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Collaborative Book Helps Tech Journo Walk the Walk

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'Making the News,' interactively

Every journalist who practices online -- or in print with an e-mail address next to the byline -- knows the power of audience feedback. One controversial article can bog down an inbox for a week. But what happens when you give your readers even more control, allowing them to give feedback on your work in progress, comment, and comment on the comments? Could this be a potential Tower of Babel, blog-style?

Dan Gillmor sure hopes not. The longtime technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, an early mainstream-press weblogger, has loosed the hounds of hell, so to speak, by opening his upcoming book-in-progress, "Making the News," to input from his blog's readers. It makes sense, because the book's subtitle is "What Happens to Journalism and Society When Every Reader Can Be a Writer."

Will every ToM, Dikk22, and HarrEE get his own chapter in the book? Not exactly. Gillmor says he's trying to work out the crediting scheme, but plans to quote contributors or acknowledge their help in some way. As for readers giving his ideas the thumbs up or down, Gillmor says "People don't get to vote what goes in the book. I vote, and my editor votes. I hope it's a collaboration, and that I can learn from my readers." He says readers will gain a better book and better journalism out of him for their efforts.

Watch what you wish for

Gillmor is far from the first book writer to look for reader input online, though he may be the first to cover interactive journalism in this way. He was inspired by "Cluetrain Manifesto" writer David Weinberger, who wrote his follow-up book on the Web, "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," with reader input on seemingly each draft of each chapter. On his blog, Weinberger gives Gillmor this advice: "Do not post drafts every day, especially when you know that what you just wrote is crap that you're going to un-write the next day."

Weinberger's experiment was at times harrowing, exposing his work to the critical online public. He includes a riveting history of his book's revisions, and wonders what would happen if the readers got too much power. "I worry about readers taking over my topic before I can be the one to have figured out how to work it out," he writes. "Ego? Absolutely! This is the ego required by every act of writing, at least up until now ... What's it going to feel like if readers anticipate the ideas I had or, worse, was planning on having? What happens if I drift out of the center of my little universe?"

So far, Gillmor has only posted a detailed outline, with some stories that he had already run in other outlets. His original reporting still hasn't been posted yet, and the "comments" feature is off, so no one can see each other's input yet. He hopes to make this workable in the future, especially because he's been inundated with emails that he admits he's having trouble keeping up with. He calls the response so far "overwhelming, wonderful," and is working on a special Web site for the book, which will act as a "user guide" of sorts, with links to blogging tools and other ways for people to create their own journalism.

Slashnot

Another precedent in collaborative journalism (covered in his book) is the time in 1999 when Jane's Intelligence Review asked the Slashdot community to help an author craft a story on cyberterrorism. But Gillmor is not barking up that tree, telling me, "I love Slashdot but my book is not a Slashdot thread." That's a good thing, because a current Slashdot thread about his book has some typically unflattering comments, knocking Gillmor for trying to get free fact-checkers and contributors, while another complains that books on technology are outdated by their publish date (his Web site should help with updates). Of course, one person does cheer the inclusion of a chapter on Slashdot.

And while Weinberger is welcoming of Gillmor's effort, one comment on his post dings Gillmor for lacking a "comments" feature and the necessary collaboration function on each section (that should change, see above). Another blogger, Elwyn Jenkins, takes Gillmor to task for equating blogging with "a new kind of journalism," going into detail about how blogging is more about information management and didactic discourse and teaching. Gillmor disagrees, responding that "some blogging is clearly journalism. Much blogging clearly isn't. There's an element of teaching in good journalism, and probably vice versa."

So is this a grand experiment in collaborative journalism, an open-source style call for interviewees and experts to give their input? Sure. Is it a good way to garner publicity and a nice group of interested book buyers? Surer still (though Gillmor modestly wouldn't cop to that). It'll be interesting to watch the book unfold, in public, online. Either Gillmor will have a whole cottage industry springing up around his book and a whole lot of copycat authors after him, or he'll be sifting through attacks and counterattacks and spammed revisions 'till his eyes pop out of his head.

-- Michael Sands contributed to this article


Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for TechWeb, occasional features for The New York Times' Circuits section, marketing material for Comcast Online, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at [email protected].

Glaser Online regularly combs the following sites for links to pertinent stories: OnlineJournalism.com, IWantMedia, Romenesko, PaidContent.org, Google News and AltaVista News.

read past glaser online columns
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Related Links
Gillmor's E-journal
Gillmor: Help Me with 'Making the News'
Joho the Blog: Dan Gillmor's Pregnant!
Microdoc News: Helping Gillmor: Making the News
Slashdot: Gillmor Asks for Help with Book
Slashdot: Help Jane's Write an Article
The Making of the "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" Draft Site
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