Democracy in Online Journalism

Now that I am semi-employed, I have had time to catch up on projects and reading that I had been neglecting. This means that not only have I been reading quite a bit more, I’ve finally got around the trying to catch up on my Bloglines subscriptions. Reading through posts from the past couple months on a number of blogs I try to follow, I came across an interesting post from my friend John’s blog Prod and Ponder where he attempts to explain the failure of Indymedia and success of blogging.

John identifies consensus decision-making, Indymedia’s ambiguity of purpose, and political differences as the key reasons Indymedia has largely failed to meet its goal of becoming a viable community-based alternative to commercial media. Several years ago John had been heavily involved in the DC Indymedia site which was briefly successful before a number of people quit the endeavor over increased decision making difficulties, and a small faction assumed editorial responsibilities. Another activist who was involved in the site around 2000 — Zoe Mitchell — even dedicated her undergraduate thesis to examining the consensus process that the group used and concluded their technique was anti-democratic and failed to function as a viable process of participatory democracy. Zoe used to have her thesis online but her domain has expired, so I have uploaded a copy here:
A Critique of Consensus Process: Theory, Practice and Implications (.PDF, ~2 MB).

The network of Indymedia websites around the world all run similar software that allows any member of the public to contribute text and photos, and its organizers hoped it would become an alternative to mainstream, commercial media whom they felt ignored their causes and news. Others have sometimes blamed a lack of editing for the failure of these sites — after all, even if they do sometimes have good information, they’ll never build up a readership to be successful if it’s buried under irrelevant and trivial content the readers must wade through. John goes on to suggest blogging has been successful because it is a form of folk media, and what makes them successful is not the mechanisms of blogging such as the post, the comment, and links, but instead the genre that has developed: “the juxtaposing of the very personal, even mundane, with broader life, politics, and community.”

It seems what John’s analysis is missing (and what Zoe only suggested at in her thesis) is a consideration of alternative internal structures. For the most part I agree with their critiques of consensus process. For large, complex projects it is an anti-democratic decision making structure which rewards those who have the most time to sit around and talk, and can be an obstacle to the decisiveness needed to manage money and information in an informed and timely way. However, those fed up with consensus process all to often retreat to the command-and-control structure of the corporate world where decisions are (ostensibly) made by people in a clear chain of command. I even have a friend who is a journalist who has not entirely jokingly suggested what was ideal for media and perhaps society was a “benevolent dictatorship.”

While such thinking may work well for projects where the participants share closely aligned goals, I wonder if there is anything between these extremes. On the one hand, the “consensus process” of Indymedia is almost complete organizational anarchy — there are few defined roles and decision making can be arduous. Of course, in such an environment if decisions cannot be made collectively they frequently are made anyway, and a de-facto dictatorship may exist around an individual or small group of individuals. One of my students in a class on the history of student activism examined this precise phenomenon: although one “radical” group attempted to function with consensus, in reality all decisions were made by one leader. The other extreme of consciously choosing autocracy forces all democratic impulses of deliberation and discussion into an informal realm where it may take place, but has no formal role in decision making.

I find both alternatives lacking, and I would suggest there are options that lay between these poles beyond overly complex parlimentary process. Instead of retreating from the debate about decision-making entirely and resigning ourselves to corporate environments or individual projects, perhaps there can be a middle ground. In the two online projects I have been involved in, DCist and Arborupdate, I have self-consciously tried to ply this middle ground by holding regular staff meetings, maintaining transparency by sharing pertinent information with the entire group, and putting major decisions up for general discussion, all the while acknowledging some form of hierarchy. I have found that by taking this approach I build the trust of the people involved, and even when the group decides something to the contrary to individual minority opinions (which is rare), those overruled feel as if they found a fair hearing. I have also deliberately designed a structure where some who are more involved are members of a “core” group with more responsibilities, and those who choose a lesser level of involvement have lesser expectations.

Although this style may be slightly “harder” than simply throwing democracy aside and running the project without any concern to democratic decision making, I have found it has been successful. The reality of media means that quick and definite decisions are sometimes necessary, and a compromise structure can meet this need, as well as providing a clear process of editing to ensure high quality writing. Although perhaps not quite as efficient as the military-style decision making of a commercial outlet, it has helped us build a unique collaborative culture that I feel helps differentiate the site from other efforts.

The last reason the collaborative blog can be a success has to do with human motivation. The Indymedia model assumes the contributors will be intrinsically motivated and take it upon themselves to write up and submit articles. Of course, the only people who have this intrinsic drive are the few hard-core activists and others with an axe to grind. It isn’t that there aren’t people out there with information to share, it’s just that there is very little to motivate them to contribute.

The compromise structure I have experimented with acknowledges that (surprise!) many people won’t actually put effort into something unless they are asked or they feel it is expected. In the absence of clear, deliberate human relationships, none of the Indymedia contributors will be asked to contribute or be able to contribute in lesser ways. Using a busy email list the collaborative projects I work on frequently allow people who are otherwise too busy to write an entire article to submit some ideas or observations, and leave the heavy lifting to someone else who has the time that day. A hierarchical decision making structure also throws out the question of motivation, and reduces it to a one-way demand: the story assignment. Of course, virtually all reporter-editor relationships are more complex than that, however the complexities are not acknowledged formally.

John also argues blogs have not been successful because of their technical structure but rather the style of writing they encourage. I disagree: blogs have flourished as a medium because they take advantage of a number of intrinsic characteristics of the web. Even a seasoned web user likes myself finds the structure of Indymedia sites to be complex and non-intuitive. On the other hand, blogs place the newest stuff where you’ll see it first, provide a handy way to find past articles (they each have a URL and are in a clear chronological archive) and clearly allow a place to leave feedback. From a technical point of view they have taken elements of the Indymedia engine that are successful and eliminated those which are less needed to make it more clear to the reader what they are looking at. I would argue that if one could somehow inject all the content that would otherwise go in a successful blog into an elaborate site organized by categories and sections like Indymedia, it would not be as successful as the blog would have been. Is it any wonder, then, that the DC Indymedia site was recently re-designed to look and function more like a collaborative blog than its previous form.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Hi Rob. I enjoyed the post, and I’m looking forward to talking about some of the ideas with you. (Over beer, of course.)

    Some fun points to possibly discuss and debate:
    1. There’s a bit too much wheel re-invention going on. Between the fields of social psychology, organizational development, and conflict analysis & resolution we’ve got some theory and research around designing decision making process models that fit the needs of particular groups.

    2. To be clear, my argument is that consensus-based decision making is a bad fit with Indymedia, not that the consensus decision making process is itself inherently flawed. Moreover, the fact that consensus flounders and flops in Indymedia is mighty predictable and in line with what the literature would lead you to expect to happen. Moreover, its failure in the particular context of Indymedia also shouldn’t be read as an indictment against consensus in general. In general there’s a bit too much generalization going on :)

    3. The obvious likely reality is that *both* blogging as a genre *and* its technical features and format, together, contributed significantly to its success and growth. I still think there’s good cause to pay more attention to stressing genre though… format and tech get mentioned all the time, while genre gets ignored too often. Look forward to exploring and debating that one more though.

    p.s. Petty quibble: a solution / alternative process design for Indymedia isn’t “missing” from my essay, at least not in the usual connotation of the term when its used in critique. The essay’s thesis didn’t promise or call for that discussion. It’s absent, not discussed, not covered, outside the scope of the essay’s focus, etc., yes. Missing, no. :-)

  2. Thanks for responding, John. I wonder if you could be persuaded to post a short reading list here — I’d be interested to check it out, and I think it would be useful to anyone who stumbles here via Google in the future.

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