On Being a BoingBoing Guest Blogger

Dan Gillmor is a guest blogger at BoingBoing.

I'm jazzed to be here! Thanks to Mark and the BB crew for the invite.

As a former journalist-for-pay who gives public talks about the changing nature of media, I'm often asked an excellent question about serendipity. Are we losing it?

The question comes up in the context of, well, context in the way journalism -- especially in daily newspapers -- is presented. Here's what I mean: Look at the front page of the New York Times. You're likely to see a story about a topic you didn't know you cared about until you saw it.

This is one of the genuine values of editors at institutions like the Times. They make sure we're in a position to learn about something they consider important or interesting, or simply worth the reading. The juxtaposition of the "didn't know we cared until we read it" story with the day's more obvious news is serendipity for those of us who want to be reasonably well informed and enjoy being surprised.

On the Web, where we often go looking for things we already know we want to read or watch of hear, serendipity is something we have to find for yourself. And for me, one of the places I've always found it is here on BoingBoing, where I find myself in amazed, amused and everything but apathetic as I scroll down the page each day to see what the crew has come up with now. This has made me a BB fan, verging on addict.

So to be invited to guest-blog here is a joy. My plan: Add some serendipity. 

Naturally, I'll post about the future of media and information, including a new project I'm starting in the next few days, but I'll also be indulging my own tendency to head off on tangents. Sometimes they're relevant to my work, often not. I'll do my best, at any rate, to make sure they aren't boring.

UPDATE: As I'll have to do periodically here, a disclosure: I own a small amount of New York Times Co. stock, which is worth way, way, way less than what I paid for it.


  1. Yesterday, the NYT told me that you have to pay bribes to get good medical care in Romania. I was horrified and interested and would not have known this if they hadn’t of put it on the front page.

  2. This doesn’t really get to the problem with the modern media, though. It’s great that the media informs us of things we might not be aware of.

    What’s not great is the amount of bias in virtually every story I read or watch in mainstream media today. Editorializing has bled out of the Editorials page and onto every page of every newspaper. What ever happened to reporting facts and letting your audience decide their own opinions? Bring back fact-based reporting and you would see a surge in newspaper sales and news ratings.

  3. There is no bias in print newspapers, outside of a bias toward sensationalism.

    The bias is entirely in the readers’ perception, fueled by the fact that the internet provides endless sources to feed our own biases and make them seem more normal.

  4. What ever happened to reporting facts and letting your audience decide their own opinions? Bring back fact-based reporting and you would see a surge in newspaper sales and news ratings.

    Sadly, it never really existed. (RIP Edward R. Murrow!) At the very least, there’s always been the agenda-setting function:

    Here may lie the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.

    The Internet has largely solved this in terms of self-selecting communities for news… but the flip-side of that can be living in a kind of fantasy world of selection bias, ala Fox News. i.e. “I’ll only look at favorable results and ignore the rest.” c.f. Memento

  5. Hear hear! I find that with in-depth specialisation of news and topics (a good thing mostly) one tends to lose breadth of topics (which I get mostly from boingboing, wikipedia, and the occasional old-media website)

    On a related note, the only syngerstic I’ve seen to crowdsource the didn’t-know-you-were-interested-until-you-saw-it, reddit, didn’t seem to succeed. I wonder why? Is human confirmation bias so high that this sort of thing is actually doomed?

  6. That is definitely an intruiging mission statement. It is especially interesting because Boingboing already looks at a multitude of topics. I looked to your tenure with great interest. Good luck, and have fun.

  7. Hey, just curious, since you seem to be an expert on the subject of the changing media world, can you explain the markets that will let us move from ‘journalist-for-pay’ to ‘journalist-for-not-pay’? Feel free to substitute ‘content creator’ or ‘scientist’ or any other writer type work description with ‘journalist’.

  8. Um, The Times front page is still available, more or less, on the web version. I’m seeing a straw man here. I think you could make the argument, but not with this example.

    My feeling, experience, is that the web vastly increases the chance for serendipity if one is open to it. Hyperlinks can take you to places you would never have considered searching out.

    Some forms of accidental discovery are gone. Like searching down the library shelf to find a book and stumbling on six others that take you someplace you weren’t heading. The webs make up for it in the inherent interconnectedness of networked information.

  9. Hello Dan. Seeing your name brings back memories. Many years ago, the Detroit Free Press took some of their first steps online, with the CompuServe Information Service. Rick and John were managing things from the Free Press end, I was managing them for CompuServe. I visited the Free Press to help with the introductory presentations. I recall a lot of hostility in the room from reporters who saw the effort as just one more thing they were expected to do. But not you – you were a pillar of support and a source of positive ideas. Best of luck.

    Steve Zinn

  10. i love the guest blogger thing for this very reason–serendipity! it has put the “boing” back into boing boing. i especially enjoyed the global warming kerfuffle a few weeks back.

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