I missed the opening third of the panel discussion on citizen media held Sunday night at the Hillside Club in Berkeley (I plead Father’s Day!). The portions I caught, however, offered encouragement that more inclusive media are emerging. How do we make do-it-yourself media self-supporting? Panelist Dan Gillmor was at his honest best when he said, “There may not be a business model here. We’re not certain of this.”

Dan literally wrote the book on citizen media (“We the Media”). He is a former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. His current project is the for-profit site Bayosphere. It is a work in progress (Dan is soliciting assistance if you have the time and inclination). His quote notwithstanding, I’m sure Dan has a plan to make Bayosphere pay its way; I took his remark as a realistic admission that there may not be pots of gold (or paychecks) at the end of this particular rainbow.

Joining Dan on the panel was Becky O’Malley who, together with her husband Mike, revived the Berkeley Daily Planet as an alternative newspaper for the college town with its own political orbit. Becky (and I’ll tell you a back-story about her in a moment) made an interesting comment about economic sustainability and community journalism, saying they may not be mutually necessary. She cited one Berkeley community, the Le Conte neighborhood, that had about 1,500 people signed up for its newsletter! How many blogs draw such traffic? Her remark reminded me that my neighborhood in San Leandro has a successful (though not quite so well-subscribed) newsletter (edited by my wife, Mia Ousley, who started an email discussion as an adjunct). These efforts keep people informed and develop a sense of neighborhood but there’s no money in them.

Peter Merholz, author of the Beast Blog (a compendium of items relevant in the East Bay region of San Francisco) was the third panelist and probably one of the best living proofs of what is meant by citizen media. Peter said he started putting stuff online because he enjoyed doing it, and because he knew how. (If he mentioned anything about commercial potential or lack thereof, I missed it.) Nevertheless, the Beast is useful; it was in his blog that I found a brief mention when Becky revived the Planet.

And with that incestuous reference, let me tell you my back story about Becky which, trust me, leads eventually to a point apropos of this blog.

Becky and I share a mutual friend, Indiana University journalism professor Carol Polsgrove. The whys of our associations are not relevant. Becky and I simply have this bond, so when I saw her name on the panel list, I thought: “Yes, I can race back from an event with my Sacramento in-laws in time to catch this.”

Nor was it just Becky who I wanted to see. Sunday night’s panel was the latest in a series of cybersalons that I’ve been attending for years. I’ve grown to like the people who attend. They’re friends, acquaintances, kindred spirits on at least a few topics of mutual interest, even if we’re not likely to have family picnics together.

I’m beginning to think that media and community are a linked pair, much as neutrons and radiation — you’ve gotta have both to achieve critical mass. The question is: can the containment system be built to harvest useful energy. I took a stab at that question with a two-part blog about Media Malls. I’ll return to that thought when time permits.

(Two last notes. At Sunday night’s event I learned that Kevin Werbach is holding the Supernova 2005 conference on digital media, etcetera in San Francisco this week, and there is a free email newsletter for those who cannot attend. Also I have partially restored the linking ability that I lost (and complained about) last week, but I’m not sure what happened nor am I satisfied with my fix.)

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media