Tuesday, October 11, 2005

EXCERPT: Media Giraffe Project interview with Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan works at Al Gore's Current.TV. Previously he was a fellow and
writer at The Poynter Institute, where he and a collaborator, Matt
Thompson, developed the 10-minute multimedia presentation called "EPIC."


On Aug. 9, Sloan was interviewed by Media Giraffe Project intern Alison
Davies. Here's an excerpt:

On how EPIC was conceived:

"It was kind of the etension of a conversation that got started. We both
read this speech by the CEO of New York Times Digital, where he was
talking about the future of news online and we actually sort of disagreed
about what he meant, and through that disagreement . . . this
conversation kind of continued when we got back. And we shared it with
some people at Poynter, and some people at Poynter said more journalists
shoudl be tuned into this stuff, the don't really realize the

"We just kept thinking about it and ultimately decided to make a
presentation which we could actually share with some of the journalists
coming through the Poynter Institute. It went through a couple of
iterations . . . the way it looks now it is starting with these ideas
about the future of news. We decided to make it interesting, we decided to
have more fun with it and that's where we came up with the name Googlezon,
out of the pure desire to make it actually entertaining and make it a

Q: The tone is sort of ambiguous, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing
-- how do you lean on that?

SLOAN: Good question. It was not entirely intentional that it be so
ambiguous. Initially we were quite enthusaistic about it. And I remain
generally enthusiastic about that scheme. And our intention was to offer
it up as a possibility and to say, this is going to happen, this is
already happening it is going to happen, this is not like a what if. We
wanted to pose it as a question to say: Here is the future, how do you as
a journalist today with all these really, really strong principals and
values. How could you do to be a part of that? What could you do to make
sure you don't get completely left behind? But, the bottom line is that
we are pretty jazzed about the idea of Googlezon, it would just be really
sweet. Part of the way it turned out in production -- the creepy music
and it was very dark -- it just turned out to be more fun to make it like
that, to have that sort of ominus feeling -- sort of like Big Brother, yea
-- that vibe just turned out to be sort of fund to do. It was just us
being theatrical, balanced with our enthusiasm for it, lends it that
actual light. Let me actually just think about this. And the truth is
it's actually complicated. Many people have read it as sort of an
anti-Google thing -- this is terrible, it's going to ruin everything.
Which is fine but it is not accurate to the way we actually feel. We are
actually enthusiastic about the potential of some of this new technology,
but we are really interested in seeing that it gets used to do stuff which
is actually cool and valuable, and not just junk.

Q: What sorts of responses did you get from journalists who might
become obsolete?

SLOAN: It totally depends. In the very beginning before we posted it
online and we presented to a few different groups of journalists, and the
online editors of newspaper websites -- they just loved it -- they were
like, sweet. Just by being emeshed in what is going on online, they see
the potential, including the potential for good journalism actually. So
they were jazzed about it. College professors -- jazzed about it.

[But] sort of traditional newspaper editors -- business sectoin editors,
the people that put the paper out everyday -- horrified. Hostile in fact.
They were just: "No, no it can't be like that. Democracy," they were just
very very sort of anti. I would have to say that journalists in general,
and it would have to be a vague generalization, because there is a lot of
variation within this. But in general, journalists feel pretty sort of
threatened by that vision and they see it as an extension of a trend that
has already hurt their industry of people not taking news seriously, or
not realizing that they are, or should be a trusted source, and a lot of
the stuff on the Internet can be flakey -- who knows who is writing. So
generally sort of hostile, even young journalists. I would expect young
journalists to be more on board with this stuff. Not really. It is
actually a more personal thing. There's veteran journalists who for
whatever reason have really gotten into the Internet, think it's cool and
there are young journalists certainly who are way into the Internet and
think it is cool. And there are journalists of all ages who are sort of

Q: There's something romatic about reporting overseas and you write
and putting out the print?

SLOAN: There totally is. And not just that, but [there are] those other
sort of old ideas, such a serendipity, [some editors] always tell us.
"What about the serendipity of picking up a particular newspaper and
seeing a story you totally didn't expect?" they ask. Honestly, a lot of
the critiques I can sort of understand, I see where they are coming from.
This is one that totally infuriates me. I hate it. Because anybody who
gives that argument, and a lot do, we hear that a lot from these editors,
"Serendipity man, that's what it's all about." They must never have used
the Internet, because the Internet is like a serendipity machine -- that's
what it's for -- it is for discovering new, crazy things that you didn't
think about. They read the whole Googlezon thing as the ultimate echo
chamber, which it certainly would not necessariy have to be. But I think
that is how they see it and why they think it is so potentially dangerous
to society.

Q: What do you think in terms of democracy? Do you think that Googlezon
sort of framework has the chance to enhance it or is it neutral?

SLOAN: actually if things came to pass exactly as we laid them out --
which they certainly won't of course, but let's just say that they did --
things would be pretty bad because I think anytime there is a monopoly on
that kind of stuff, it's just bad, a bad situation to be in. So if it
really was the case that all the people are contributing their own things
all through the kind of network and the prism that was owned and
controlled by this one company -- that would be fairly terrible. Assuming
though that it follows the kind of trend that has actually demonstrated
itself on the internet where there are some big playres, but things are a
lot more distributed and people can kind of poke holes through the system
and do their own thing -- I think that would be good. I think that would
be good for democracy -- or at least could be.

Q: Do you have a sense of personal mission and entrepreneurship in
what you are doing here?

SLOAN: I do. I was finishing up at the Poynter Instiute and I knew I
wanted to do something participatory. I was just wasn't interested in
writing of the traditional newspaper articles and the prospect of that
sort of one-way thing -- not just that I became philosophically opposed to
it, it felt like it woudl be just depressing after awhile, you just do all
this stuff and you never really get anything back. It just sort of goes
into a well. And so I wanted to do something in line with more
participatory media and all that sort of stuff. And fortunately I was
kind of looking around and most newspaper certainly, and cable TV
networks, everbody are just mired in the old ways of doing things.

But then I sort of heard about Current, sort of reumors, blips and news
scraps and it sounded like they were going to do that. Which I thought
was pretty cool.

Q: Do you have an opinon about what might be wrong with journalism, and
media in general and how that relates to what might be going on with
democracy also?

SLOAN: I try not to be a total media basher as some people on the Internet
tend to do. I don't think it's broken beyond repair. But again I do think
it has become more than anything else, it is, two things.

One of them is the sort the very deep one-way nature of it all still. And
it is not that there is a magic bullet to solve that. It's not just start
a blog, problem solved. It is more complicated than that. Even at
Current, we have signed on to the idea of being two way from the very
beginning. It is like the core DNA. We still are having a hard time trying
to figure out how to do it. How do we make that happen?

So even with the best of intentions it can be a challenge. But you've got
to actually step up to the challenge and not just say OK, with the old
one-way thing. Because it is just so lame and static and ultimately out
of touch. Anybody who has ever had a newspaper article written about them
or seen themselves quoted in a newspaper article or seen a newspaper
article about something they know something about, realizes how totally
screwed up it is and, "Oh, my God is it all like that?" And if we can
build ways to let people participate in that.

There's this guy Dan Gillmor who more than anything else is a pretty cool
guy and more than anything else kind of a rockbed of this kind of stuff
and he most famously is the one who articulated this notion that the
journalist is not the expert, rather they should be the facilitator for
this huge group of people out there who, of course, in the aggregate,
these people know so much more than even the smartest and most veteran
journalist. And so figuring out how to harness that is a big challenge and
by not tackling it, it is just a big wasted opportunity and just fewer and
fewer people are going to continue to participate in this one-way stuff.

And there is another piece to it to that is less philosophical and that is
that the culture at news organizations. It kind of sucks. A lot of
newsrooms are just bad scenes these days. I don't even know what all the
reasons are. But it is kind of a wierd industry. I think any industry in
a decline, even a slow decline, that just doesn't help with anything. It
is a lot of old people, and young people with old ideas, and that is just
actually really really hurting it.

And even if somebody just could find a way to invigorate a newsroom and
just throw out all the old conventions and say, "Forget what you think you
know abot how you have to make a newspaper and just do what feels like it
would be a lot of fun. Make the sort of newspaper that you would like to
read in the morning when you get up." The thing that I always here is that
in newsrooms people don't even read the newspaper that they produce.
Half the people in the Washington Post don't even read the newspaper --
it's just boring. It's just like this mess, this huge pile of crap.

So I think that is kind of a more subtle thing. I think if I had to rank
them, I might even put that as the most important. I don't know what the
solution is but it is too bad that these really important institutions on
the inside are kind of just, they're not rotten on the inside, that's
pretty harsh, but they are kind of moribund and there is not a lot of fun
or vitality there anymore. And that's too bad.

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