Be a Citizen Journalist
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Bay Area is Talking
Only in the Bayosphere
From Dan: A Letter to the Bayosphere Community
Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:30am.
A little over a year ago, I left the San Jose Mercury News to pursue my passion for what we've come to call "citizen media" -- the idea that anyone with something to say could use increasingly powerful and decreasingly expensive tools to say it, potentially for a global audience.
I left what I considered one of the two or three best gigs in the entire newspaper industry. But having published We The Media -- and seeing first-hand the application of bottom-up communications in all kinds of arenas, especially journalism -- I knew it was time to devote my full energies to this emergent phenomenon.
I learned some things last year, about media, about citizens, about myself. Although citizen media, broadly defined, was taking the world by storm, the experiment with Bayosphere didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. Many fewer citizens participated, they were less interested in collaborating with one another, and the response to our initiatives was underwhelming. I would do things differently if I was starting over.
I erred, in retrospect, by taking the standard Silicon Valley route. I was trying to figure out how to make this new phenomenon pay its own way out of the gate, just as the traditional, still deep-pocketed media, super-energized entrepreneurs and legions of talented "amateurs" -- a word I use in the most positive sense here -- were starting to jump seriously into the fray.
In February, Michael Goff joined Grassroots Media as my business partner. Michael is smart, energetic and creative, and had a long track record in the media business including founding Out magazine, launching Microsoft’s Sidewalk city guides, leading MSN as general manager, and as CEO of a tech investment partnership and a wireless company. He’d just finished leading the volunteer team in Haiti for Bill Clinton's AIDS Initiative.
We talked constantly about what might work with all the changes in the media sphere, and within the company's specific mission to support citizen journalism as a viable business while providing for its investors and employees. We blocked out the options and considered, among other things:
In the end, we opted for publishing. One reason was that I was keenest on the basic journalism mission. Another was that we figured we could best leverage our strengths, including my already successful blog. We decided to put up a site that would serve effectively as a test bed, to see if it would work and, perhaps, become a model for other things of its kind.
We envisioned Bayosphere as a place where people in the San Francisco Bay Area community could learn about and discuss the regional scene, with a focus on technology, the main economic driver. My tech and policy blogging would be an anchor, hopefully attracting some readers and, crucially, some self-selected citizen journalists who'd join a wider conversation.
The evidence strongly suggested early on that this was not likely to be a viable publishing venture for some considerable period without partnerships to bring in both readers and contributors. But long discussions with potential partners -- including several whose participation would have been game-changing in a journalistic and business-model sense -- didn't pan out. (It will be an exciting day when one or more of those folks tries a citizen-driven media venture.)
Even so, Bayosphere attracted quite a bit of traffic, and some heartening effort on the part of some citizen journalists. I'm grateful to them for trying. But as is obvious to anyone who's paid attention, the site didn't take off -- in large part, no question about it, because of my own miscues and shortcomings. My friend Esther Dyson says, wisely, "Always make new mistakes." Did I ever. But I learned from them, and from what did work. Here are some of the lessons:
A more personal lesson also emerged: As an entrepreneur, let's just say I wasn't in my element. The relentless focus on a single, limited project for long periods of time, combined with the inevitable compromises inherent in for-profit decision-making, turned out not to be my best skills. For almost 25 years I'd thrived on the constant deadlines and competition of journalism. So I assumed I'd easily handle the pressures of trying to create a business from scratch while also keeping my reporting and writing skills intact and helping other people join in. In reality, I was unprepared for what proved to be an entirely different kind of pressure, and didn't handle it nearly as well as I'd expected. I allowed myself to get distracted, moreover, by matters that were not directly relevant to the project.
During the summer, Michael and I realized that it was unlikely that we would land a key distribution deal in the immediate future, and without that we weren't finding the kind of business model for Bayosphere that justified raising more money beyond the seed financing. We had business ideas that might well have been funded, but they were not first and foremost aimed at boosting the citizen-journalism field, which was and remains my overriding goal. In September, we stopped spending our investors' money, and sustained Bayosphere ourselves on a relatively bare-bones budget from our own funds, putting in our own time.
We've never lost sight of this, however: A more democratized media is crucial our common future -- grassroots ideas, energy and talent. I believe this more than ever, as do Mitch Kapor and the folks at the Omidyar Network, who provided seed funding for the project. Their work is changing the world for the better, and I admire them.
As the Bayosphere project was playing out last fall, I concluded that I could do more for the citizen journalism movement by forming a nonprofit enterprise, a "Center for Citizen Media" where I could put my skills and passion for the genre to better use -- looking at lots of disparate elements and connecting the dots. (And as a friend accurately remarked when I told him not long ago about my planned shift toward the nonprofit arena, "Well, you've always struck me a more of a dot-org kind of guy than the dot-com kind.")
As mentioned, the dots I'm connecting include Bayosphere. We are talking with several folks who are interested in bringing the site under their own wings, as part of operations whose proprietors Michael and I respect. No promises here: But if we can keep Bayosphere going in a good way we'll work hard to make that happen.
I share the disappointment of some of our citizen journalists. And I respect their skepticism; we encouraged it, after all. It's definitely no fun to have disappointed folks (starting with Michael and our investors, and myself). Still, I owe those of you who participated and visited my thanks for being part of the experiment.
The shift in how we communicate and collaborate, how we learn what's going on in our world, has barely begun. Predicting the future is for other people, but I'm optimistic that we'll collectively figure this out. So now it's back to work, with the help of old and new friends and colleagues. What could be better than that?
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