Saturday, February 12, 2005

Live from Triangle BlogCon

Too timid to live-blog the first part of the conference, I'm sallying forth now with the arrival of Dan Gillmor.

Picking up on a previous question on comments and stats: Ed Cone asks Matt Gross about what percentage of readers read comments, follow links, etc. Matt: as rule of thumb, about 5 percent of your readers would open a comment thread and of that only a small percentage would post. George Entenman talks about how a site is designed. On and slashdot, if you read the post you read the comments.

Dan Gillmor: You also get the comments if you are following a permalink. So it's a design issue. Comments are more than binary in the sense of on or off: also "crappy and not." One serious question about comments is the existence of trolls: people whose goal in life seems to disrupt or just to be mean. He hopes we can get better technology for the permanent exclusion of trolls.

Dan wants to know how to make the system better regarding comments. The Dean campaign did this: "Every time you see a troll, send money." Matt Gross points out that that idea came up from the readership: it wouldn't have worked if the Deaniacs had pushed it from the top.

Dan: as to communities of both geography and interest, one thing that the community needs is information about what's going on--news. Newspapers, in physical communities, have played the important role. He doesn't want to get into whether newspapers are going to survive. There is some unraveling going on, no doubt, says he. But whether it will completely come apart is a mater of debate.

Meanwhile we have an opportunity to rethink the news process, Dan says. Something is going on that is going to be very important: changing the way people get news, and letting people tell each other where to get the news. Dan wants to know what people think about how to foster a community and do good journalism. He wants to bring the best of traditional journalism into combination with the energy of networks, because the combination of them could be powerful.

Dan asks Ed about the News & Record. Ed: The N&R has really opened itself up to blogging; they committed themselves to making their web site into a public square, and they've done that in public, even publishing the internal memo about it. They'll tell you about the discussions behind an editorial, as another example. They do take content from local blogs and publish them. So they are using blogs as reporters and feelers out into the community. Ed wants to emphasize that in Greensboro they are not unique. It seems to be one of a kind, but there's nothing that can't be done in any community and your newspaper if you're willing to try it. The web is very democratic, and you can all use it. These are "journalists playing with a new journalism toy." They aren't worried about making money on it at this moment.

Bob Young: there's no such thing as a coincidence. You think of Landmark, which owns the N&O, as a stodgy old paper. But Frank Batten Jr. (the publisher) was the original investor in Red Hat in 1997. He understands community as well as any of us in this room.

Ed: what is happening at the N&R came on from up below. They get credit for sending an editor to our conference in August. They get credit for listening. They didn't dictate (or create) anything.

Dan: The media have to get out of lecture mode and into conversation. The first thing is that you have to listen. Traditional media have not been great at listening.

Some discussion of the last national election, and how it "wasn't journalism's proudest moment" (Dan). Accuracy and truth is key. Dan asks the audience what role it thinks the blogging world could play here, noting that bloggers "are beating up on journalists on a regular basis."

Ruby Sinreich: Blogs don't have the audience of broadcast journalism, but it's the people who read blogs that do have influence. Journalists and politicians read, she says. Ruby thinks the bloggers' purpose is to be "media watchdog," keeping the papers real so that when they mess up, the bloggers can let them know.

Dave Winer: Will there be a time when we all get all of our news from each other? Says he looks to blogs to give for expertise that previously journalists had the exclusive access to. Dave thinks blogs can and will totally change the way we get information.

Cory Dauber: Cory's blog "is just a media critique of stories about the war in Iraq." Her readers "really don't comment. But I once asked them to email me and let me know who they are and why they read." Many did, and she now has a good sense of who they are. So now on some posts she elicits comments by speaking to her audience (by their category of expertise) and asking them for their perspective.

Dan: The media watchdog role is good, but he fears that at times it gets to a distracting level of meanness. After years of being attacked, he says he always reacts better to the "you're completely wrong and here's why" than the pure direct attacks. He worries about whether critical thinking is really being taught.

So: the discussion here has gone from observing the phenomenon of blogging as grassroots journalism, to how the newspapers will handle it (or not), to how the readers will handle it (or not). None of this is anywhere near being settled, nor are these particularly new questions. But they have to be asked and somehow it feels good to ask them to each other in person.

Back to journalism: how possible is it really for journalists to be engaged at the blogger level? About the NYTimes: Dan points out that they have to vouch for what they publish and they do a good job at that. It's a stretch for them to say, we're going to put stuff under our banner but we don't vouch for it all. Dan thinks they ought to, but it's not in their DNA and he wouldn't expect it to happen soon. Someone else: it's interesting to see CNN and Reuters doing aggregators--like blogs.

Aha! on to the issue of newspapers and their evil registration systems and expiring links! Dan: this is a fight that will be played out for a long time. Some organizations make quite a lot of money on the archives. Most newspapers would be way better off putting the archives up for free, but it's going to be a long fight.

Martin Feinstein wonders how to get more people to engaged with news and information at the level of most of this in this room.

Will R. want to talk about "open source journalism," meaning "iterative refinement" or the concept that a thousand eyes is better than a few.

Paul mentions A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge (and its slashdot review), on all of these topics. Paul also makes an analogy between the "country correspondents" of small town papers like The Gilmer Mirror and bloggers. I point out, on the other hand, how foreign this entire conversation is to small town papers, how large the gap is, and how totally unknown the future of small town journalism really is. Dan gets to the issue: the problem for mainstream journalism is the business model (and how it is unraveling).

Dan Coleman worries about "the future importance of literacy." What we're doing here has to do with a very small, well educated community, he points out.

Paul cites Ronald Burt on "structural holes and creativity." Structural holes and how they are filled are much more significant than how hierarchies are built.

Phil Meyer: One of the obvious holes is that in the information age, journalism has moved from being hunter-gatherer (the reporter says "x says this" and "y says this is not true" and so now I've told you the news) to an occupation where processing is more important than just getting it (where the journalist needs to understand the isues; good investigative reporting). [This is reminiscent of Brent Cunningham's critique, which I cited here.] The mainstream media are slow to adapt to this. The blogosphere is an organic processing system--organic because of the iterative process. We need to figure out how to harness that power.

Dan recommends the Center for Public Integrity. He suspects it may be foundations, in the future, that protect journalistic integrity.


It was a great conference. These notes are far from complete, and my lame pictures are not much better (more photos). If I missed a comment that you made, it is probably because I was listening so hard to it that I forgot to write it down. Thanks to Anton and Paul and everyone else for putting together such a successful event. Check out other live blogs, and see the list of participants on the conference page to find more reports.

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