A discussion paper by Melanie Sill, Executive in Residence, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, December 2011

Open journalism: Action steps for newspeople

1. Build transparency into every step
2. Build a culture of responsiveness
3. Make participation a public exchange with benefits for all
4. Learn from collaboration success and expand peer-to-peer partnership
5. Embrace journalism’s role in a networked information universe

1) Build transparency into every step:

  • Start with the basics and a web conceit, About Us: News providers assume far too much knowledge on fundamentals: who we are, what we do and how we operate. Large organizations can learn from startup newsrooms and non-journalism web sites. Here are a few: the New Jersey Spotlight, Charlottesville Tomorrow and ProPublica, all of which identify mission, staff, funding and activities. “About” pages also would work in print.

    “About” pages should include succinct summaries of editorial mission and business structure/funding, as VTDigger and Voice of San Diego do. They should point users to staff contacts and bio pages that amplify the expertise and experience of the people providing journalism and offer connections among newspeople and their readers and customers. (Here are staff pages, though they’re all buried a bit on their organization web sites, from California Watch,Honolulu Civil Beat and Southern California Public Radio)

    Additionally, “About” pages can establish ethical baselines. For instance, how does funding affect coverage? The California HealthCare Foundation’s Center for Health Reporting explains here. For-profit companies that maintain separation between advertising buys and editorial decisions can gain credibility by stating so explicitly and publicly (and living by the words). By publishing such basic principles, journalism providers also offer a measuring stick for others to use in judging them and comparing them to competitors.

  • What we know, how we know it and what we don’t know: Moves to share story lists, as organizations including the Guardian are doing, illustrate a larger idea of news organizations beginning to be more public about what they’re covering and how people can contribute. Beat blogs, social media posts and other new tools are ways of doing legwork and widening sourcing beyond the “usual suspects” syndrome that has long plagued newsrooms. This kind of transparency, like the “who we are and what we do” mechanisms, make it more likely for reporters to connect with relevant sources and to hear things they didn’t know. Media blogger and author Dan Gillmor suggests including a “what we don’t know” box on stories in the newspaper and inviting people to contact reporters.

    Journalism also gains credibility by showing its work (as many of us did with our high school math equations). By sharing data sources as well as conclusions (as The News & Observer of Raleigh did here), by posting original documents for users to scrutinize, by explaining methodology, by sending a message that news people are seeking accuracy and are open to outside communication, journalism improves. In real-time situations, as Andy Carvin at NPR has famously done with curation of social media feeds during the Arab spring and since, journalists can actively ask questions and seek help from users on confirmation, contradiction and additional facts.

    Such transparency could include sharing the back story of how journalism is done—how photographers or reporters create great craftwork, what it took to obtain certain information. This tears down walls and promises the same benefit as speaking publicly in explaining how journalism works. Social media channels can enable journalist-community dialogue, for instance, about the technical aspects of a striking photograph or the circumstances surrounding a difficult story.

  • How we make decisions: I gave dozens of community speeches as a newspaper editor before it sank in on me that most readers, even appreciative customers, didn’t understand how or why we made the choices we made on coverage. Lacking explanations, they supplied their own: political bias, self-interest and so forth. I added a weekly column, amped up my responses to email and blogged. Yet this communication, like most such efforts, happened outside the main frame of news we delivered each day.

    There’s benefit to using a variety of tools to articulate what news organizations aim to do and to bring back feedback that helps journalists see what they’re missing. One example: Newspapers could publish a daily box explaining front page choices, coupled with renewed invitations to visit or take part in the discussion in person or via the web. Websites could add visible information identifying who’s running the home page at different times and providing contact links. Broadcasters could add brief announcements on news mission and how to report errors. Such steps could extend journalism as a discipline that communicates steadily about its reasoning and that welcomes incoming ideas and feedback.

    Matt DeRienzo, Connecticut group editor for the Journal Register Co., said his starting point on pushing for greater transparency is his mother, who believes that news leaders “get together on a regular basis in a secret conference room with George Soros to get our marching orders” as part of the “left-wing media.”

    DeRienzo suggests newsrooms start by establishing an effective approach to correcting errors. At some of his papers that includes a “fact check” box (for reporting errors) at the bottom of every story and, for the New Haven Register, Torrington and Middleton sites, corrections blogs that report back on how the paper handles accuracy complaints.

    “Being open, sharing your story list” and other steps will make newsrooms “less likely to make a mistake or miss the context in the first place,” he said.

2) Build a culture of responsiveness; make engagement part of the journalism as well as the marketing

  • Answer questions, report back: Online comments offer a cautionary tale as an example of ways news organizations reinforce institutional, one-way culture by putting out invitations (send photos, tell us what you think) without responding or following up. Online polls should be followed by reports back; user content should be evaluated, thanks should be offered, questions should be answered and open dialogue should be moderated. Reader questions posted in comments sections should be answered and, if they add to coverage, credited. Staffers should monitor comments for tips and insight as to what questions users have.

    Small news organizations and community startups offer some good lessons on these challenges. For instance, many online-only community sites actively manage user comments. The Block by Block gathering of independent community sites surveyed members and found that comments were “the #1 tool for reader engagement.” In a Twitter chat on the topic, Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog summed it up this way: “Comments are content.” Other lessons on engagement are captured in a book called “Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism,”written by Scott Rosenberg with funding from the Washington-based journalism nonprofit J-Lab and rich with the experiences of editors and publishers working on the front lines of online community news.

    “The irony is there are a whole lot more hyperlocal sites who have smaller staffs and are investing a lot more time moderating comments than mainstream news organizations are,” said J-Lab’s executive director, Jan Schaffer.

  • Make engagement part of the journalism, not just the marketing: Journalists who answer questions at public events, in cross-media appearances, via social media or in reader exchanges are providing service and substance. Rather than just tweeting links and one-way posts (“Here’s our story, discuss amongst yourselves”), news people can appear as their professional selves in many parts of the community by going to physical and digital spaces where others gather. We can post comments or links (if they’re truly useful) on other blogs or host live chats with local experts (and knowledgeable journalists) as guests. Newsrooms can convene events, as the public affairs nonprofit Texas Tribune has done, or use their websites, broadcast programming or print pages to host community discussions.

    If the job of journalism is to inform, explain or host discussion, then any methods that carry that out in ways that reward users and readers count. As news organizations ask for financial support (through donations, underwriting or subscriptions), it’s more likely to come from people who perceive real value from newsrooms and who want to support their overall mission—not a certain product or format.

3) Make participatory efforts a public exchange with benefits to all, not just news organizations.

To realize the promise of two-way connection, news people and those who contribute or ask for information through these channels benefit from greater structure and common purpose. “Send us your photos” means it’s about the news organization. “Share what you know” conveys a different idea of improving the knowledge pool. News sites can host a public exchange for shared benefit if such efforts make a shift away from the “UGC” (user-generated content) ghetto to a system recognizing contributions and benefits for all players.

In May, public radio station WNYC and the New York Times teamed up with “citizen sciences and data collection project” called eBird for a “Bird Week” outreach effort. Readers/viewers/ listeners could take part in various ways: for instance, by using SMS texting to share their favorite bird-sighting spots. The input was then mapped as part of coverage that included links on other ways to participate. On the NYT CityRoom blog, the Bird Week features also linked to and highlighted the Audubon Society and several other organizations running their own user interaction efforts. The journalism was part of networked enthusiasm.

The key concept is recognizing that news coverage is about subject matter, issues and people’s passions—not about the publication. “Send us your photos” is an invitation to participate in a publication. “Report your bird sightings” is a solicitation to share in the joy of life.

Smart steps can scale participation to be more effective, as press critic Jay Rosen pointed out in this recent speech and blog post. Tools allowing people to fill out forms, weigh in on surveys or email tips are more likely to be used and thus more
likely to provide quality input.

Rosen, an associate professor at New York University and author of the widely read PressThink blog, voiced one of the resonant ideas of open journalism in a 2006 post titled “The People Formerly Known As the Audience.” It was written as a memo from the view of a newly engaged public “to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about.”

Along with his criticism of traditional journalism culture Rosen often offers specific ideas for improvement. In a recent speech and blog post, for instance, he issued a C- grade for what’s happened so far along with a series of suggestions for what might happen next.

Among them: “right-sizing” the contributions asked of citizens and non-journalists to news work; giving newspeople an “advanced tool kit” for tapping expertise among users and getting more beat bloggers and niche journalists committed to using the tools we do have to draw on people’s experience and knowledge.

“Pro journalism has never been optimized for high participation. But participatory media hasn’t been optimized for quality journalism, either,” Rosen wrote. “That right there is the work we need to do.”

News providers also could take the next step and make sharing live up to the term. Instead of one-way (you send us your stuff) news sites could set up and contribute to content exchanges for users to share material, which could be licensed using the free Creative Commons agreements employed by a growing number of content creators. (These licenses allow content creators to retain some right while assigning some rights to others.)

Imagine all the ways people could tell stories about community events or major news under a Creative Commons approach that lets other users remix and share material for noncommercial use. Such an approach could provide structure for related decisions; for instance, when users should be compensated.

4) Draw on initial successes to make collaboration a force for extending journalistic capacity; move from top-down to peer-to-peer connection

Collaboration is a word often given to cross-promotion and other kinds of partnership. The promise of such alliances is not just finding ways to keep doing the same things but to team up for reciprocal benefit and better outcomes. Investigative collaboration, for instance, has expanded through distribution agreements and other partnerships, a change explored in depth in “Partners of Necessity,” a paper by former Oregonian editor and Pulitzer Prizes board chair Sandy Rowe.

“Leaders of local investigative reporting — whether from newspapers, public broadcasting, universities or new nonprofit journalism outlets—who can form effective and independent partnerships for the most complex journalistic work, be generous in promoting those partnerships and effective in sustaining them, will be the winners,” she wrote in the paper, published in mid-2011 by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Institutional support for collaboration is increasing; for instance, through the nonprofit Investigative News Network, which has 60 partners joining forces on financial sustainability and other common interests. In California, meanwhile, dozens of newspapers and radio outlets have gained help on ambitious health-issue reporting through collaborations with the nonprofit Center for Health Reporting. The investigative nonprofit California Watch has drawn together a half-dozen partners to report on the state’s efforts to build a high-speed rail system.

The list of such joint efforts is growing rapidly everywhere, and so is the learning. Yet many such efforts stumble on competitive or cultural concerns and can benefit from clarity of purpose and transparency on goals and measures.

Michele McLellan, who has worked closely with the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge and organizes the Block by Block gathering of community online publishers, thinks we’re at the point that organizations need more specifically defined agreements — memos of understanding—to spell out the goals and expectations among partners.

Too often, say McLellan and others, news organizations form blog networks or enlist community sites without creating wins on both sides. This too is evolving, with some organizations paying others for coverage, but there’s much more that can be done.

“Big organizations still have trouble letting go of the fact that they’re not alone anymore,” McLellan said. “I think it would be great if there were more models” of partnerships that helped all sides.

Mark Glaser, executive editor of the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab website, is working on a new “Collaboration Central” minisite to act as a hub for learning and knowledge-sharing. Among the goals: developing practical tools and guidelines and answering questions about both the business case and journalistic value of collaborations.

Many so-called collaborations are really distribution partnerships or content-sharing agreements that are helping expand audience reach or content capacity among news organizations. They often stumble on familiar cultural barriers and competitive concerns.

News leaders might take some lessons from the successful collaborations around data journalism being forged at the peer level among programmers and investigative journalists. Management-level agreements are one thing, but there’s room to allow much more peer-to-peer connection across news organizations and even beyond them, with the right oversight.

By empowering collaboration at many levels, within organizations and among them, news leaders tap capacity of smart and capable employees to solve problems and innovate. As the hacker-journalist movement shows, such empowerment can be contagious.

5) Embrace journalism’s changing role in a networked information universe

  • Link, highlight and amplify: As a Chicago Community Trust study released this year showed, news organizations and especially mainstream sites often fail the basic web test of linking to resources and organizations out of their core coverage. The study, based on research into links among more than 400 Chicago news and information sites, found that more than 40 percent of sites didn’t link out and that eight in 10 received very few links in. Legacy media sites ranked low in “out links,” as McLellan noted in a Knight Foundation blog post summarizing the results.

    Linking is just part of a larger function for journalism in pointing to, and crediting, substantive material and good work by others. Blogrolls, or lists of related blogs, are part of this, and so are the algorithm-driven links to related contents on other sites. But a more important shift puts newspeople in the role of helping evaluate, organize and highlight material that they don’t originate. Everyone loves a shout-out, so why not note important data, interesting opinions and delightful photos by other content providers? Through the network effect, news providers also can get links back to their work—lists and directories, for instance, might be shared via social media by those who are included.

  • Wear your journalist hat but get out of your own news sphere: The University of Missouri’s Joy Mayer produced a community engagement guide suggesting ways for news people to “reach the audience where, when and how it’s most useful of meaningful” and offering fresh ideas for digital tactics. Newsrooms could put together landing pages for community information and share the link on sites where interested users might find them (the ask-and-answer site Quora, tourism sites or others), she writes.

    News people constantly ask users to come to their sites or coverage, but good journalism relies on reaching actively into the networks where people exchange information. Some journalists do this through social media and online groups. It’s important to emphasize that you’re there to do the jobs of journalism—learning, bringing information to light, explaining and most of all getting stories right. But just as they do when they go to neighborhood potlucks or the mall, journalists can participate as community members who perform a kind of service to others and depend on others as well to provide knowledge and information.

    One example stands out from Southern California Public Radio’s use of the Public Insight Network of community sourcing. A query about prison life, posted on the KPCC website and through its PIN network, helped reporters learn about an online forum where prison families exchanged information. Through these connections, SCPR’s journalists broke stories on allegations of inmate mistreatment after a riot at the Chino State Prison. The source that came forward through Public Insight was recognized with a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. (For more on Public Insight at SCPR, read the related sidebar)