Takes a Reality Check: Is Citizen Journalism Economically Viable?

By November 02, 2006 is one of the Silicon Valley’s hallmark blogs…or was. Launched a little over a year ago by blogging guru Dan Gillmor, it was meant to be the citizen journalism site “of, by and for the Bay Area” but is now calling it quits. Dan Gillmor is a well-known and highly regarded journalist in the Silicon Valley and beyond, particularly for his now famous book, “We the Media” that was first published in July 2004 and with a new edition out this January. Borrowing from the “We the People…” preamble of the U.S. Constitution, the book sets out to show that the burgeoning blogosphere shifts some control over the media back to ordinary citizens. Gillmor sees blogs as the beginnings of a new, more independent, grassroots form of journalism “by and for the people.” The major phenomenon of citizen journalism struck a cord with many Americans, particularly during the last presidential elections. Seeing the success of his book, Gillmor took the plunge and quit his job as a star journalist at the Silicon Valley’s widely read San Jose Mercury News to devote himself full time to his passion: grassroots journalism. A little over a year ago, he founded the startup Grassroots Media and launched

The principle of the blog is very simple: let anyone who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and wants to publish articles on what is happening in the region be a contributor, especially people who want to write about new technologies, which still drive the local economy. The site, moderated by Gillmor himself to avoid any abuses, became an instant success—one of the most visited sites in a region already hooked on Craigslist, Google, and a whole panoply of sites dedicated to high-tech news.

But a year later, Gilmore acknowledges that he has not been able to rally enough “citizen journalists.” In a posting on January 24, he announced that he would be ending the experiment. The first reason he gives is economic: the business model wasn’t viable. He couldn’t make a living from the site as its publisher, and citizen journalists certainly couldn’t depend on it for a livelihood.

Gillmor raises another important issue: the technology is becoming increasingly open and easy to use, but such a movement takes more than technology. It takes community. And a sufficient community of active contributors and potential readers doesn’t currently exist. It’s building, but far from mature. Consider how many people read blogs for reliable daily news compared to the number who still turn to major media sites published by news professionals.

Last but not least, Gillmor acknowledges is that while he may be a prize-winning journalist, he was out of his element as an entrepreneur.

This story, however, is not just about Bayosphere going by the wayside; it’s about blogs finding a viable business model as media. In the Silicon Valley, everyone sees blogs as being at the core of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. If so, there has to be a viable business model. To the many people who say that model will revolve around advertising (like good old print media), Gillmor responds with a biting “perhaps, but it’s going to take a bit of time…and a lot of creativity….”

Blogging, and the huge potential it represents, are at stake. As for Web 2.0, an increasing number of us think it could bring back the days leading up to the dot-com bubble—what is called a “peak of inflated expectations” in Gartner’s famous “hype cycle.”

Whatever the failed experiment of may mean, and whatever the lessons to be learned from it, we wish all the best to Dan Gillmor, a great journalist and real trailblazer. By transforming his company into an association, he is showing his determination to pursue a path that still holds great promise for the future. Adieu to, which is looking for a potential buyer, and long live the "center for citizen media".

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