Interview with Brian Keeler of ePluribusMedia

Media | Language/Structure
Several weeks ago, I spoke to Brian Keeler who co-founded ePluribus Media with Susan Gardner earlier this year. Their first project, propagannon, was an offshoot of distributed research done on Daily Kos about the identity of White House “reporter” Jeff Gannon. Susan had brought it to the attention of the Daily Kos diaries after reading about it from David Brock of the liberal Media Matters for America watchdog group. The diaries had been a beneficial crucible for researching aspects to Gannon’s reporting (the site counts tens of thousands of liberal activists as members), but the group soon outgrew the capabilities of the Daily Kos architecture.

There’s a later story to be told about the efficacy of different distributed research environments– who can contribute, who can read the raw data, who can write the articles– and I have since spoken to some of the folks who split from Propagannon to publish the Becoming Gannon blog. For the start, I wanted to begin with Brian. In a brief phone conversation he said that he didn’t really, see this effort as blogging, but a different form of citizen’s journalism. I suggested we follow up via instant messaging.

This is a transcript of our IM discussion, which took place over 90 minutes on April 14th. It has been edited for readability. I have added hyperlinks afterwards.

JG: First, I just wanted to say that I admired your work with the Gannon/Guckert thing, and that’s how your efforts came to my attention (and the whole world’s).

BK: thank you.

JG: I am interested in what the particular "formula" for online investigations is. It doesn’t seem that easy to just do automatically.

BK: It isn’t really. I think what you have to create is a forum where everyone can see what work is being done and add to it, almost like a conversation.

JG: Right yes. There is a great span of online technologies, from forums to blogs, and Daily Kos is somewhere in between, I would guess.

BK: But the challenge comes when the editor or writer attempts to make a story our of 100 people’s input… How does one do that effectively? That’s the challenge. Where the technology comes in, is creating a way to catagorize the information and put it in a usable form, as it is entered.

JG: Yes, to be truly "self-organizing." I am curious about Daily Kos, and how you came to be active in it, whether you were friendly (in an online way, emailing and such) any of the folks you launched into the Gannon investigation with.

BK: Personally, I was lurker for many months. I became active about a month before the election. I didn’t know any of them at all. I wrote a diary titled "Into the Wild New Yonder" two days after susanG’s first gannon diary [on January 28th]. That pretty much describes the entire energy behind ePluribus Media. Ths idea is all right there. That’s where it all came from, and people began to join in and we went on from there.

JG: Right, yes. So while Susan was leading the team, you were looking to the future. And then you set up

BK: yes, exactly.

JG: Also, I see that you had wondered whether it was "community journalism" or something else like that. Were you familiar with some of the discussions over the year by Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, and others?

BK: No, I wasn’t at the time. I am now, however.

JG: Very well. Yes, they had taken note of many of the feats of political blogging over the previous year, and tried putting it together. Starting with Josh Marshall’s takedown of Trent Lott, and the Dan Rather/memos affair appeared to be a victory for the conservative bloggers– and the whole effort of "blogging of the president," it appeared to be a banner year for what may be called "grassroots media."

BK Yes. It has and will continue to be.

JG: My angle, as you know, in looking at the Gannon situation was that it took almost a year for the facts to be brought to light since they were first hinted at.

BK: Yes… it seems odd, but the sun and the moon and the stars lined up. Timing is everything.

JG: Yes, indeed. It seems like the public more receptive to these propaganda issues. That week, in February 2004, Marshall, Sullivan, etc., were talking about the jobs numbers.

BK: Armstrong Williams, et al had happened and the time was right for this story and it was such a stupid question that gannon asked…and David Brock picked it up [on Media Matters, January 26th] and SusanG tapped into some real rage and off it went. BUT note how the paradigm is changing. the economics of investigative journalism will dictate that the MSM must incorporate citizen journalism…or be left behind. pure and simple. it’s economics. they can’t afford it anymore.

JG: Yes, that is what Jarvis, Gillmor, have been saying, but if you allow me to be skeptical: How is it that they can’t afford it?

BK: we (dkos people) had 187 people do at least 2 hours of research each in one evening: that’s 374 hours of work done in less than two hours. There is no news room that can afford that kind of committement.

JG: True, but on the other hand, the NY Times on Sunday did some investigative journalism on their front page. They found fraud in salmon labelled "wild" when it was farmed. And when Dan Gillmor read this, he wrote on his blog that this was an excellent example of what Big Media can do.

BK: Yes, and what did it cost? Today the times came out with their financials.. They are losing so much money that they have to look for ways to save or be gone.

JG: Well, they did have to pay $29 for the fish [and even more in laboratory fees]. if I may still pursue this. How do you see a newspaper incorporating citizen journalists? Do they not give assignments to their own?

BK: That remains to be seen. If they want to truly incorporate vox populi, then they have to let the people create their own stories.

JG: Well, again, on that point, I don’t think the people are really being held up creating their own stories.

But back to the media: do you think that the NYTimes is doing its job?

BK: I think the Times, like any other business venture, takes business decisions into consideration in their day-to-day operations; only natural. Are they doing their job? What is their job? Is it to inform or sell newspapers? In the past, they sold newspapers by informing, but that’s not enough anymore.

JG: May I ask why not? Do they need to do more than inform? More investigating? More opinion?

BK: More…hhhmmm. I think the point is quality; They have so much competition form other outlets. cable. online. so much competition.

JG: Well, here’s an idea I had. When researching "Stuck at the Gates," I read some of Dan Froomkin’s columns from last year where he mentioned Gannon, and I could understand how someone reading it then might just have read that as being, what’s called "inside baseball" that’s of interest to reporters, but not to larger issues. There was regular press criticism through the 1990’s that the newspapers were focusing on what issues mattered to reporters and not to real people. So, just to wrap up the point from before– Would you like to see more of this "insider" stuff? The stuff that the reporters would write about, but feel like they want to write on more important things?

BK: I think the choices they make now are speculation, to a certain extent. They are trying to figure out what the people will read, instead of trying to figure out what is important to their lives. Why on earth do we get 24/7 Michael Jackson?

JG: Well, I can’t answer for the cable networks, but I don’t think you get much of it in the Times.

BK: …so little bankruptcy law.

JG: That’s a valid complaint. You’d have to watch something like NOW with David Brancaccio (now that Bill Moyers has retired), they had a half-hour piece on bankrupcy a few weeks back [3/25/2005 broadcast]

BK: Well. NOW is the ONE show that has a differnt mind set. I’m reminded of hollywood…when one show catches on, they all look tomake a clone. michael jackson is O.J. Simpson all over. at least, that’s what they are hoping.

JG: Right. Yes, the television news has been roundly criticized for the herd mentality. But let me segue. I had been reading Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo for a few months, he had been writing on social security almost exclusively for the first few months of 2005. Very little on bankruptcy. He set up the TPM bankruptcy blog in the first week of March. Well, my point is that there is a whole lot of raw information out there in the grassroots journalism, and seems tough to make a big splash without having a big story. Two questions:

How do you hope to counter that with ePM? and also, how do you see yourselves complementing what TPM does (largely the work of one guy) and what Media Matters does? They’re both trying to experiment with this idea of mass mobilization of contributors. [Last week Marshall expanded his franchise into the TPMcafe, with a publication staff and discussion forums.]

BK: First question: we have an editorial voice that takes the information and makes the stories work. That’s key. I agree. There is LOADS of info floating around, but the key is to find the stories in all the buzz. We have writers who are working with susang to create that voice and that point of view. It will take some time, I’m sure. and the challenge will be to keep the voice pure to the cause of citizen journalism.

Second question. The most experiments, the better. We’ll all improving as we try different technologies and structures. This is the future, I’m convinced. For example, the 2008 election will be completely different than any other we’ve seen, journalistically.

JG: Well, I do think we see signs of the future. Though in 2004 one would say that blogs and sites like Daily Kos were the future, and I am just looking at how they might evolve over 4 years.

BK: That is even fleeting. Blogs are great for opinion and taking the pulse… but we have to move on to gaining credibility across party and idelogical lines.

JG: Which is more important to ePM — being good for liberalism, or good for journalism?

BK: I don’t want to convince voters to go into the voting booth and vote Democratic. I want them to go into the voting booth and vote with knowledge. Let the chips fall after that. Even the playing field. What gets me is that the playing field is uneven and getting more so with each passing day.

JG: On that point of non-partisanship, the original premise of Eileen Smith, who tipped off Dan Froomkin to Gannon in 2004, was that the White House Press Corps was not up to snuff. She advocated forming a citizen’s bill of rights, and returning credentialing to the WHCA, etc.

Now, there were two ways to take the Gannon story in February, after he had been exposed and sort of "resigned." One way was to continue to investigate Gannon, as you’ve done. But, if you take John Hinderaker of Powerline, he’s found out some questions of reporters in the press room that were truly awful (and would make liberals cringe) — leading questions meant not to get information but seemingly to score points. So a group could dedicate themselves to merely being a watchdog on the press room.

BK: I think maybe we should think outside the box on this one. The WH press corp has really become useless, in many ways. One: the turnaround time for investigating what they’ve been told is zilch now with the 24 hour news cycle and the WH has learned to play the system. They use the WHPC as a tool of getting their message out. This administration in particular. They tell the corp what they want to say and when. So my question is, "What good can they now serve if they aren’t given real access and really can’t ask the questions they should?"

JG: That’s indeed been asked. That’s what Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has pointed out [I believe he has articulated that viewpoint, but I cannot find the hyperlink now.]. How do expect to counter that with ePM?

BK: We intend to do our research away from the administration and ask them for comment when we have found out what we find. What they tell is is irrelevent, except as it pertains to hypocrisy.

JG: Fair enough. Any hints as to the research you’ll be doing? Your first two releases have been on Gannon.

BK: We have much info on the entire Republican Media Complex and are in the process of putting together the stories. Look for more on unraveling the intricate relationships between the Texas money base and the White House.

JG: That should be interesting. Just one more question. In our emails earlier I had pointed out that the banner of grassroots journalism is very much associated with the bloggers. A "blog" is simply a format; though many use "blogger" as a catch-all for any online advocate. And you told me you don’t really see yourself as bloggers, do you even need a name? or do you think that there’s stuff that sets you apart from bloggers?

BK : I haven’t really thought too much about a name. We’ve sort of been defined by a negative, what we aren’t — bloggers. I think about the term athlete: there are many kinds of athletes, and it depends on how detailed you want to get with your discrimination… I guess, in the broad extent we are all "bloggers," but I think we are more along the lines of citizen journalists. This is all so new, the vocabulary hasn’t been etablished, I guess.

JG: Right. I’m just curious why you haven’t taken to the blogger label.

BK: When I think blog, I think opinion…free form… We are competing with MSM journalism, so I think of us as having a bit more thought and research than sitting down and getting it off my chest.

JG: Indeed. Here’s how I roughly defined blogger values in my analysis: Freedom over responsibility Anonymity over traceability Immediacy over thoroughness Talking over listening Breadth over depth Ego over deference Involvement over detachment Serendipity over coherence

BK: I guess that’s the main distinction. You said it better than I.

JG: Very well. Any particular values there you will be adhering to at ePM?

BK: We have different standards.

JG: I remember you pointed me to the journalist ethics code [from the Project for Excellence in Journalism].

BK: yes…that’s what we are striving for. We’ll miss from time to time, but we will take careful aim.

JG:. And you do expect to have an advantage with many contributors, and use technology which can best leverage many voices. I forgot to ask, but I assume that your team feels that the current technology out there doesn’t do it well enough.

BK: Advantage? Well, it’s like anything. Our strength will be our weakness. I can say it will be a very interesting experiment. One that will change and morph as we learn. At least I hope that will be the case.

JG: And if it works, do you hope to see the model adopted by, or inspire other communities, newspapers, magazines, etc.?

BK: Absolutely! We plan to offer it to others…

JG: Open source?

BK: Open source.

JG: Were you building it on Scoop or Drupal? and certainly it should be implementable on any CMS.

BK: Our present site is Drupal….we are looking at others.

JG: I enjoy working on Drupal myself.

In conclusion. What made the Times the Times (or any top newspaper) was its brand and its process and its values, rolled into one, and that’s why people trusted it, and many still do. So, can I say that you are trying to do this with the software, roll together an investigative process and values (and maybe a brand) which can confirm a level of commitment to the truth, and to your readers?

BK: Passion, Community, Technology. We are committed to doing our best to gain the credibility of our readers and build a brand that we can all be proud of.

JG: Terrific. Brian, it’s been almost 90 minutes, and I thank you for your time.

BK: my pleasure, Jon.