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October 2, 2006

The Emergence of Citizens' Media

A couple of weeks ago, we had a really interesting panel related to convergence and its effects particularly on the journalism industry. The panel was entitlted The Emergence of Citizens' Media, the first of a three-part series in the MIT Communication Forum's Will Newspapers Survive? series.

Dan Gillmor, the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, was joined by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam and Wisconsin State Journal editor Ellen Foley, for a group discussion about the fate of newspapers.

I've written about Gillmor's work before, and while I'm not one to call for the end of newspapers at all, I do agree that papers have to shift their purpose and their focus when new media forms come along. In this case, as Gillmor emphasizes, citizen journalism does not seek to replace professional journalism but rather to augment it, as is the case with situations I've written about here in the past such as the James Frey incident back in January or the shrinking distance from producer to consumer.

Foley's perspective most fascinated me, however. Several students took contention with her claims that newspapers do indeed "get it," and felt that she was suggesting her paper was already doing all it could to adapt to new media. The problem seemed to be that many of these additions to the newsroom seemed superficial more than organic, possibly out of a misunderstanding of what convergence really means, the form rather than the content. And that's not to say that Foley's paper hasn't done some really innovative things as well, as you can see here.

Dan Gillmor says that not every journalist should blog. And so it is with convergence in journalism as well. As I've written about before, part of the problem is that convergence in journalism is defined much too narrowly. Another is the struggle of an industry already built one way to adapt to thinking in another. We had a lot of discussion about the setup of the newspaper industry right now, most being a news monopoly with very large profits. Newspapers may survive, but they may not be able to survive in the same way and with the same profits.

I still contend that it is much more valuable to think of a transmedia approach to journalism, since that term doesn't carry nearly as much baggage. What does that mean? It may mean blogging or a video camera in the newsroom, or it may not. It simply means telling the story to the best of a particular medium's ability and forming partnerships with other media outlets or hiring people within a newspaper to provide the means to do a transmedia approach...but it doesn't simply mean cross-platforming everything, or giving everyone a blog, or any other superficial attempt at "convergence." Basically, if it doesn't add to the story, it's a waste of time, aside from some initial gee-whiz factor that wears off very quickly.

Foley also said during the forum that the newspaper couldn't digitize its content and disposed of electronic versions of all their stories every day because they didn't have room to store the pages, instead creating microfishe, which caused an outcry from MIT students about how cheap storage space is, considering how little space text takes up.

Foley and Gillmor joined several students for a luncheon the next day before leaving the Cambridge area, and I've had the priviledge of an e-mail exchange with Foley for a while. I think it's safe to say that we still don't see eye-to-eye, but I am glad that she is thinking about these issues and was glad that she came to MIT to share her perspective and also to hear what the people here had to say.

Nevertheless, there was certainly a disconnect between Foley and the people here, a lack of communication that I think exists throughout the journalism industry, in a period of great flux. How do you adapt new technologies in organic and meaningful ways? How do you keep reader interest and profit flowing into the newspaper? These are questions that journalists like Foley are trying to answer while also getting out a new paper everyday and trying to turn a profit for stockholders.

The answer is going to have to come in the reconceptualization of the business model, a shift in traditional advertising focus, and innovative new ways to make the newspaper's brand house a community forum in one way or another.

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