Curation, editing and an experiment in co-operative local journalism
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Media Giraffe alum Tom Stites has been hard at work on the Banyan Project since we first featured him in 2006. He describes the effort to pursue co-operative local journalism in this short essay, prompted by a discussion about the difference between "curation" and "editing." His contact information is at the bottom.
I've never given up on editing, and in fact I think the golden era of editing may soon dawn. Editors got a bad rap in the early days of citizen journalism as gatekeepers who arrogantly decided what people would get to read and who made their decisions based on personal biases while being held accountable to the corporations that owned whatever news organization paid their salaries.
Many of the same strident voices who excoriated editors also promoted the idea of curation even though there's not a lot of difference between the two activities. The less-than-clearly-articulated difference, I finally figured out, is that editors do their work for legacy media and curators do very much the same work independent from legacy media. So the real rap was on legacy media, and editors were handy scapegoats. All gatekeepers are accountable to whoever signs their paychecks.
If you are a curator as a volunteer, or as part of an independent group of people committing acts of journalism, to use Dan Gillmor's wonderful phrase, you are still a gatekeeper -- but you're accountable to yourself or to the independent group. The problem with legacy media editor/gatekeepers is that they are accountable to publishers. Publishers, in turn, are deeply influenced by the need to sell ads and accountable to distant corporate executives. And the executives, in turn, are in turn accountable to Wall Street. Accountability doesn't have to work that way.
The Banyan Project, which I lead and which is in the process of launching a pilot site, is pioneering a new business model whose foundation is the cooperative ownership form. Readers will own Banyan sites the way shoppers own food co-ops and depositors own credit unions. This means Banyan sites will be community institutions that are owned by members of the community.
Note the word institutions -- if a Banyan site's paid editor quits, the site's owners, meaning the readers, will simply hire another -- because the community needs the information the site provides. The editor of each Banyan site will, like legacy media editors, be accountable to the owners -- but, because the site will be a co-op, the owners are the readers. This is a straight-up relationship, without the conflict of interest that's baked into legacy media models that are overwhelmingly dependent on advertising. This structural conflict, I suspect, is the real villain that citizen media critics are trying to kill when they go after legacy media editors.
In 2008 the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard asked me to write an essay about the future of editors in the digital age that was published as part of a MacArthur-funded study called Media Re:public. In it I lay out what I think the golden age of editing will look like -- it will require institutional forms of journalism, but trustworthy institutions -- and I critique the assault on editors by a vocal wing of the citizen media movement. If you're curious, see http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/
All this said, I've loved and supported citizen media from the moment six years ago when I first heard about Ohmy News in South Korea . I see the future of journalism not as either/or but as both/and -- and, more important, we need endless experimentation with as many models as our ingenuity can cook up.
So I cheer as citizen media's aperture opens wider, as the pool of ideas grows richer, and as the strident voices calm. We have a huge puzzle to solve if journalism is to deliver what democracy demands of it -- and I see reason for hope that we have ingenuity enough to build trustworthy new institutional models for journalism that meld the inherent natures of the Web and of homo sapiens. This is what will open the golden era of editing.