Journalism has been a lecture in recent decades. It's becoming a conversation. And media companies, like other enterprises, have begun to understand that conversational media-blogs, podcasts, Wikis, Web mashups and the like-are a key to their future.
It's heartening to see traditional media organizations adopt staff blogs and realize they need to be rethinking their fundamental assumptions about the roles of the journalist and audience. When I started a newspaper blog in 1999, I was just about alone in doing it. Now, there are blogs written by staffers at hundreds of papers, magazines and broadcast news operations. And it's amazing to watch as formerly print-only media create audio and video, as broadcasters move into print online.
But it's one thing to use these media tools for traditional purposes. It's another thing to use them to work in ways that fully embrace their potential.
The potential is in the conversation with our former audiences. I say former deliberately, because the people who once merely consumed the news now have a vast number of new choices. Using the plethora of online news sources, they can assemble a deeper and broader report than they can get from any one outlet, and do it in a convenient way via their browsers and software content aggregators. Using digital media-creation tools that are increasingly powerful, cheap and easy to use, they can create their own media and ensure accessibility by others. They can, and will, join the conversation in many different ways.
(These changes apply as well to newsmakers, the people and institutions journalists cover; something new is happening to them, and they have better ways of telling their own stories to a variety of constituents.)
Certainly this all presents some challenges to the traditional media. For one thing, they may find bloggers and other creators doing excellent work-typically covering some niche topic with real depth-that actually competes for readers. The business challenges, moreover, are enormous. As advertising goes more and more online, traditional organizations are facing competitors that are only interested in capturing revenues and consider journalism a money-wasting distraction.
But news people at all organizations need to recognize one key thing about the audience. I learned it early when I moved to Silicon Valley to write about technology, and it's become my personal mantra: My readers know more than I do.
This is true for all journalists. People who care about a subject must collectively know more than a lone journalist. This is an opportunity, not a problem.
Staff blogs are a fine place to start the conversation that leads both to better journalism and a better-informed audience. If you allow comments, and you should (with appropriate moderation and policing), the readers who post comments will tell you things you didn't know.
Go deeper. Invite readers into stories ahead of time. When I wrote "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People," I posted the outline on the Web as I was reporting, well before I started writing. Then I posted chapter drafts. In both cases, I asked the audience to let me know what might be missing or wrong, and to suggest different approaches to the material. They responded, and helped me write a better book.
I'm not suggesting that journalists tell readers about genuine scoops ahead of time. It's a competitive business, and we need to keep it that way. But for most stories, depth, context, accuracy and nuance are the best selling points. In a world where links are a bankable currency, I'd argue that doing the best job is a healthier long-term strategy than offering little "scooplets" and not much else.
The hyperlink is the Web's elemental unit and is key to enhancing the conversational value of the medium. Journalists of the future will be as much guides as oracles, pointing to the best material they can find on the topic at hand-and this means pointing outside our own sites. The more you point at what you didn't do, if it's the best work you can find, the more your audience will trust and collaborate with you.
Dan Gillmor is director of the Center for Citizen Media and author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (published by O'Reilly Media). He can be reached at email@example.com.