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April 27, 2005



Be sure to have someone tape and, well, you know, vlog it, Dan.

Erik Schmidt

I wish I could go to Nashville, Dan. This sounds like some interesting stuff. You mentioned the role of draconian copyright laws creating problems. After seeing some of the student films from Duke University Law School's Center for the Public Domain, I read Kembrew McCleod's thought-provoking book, "Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity". Effectively it is extremely difficult to publicly screen footage of any of the daily life we see around us without having to get clearance from every company that owns a trademark or piece of brand identity shown in the footage. This hurts our ability to function as a democratic society. It's not that showing footage of a McDonald's or a Starbucks is illegal, it's just that if you do show such footage, you'd better be prepared to pony up the large legal fee necessary to defend yourself from browbeating corporate lawyers. So my question to the BlogNashville crowd is how do citizen journalists of all stripes stave off these corporate attacks, and stand up for their rights (which have been upheld repeatedly in several Supreme Court cases over the past few years)?

Seth Finkelstein

Dan, my basic reaction to all this is : What's so great about being able to be an unpaid stringer? What's so super-fantastic about journalism being outsourced and going from a few employees to all-freelancers all the time? Being a "citizen journalist" is just being a "freelance writer", which is not all that romantic, just poorly-paid and requiring endless submitting to gatekeepers.

For someone like you, who want to do an eBay-style start-up, go for it. For almost everyone else, whether you succeed or fail, it's going to be the same thing - beg a gatekeeper who controls access to audience, or effectively be ignored.

Jonathan Barnes

Being a low-paid stringer, or even an unpaid stringer, is about access. Many people would like to have access to the media machine, to a ready-made audience, and to those in power. Stringers have that access.
Who's going to have access to the newsmakers and who's going to be able to influence policy through news coverage? Nowadays some in the mainstream and "alternative" media think that they decide what the news is. But the citizen journalists are showing that they also make the news. They are creating their own platforms and drawing their own audiences. Where the mainstream media thwarts creativity, the new media lets it all hang out.

Seth Finkelstein

The institutional structures behind journalism are shifting.


Understood and grasped and asked-and-answered and no need to keep repeating _ad nauseum_ that pop-song.

But it's not changing all that much, from the standpoint of anyone who isn't involved in it as their job.

As a general rule, nobody "makes news" unless a gatekeeper passes that news onto a wider audience, for the simple mathematical reason that there's far more material out there than anyone can possibly read. Why should I care the slightest if the gatekeeper I have to petition has the description of "newspaper editor" vs "A-list blogger"? What does it matter to me if a few media people are playing king-of-the-hill, and fighting over who gets the top slots, and which ones will be those to whom I have to plead to open the gate?

I understand it's good to be the king. But to everybody else, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Bill Haught

Dan Gillmor at BlogNashville?

I thought Blog Nashville was a meeting mostly of right wing InstaPundiManiacs and PowerBloggerBuilders!

Why would you want to speak to a bunch of pro-Bush Republican fanatics? Selling out your core values to promote your new 'zenJournaVenture???

Dan Gillmor

Bill, let's take a look at the session leaders. They include Rebecca MacKinnon, Ed Cone, Hossein Derakhshan, Mark Glaser, JD Lasica and others -- hardly a cabal of right-wingers by any stretch of the imagination.

Mike OConnor

I'm going to push back on Seth's comments a little -- podcasting, video blogging and etc. are the latest manifestation of a long tradition of community media (community radio, public access TV, etc.)

Why do we do it? Because. it's. fun. -- Because. we. must. Because there are stories to be told that aren't ever going to get through the mainstream.

To draw an analogy, Seth is stating the view of a professional musician dismayed by the legions of amatures who don't play for money, they play for the love of the creative act.

Back to grassroots journalism -- I think it's GREAT that there are zillions of us rabble out there grubbing out stories and putting them out on podcasts and video blogs. And lots of us passing the lore on the newbies. Keeps the pros on their toes, it does. Just like the generations of community-media folks before us. You getting regularly scooped by the community-media folks? That's not THEIR problem.

In a way, only the transmission medium has changed, and with it the economics of access. Suddenly there's no barrier -- no need to raise a buncha money, no need to build a huge infrastructure, no need to gear up a big volunteer base, do PR, etc. It's like putting your shoulder down to bash down a door and finding it unlocked.

But it also means there's no flywheel inertia -- since podcasters don't need to raise a boatload of money to go on the air, they also probably don't need to be paid a lot to bet there. There's no need to build a staff to protect/sustain the broadcasting asset because the asset doesn't cost anything to build any more.

Regarding copyright -- I got me a license to podcast all of the BMI catalog. Cost me $250/year ($20/month). There's a long rant on my site for those who are interested in the ins and outs -- but to your question, I don't think the copyright holders are going to get in the way. Heck, on community radio stations, the media companies LOVED it when we gave their artists airtime. I think the same will be true in the podcast/vidcast space. That certainly seems to be the way they're viewing it right now.

Regarding the broadband duopoly (I owned an ISP for a while and know a bit about that as well) I think the first carrier that twiddles the content will walk into a buzzsaw -- because they will instantly become liable for ALL the content that traverses their pipes. All the spam, all the porn, everything. No ISP in their right mind wants to touch that one.

Issues? Of course. Who will become the arbiters of taste? What will the impact advertising be? How do we deal with the digital divide? Where's the 1st Amendment protection going to be? All the stuff you're puzzling on -- good questions all.

Fersure tape your session -- but think about podcasting it rather than vlogging. Smaller files, more intimate communications media, we'll be able to play it in the car, less work to produce. There are all KINDS of reasons why audio is better than video.



Seth -
Here's my perception, which may well be faulty - feel free to critique it.

You make this point over and over again: that the individual non-A-list blogger might as well be singing in the shower, for all the attention his/her commentary gets, and for all the effect it has.

2 responses:
First, empirically - it could be that *nobody* reads your blog, but still, your (repeated) comment has reached hundreds or thousands of people. Isn't that influence? To be able to bend the ear of the influencers themselves - isn't that a huge step forward? To see a meme that you sent out into the world weeks ago come richoceting back toward you, having passed through who knows how many minds along the way - isn't that power?

Second - I think you're looking at the "nobody visits the blog" issue upside down. Try looking at it from the reader's perspective, not the writer's. Ask yourself, how can this new culture of ours be more useful - how can we package bloggers' efforts and expertise so it's of maximal utility to the readers? - because that's where the value lies, and where we'll get the highest societal return on investment for our efforts.

For the vast majority of us bloggers, a weblog is just a vanity press and - almost always - of very little value to the general reader, relative to all the other great stuff out there.

But for the readers - what a feast.


Get a group together and start a, Seth. As long as the gatekeepers have comments sections (which even newspapers are starting to do), word _will_ get out, and increasingly readers will find what has the most value to them.

Seth Finkelstein

Mike: You have it slightly askew. I'm one of the legions of amateurs who looks at the few coins in the tip-jar and thinks "I can't afford this". Then hears rich studios executives saying "But play for the music, play because you love it, and it's the age of the citizen-musician!". And I think, well, I might love it, but I also have to eat, and it's not a whole lot of fun playing to the wind. In no way do I criticize people ranting for their own enjoyment - I've certainly done a lot of that myself :-). But, self-indulgent ranting, satisfying as that may be, isn't journalism.

Anna: The comments are "influence" like calling a talk-show is "influence". It's entirely on sufferance of the host, and is basically a small grant of power to reach a fraction of their audience. I do think about the issues of packaging blogger's expertise. And I've come to the conclusion that there *are* new businesses to be built, but they're pretty much *businesses*. If one wants to do a start-up, there's opportunities. But a huge percentage are going to fail, it's a very high-risk proposition (particularly for the copyright issues noted by people in other comments). My disappointment is that if someone isn't contending for one the very very few available "short head" slots or successful start-ups, and isn't happy to be singing in the shower, there's not much appealing (this can be recognized as a consequence of the exponential shape of the power law curve).

Mike OConnor


It's ok... If a person chooses to earn their living doing radio/podcasting/vcasting so be it -- but that doesn't mean that the people who do it for fun are necessarily the lackeys of evil execs any more than the thousands of folks who've worked at community radio stations over the years are.

To repeat -- people do it for fun, they do it to learn, they do it to participate directly in their town's political life, they do it to meet like-minded people, they do it to advance their cause, etc. etc.

There are lots of reasons to speak besides to earn a living. At the same time, a lot of people who now earn their living doing radio (especially public radio) got their start on community stations -- just as lots of people who will earn their living doing podcasting will get their start doing it for free.

Hey, if there aren't enough coins in the tip-jar, you have choices to make, that's all...

Seth Finkelstein

Mike, of course there are many things people do just for the joy and happiness of it. HOWEVER - that's a rather limited motivation which just won't get very far. That's why the whole copyright system was developed, because the joy and happiness of creative works - which people do in abundance - was somehow deemed insufficient for the public good. Note all this media revolution is *not* sold that way - As in, it's 99% vanity press, you're basically going to be talking to yourself, if you want any sort of influence via audience, for all but a tiny tiny few you'll have to go through middlemen and intermediaries. That looks a lot like old media. With the added twist of being a freelancer meaning no benefits and no job security.

Suppose I'm not looking for an eventual media job, and I'm not thrilled by shouting to the wind. I'd say that's a very reasonable set of assumptions. If there's nothing under those conditions, it seems to me there's hardly a revolution.

Mike OConnor

LOL. I think we'll have to disagree about the motivation for doing this stuff. Question; if you only want to get paid for your work, why to you keep posting to this thread? Surely you're not getting paid to do it. [hint; you, like everybody, aren't motivated ENTIRELY by money and making a living]

Regarding the small/vanity press -- you should take a look at this piece...

"Under the Radar reports that approximately 63,000 publishers with annual revenues of less than $50 million generate aggregate sales of $14.2 billion, and that a subset of that population – roughly 3,600 publishers with annual revenues of $1 million to $49.9 million – generates $11.5 billion of that amount. By comparison, the older, more visible segment of the industry measured by conventional tracking systems generates annual revenues of $23.7 billion to $28.5 billion, depending on the source of the estimate."

The whole piece can be found here;

Hmm, small presses are doing a third of all book-publishing revenue??? Maybe vanity ain't so bad...


Mike --

One disavantage to audio is the distraction it causes while driving. I get upset on occasion when reading the foolishness emanating from people who are not as wise, articulate, calm and objective as I always am, but "blog rage" usually is limited to wear and tear on my keyboard. The potential collateral damage from a podcast ("pod rage"?)is frightening to contemplate.

Mike OConnor

:-) "Pod rage"... I like it.

I was comparing audio to video. Imagine the distraction of watching Dan Gillmor's VIDEO in the car!! Hmmm... maybe there's some kind of heads-up display laser hologram gizmo that would combine with an in-car Playstation so that when Dan says something dumb we can just blast him off our windshield. Bwhahahaha! Kerblooie! Take that!!

Instant rage gratification.

Whatcha think? Venture capitalists out there? Next hot idea? :-)


This is a general comment: While sympathetic to the idea of "citizen editor," these models will be as successful as foodcoops. Lots of excitement in the start-up phase and then gradual decline.

But I'm all for online newspapers that even incorporate community blogs, provided they (1) earn real money. (2) can pay salaries like a real business. (3) Health insurance, too.

Journalism isn't a warm, fuzzy, feel-good enterprise. It's a business. And we need more discussion about how online newspapers -- and that's what this discussion is really about -- can make money and put the miserable chains out of business.

Seth Finkelstein

Mike - I didn't say I needed to get paid for every single word I write :-), especially the ones which might be construed as venting my frustration. BUT ... there's a world of difference between blowing-off in a few comments, and an extensive investigative series that might have some greater value. Those sorts of journalistic efforts aren't practically sustainable by the sole reward of having done it. I have abandoned research because I couldn't get it supported and it was too difficult to get it past gatekeepers (which was absolutely necessary if it was to be read by other than a miniscule fan audience). As KOB just noted, "Journalism isn't a warm, fuzzy, feel-good enterprise. It's a business.". There's a few data-mining or services businesses which have been built on sorting through a mass of uncompensated content (and if Dan can pull off another one of these, more power to him). But that's just not workable for everyone, or very different structurally.

Mike OConnor

Er... Dan? You want to chime in here? 'Seems t'me that there are lots of people talking about KOB and Seth's interest in for-money journalism in OTHER blogs. But THIS blog is about grass-roots journalism, and the impact of the citizen journalist, right?

At community stations there are legions of unpaid volunteer journalists who often do a fantastic job of covering local stories long before the regular media pick 'em up. Not to beat a dead horse, but those folks do it for reasons other than making money -- and my sense is that this is part of what Dan's blog is about. What motivates those folks? What impedes them? When do they make a difference?

Of COURSE there will be people looking to "monetize" the journalism of the web -- but there will also be lots who never do. Partly because of the editorial freedom you get out of not being paid. No funders/advertisers to worry about pissing off with your "irresponsible" commentary about their products or political stance. No political pressure from mainstream politicians who talk to your sponsors when you punch them in the eye.

Regarding co-ops... Out here in fly-over land, co-ops have been doing just fine for the last 60 years or so, thank you very much. They account for about 15% of the grocery revenue dollars, and a larger percentage of the high-end natural produce dollars (including restaurants). Co-op phone companies regularly trounce the larger carriers in terms of customer-service ratings and advanced technology deployments (I have 1 mBit DSL at my farm, which is 25 MILES from the nearest Central Office -- you get anything like that from a major carrier??). Co-op electric utilities, co-op cab companies, you name it, they do fine. Again, partly because people do that stuff for reasons OTHER than money in many cases.

Actually, the co-op model might provide an interesting storehouse of ideas for Dan to explore in his musings...

Seth Finkelstein

Mike, the problem is that if "citizen journalist" means in practice "unpaid stringer who is at the mercy of gatekeepers of audience", that's going to be very limited, and roughly the same as it always was (except that the writers are arguably going to be worse off economically than before the shifts). "Grassroots" has to encompass deeper considerations than: people sometimes work for free for various reasons, and don't think about it more than that.


People's motives for contributing to these new technological access points to news and opinion are really not relevant. I doubt any of us who regularly debate issues here and on other blogs do so for payment. We do it because we're interested in good public policy, see benefits to the common interest from the new access, have an axe to grind, are overly enamored with our own ideas or are just bored. I think my friend Mike's idealism about citizen contributions is solidly rooted in something other than mercenary considerations...nothing more than that.

Mike OConnor

Here's a thought... Seth, I agree with you. People shouldn't WORK for no pay...

But there are people who DO things for no pay -- sometimes they do things that other people do as their job. Some community organizers get paid -- and it's their job. Other community organizers don't.

Remember Margaret Mead's famous quote;

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Most of the folks she's talking about aren't doing those things as their job, they're doing it for an endless series of other reasons.

A lot of them (myself included) get LOTS of public recognition and have LOTS of clout in their community -- precisely because they aren't getting paid.

I disagree with you when you say that those folks are all going to be "at the mercy of the gatekeepers of audience." Lots will, and there you go, but some will break through -- not because they want to WORK at it, but because they want to DO something and they will find other like minded folks to join their effort.

I just Googled the "definition grassroots"... Do it, it'll startle you. :-)


Seth Finkelstein

Mike, to try to get the heart of the matter, my concern as if there is, or can be, anything beyond the well-known constraints and power-laws which are so stultifying. I don't see anything which, per the top, "transcends traditional reporting and editing". I see underneath it all the same old grind, with a few new faces - and in fact, many of the "new" faces are old faces with new makeup. I do see a tiny number of people who have "made it", and a lot of metaphorical selling of lottery-tickets or hot-stocks to everyone else.

It reminds me of when years ago, there was a big political push for "volunteerism". Sometimes people volunteer for various reasons. But you can't run a whole society that way. There's not enough. People have to make a living.

I've done a lot of uncompensated activism myself, and eventually I was driven to quit, because I couldn't devote the time to the unpaid hard work and then additionally to develop the relationships with gatekeepers to get the information out. I have to eat, pay rent, etc. If a prerequisite of effective participation (not singing-in-the-shower) in this grand undertaking is that someone has to have that time, and freedom from need of income, and connection to gatekeepers, well, then there's nothing for me and I'd say also a very large amount of the public.

Mike OConnor

Ah. Now we're at the heart of it.

Let me tell you about Rockin' John McDonald. John worked in the post office in Madison, WI when I started a station (WORT-FM) there. John has been an unpaid volunteer who's done a weekly 50's/60's music show on the station pretty much continuously since 1975. He passed the 1000 show mark in 1997. I don't know, maybe he's at 1400 by now. 2800 hours on the air, another 3000 hours preparing (he's a maniac).

He still worked at the post office the last time I talked to him a couple years ago. He's known to EVERYBODY in town, and loved by most. He is a complete nut-case and oracle about the music of that era, and the musicians in the Midwest who made it.

Somehow, he managed to put together a life where he makes enough money at his day job to support his radio habit. He's one of the happiest and most fulfilled guys I know. And, as far as I know, WORT's never paid him a dime.

What's wrong with that picture? He's got name-recognition. He's known to every record distributer in the country. He swims with all the rock and roll fish in the 5-state region. He has a blast doing his show. He has time to hang out and have a beer with an aging hippy Irish guy when I come through town. He raises tons of money for the station every year.

But he doesn't get paid in money. He has to work a hard boring job, and he's far from wealthy. He doesn't think of his radio as his job -- he thinks of it as his LIFE. Why does that diminish him? Why isn't that good enough?

There are thousands of folks like John out there -- there will soon be thousands more. Meanwhile, the people who do radio as their day job are sweating. Why? Because now the Rockin' Johns of the world will really be Of The World and have virtually free access to a worldwide audience.

I've been listening to his show over the web for years -- soon, lots more will be able to get his show as a podcast and anybody who poses as an expert in that kinda music better watch out. 'Cause you have be REALLY good to whip Rockin' John. Maybe some podcast person will find him and promote him to the point where he can make a living doing his thing -- that would be great. But thats. not. why. he. does. it.

I don't mean to poke you in the eye, but you have to understand -- there may be nothing for you, but there will be lots for the public. And lots for Rockin' John, if he so chooses.

Seth Finkelstein

Once again - you have a story about one person who was willing to volunteer without recompense for a long period of time. Fine. But that's not for everyone, or even most people. And once more, you touch upon something far more significant than you realize - an idea, forgive my paraphrase: "Hey, industry-workers with jobs, sweat, because the volunteers are willing to WORK FOR FREE!"

Now, maybe the volunteers are willing to work for free. But I have no doubt that someone along the supply-line is getting paid ("He raises tons of money for the station every year."). So maybe outsourcing jobs to unpaid volunteers is not the greatest thing ever to come down the pike (there's a reason many people despise strikebreaking scabs, and worry about the offshoring of jobs where labor costs are cheaper), for everyone else.

I'm sure they'll be lots and lots of opportunities for people who are willing to raise money for business-owners and not be paid themselves. But that's not a populist revolutionary transformation - if anything, it's the opposite.

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