Interview: Dan Gillmor On The Changing Media Landscape

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. He was a columnist for the San Jose Mercury for a number of years and is a regular contributor to Salon.com. In his soon to be new book, “Mediactive“, he writes about how people need to stop being passive consumers of media and become more engaged. Plus, in addition to inherited principles of journalistic ethics, we need to take a deeper look at new ideas such as transparency. The book also looks at how our society will be transformed by the new social customs that are forming.

Dan will be a keynote speaker at BlogTalk 2010 in Galway, Ireland.

We began our interview by discussing the state of flux in the mainstream media (MSM) and how it is coping with the changes brought about by the developments in the online technological landscape.

“My sense of the traditional press is that they are still caught up in a manufacturing model of journalism and that is a constraint all by itself. If that’s how you do your work, the whole process infects the rest of it… you’ve automatically constrained your ability to go beyond what you might otherwise do.

“Another part is a cultural or institutional arrogance about traditional journalism. This is not true of everyone. There are many and increasing numbers of people in the business who get this. And there are a few institutions, and I would cite for example The Guardian that thoroughly gets it.”

However, Dan points out that it is not a black and white issue. There are plenty of dyed-in-the-wool journalists at The Guardian who are very reluctant to adapt to new ways of doing things. Conversely, at highly conservative institutions such as the Washington Post, there are individuals who understand that change is taking place and are responding appropriately.

The context for this change in attitude is realising that the MSM can no longer be just the voice of assumed authority telling us how it is and leaving it at that.

“The traditional journalism role of deciding what’s important is still pretty valuable, but it’s absurd to say here’s everything that’s important and I am not even going to point you to further background. That’s crazy but that’s typically what they do. It reflects the culture of lecturing at people rather than recognising that this is conversation. All media is at some level social now and where that’s going to take us is really going to be fun to watch.”

Dan went on to describe an aspect of the resistance to change towards operating in the new communications environment.

“For those of us who are watching this and participating in it, it’s a combination of fun and daunting in some ways as we don’t know where it’s going to go, and we’re struggling with that in some ways. If your career is being turned upside down by forces that seem out of control then it’s less fun, but that is the reality.”

For many journalists and communicators who are seeing their whole way of life changing, and for whom it is becoming increasingly harder to prepare for what is coming over the horizon, there is hope. Dan goes on to say, “For journalism and communication it’s clear to me that the future is in a large part about entrepreneurship because… traditional business models for media [are] exploding and simultaneously we see the entry barrier drop to zero. Which means we are going to see lots of people try lots of things. What will emerge is still unclear. I am fairly confident that we are going to end up with more and better than we had in the past.”

While Dan is optimistic about the future he says there are developments which we should observe carefully.

“I think we’re starting to see more opportunities for very real-time news as opposed to the traditional news. But as we see that, I think there is also an understanding starting to emerge that the wrong response to seeing something flash by on Twitter is to automatically believe it. We’re in real trouble if we don’t slow down a little bit. We should be skeptical of just about everything.

“When you see or hear something that there’s no strong evidence for, the appropriate response is, ‘That’s interesting if it’s true.’ Not, ‘Oh, my God!’ Right now, we are still saying, ‘Oh, my God!’ We are still getting fooled by things that are false and are wildly misleading, and there are real risks to taking for granted what you see or hear without seeing evidence.”

After this admonition to keep our critical faculties in the fully switched-on mode, we discussed the purpose of his visit to Galway. I asked him why people were still making long journeys, and spending time away from home when we can access each other electronically any time we please.

“It doesn’t surprise me that people still want to get together in person. It’s just a better… virtual communications are not as good. That’s just a fact. So, putting people in a room together is still an important part of business and getting ideas more fully developed.

“I think the nature of conferences is changing actually to a more unconference-y style where people recognise that the audience is at least as interesting as the speakers. The Q&A portion of a talk is always better than the talk. I’ve been to and done several conferences where it was assumed that the main panelists were the people in the audience.”

We look forward to hearing him speak more about the rapidly changing media landscape at the end of this month.

BlogTalk is returning to Ireland on 26-27 August; check out the speaker list.

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