Rusbridger: Openness, Collaboration Key to New Information Ecosystem

By Alan Rusbridger

In 2009 you could smell the fear. As banks crashed and the recession hit, even the grandest media companies trembled a little. We had all known for some time that the revolution we're all living through would at some stage get really tough. But, for many, as advertising drained out of our pages and websites, thoughts of survival clouded out all else.

It's hardly time to relax yet in 2010 but -- for the moment -- we can come up for air and look at the landscape. How has it changed?

Well, much depends on how you saw the revolution in the first place. It's now a cliche of media life that these are both the best of times and the worst of times. Those who were seized by the opportunity and possibility of digital transformation will believe in pushing ahead even faster. Those who were wavering or skeptical in the first place may want to apply the brakes.

I tend, by nature, towards the first camp. Those in the second camp have a rude word for us: Utopians. They believe we have stars in our eyes and have failed to see what, to them, is blindingly obvious: that the time for playing around has to stop. It's time for some hard-nosed realities.

Utopians can't stop thinking about the possibilities ahead: We literally lie awake at night fighting off the thoughts of what can be done -- and what, even as we eventually submit to sleep, others are busy doing.

We think the future is about endless experimentation, that this is a journey which has barely begun. To us it seems fairly evident there are two features of this new information ecosystem which it would be foolish to ignore, whichever camp you're in: openness and collaboration.

Openness is shorthand for the way in which the vast majority of information is, and will continue to be, part of a larger network, only a tiny proportion of which is created by journalists. Information may not want to be free, but it does want to be linked. It's difficult to think of any information in the modern world which doesn't acquire more meaning, power, richness, context, substance and impact by being intelligently linked to other information.

Collaboration refers to the way we can take this openness one stage further. By collaborating with this vast network of linked information -- and those who are generating and sharing it -- we can be infinitely more powerful than if we believe we have to generate it all ourselves.

The rather clumsy name we've given this openness/collaboration theme at the Guardian is mutualisation. It's an attempt to capture the energy and possibilities we can imagine from working with readers and others to be a different kind of news organization.

Some examples of where it has borne fruit:

An investigation into corporate tax avoidance. This was an area where some of our readers almost certainly knew more than we did about an infinitely complex matrix of international accountancy, law and high finance. We appealed for their help in finding the information and in interpreting it. It worked. We were sent some extremely interesting leads -- and readers saved us a lot of time, trouble and expense by advising us on the meaning of documents and transactions.

The death of Ian Tomlinson. Traditional reporting completely failed to uncover the true story behind the death of an innocent man at the G20 conference in London in 2009. It took one reporter, Twitter, and the collaboration of thousands of readers to find the digital record of the moment a policeman struck Tomlinson. Conventional reporting would not have revealed the truth as quickly if at all.

Trafigura. A "super-injunction" granted by the British Courts and aggressive action by the oil trading firm's lawyers prevented the reporting of documents and parliamentary questions about the dumping of toxic waste in Africa, together with the injuries and deaths which it was claimed were associated with the dumping. Again, the use of Twitter led to thousands of people ferreting out the suppressed information and to the company backing down from legal action. The collaboration of thousands of strangers achieved something a newspaper on its own would have struggled with -- but it needed a newspaper's investigative skills to get the information in the first place.

MPs expenses. Reviewing 400,000 documents released by parliament posed an impossible task for a conventional newsroom to handle. We built a widget that allowed 23,000 Guardian readers to help us identify the important documents.

Comment is Free. In addition to a traditional op-ed section -- with a handful of staff writers -- we built a site where hundreds of experts, most of them non-journalists and most of them writing for no payment, have their say and thousands of others join in the argument. The result is a comment website which is much richer and more diverse than we could possibly achieve in print alone or without involving numerous other people.

Environment. We built a website with real ambition to cover this most important of issues. Even with five or six full-time writers on the subject, we realized we would not be able to do it justice alone. So we created a Guardian Environment Network whereby we host the best contributions from some of the excellent websites and blogs that already cover the subject. We gain: The content on the site is deeper, better and generally more comprehensive than we could ever achieve ourselves. Our partners gain by being exposed to much greater traffic (we currently have 32-35 million unique visitors a month) and from a share of revenues from advertising.

Travel. The traditional travel section sends writers off to distant parts to report back. Why not harness the people who live there, or who know the places better than any visiting travel writer? We can have hundreds of contributions about a particular city, recommending bars, museums, hotels and activities -- much more comprehensive and knowledgeable than we could aspire to in the past.

These are all examples of openness and collaboration in our journalism. In some of the above examples, our journalists started something: It could begin with a story or an old-fashioned investigation. In other cases our involvement can be confined to editing or moderating the response.

We are embracing a world where we do not imagine that we, as traditionally trained journalists, are the only experts or authorities. By harnessing the expertise, knowledge and ideas of others we can build something richer than we could alone. We can begin to think of ourselves as a platform for others as well as a publisher of our own.

There are challenges to how we think of journalism implicit in all this. One of the most fundamental questions is about how we think of the basic currency of journalism -- the story. Ten years ago few of us would have questioned what a story was: It was an efficient, pyramid-structured way of telling the reader what happened at a particular point in time. It often had a beginning, a middle and an end. There was generally little by way of response. The next day you'd move onto the next story.

Everything about that tidy world has changed. Smart reporters now often involve their contacts or readers or "communities" in research -- i.e., the "life" of a story may begin well before it is actually published. A reporter may choose not to write a story at all, but to blog it. A blog need not "report" a story in the conventional way: It can link to other reports and to source materials. Within minutes of publication most stories will be subject to challenge or addition or clarification or correction. How we react to, or incorporate, that challenge is of basic concern. A "story," thus told, may have no obvious natural finishing point. The resulting piece of journalism is more fluid than its predecessors. It more closely resembles the real world, which is rarely about neatly cut and dried events with only one narrative version and a finite ending.

The more we learn to involve others in what we do, the richer and more trusted our journalism will become. It is certainly the way the rest of the Web is going. But it is up to us endlessly to experiment and pioneer these new forms of story-telling.

It is difficult to see how that can be done except through being open to, and collaborative with, the countless people who are with us on that journey. I don't see that as particularly Utopian. I think of it as a basic necessity for survival.

Alan Rusbridger is editor in chief of the Guardian Newspaper in London. His editorship has been notable for pioneering the development of the paper's digital edition, twice voted the best newspaper website in the world. He is also noted for fighting, and winning, a number of high-profile legal cases involving free speech issues and corruption in government.

This essay was originally published in September as part of the International Press Institute's report, "Brave News Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape."

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed for 10 years.


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