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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Crossposted from Dan Kennedy's blog, MediaNation.
Photo (cc) by Joi Ito and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.