By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Dan Gillmor on how to make the media serve us

With the publication of his 2004 book “We the Media,” Dan Gillmor established himself as one of the most important thinkers in digital journalism. Because of that book, Gillmor, a former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, is often described as the leading advocate for citizen journalism, though he would be the first to point out it’s more complicated than that.

When I asked him if he’d like to take part in an e-mail interview about his new book, “Mediactive,” he replied that it might take him a while. Yet, within hours, I received more than 1,500 words of carefully considered prose about the state of journalism and his hope that citizens would use the digital tools at their disposal to become better-educated media consumers — as well as producers.

This is not what you would call an arm’s-length interview. I’ve considered Gillmor a professional friend since profiling him for CommonWealth Magazine in 2006. He offered me some valuable advice on my own book-in-progress on the New Haven Independent and other hyperlocal news projects. I read “Mediactive” in galleys and wrote one of the blurbs. So it would be silly for me to write a review telling you that you should all read “Mediactive.”

Although, in fact, you should all read “Mediactive.” It’s edgier and less optimistic than “We the Media,” but Gillmor has lost none of his passion for urging readers, viewers and listeners — the “former audience,” as Gillmor dubbed them in his first book — to get up off their seats and demand that the media be held accountable.

Gillmor is currently director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He’s also a columnist for Salon and a faculty associate (and former fellow) at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Our e-mail conversation follows.

Q: Why did you write “Mediactive”?

A: As you know, I’ve been a cheerleader for democratized media for a long time now. But I’ve also been a cheerleader for quality. And it’s been clearer and clearer that people are not sure how to handle the flood of information that is swamping all of us.

So a couple of years ago, I started realizing that we have a number of issues to work on to make the possibilities for democratized media into realities that would, first of all, encourage creation of media by everyone; and, second, find ways to make what we all create trustworthy and reliable. This isn’t just a supply issue. It’s a demand issue as well.

Clay Shirky, who wrote the foreword for the book, put it particularly well. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said my goal was not solely to upgrade the journalism, but very much to upgrade us, the audience.

There’s a lot involved in doing something like this. It boils down essentially to a modern version of media literacy, one that looks much more at participation than traditional media literacy programs have done while building on the great work in that field when it comes to understanding what we read and see. The bottom line is, above all, persuading passive consumers to be active users of media, both in the reading (used in the broadest sense of the word) and in the creation process.

Dan Gillmor

So how do we upgrade ourselves? I think of this as a multistep process, starting with being much more discerning and active consumers. I list a bunch of principles that, for me, are the foundation of being the kind of active consumer who can sort through the B.S. and surface the good stuff — principles that include skepticism, judgment, questioning, learning media techniques, and going outside one’s own comfort zone.

We are all becoming media creators, of course, not just consumers. For most of us that may not extend to doing actual journalism, however we define that word, but we all need to be trustworthy in our communications with others, whether simply in texts and e-mails or videos or whatever level where we wish to participate. So there are a bunch of principles for media creators, too. Most of those are what people would call journalistic principles — accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, independence — but which apply to all of us whenever we were trying to give other people information. I’ve added another principle, transparency, which has not been part of traditional media in any sense but which seems crucial for the future.

For me, being a media creator also includes having one’s own home base on the Internet — not just a Facebook page, or a blog on a hosted blogging site, or a YouTube video channel, but rather a site you own and control, where you create the reference point for who you are as opposed to the person other people think you are. There are a lot of reasons to do this, but one of the most important is to define yourself and not be subject to the whims of third-party services that can choose to use your information in ways you don’t approve of, or even delete your information altogether.

The other major part of upgrading ourselves, or at least my view of it, is to understand the macro trends and issues in our society that affect our ability to get the most out of the media we consume and create. So I thought it was important to discuss issues surrounding such things law, network neutrality, norms and customs. I also wanted to make a pitch for all of us — parents, schools, journalists, everyone — to help teach principles of media literacy to our children and to each other. Finally, I wanted to look forward a bit, and imagine some of the things we still need to get to the future I’m hoping for, and how these things might happen.

Q: Who is your intended audience?

A: I’m hoping for a fairly broad readership — or should I say usership, given both the theme and the nature of the project, which goes well beyond a print book and over time will include multiple electronic versions as well as literal upgrades of the printed product, too.

Of course, I’m hoping journalism students will be among the people who look at this, and I’ve already heard from a few journalism teachers who plan to incorporate it into their curriculum. But I think and hope it will be useful for people in a wide range of society. We all have fair amount of work to do if we want to be literate in a media-saturated age.

So I’d imagine the audience would start with people who feel overwhelmed with all the information, much of which is unreliable, that comes at us each day. It would extend to those who recognize that they are creators as well — as I said, I think that’s all of us — and could use some tips in how to do the best they can, and why that’s important.

As with my last book, I’d be thrilled if professional journalists found it useful. But at least in America, at least early on, the journalism community wasn’t especially interested.

Q: Your 2004 book, “We the Media,” is regarded as something of a landmark. What are the most important lessons you have learned since writing it? Are you more or less optimistic about the state of journalism today than you were back then?

A: Well, that was pretty optimistic book. I have to separate my feelings about the future of journalism from my somewhat negative thoughts about the current state of the craft, at least as practiced on an everyday level by traditional organizations. When they’re at their best, they’ve never been better. But the slipping resources and quality are obvious to everyone.

That said, we are seeing an enormous amount of exploration and innovation in the field. Some of it is coming from big media companies, including the Guardian and New York Times and National Public Radio. But the most interesting experiments are coming from outside, which is what you would expect in a field where the barrier to entry has been reduced to practically nothing. We haven’t seen the kind of innovation on the business side that were seeing on the journalism side, but the experiments are growing.

It isn’t just young people pushing the boundaries, contrary to the modern clichés of this culture. But they are the ones who will, in the end, reinvent the nature of media — because they will have grown up more fully immersed in the digital world and will have more tools available to them. I tell my students I’m jealous of them, because they’re entering the media ecosystem at a time when there has never been more opportunity, albeit more uncertainty as well.

Q: You have self-published “Mediactive” under a Creative Commons license, which means that anyone may freely redistribute it for non-commercial use as long as you receive full credit. What do you hope to accomplish by doing that? Wouldn’t it have been better for you if you had taken a more traditional route?

A: I won’t go through the saga, because it’s all in the epilogue. Suffice it to say that the New York publishing industry, or at least that part of it interested in what I do, is still deathly afraid of innovation. Protecting an old business model leads companies down that path.

But I’m certain that it would not have been better to take the more traditional route, for several reasons. First, our experience with “We the Media” showed the opposite. Keep in mind that American newspapers, which are the source of most book reviews, essentially ignored the book when it was first published. (This was not true of media and other countries, however, where the book got an enormous amount of attention.) What my agent, David Miller, explained to publishers this time sounded counterintuitive but was precisely true: the reason I’m still getting royalty checks from the last book is that it was free to download from the day it went into bookstores.

The main reason to publish this way — under a Creative Commons license — goes to why I did the project in the first place. Very few people write books or do projects of this kind solely to make money. It makes me happy to make money — and if this project is anything like the last one, I’ll make more income from ancillary activities, such as giving talks and consulting, than from the actual publication. But it makes me happiest to see ideas spread and to learn from people who either agree with the ideas or who disagree in ways that help me improve my work.

Q: What is the one thing you most hope readers will take away from “Mediactive”?

A: In a world with almost infinite choices, we all have amazing opportunities but also some responsibilities. We have to understand ourselves as participants in media, not just distant observers — and our participation at various levels, if we do it right, will help create an ecosystem of information we can trust. The alternatives aren’t pretty. Besides, this isn’t a chore. It’s satisfying, and often fun.

Photo (cc) by Joi Ito and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Paul Bass

    I agree with Dan about media literacy. I think that will determine whether the exciting new media landscape empowers people or numbs them. I’d love to see foundations fund extensive web-literacy courses to be taught at senior centers, public schools, community centers; and directly to teachers. Part of civics. Teaching people to ferret out good information on the internet, how to find different reliable viewpoints, and how to use web tools to be active citizens.

    Dan’s first book helped inspire me to take a career change as a journalist free from traditional corporate media.

  2. L.K. Collins

    One of the traditional problems of civics is a population that more often than not allows assumptions to get ahead of the facts. With the internet, “facts” are easy to come by for those not willing to think critically.

    While we can make individuals net-savvy, a rapidly increasing characteristic in our society, it is much more difficult to increase the ability or the willingness to be reasonably skeptical. I fear our system of education is not providing the needed tools. I fear our system of education is not instilling the interest. This is not going to be solved by “how-to” classes on the ways to navigate the net, but by a more fundamental realization that how one thinks about things is a key to understanding and passing that along. That realization has gotten lost in the shuffle.

    The media, whichever direction it takes in the future, occupies a position that can encourage the testing of “facts” and the presentation of reasonable conclusions. The media should be more than just participants in the conversations, they should be leaders in it by assuring that all facts be viewed with some degree of curiosity, be they be supportive of the journalist’s view or not. It is almost the journalist’s obligation.

  3. Donna Morris

    I agree with L.K. on all points. Critical thinking is essential to maintaining a well-functioning, just and democratic society. Media has traditionally been an authoritative voice among us, historically delivering fact and (we thought) unbiased truth. By contrast, today’s media, both old and new, frequently employs skilful wordplay and semantics to deliver its news and message. Receptive citizens lacking extensive vocabulary, interest, and skepticism are vulnerable.

  4. Thanks for posting this interview with Dan Gillmor! very interesting, I should say. I agree with him regarding responsibilities. This would be great if we really had access only to reliable information. I’m so sick of discrepancies today, especially when resorting to the Internet searching for some answers to my questions, which are so different and usually lead to total misunderstanding.

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