Citizen journalism and the long tail

Bob Benz returned from the Media Center’s Technology, Business and Policy for Senior Executives conference and has posted a few thoughts, with the most interesting being his reactions to Dan Gillmor (skeptical, but appreciative) and Chris Anderson (intrigued).

I take note of Bob’s comment that blogs and citizen journalism are not necessarily as disruptive of big media as Gillmor may think. For Gillmor’s meme of “journalism as a conversation” to take place, MSM must survive. You just are not going to get a enough citizen journalists willing to do the hard work of sitting through boring city council meetings and pouring of land use records and building permit applications to replace what MSM does every day.

I related our experiences trying to get football coaches and other community group leaders to update sites with information. Some do it with a religious fervor. Others (most?) get abandoned quickly and turn into cyber ghost towns rather than online communities.

The only way citizen journalism works for the betterment of society is if its a partnership with professional journalism. It supplements, expands and even competes, but it doesn’t replace. That would be impossible, but damaging if it happened.

On the long tail, as I’ve said before, I’m fascinated by this theory and what it means for journalism. I think Chris Anderson has absolutely nailed an observable fact. In fact, instead of the “the theory of the long tail,” I’m ready to start calling it the “The Law of the Long Tail.”

The corporate media have a long way to go to leverage the power of the tail and the blogosphere. Our very survival might be at stake. But I think we also need to make sure we don’t lose sight of our role as filter and information provider. No one wants to drink from a firehose. Newspapers can and should be doing what they’ve always done best — help people get at what they really need/want in this flow of grassroots information that’s surging across the Internet. We just need to make sure we’re not looking solely to traditional sources of news and information while we’re applying the filters and generating our content. In fact, Anderson says a critical component of the long tail is and will be recommendations. People will act on recommendations from blogs, their friends and peers and, if we do our jobs, the media.

Billie and I were on this subject today. It’s the first time I told her about the long tail. We’ve both always been the sort of people who spend more time in the thin part of the tail than fat of the beast itself, so she immediately got it, but with some regret. She’s worried about the fragmenting of society. We have been losing common touch stones of experience for decades, and that process is accelerating now. My response is that in our new society, we all belong to multiple tribes, and we’ll rely on those tribes for a sense of belonging, for community, for knowledge and recommendations and confirmations. I don’t think that’s all bad. So long as the unifying themes or respect and tolerance prevail, we should be able to survive as a civil society just fine.

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