How to begin practicing open journalism

January 9, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

Journalism is a discipline of action. That’s why “The Case for Open Journalism,” is best made with real-life examples: for instance, online news sites being transparent by listing their missions and funders, reporters posting original source material along with stories or journalists asking and answering questions in public dialogue with readers or viewers.

As we enter a new year, these practices offer starting points for newspeople wanting to make journalism more transparent, responsive and interconnected with civic values and customer needs.

For instance, Bloomberg News recently released for public use detailed spreadsheets on Federal Reserve emergency lending to banks from 2007 to 2009, data that Bloomberg fought to obtain and used to bring to light the extent of the lending and the lack of transparency by banks and the Fed while it was under way. The week before, ProPublica unveiled a new “Explore Sources” tool that exposes source material for key facts in stories for readers to scrutinize. And in November, New York Times columnist David Brooks used his blog to share a series of “life reports” sent in by readers over 70 at Brooks’ invitation, effectively making him a reader’s editor as well as eminent commentator.

Such examples largely are exceptions to the norm of mainstream news coverage, which has kept journalism as primarily a “we report, you comment” enterprise through most of the 40 years since the Internet developed. In the past four or five years, a framework for a new kind of news culture has developed, and with the acceleration of social media sharing and constantly improving mobile technology, journalism is beginning to open up as well.

A simple idea seeds all these examples: It’s time to open up journalism’s processes, not just its outcomes, to more robust and effective interaction with sources, contributors and consumers. A discipline based on bringing information to light needs to be more engaged with the expanding practices and culture of information exchange in the communication era. This is key to improving journalism’s service and expanding its value and effectiveness as a public good.

Open journalism involves creativity and adaptability. Fast, accurate reporting provides one kind of service (with convenience of delivery getting the most attention today). Breaking news situations rest increasingly on tapping social and online networks, not just for eyewitness material but to connect with the online volunteer community and original information from various expert sources. Some topics invite rich participatory efforts but many don’t. Open journalism focuses first on end users and how best to provide information through reporting, vetting, organizing and linking out to information and other sources, then uses the right platform to deliver that service. It might include in-person forums on community issues, new partnerships with nontraditional information providers or live-time interaction using online tools.

In late December, the Poynter website featured another great case study for open journalism, as Eugenia Chien described how the San Francisco website Muni Diaries draws on Facebook and Twitter conversations and two-way interaction with readers to find stories and spur conversation. Chien noted the interplay of contributed content and journalism, different roles that both matter to providing accurate, well-sourced and lively coverage.

Her four lessons involved listening (via social media and site comments, among other channels), respecting the audiences, doing “heavy lifting” (reporting) yourself and being responsive.

“Rather than turning citizens into unpaid journalists, you can get the best out of your readers by creating a space where conversations lead to ideas and stories,” she concluded.

“The Case for Open Journalism Now” draws on thinking and work by many others who believe that technology’s best promise for informing communities and enriching public life comes from its two-way capabilities.

Journalism has been slow to seize this promise but is beginning to wake up to its potential. Through more active and conscious two-way connections, newspeople can improve the substance, accuracy, relevance and service of their journalism — and build trust that can lead to greater support for this work as a public good.

For more practical guidance, there are dozens of links and examples in my discussion paper published in early December by the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and its Annenberg Innovation Lab. “Open journalism” is divided into five main behaviors for news and information providers: transparency, responsiveness, participation, collaboration and networked connection. Sidebars offer action steps in each category and 100 links to ideas, illustrations and arguments (there are many) for using 21st century communication in new ways.

Melanie Sill is the former editor of the Sacramento Bee and the News & Observer in Raleigh; she is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.


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