Huh. It’s been almost a month. Time is funny.
On my mind lately is this idea of Open Journalism. Basically, applying open source concepts to journalism. Starting to think that it’s not only a great time for this in journalism, but absolutely essential for any journalism-oriented business wishing to remain economically viable.
I’m coming at this from basically two angles: Hacker/Journo and Audience/Consumer/Sausage.
The first comes from several posts that hit on it from a hacker/journo perspective:
- What newsrooms can learn from open-source and maker culture – Nieman Lab
- Transparency, iteration, standards: Knight-Mozilla’s learning lab offers journalism lessons of open source – Nieman Lab
- Thinking about Journalism in the Open: An intro – Dan Sinker
- 6 reasons journalists should ‘show your work’ while learning & creating – Poynter
- BuzzData - (I included this just because I think a whole social network for sharing data is an awesome idea)
I’m completely on board with these ideas of how journalism and open source have similar approaches to processes and ethics. And, how taking an open source approach can raise one’s profile as a journalist, push one to build skills, and benefit journalism more broadly by paying it forward, and so on.
Especially the broader benefit. By innovating openly, others can benefit from that innovation. I see this constantly in developing-world media, where innovations in developed-world media inspire.
[Wondering, is it time to revolt against hyphenating style that imposes placing them in, for instance, "open-source journalism" and "developing-world media"?]
If journalism’s goal, first and foremost, is to serve the public interest, then it makes sense to open up the innovation so that others may benefit. We all learn so much by the example of others, and when we can actually engage in the technologies and practices ourselves, it can only have a net positive effect.
But then, I’m also of the mind that it should not merely be our access to capital that defines who succeeds and who dies off, but who is most effective at managing capital. For so long, we lived in a media world where capital concentrated, and therefore defined the winners from the losers. No more. So, it is probably time we adjust to this New World and stop acting like capital is still concentrating. This brings me to….
The second is coming from an audience/consumer perspective. This is where I might contribute something new to the convo.
Now, more than ever, it is vital for news media to hold onto and gain audience.
As we’ve seen, diversity is cannibalizing the audiences of the few. New kinds of players have entered the news industry (Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.). Whole news media companies are disappearing every day because of this.
Certainly the “Fox Effect” is playing a role, too. Sensationalism is pulling eyeballs away.
I don’t think I need to back this with numbers. It’s settled science.
Thanks to this diversity, we now suffer from noise and filter failure, as we have too many sources and not enough time to cut through it all. As the “on demand” model is starting to win this race, metrics are showing that people are flocking more and more to what really should be considered “marginal journalism”. Has there really ever been a greater time in our history for misinformation?
In my opinion, and the growing opinion of others, it’s time for Open Journalism.
Bear with me for a moment.
Let’s look at it from the “liberal media bias” angle. There is no small population of people out there who feel that most of our news media are slanted to the Left (what percentage of Fox News viewers feel this way, whose viewership numbers range in the millions?).
I interact with my share of people who claim this bias exists. A few things become evident. These particular people don’t really seem to understand the journalism process, what goes on behind closed doors, what decisions are made, why news media choose to or not to run certain stories or content from certain sources. They also don’t seem to understand many basics of media literacy, including that news media tend to cover that which stands out from the norm, rather than the norm itself – so, drawing any conclusions about what is “normal” from news media is generally a mistake, though many people seem to. Further exacerbating this, most people only have the end product of a collection of news stories on which to base their opinions.
What might happen if… news media engaged the audience in… the process of journalism? And, I don’t mean drawing from audience as sources, or crowdsourcing (good things, certainly). I mean, sharing with the audience where the ideas come from, the decision-making process to cover stories, the selection and drawing from of sources, the sifting through the information, the turning of it into a story, the evaluation of that story as a product for the news media company, and so on.
I know. It sounds crazy. CRAZY.
But the Guardian is taking steps down this path, as one example. Will others follow?
Okay, I’ll admit, this won’t always make sense for things like investigative journalism. Reporting under cover is definitely important to some stories. And to safety. That doesn’t, however, have to apply to all journalism.
Imagine you are the audience member out there, and you are bombarded by a whole cacophony of news voices, trying to decide which to trust, which to return to, which are credible and reliable. And maybe you have never studied journalism (it certainly isn’t a part of our national curriculum), and aren’t sure how best to discern fact from fiction in media. And all of these new news sources were cropping up every day to cater to your fears and desires.
Just google any hot button issue and bask in the glory of sensationalist and poorly-informed bloggers for which we can thank freedom of expression and cheap means of mass communication.
What if, as a news company, you decided, “You know what, we’re going to essentially open our doors, show people how we make our decisions”?
I believe more people would come to trust those news companies. Certainly not all people. There are plenty of people out there who just want to believe their own hype. But on the aggregate?
Why do some restaurants have windows into their kitchens? So you can see in, so you can trust in what they are doing, know they are running a clean kitchen, not dropping steaks on the floor or spitting in the soup.
Why not do this with journalism?
As Nieman Lab said, “Journalism has traditionally not been about transparency, instead keeping projects under wraps — the art of making the sausage and then keeping it stored inside newsrooms”.
Because of this approach to journalism, we end up with sausage, not really knowing how it was created, why we chose certain ingredients and left out others, or why this particular link of sausage is better than others. It’s just sausage, and it is up to us to trust that it is quality sausage only because of our history of making quality sausage alone. And worse, if we make a bad link of sausage, we are probably likely to believe it is good sausage because past links have seemingly been good.
Now, what if, in our sausage making process, we demonstrated how we made that sausage, explained along the way why it is good sausage and how we discerned the quality ingredients from the inferior, and so on?
Would you trust that sausage maker over the alternative? Would you keep coming back to that one? Would that also, in turn, push you to a higher quality of sausage making?
I just think it is a lot harder to draw inaccurate conclusions about one’s sausage if people can see how it is made. Frankly.
But more importantly, I think this is a model for gaining audience and remaining viable. In general, people tend to be drawn to things they understand and trust. Why NOT, then, help them understand and trust your journalism?
Unfortunately, when we speak about journalism, as an industry, we’re still mostly stuck expecting people to understand and trust our journalism on their own, rather than at least meeting them half way. No wonder so many news media companies are struggling.
Maybe the door should remain closed for the more executive level decision making. We aren’t yet at a point where companies can share every last detail and thrive. Maybe keep the door closed on the investigative story. At least until that story’s out, then perhaps in the story how the sausage was made, or in a follow-up.
But, until we start opening up these doors, reveal more about the making of the sausage, how can news companies really expect people to trust their news products are truly higher in quality than all of the cheap knockoffs that have cropped up and are stealing audience?