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

The Case for Open Journalism Now


Part 1: The Open Opportunity

These would be wonderful times for journalism if they weren’t so terrible. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

We know the twin storylines: Digital technology’s rolling revolution has created a richer, livelier and more crowded news and information marketplace, yet the Internet’s economic reordering and global recession have diminished the reliability and accessibility of public affairs reporting in many communities.

It’s because of both realities that an emerging approach I call open journalism holds so much promise for newspeople and the public. It’s not an idea for saving news companies, though it can help them. It’s an idea for making quality journalism a collective endeavor and transforming it from a product driven by factory processes to a service driven by audience needs.

Open journalism’s core principles are transparency, responsiveness, participation, collaboration and connection. Open doesn’t mean everything is shared with everyone; it’s a framework based on serving citizens and customers that applies whether content is free or paid.

Once you start looking you can find burgeoning examples of open practices, mostly on the fringes or outside traditional media and among online-only news sites. Through social media and expanding network connections, some journalists are asking and answering questions publicly as they shape reporting. It’s time for these ideas to move from the edges to the center of news work in ways that make journalism more effective and accurate.

I believe deeply that journalism does important jobs for people and that this work not only is still needed but also is increasingly valuable. I’ve led two daily newsrooms and worked among people who cared about the community impact of their work. In the state capital regions of North Carolina and California, I’ve seen good journalism inform and animate important aspects of public life.

Yet journalism has changed too slowly to keep up with the world around it. The Internet has transformed how people live, not just how we get information. Open journalism embraces these changes and draws on two-way communication in reshaping news work to deliver the value people need now.

Open journalism has a significant major media champion in Alan Rusbridger, editor of the U.K.-based Guardian, which announced a ramped-up digital push this year, “placing open journalism on the web at the heart of its strategy.”

Rusbridger’s staff has steadily expanded liveblogging, content networking and crowdsourcing to engage the Guardian’s online audience in the processes as well as the outcomes of news work. In announcing a Guardian experiment with sharing lists of stories in the works, National News Editor Dan Roberts wrote that part of the aim was to encourage reader tips and guidance.

“As Bismarck is said to have remarked about the process of passing legislation, many still think the business of making news is a bit like the business of making sausages: best kept out of sight from the end consumer. But in a world where many readers have been left deeply cynical about journalism after this summer's phone-hacking revelations, it seems there are more people wanting to know where their news comes from and how it is made. Painful as it might be for journalists to acknowledge, they might even have some improvements to make on the recipe too.”

Rusbridger told me he hopes to find still more and better ways to involve readers actively in the news process. His reasons are competitive, practical and absolutely journalistic.

“The sum of what we can do plus what others can do is going to be better than what we can do alone,” he said during an October chat at his London office. “The 21st-century way of journalism is about exploring these things.”

There are many arguments to make for open journalism and most of them have been made for years, using different terminology, in manifestos, blog posts, journal articles and doctoral dissertations.

The time is right for a paradigm shift because of several opportunities and imperatives:

* News providers face ongoing distrust yet also remain important to the public in monitoring other institutions, as a recent Pew Research Center tracking survey shows.[1] Those who pursue public affairs and accountability reporting can benefit by being transparent about the motives and methods of their journalism.
* Social media and other Internet-based networks, along with ongoing advances in consumer technology, are enabling far richer and more substantive information exchange among individuals and organizations.
* Technologists (along with their tools and skills) are infusing journalism with innovation and fresh thinking that represent opportunity for newspeople to work much more effectively in a networked information universe.

Beyond those reasons, I offer both a business case and a civic case.

From a business standpoint, open journalism offers several advantages: increased capacity and quality, cultural relevance and customer connection.

As author and social media consultant Charlene Li put it in Chapter 1 of her 2010 book “Open Leadership,” companies are realizing that “customers, employees and partners... now feel empowered because of a culture of sharing that allows them to spread their thoughts far and wide.

“Thanks to technology,” she wrote, “they are becoming engaged with each other and with those organizations that embrace relationships in a deeper, more meaningful way.”[2]

Or, as Rusbridger said it, “If you’re not going to do it, someone else will.”

The civic case is basic. Communities need capacity for the functions journalism provides.

The argument for change isn’t that journalism is dying. In fact, journalism is expanding—mostly online through a burst of new kinds of newsrooms and individual information providers and through deliberate efforts by foundations and universities to broaden the field of news and information.

In our communities, people are identifying and working on problems together and using communication not just to inform but also to act. Most people now carry the tools of eyewitness reporting in their pockets or purses, and news coverage draws on what they post especially in breaking news situations.

Nor do mainline news providers lack for audiences, as the Pew Research Center’s annual State of the News Media report shows. News sites and big aggregators continue to rack up online audience gains, as do local newspaper and TV online sites, and new platforms are multiplying the streams of news that feed into a ceaseless, churning river of information. A series of recent reports, including a U.K. analysis by Nic Newman for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, show that mainstream news providers still make up the biggest tributaries to this river, even though news distribution continues to fragment.[3]

The case for open journalism is all of the above. It’s based not on the idea that information is scarce but on the recognition that it is abundant, and sees journalism as service that taps that abundance in ways that empower citizens.

Journalism is certainly not dying, but some areas of coverage are ailing. Newsroom financing is shaky among most organizations, for-profit and nonprofit. Major holes have been punched in coverage of public policy, science, health, religion and many other issues, especially at the state and local level. A Federal Communications Commission report released in June highlighted concerns about the loss of professional reporters, citing the elimination of 13,400 newspaper journalist positions in four years.[4]

Even some who see this as the inevitable chaos of industrial transition admit that, at least for now, the supply and quality of accountability reporting available in many communities have been significantly diminished. The FCC’s report, authored by Steven Waldman, took note of the parallel storylines: many new voices, much-weakened journalism capacity. In the meantime, it noted, community and niche sites offer considerable high-quality coverage but struggle to reach audiences. Elsewhere, commercial and advocacy information disguised as news proliferate.

The FCC report, drawing from prior work by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, noted that local television stations had increased programming hours while reducing staff. Its authors worried about several incidents in which stations aired “pay-to-play” stories (provided by advertisers for money) or video press releases and presented them as news content. Most regional and local newspapers, the authors noted, have eliminated significant beats while increasing work demands on remaining staff. The report cited losses in coverage noticed not just by journalists but by citizens in local communities.[5]

This passage in the report’s executive summary crystallized what’s at stake:

“While digital technology has empowered people in many ways, the concurrent decline in local reporting has, in other cases, shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.”[6]

This should be a call to action on behalf of open journalism, which can build common cause among professional and amateur newspeople and others in the community who want to keep power with citizens.

But to do that we need a new orienting idea for journalism.

When I grew up in the news business, the guiding idea was ownership. If you were excelling, you owned the story. If you owned the story, people had to come to you to get it.

In 2011, no one owns a story. Everyone’s a distributor and most people can be a contributor. Not everyone wants to create journalism but lots of people are able to do so in certain circumstances.

There’s another idea, which I borrow from open-source software via Brian Boyer and his news applications team at the Chicago Tribune: It’s “Show Your Work,” which the team does via its blog and by posting its open-source code for others to review, improve and use.

“Show Your Work” captures what I call open-journalism thinking.

Open journalism offers a framework for building journalism capacity and support for journalism’s aims. It focuses first on the needs of customers and citizens and looks at journalism as actions to meet those needs.

“If news organizations could just reinvent themselves as a service, as opposed to a content creator, it opens up all kinds of possibilities,” said Michele McLellan, a former newspaper journalist who has worked extensively with a variety of foundation-led efforts to invigorate community journalism.

“I think people pay for service,” McLellan said.

Open journalism is a guiding principle, not a formula. It can’t be simply switched on. In fact, the reason some of these ideas have faltered is that open journalism needs systems, structures and definitions to carry out its aims.

Along with this paper I’ve put together recommendations for newspeople and, along with them, a compendium of 100 links to arguments, ideas and illustrations that flesh out the idea of open journalism.

One of my inspirations for writing was the wealth of good arguments that have been offered already. We know what needs doing. We just need to accelerate doing it.

[1] “Views of the News Media: 1985-2011/Press Widely Criticized But Trusted More Than Other Information Sources,” report from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, Sept. 22, 2011.
[2] Charlene Li, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, (San Francisco, 2010, Jossey-Bass), Chapter 1, section “Moving the New Relationships Forward.”
[3] Nic Newman, “Mainstream Media and the Distribution of News in the Age of Social Democracy,” report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, September 2011.
[4] “The Information Needs of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age,” report from the Federal Communication Commission by Steven Waldman and the Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities, June 2011: 5.
[5] “The Information Needs of Communities,” FCC report, 11-14.
[6] “The Information Needs of Communities,” FCC report, 6.