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Who are your gatekeepers?

Friday, March 30, 2001 by Dave Winer.

Good afternoon! Permalink to Good afternoon!

Lots more intense work on SOAP interop and the Busy Developer's Guide, but we're going to take a break from all that with my friend Paul Andrews, who was, until early this year, the Seattle Times technology correspondent. Now Paul is living in San Francisco with his wife Cecile and their poodle-like dog Maggie and freelancing for The New York Times.

Paul has also become a blogger, in his spare time, running a site using our Manila software. We've assembled, by accident not by plan quite an interesting group of professional journalists, including Paul, moonlighting their way to something new and we're all thinking about what that is.

I invited Paul to write a guest DaveNet piece, and here it is.

Who are your gatekeepers? Permalink to Who are your gatekeepers?

By Paul Andrews, paul@paulandrews.com.

Who decides what you read? Your natural response should be, "Why, I do -- of course." In reality what you read -- and hear, and view -- for the most part undergoes a highly engineered process of filtering, editing and packaging before it reaches your consciousness. Innumerable decisions are made along the way that affect not only what you read, but whether you get to read it at all. The process falls under the heading of "production value," and decisions about what to print are often termed "gatekeeping."

Traditionally, there have been legitimate reasons for packaging information. Because content was necessarily circumscribed by length, largely out of consideration for distribution and cost, decisions had to be made on what a physical product should contain.

The advent of the Internet, and then the Web, radically changed -- eliminated, even -- any physical need to limit content. Length and distribution requirements no longer burden publication considerations. Incremental costs associated with additional volume are minuscule.

Yet for the most part, even on the Internet, traditional production values remain in place. The most widely visited news sites -- MSNBC, Yahoo, the Wall Street Journal and so on -- still edit, package and "gatekeep" the information they provide as though they were dealing with a physical product. The articles read like print articles. The online publication mirrors the style, values and biases of its print counterpart.

Certainly reasons exist to continue the gatekeeping role. Audiences appreciate production values. Attention spans are hardly infinite. No one knows, for example, why a Grecian play written 2,500 years ago and Hollywood's latest blockbuster happen to run about the same length. But it appears to have something to do with the human's capacity to absorb information.

Gradually, things are changing. Not because of any enlightenment on the part of the gatekeepers. Instead, the reading/listening/viewing public is rewarding new approaches that resist conventional media filters. Web-influenced media based on the concept of the raw feed are subtly but radically transforming the way we conduct all information transferral. Into this rubric fall such "revolutionary" concepts as Reality TV, hot-talk radio and "live" broadcasts of things like Supreme Court hearings (voice only, but previously off limits altogether) and Florida vote recounts.

Assuming that bandwidth continues to grow while getting cheaper all the time, the role of gatekeeping seems destined to change. It seems likely that the consumer of information will increasingly have access to the real stuff. Traditional definitions of "news," of public vs. private information, of advertising, and of copyright or protected content will be put to duress.

Traditional media are already undergoing strains in the transition. Most have to do with trying to maintain the old ways while accommodating new demands. The San Francisco Chronicle just suspended three staff members over an SFGate (the Chron Web site) column riffing on a story out of Philadelphia about a teacher having sex with a 13-year-old. The explanation was that the column, despite having an imprimatur for "edginess," had stepped over the line.

Had the commentary appeared in an Internet mailing list or chat room, it would have been considered par for the course if not ho-hum. Far more incendiary issues get discussed on a daily basis. IRC and newsgroups generally lack any gatekeeping function. By the same token, they are more closely analogous to locker-room talk or private correspondence than to traditional publishing. They pose no direct competition to conventional media-audience paradigms.

The publishing capabilities of the Web, however, are blurring the production-value lines. A new style of journalism, based on a "raw feed" directly from the source, is emerging. Journalists testing the new waters are, like the Chronicle trio, bound to wreak havoc on institutionalized media. Content that the Chron as a corporation, and the Chron as a newspaper, would not sanction is bound to create tension for the Chron as a Weblog.

Should there be different standards governing content for print versus Web publication? And what about the entire notion of gatekeeping -- some "higher power" deciding what is fit for us to read and what is not? Does it disappear entirely in the new Web world of journalism?

It should be noted that the Chronicle episode is consistent with proud journalistic tradition. Since the invention of "news" -- the printed kind, at least -- journalists have been unceasingly proscribed from printing outrageous or unauthorized commentary. In England, early Puritans made such effective use of their "medium" that they had to smuggle a printing press from town to town. There is even the suggestion that their exodus from England to America was at least in part motivated by an effort to assert freedom of the press. The first newspaper in America, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, published in 1690 by Benjamin Harris, was shut down by colonial authorities for printing unsanctioned gossip about the king of France's sex life and a local suicide.

In my early days as a reporter, I used the then-still-rare honorific "Ms." to identify a woman in a story. It was at her request -- she was a Mrs. but wanted Ms. The story ran up through the editorial chain and made the first edition with nothing said back to me. The next thing I knew the city editor was at my desk, waving my copy animatedly. He asked why I had used the term, and I told him.

"We're not ready for this yet," he said. I told him I understood, even though I thought it seemed inevitable that Ms. would have to enter the newspaper lexicon.

Boy was I sticking my neck out... Similar stresses occurred when newspapers adapted to terminology involving the gay community and numerous other forms of diversity. The gatekeeping function on what was "printable" had to change, of course, for media to maintain their audience.

Now, after years of creative sclerosis in the journalistic community, we're on the verge of another sea change where the rules are radically changing. In fact, it could easily be said there are no rules. We're constructing new ones as we go along. Get any group of Bloggers going online (or even f2f when possible) and you'll find ideas exploding from all quarters -- the adrenalin of new possibilities.

But history can prove instructive in charting new waters. The evolution of paper-based journalism may hold some clues as to where Web publishing is headed.

Any new medium, it seems, tests its technological waters with purported "news." In many cases content begins as pure gossip and hearsay, facts so closely interwoven with opinion and half-truths that it is nearly impossible to distinguish truth from interpolation. The coinciding of Columbus' voyage (1492) with the advent of Western movable type (Gutenberg, 1455) raised the "local event" to global scope, but what was significant was how Columbus' content relied on the Blog of his time -- a real ship's log. An early letter by Columbus recounting his adventures was reprinted as a pamphlet and widely distributed though England and Europe -- the first "international bestseller." It was composed of personal thoughts and observations but treated as the news of the day.

A lot of early newspapers were one-person, even first-person, operations which quickly gained enough notice to attract the attention of "authorities."

Early newspapers, no matter what their content, thrived on a decidedly anti-establishment bias. Mother Jones' motto, "The purpose of a newspaper is to raise hell," and Joseph Pulitzer's admonition, "Newspapers should have no friends," reflected the rebel nature of the medium. (The exception was wartime. As far back as print news extends, it proved wholeheartedly jingoistic in times of conflict. It is remarkable, in fact, how aloof (in some cases admiring) early American coverage of Hitler was, while the U.S. figured out where it stood on the Third Reich.)

Think the Internet is not changing the nature of information? What if Anne Frank had had a Weblog instead of a diary...

Where the Weblog changes the nature of "news" is in the migration of information from the personal to the public. One to many, circumscribed by voice communications to an immediate circle, then by paper-based text to an institutionalized distribution system, becomes an integrated artifact of any Web communication. Hit the "post" button and any personal writing becomes published writing. I do not pretend to understand all the implications of this. But it seems to me that it breaks down not only the traditional barriers to entry in publishing but the more subtle and inimical barriers to information retrieval as well. Yes, there is too much information out there. And yes, it is a challenge to separate the signal from the noise.

There will always be a role for gatekeepers of our choosing, as is implied in any publisher-reader pact. I have postulated before that Weblog "swarms" will emerge -- bloggers of like minds and values who form virtual ad hoc "publications" around events and trends. But bloggers have the opportunity to conduct the process for ourselves, rather than relying on an official or sanctioned gatekeeper to define truth and beauty for us. As a thousand flowers bloom, the Web's garden of information becomes more diverse, enlightening and transformative than anything the traditional paper-based print world can provide.

Paul Andrews


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