In March 2002, at the annual PC Forum conference in suburban Phoenix, a telecommunications chief executive found himself on the receiving end of acerbic commentary from a pair of weblog writers who found his on-stage comments wanting. Joe Nacchio, then the head of Qwest Communications, was complaining about the travails of running his monopoly. Doc Searls, a magazine writer, and I were posting on our blogs via the wireless conference network. A lawyer and software developer named Buzz Bruggeman, "watching" the proceedings from his office in Florida, e-mailed both of us a note pointing to a Web page showing Nacchio’s enormous cash-in of Qwest stock while the share price was heading downhill. We noted this in our blogs, and offered virtual tips of the hat to Bruggeman. Many in the audience were online, and some were amusing themselves reading our comments. The mood toward Nacchio chilled.
Were we somehow responsible for turning the audience against Nacchio? Perhaps the blogging played a small role, though I'm fairly sure he was more than capable of annoying the crowd all by himself. But the incident was a wakeup call. It reflected the power of blogs, a form of participatory journalism that has exploded into popularity in recent years. And it showed how these techniques are irrevocably changing the nature of journalism, because they’re giving enormous new power to what had been a mostly passive audience in the past.
I've been lucky enough to be an early participant in participatory journalism, having been urged almost four years ago by one of the weblog software pioneers to start my own blog. Writing about technology in Silicon Valley, I used the blog to generate even more feedback from my audience.
That audience, never shy to let me know when I get something wrong, made me realize something: My readers know more than I do. This has become almost a mantra in my work. It is by definition the reality for every journalist, no matter what his or her beat. And it’s a great opportunity, not a threat, because when we ask our readers for their help and knowledge, they are willing to share it — and we can all benefit. If modern American journalism has been a lecture, it's evolving into something that incorporates a conversation and seminar.
This is all about decentralization. Traditionally centralized news-gathering and distribution is being augmented (and some cases will be replaced) by what's happening at the edges of increasingly ubiquitous networks. People are combining powerful technological tools and innovative ideas, fundamentally altering the nature of journalism in this new century. There are new possibilities for everyone in the process: journalist, newsmaker and the active "consumer" of news who isn't satisfied with today’s product — or who wants to make some news, too. One of the most exciting examples of a newsmaker's understanding of the possibilities has been the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the first serious blogger-candidate, who has embraced decentralization to the massive benefit of his nomination drive.
Participatory journalism is a healthy trend, however disruptive it may be for those whose roles are changing. Some of the journalism from the edges will make us all distinctly uncomfortable, raising new questions of trust and veracity. We'll need, collectively, to develop new standards of trust and verification; of course, the lawyers will make some of those new rules. And today's dominant media organizations — led by Hollywood — are abusing copyright laws to shut down some of the most useful technologies for this new era, while governments increasingly shield their activities from public sight and make rules that effectively decide who’s a journalist. In a worst-case scenario, participatory journalism could someday require the permission of Big Media and Big Government.
But I'm optimistic, largely because the technology will be difficult to control in the long run, and because people like to tell stories. The new audience will be fragmented beyond anything we've seen so far, but news will be more relevant than ever.
NDN and The Media Center have put together an excellent overview on a topic that is only beginning to be understood. Participatory journalism is a big piece of our information future. We’re all in for a fascinating, and turbulent, ride in the years ahead. Welcome aboard.
— Dan Gillmor
The San Jose Mercury News
Next section » Chapter 1: Introduction to participatory journalism