of finding out what was going on in communities was listening to the talk radio stations. They were getting phone calls from people reporting what was going on, and to me there is an element there of the Weblog. I can’t let this go on without mentioning one other source. After September 11th for about a week and a half or two weeks, I was in Africa at the time, so my sources were the BBC, the Web, and email I was getting. I’m on a mailing list that Dave Farber sends out — a guy in Philadelphia — and he was finding references and links to all kinds of coverage and information about what was going on. It was not the typical, usual suspects and I got more perspective, more nuance from Dave Farber’s mailing list in those two weeks than any other source. Some of it was just emails sent to him that he re-posted by experts in all sorts of fields. I can’t put a value on that, but it was enormous.

JD Lasica:
Time for just one more question, I think.

Audience member: I’m Jerry Asher, I’m a local independent consultant. My question is actually for Scott and the gentleman from PC World and if there is someone from Slate here. All you guys are suffering a little bit financially. You all have bulletin board systems which I find basically not interesting, low-grade conversations. What I find attractive about Weblogs is the conversations, often with the original author, with a journalist or a software developer. I’m just wondering why you haven’t let your journalists participate in your bulletin board discussion, because that is primarily why I find your bulletin board discussions mindless.

Kevin McCain of PC World: The more particular answer is that everybody who writes for us, on the staff or closely associated with the publication, to divert their time from doing the very expensive traditional journalism that is our forte and pays the bills — to have them do this kind of thing, first, I think only a subset of them would be willing to do it or do it very well, and I think those guys would basically self-select. But I think from the standpoint of the organization it would be a tough decision to make because you would lose their work on the traditional journalism.

Scott Rosenberg:
As far as Salon goes, there is no rule that says people can’t do it, and in fact they do frequently. I mean, there is a little bit of history here. Salon has two community sites: The WELL, which existed long before Salon did, which has an extremely rich tradition. I’m sorry you disagree, but I think you’ll find really great conversation, very smart people with a very high level of information, and some of the kind of community journalism that you guys are talking about was actually pioneered there on the WELL back during the days of the Time “Cyber-porn” article, which was entirely debunked by journalists on the WELL, so that is its own thing. It is what it is and we don’t mess with it. It’s great.

We also have an area on Salon called Table Talk, which we originally conceived as a place where Salon readers would go talk about our articles, and we did send the writers in there. And you know what? We discovered what Rusty is talking about, which is that they, the people in there were delighted that we set up the place. They were attracted by Salon and the kinds of subjects we covered, but they wanted to talk about what they wanted to talk about. And we gradually learned over time that we would get out of the way. So what you learn in this kind of area is that you are not in control entirely, in the way that publishers think that they should be in control, and you have to learn to be almost passive in letting the users, readers, the community do what they want to do. And so we still have writers who go in and will talk, but for the most part that isn’t what people want to do, and so we’re not going to force it on them, where you wind up with this awkward situation where you create a thread for the writer to talk about and nobody posts in it. And why waste your time with that? Writers get unhappy with it.

JD Lasica: That’s a wrap. Thanks, everyone, for participating.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT