The Commons of the Tragedy

Dan Gillmor, unplugged, in his new post-Mercury blog (you have added Dan’s new feed to your aggregator, right?), contributed this:

Tsunami and Citizen Journalism’s First Draft

I was getting ready to write a long piece about the South Asia catastrophe’s effect on citizen journalism, when the Poynter Institute’s Steve Outing called to discuss it for a piece he was writing. He quoted me at length in his piece, and captured the important points. I called the tsunami horror a turning point, because it brought the grassroots front and center in an even more powerful way than occurred on and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Read Steve’s piece here.

We used to call mainstream journalism the “first draft of history.” Now, I’d argue, much of that first draft is being written by citizen journalists. And what they’re telling us is powerful indeed.

Steve Outing’s excellent article reminds us that progress is uneven, marked by inflection points:

…the tsunamis changed the media landscape. They thrust into the limelight an army of accidental journalists. Perhaps as a result, now is the time when citizen reporters will begin to join the ranks of journalism’s working class in informing the public — not as professional equals, yet in some ways as important in the grand scheme of news.

Good-enough means of news production are now in the hands of the people. The well-heeled Phuket tourists possessed all the technical means needed to hook up a small feeding tube to the media beast. The difficult thing for the media beast to accept is that this new source of scoops is more than just a broad distribution of media tech. An amazing number of people are thoughtful, effective writers, just as skilled as the stringers whom the beast might be able to find, or field, on short notice. The distressing fact is that good-enough reporting means and skills are more broadly distributed than are Big-J journalists.

Middle Aware

Middleware is the general description for all the (mostly) invisible software workhorses that make our e-conomy and our e-culture possible, connecting data and infrastructure to our user experience of reality. Dan Gillmor’s point deserves to be embraced and extended: not only is much of the first draft of history being powerfully written by citizen journalists, so are most of the subsequent, middle, generations. This middle phase defining of history, just after the first draft, is the most interesting to me. As the old saying goes, “As the twig is bent, so the branch is inclined.”

Let’s call it recursive journalism: the amazing detail and clarity possible when the blogosphere gets on a story and combine our individually flawed viewpoints into a coherent and relevant representation. Once we put something useful on the record, the recursion cannot be ignored, no matter how the pros wish the amateurs would leave history alone. The last time we figured out how to do this, we called it the scientific revolution.

Here’s how Arianna Huffington described the vitality of recursive journalism last April:

I remember being on a panel around the time of the Lott affair organized by the Hollywood Radio and Television Society. It was filled with a number of familiar talking heads, including Larry King and Sam Donaldson. We were discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly of mainstream journalism. At one point I launched into a rant about all the stories that I felt were important but were not getting covered by the big media outlets.

My fellow panelists, on cue, leapt to the defense of their mainstream brethren, pointing out that many of the stories I mentioned had, in fact, been covered on TV or by the big daily papers.

And indeed they had. Sometimes in 90-second news packages and sometimes even on the front page of The New York Times — above the fold.

But that, until the rise of the bloggers, was that. Issue noted. Let’s all move on. Reporters for the big media outlets are obsessed with novelty, always moving all-too-quickly on to the next big score or the next hot get.

That’s when it dawned on me: The problem isn’t that the stories I care about aren’t being covered; it’s that they aren’t being covered in the obsessive way that breaks through the din of our 500-channel universe. Because those 500 channels don’t mean we get 500 times the examination and investigation of worthy news stories. It means we get the same narrow conventional-wisdom wrap-ups repeated 500 times. As in “Dean is angry.”

When bloggers decide that something matters, they chomp down hard and refuse to let go. They’re the true pit bulls of reporting. The only way to get them off a story is to cut off their heads (and even then you’ll need to pry their jaws open). They almost all work alone, but, ironically, it’s their collective effort that makes them so effective. They share their work freely, feed off one another’s work, argue with each other, and add to the story dialectically.

And because blogs are ongoing and daily, indeed sometimes hourly, bloggers will often start with a small story, or a piece of one — a contradictory quote, an unearthed document, a detail that doesn’t add up — that the big outlets would deem too minor. But it’s only minor until, well, it’s not. Big media can’t see the forest for the trees. Until it’s assembled for them by the bloggers.

It’s amazing that the physical “hard news” is 24 hours away from being fish wrap and that a gazillion little bits of magnetism are able to present and maintain for us evidence of our perceptions, seemingly permanent, our history unfolding, never to disappear from due consideration as we write the 2nd through n drafts of history.

It’s even possible that there’s life after history’s middle drafts for we citizen-scribes. Will the definitive last draft of history – perpetually updated – be our responsibility as well?
7:00:32 PM    

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