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PR Face2Face: Dan Gillmor, Founder, Grassroots Media Inc.

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PR Face2Face is a special series of interviews with the top public relations and publicity professionals in the country, as well as with people involved in the public relations world. The ninth installment is Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media Inc.

Dan Gillmor
Dan Gillmor

Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media Inc., is working on a project to encourage and enable more citizen-based media. This weblog is devoted to the discussion of the issues facing grassroots journalism as it grows into an important force in society.

Dan is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, a 2004 book that is widely credited as the first comprehensive look at way the collision of technology and journalism is transforming the media landscape.

From 1994-2004, Dan was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, and wrote a weblog for SiliconValley.com. He joined the Mercury News after six years with the Detroit Free Press. Before that, he was with the Kansas City Times and several newspapers in Vermont.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Vermont, Dan received a Herbert Davenport fellowship in 1982 for economics and business reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. During the 1986-87 academic year he was a journalism fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he studied history, political theory and economics. He has won or shared in several regional and national journalism awards.

Before becoming a journalist he played music professionally for seven years.

Your book “We The Media” is really the first time that the mainstream media first heard about RSS feeds, the power of blogging and blog publishers and the potential of interactive media. Are there any good anecdotes of media you respect who have to come to you with questions or clarifications?

I don’t mean to sound snarky, but the book seemed to be mostly ignored by mainstream media. There were some individuals who already understood some of what I wrote in the book, and I talked to them at length, but I really can’t say that today’s mass media – until very, very recently – even begun to get this stuff.

Some of the people I know who do want to get it have been working at it in their own ways. (The Greensboro, N.C., News & Record is planning big things, for example.) Blogging and citizen journalism has not been perceived to fit the business model or journalism model. But that is finally changing.

Anecdotally, I have had conversations with people, when speaking at events, who are very interested in how this may proceed. In a few cases, I have spent time with news organizations to further explain it.

But, not in the sense that you are speaking of.

You were noted as one of the top Silicon Valley journalists, and you gave it all up for your new venture. What was the push for “We the Media” and your blog? Do you think your influence has grown with the blogs?

I don’t know about influence, and that’s not really something I can possibly answer; other people would have to answer that question.

It will be obvious soon that I did not give up my technology journalism. In fact, I continue to write on technology in the current blog. The “etc.” at the end of the name has covered a whole host of things, including technology commentary and other things that interest me.

Starting in early April, I started a twice a month column for the Financial Times, about the technology scene in a larger sense. I haven’t stepped completely out of it, but I actually have great expectations for technology.

I haven’t put this to the test, but I am sure that there is a large number of people at big corporations who would not return my phone calls now.

No journalists should ever, ever forget that the platform is a huge part of their ability to get a phone call returned. It’s a mistake to equate one’s own abilities with the organization one represents.

I recently sent an email to a PR person at a significant company in the tech industry, asking for an advance look at a product. I never got a response. I doubt that I would have failed to get a response — even if the answer was “No” — if I was working at the Merc.

But, at the same time, I have found that some people are more likely to talk to me than they were in the past. It goes both ways.

As for blogging for journalists, people should blog because they like to or want to. Not because they feel they have to.

You are a big proponent for citizen journalism, for grassroots journalism. How do you see it changing mainstream journalism?

My hope is that grassroots journalism becomes a part of a thriving, diverse eco-system, where we keep mass media doing what it does best, and where it gives people who want to “consume” news – but in a more interactive nature -more choices.

The chief way I hope it changes mass media is to move the whole of media to more of a conversation, and less of a lecture. That would be an incredible and wonderful outcome.

That can take a lot of forms, though. I just want to note that this is a broad statement: journalism can exist in many different forms, from listening to readers, to bringing the audience into the process as participants, to helping the community find more sources of information.

It’s all wrapped into conversational medium, and not lectures.

I like to think of myself as a Z-lister – but I have written pieces, such as my one on libel, and sent it out to various A-list bloggers and was either ignored or was sent back relatively snarky responses. How is the blogosphere going to move away from an insular, A-list nature, or become more inclusive than it is right now?

I guess I just disagree with the fundamental notion. Yes, a lot of people point to each other, that is true. But, I point at a lot of stuff that does not fall into the A-list.

So does Jeff Jarvis. A lot of people do point to a lot of stuff that might not be considered A-list blogs. The way that people do this is the constant necessity of looking beyond one’s comfort zone.My sense is that people are getting pretty good about it. Perhaps you would have a different response if you sent your libel post around today, as the blogosphere has changed quite a bit in just the past few months.

I do know that I do look for sources outside the mainstream, A-list blogs.

If I got your post and didn’t know who you were – or didn’t have a sense of pointing to a source with some experience as credible – it’s possible that I would have been reluctant to point to it. Or, I’d have to read it very carefully to think if it’s something to point out.

It’s not a self-reinforcing A-list, but building credibility over time.

The talk of grassroots journalism is that there seems to be no voice for the silent majority, that the silent majority needs a voice. As more people get news and opinions from blogs, will we see a centrist view emerge, or more left and right divisiveness?

If there’s nothing for the silent majority, it’s not the responsibility of the bloggers who are out at the edges of politics. That’s the responsibility of the reader. If there’s an audience for something, in a world like the one we have, the audience will find it.

I don’t think people that write blogs have any responsibility to write things that they don’t want to write about. People have to actively look for things that they want to read, and if it is not there – and they want to create such a blog – then the centrists should create their own news sources.

Bloggers do have responsibilities, I believe: such as being fair. But that’s not to say they have to write anything they do not want to, or that they have to write on certain subjects.

If you don’t like what you see / read, do your own site or Blog. I cannot believe that there is no easy way to find centrist thinking. It happens to be that blogs reflect the polarization of our society at large, in a political sense.

I think there is a great hunger for a middle ground on many, many issues. You will begin to see very popular Websites that cater to that, if there is a demand for it.

Your view of working with public relations people is pretty well known to those of us in technology PR – no phone calls. You also noted that you’d prefer RSS to email in your SJMN blog, and in the We the Media blog, you noted that you prefer Skype to IM or calls. Do you think PR has pushed clients enough to RSS feeds like Nooked – full disclosure: I counsel Nooked – or that journalists are able to find RSS feeds for specific beats easily?

I don’t know as I haven’t focused on that in the last few months. But, I would guess not – PR isn’t pushing the clients and agencies enough to RSS feeds.

I can reiterate my plea that PR folks focus hard – on the behalf of their clients – on putting anything that would go out to a mailing list of larger than 2 people onto an RSS feed, and making sure that the people who would want to see the information, do see it.

The big issue is helping those journalists find RSS. In a way, email is broken, and people don’t have time to go through the avalanche of email that comes their way. And, it actually wastes people’s time when it’s not relevant to what they focus on.

Having a repository of RSS feeds [like Nooked is working on] is a good idea. The key thing is to slice and dice the information, to customize the feeds on exactly what journalists want to get. I don’t believe that the traditional function of PR goes away completely, but this gives smart PR people a way to be much more efficient and focus their personal attention on people who want that personal attention, instead of making all those cold calls to people who would rather not get those phone calls.

How has your relationship with PR people changed since you started blogging? I notice PR blog trackbacks and PR blogger comments on your blog, vying for attention. Does this lead to relationships?

I haven’t noticed them commenting and vying for attention – maybe I’m missing something, though. Maybe they’re missing something.

I did ask folks – early on in the blog – that if they are going to comment as PR people, they identify themselves and be transparent.

But, the comment also has to be on point.

It is fine for me if people want to comment on my posts, if a PR person coming to my blog and commenting about a company they represent (it would naturally be better if it’s the company itself commented). The comment could be like: here’s more information, you got this wrong, thanks for the mention. As a rule for PR people, I wouldn’t do it too much, but be transparent about it.

But, the purpose of comments is to amplify and extend a discussion, not to make PR points.

As for PR trackbacks, those are fine and they are great.

It’s great that PR people write blogs, and comment on what they see by journalists. Why shouldn’t they? It makes perfect sense to me.

What is the business model that sets you apart from other blogs and blog publishers? As noted in the BusinessWeek article, you are looking for more funding – where are you looking?

Major funding is not my top priority right now, but I am aiming at something that will be useful and raise more capital.

I’m not trying to be coy with people, but there is no magic model for this. There are a lot of different business models that will work, and I am working on several levels – including a soon-to-launch project that will incorporate a lot of different things, partly to experiment with it. Over time, we will all learn what works.

I will not copy any one else’s business model. But, like everyone else, I will adapt the things that work for my own ventures.

Your blog covers a wide variety of topics – from technology to real estate to blogging. Beyond “We the Media,” what is the focus of the blog? Life in Silicon Valley?

That’s the reason why I added the “etc.” at the end of the blog title – I have a wide set of interests, and while I do love the grassroots journalism stuff, there are lots of areas that interest me. Jeff Jarvis focuses on a lot of different things, too, and I don’t think it hurts him.

If it bothers people that I write about politics, sorry. But I’m not going to stop. It’s who I am.

What do you read out there that strikes your fancy, and you think – wow, they are dead-on? Not just blogs, but all of journalism.

No one is dead on every time.

We get five newspapers everyday at the house and a zillion magazines. I am a news junkie, what can I say?

We read the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal every morning.

I read lots of stuff online.

I read political blogs because I care about our society and in many ways in the negative direction it is moving. I read technology and business blogs, economic blogs, I read Boing Boing every day, which is where I go for serendipity. I read all my blogs in an aggregator because it’s easier.

I’m not in the Scoble 1000 blogs a day category, but I do read a lot of blogs. I should publish my OPML file, to let people see it.

Any final words?

Just that I would encourage people to understand that this is all still fairly new, and people are starting to get it in a significant way in the news business and in the PR business.

It’s going to take a lot of trial and error to get it right, but the best thing for people in traditional industries is to not try to control it – or to “harness” the power of citizen media. In the physical world, to harness means, for example, to throw a bridle over a horse’s head and fight with the horse to where it’s going to go. That’s not what I want to do, nor what anyone else should be trying to do. It’s about working with, and paying attention, to the blogs and grassroots.

It’s a conversation.

We all need to learn to listen. Listening is not the most visible attribute of the traditional media or the PR industry.

This is getting interesting, and fun.

Jeremy Pepper is the CEO and founder of POP! Public Relations, a public relations firm based in Arizona, USA.

He authors the popular Musings from POP! Public Relations blog which offers Jeremy’s opinions and views – on public relations, publicity and other things.

PR Face2Face: Dan Gillmor, Founder, Grassroots Media Inc.
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