My National Press Club talk on 'The Case for Open Journalism Now'

Last week my discussion paper: “The Case for Open Journalism Now: A new framework for informing communities,” was published online by the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The paper and website result from my work this past semester as Executive in Residence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Here’s my speech presenting this paper, given on Monday, Dec. 12, as part of a panel at the National Press Club titled “Opening Up Journalism: A Culture Change.” The event was hosted by USC Annenberg and moderated by its Director of Journalism and Professor Geneva Overholser. Nikki B. Usher, assistant professor or journalism at George Washington University and recent Annenberg, Ph.d., presented her findings on the growing influence of open-source software thinking in newsrooms.

I’ve modified the opening for this blog post.
Today I’m here to talk to you about my online discussion paper called “The Case for Open Journalism Now.”

The only thing I regret about this title is that I didn’t capitalize the word NOW — or perhaps add an exclamation point. I feel a sense of urgency about the need for change that can increase journalism’s connection and relevance in the digital era – and that can help build support for this work as a public good. Open journalism offers an orienting idea for such change.

I’m encouraged by ways this is beginning to happen among new newsrooms and also among some traditional media. Nearly every day I find a new example. For instance, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column in late October asking his readers over 70 to share their “life reports.” He began publishing them in November, putting one per day on his blog. This isn’t a traditional role for an esteemed op-ed columnist, yet it made instant sense to thousands of readers who responded. And it’s been wonderful to read.

More examples abound among online only and startup sites and new entities that use information to connect communities. I’ve linked to dozens of examples of open journalism in my web paper. I also put together a hundred other links to arguments, ideas and illustrations of open journalism as a sidebar element. Some of those links connect to blog posts, reports and speeches by a variety of people who have argued in recent times for the need and potential for more open approaches in journalism.

Despite all the recent action, I’m discouraged by how slow journalism has been in seizing the opportunities of two-way communication to improve what we do. I mean improve journalism — not just by using new tools but by forging better relationships between newspeople and those who support and depend on our work – and with others who inform communities.

It’s been 40 years since the internet was developed and 20 since the web came into being. New media are not even new anymore. Yet too much of our energy in journalism has focused on new ways to deliver old ideas instead on fresh approaches to provide what people need today.

We need a conceptual leap now in how we define journalism’s role and how we do its jobs. We need to focus first on the service we’re providing and then on how to deliver it.

I like this idea of service because it applies to both civic and commercial value. That’s important as we’re asking people to support journalism financially in increasing ways through digital subscriptions, donations and philanthropy to fund important coverage. I might pay for the service of someone keeping watch on my local government and telling me when something needs my attention. Specialized information and tailored delivery also are services. People certainly pay to be entertained. Many others support public media because they believe in the mission, not just the format.

Open journalism begins with this notion of service. It recognizes that many people in our society have a stake in quality journalism and can contribute to it. And it applies ideas that have a lot of currency in journalism to the processes of journalism itself.

What are those ideas? Well, let’s start with transparency. Open journalism involves being proactive in telling consumers who we are, what we aim to do and how we operate. How do we know what we report and how can you check our work? With so many competitors providing information and news, consumers need ways to separate credible sources from others. This is one area where journalism providers can do better without new cost.

Open journalism involves responsiveness. If your organization offers an invitation to comment or asks people to follow you on social networks, but you don’t answer questions posted in those spaces, what is your message? Where is the value?

Open journalism says that news providers are accountable. Most newsrooms think they are, but I invite you to visit mainstream news sites online and try to quickly find out — I mean in less than 3 clicks — who’s in charge, how to report an error or how to give a news tip.

Open journalism involves dialogue and participation among newspeople, sources and contributors. This happens as part of the journalism rather than as an add-on. It can involve user photos and comments but it isn’t a forgotten corner of the website labeled “user generated content.”

And open journalism works through networked connections. It links out — to source material and to relevant web references. It establishes news people as active participants – in their roles as journalists – in a universe of information sharing.

The ideas of open journalism lend themselves heavily to digital communication but extend to all the ways newspeople can serve communities. It can involve in-person meetings, bringing the community into newsrooms or using text messaging or cross-media partnerships to connect more deeply. It draws on user input as the starting point for some coverage.

I had two main aims with this open journalism paper. First, I wanted to put a name on a cultural shift I see happening around journalism – though it’s happening mostly outside the main flow of news. Second, I’ve laid out a case for moving the open idea to the core of how we think about and practice journalism.

As I said earlier, I feel a sense of urgency about this. Part of that comes from the concern we all feel about how to support and sustain independent, fact-based reporting on public affairs. But I’m also impatient for greater change because of all the opportunities still in front of us. My open journalism idea isn’t about saving what went before. It’s about improving journalism for the years ahead.

My friend Howard Weaver, the former news vice president at McClatchy, thinks the biggest change the Internet brought for journalism wasn’t technology itself. It was the end of the gatekeeper role. Yet even though we know that’s true, and we’ve known it for years, we’re just beginning to develop the other roles that make journalism valuable.

I’ve been inspired by many other thinkers, including Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I helped Bill organize a conference at the end of my Nieman fellowship year on how the internet would affect journalism. This was in 1994, and as Nieman curator, Bill was seeing ahead much farther than most people. Bill and Tom later wrote The Elements of Journalism, an essential book on journalism’s responsibilities to the public. Last year they added a book called Blur, which included some fresh ideas about the functions of journalism in the communication age. Those include familiar roles such as investigator and new ones such as smart aggregator.

In describing the need for newspeople to be more nimble and creative in how they serve consumers, Tom said this to me: “We are caught in an ancient confusion between how we do things and what our function is.”

The work of news has just begun to break old patterns that focus on 20th-century, one-way publishing and broadcasting routines. Social media and networked communication offer a fresh chance at effective two-way exchange. By routinely letting people know that we’re interested in what they know, we change the expectation. By simplifying ways for people to contribute, as Jay Rosen and others suggest, we improve the quality of the contributions. By being more transparent about how quality journalism works, and what it takes to produce it, we can build more support and trust for this work as a public good.

The open journalism ideas I’ve outlined are only some of what’s possible. Once you start thinking this way, the prospects seem limitless. But ideas alone won’t do it. We need to figure out how to break down the processes of journalism to begin with function and then turn to form.

The digital-first idea that’s informing a lot of newsroom reorganizations offers some promise for opening up journalism. For instance, my paper cites several examples of open journalism practices among newsrooms that are part of Journal Register, the company whose mantra is Digital First.

But we have to go beyond building production routines that simply replace a printing press cycle with a multiplatform cycle. We need to build relationship and community connection into the processes of newsgathering and into its starting points. This is key to making journalism less insular and more outwardly focused. That’s why open journalism holds so much promise.

One of the great opportunities of networking is collaboration, which has increased in journalism, with much more promise ahead. More significant is the vast jump in knowledge sharing among journalists. The open-source software movement in journalism connects our work with other disciplines such as science, social sciences and technology – and opens up new possibilities for how we can be relevant and valuable in our communities.

I’m looking forward to hearing Nikki Usher’s remarks on the open-source idea in journalism. But before I close, I want to do two things. First, I want to thank Carola Weil, USC’s director of international and strategic partnerships in Washington, for organizing this event.

Second, I want to issue my own invitation – please join the conversation online. My project is a Future of Journalism effort of The Annenberg Innovation Lab and is built to invite comment and host debate. There’s a handout here with the URL and of course you can find the report easily yourself.

Let’s seize this moment to open journalism – NOW!

Seeking help on an idea in progress: Can open journalism work?

I’m looking for help in addressing a puzzle and exploring a promising idea called open journalism.

I arrived in June at USC Annenberg as executive in residence after 30 years in newspaper and online journalism, the last nine as top editor at The News & Observer of Raleigh and The Sacramento Bee. Since then I’ve been digging into questions that had become increasingly urgent to me as an editor.

They boil down to this: How do we fundamentally change the ways journalism works to serve people better in the digital era? How do we change not just the technology of journalism, but its culture?

In the past, newsrooms defined success in proprietary terms: “owning the story,” or beating the competition. If people wanted to know, they had to come to us — these were our stories, after all. This idea has never really held true. Now it is failing, out of step in a culture that is producing its own information and leans more toward sharing stories than owning them.

Open journalism captures a different mindset, one we’re starting to see in breaking news coverage and web journalism. It says: Everyone owns the story. Let’s all get it right.

Expert journalism is still needed, maybe more than ever, for reporting, verifying, providing context and holding institutions accountable. Yet it’s only part of the picture as people act, individually or collectively, to create ways to generate or share information — new capacity for community knowledge.

I’m wondering how we hook up the wires to power a new idea, one that makes good journalism a joint effort of experts and the public and that supports quality. Open journalism, not a new phrase but still a nascent idea, offers a framework.

I talked recently with Brian Boyer, news apps editor at the Chicago Tribune, who seems like one of the happiest guys in journalism. Boyer is an open-source believer; his team blogs and posts all of its software for others to use. Recently, he ordered T-shirts for his team that say ‘Show Your Work.”

That’s the ethos journalism needs now. But how do we get from “owning the story” to “show your work?”

Journalism isn’t software code, but it is a discipline with standards and techniques that, like code, can be replicated and disseminated. It can be worked on openly, documented and shared, which is where I think the open source idea can be instructive.

We have to remember that news companies didn’t invent journalism and don’t own it. Like the people who named open-source software (not that long ago, in 1998), those who want a public good definition for journalism have a chance to say what that means in a competitive, fragmented marketplace.

Open culture doesn’t mean you don’t compete (transparency and responsiveness are business advantages) or that everything is shared. It can save on costs and spur innovation. Journalism is ripe for it.

This open journalism theory is an idea in progress, one I’d like to test and flesh out. (Below is some background on what I’ve been exploring) What can you add?

I’ll be sharing my conclusions on the USC Annenberg site and hope to offer a compendium of ideas. I’m going for 100, but that too might change.

This week I’ll be at the Online News Association conference in Boston, so if you’re there, look for me. Meantime, please respond via comments to this post (cross-posted at my personal Posterous blog) or via:

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: melaniesill

G+: Melanie Sill


Background: Here’s some of the territory I’ve been exploring:

The news discussion right now dwells heavily on distribution: platforms, channels, apps. I’m focusing on the labor-intensive work of original reporting on public affairs, particularly at the state and local level. That’s where news company contraction has left major holes. That gap also is where we have opportunity, in a changing marketplace, to advance a different kind of journalism.

A few influential people have outlined ideas for open journalism, yet so far no definition has stuck. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, has used the term open-source journalism and proved that transparency doesn’t impede competitive success. Media critics have argued via books and blogs for practices that redefine the relationship between people who do journalism and those who contribute to it and use it.

Outside the news business, people are working on community issues and information gaps in new ways. I’ve been following a Stanford student-led nonprofit called California Common Sense and its government “transparency data portal,” launched over the summer. didn’t replace something that used to be done by newspapers or television. Instead, its corps of student programmers and analysts built a new web site that draws in government spending data of all sorts, presents it visually and invites users to scrutinize it. The site quickly caused a stir and plans to expand.

In Vermont, a restricted-access neighborhood site called Front Porch Forum has created authentic information exchange among people who live near one another, also engaging local elected officials. Its founder, Michael Wood-Lewis, says he’s not replicating journalism but “growing audience for local journalism.”

And as Hurricane Irene approached the East Coast, I was watching the nonprofit Crisis Commons site line up volunteers online to build a wiki-type information resource, which seemed to attract little notice from major news sites. From my sideline seat I wondered how journalists and entities such as Crisis Commons could work together more effectively in such situations.

These are just a few of a fast-multiplying number of groups being formed to provide information or work on community issues, mostly online, in new ways. They are resources for improving journalism, doing things media haven’t really done before, yet seem mostly untapped so far even as publishers have less to spend on original reporting.

It’s hard to talk about what’s hopeful in journalism without addressing what’s worrisome — the rapid decline in the numbers of journalists doing original reporting at the state and local level, the financial precariousness of both new and old media. Almost everyone running a newsroom of any size or funding source has some question about how long the money will last.

Yet open culture is a business principle of our times involving transparency, responsiveness and a focus on end users (citizens, readers, viewers). Journalism needs those ideas to be valuable and relevant. It needs open-source tools to reduce costs, collaboration to build capacity and two-way communication with audiences to inform strategy and tactics.

A framework for open journalism has emerged over the past few years, particularly in the way web culture and tools have opened up knowledge sharing. Along with organized efforts, countless peer-to-peer touches occur across blogs, Twitter and at meetups and conferences. Journalism has back channels where people are help each other sort out technically challenging work. Some are new, some aren’t: for instance, the NICAR-L listserv at Investigative Reporters and Editors, where journalists help each other every day on working with data and using new tools.

Hacker-journalists are joining newsrooms (developer jobs are among the hottest in the industry) and bringing new ideas, skills and attitudes into the mix. They’re connecting with a broader data explosion online that’s connecting journalism with science, government and others who’re turning numbers into stories and meaning.

Universities, foundations and philanthropy are active players in creating acts of journalism now along with learning and experimentation. Startup newsrooms, grant-funded enterprises and other new branches of journalism are helping each and are developing partnerships with new and old media. Professional organizations and journalism think tanks have amped up training. And collaboration is happening in some of the most territorial work of journalism, investigative reporting.

Journalism is opening up.

Yet much of this is occurring outside journalism proper, and many people I speak with see scant progress in mainstream news. The knowledge-sharing among journalists isn’t reaching beyond them to other communicators and users.

I think we’re still missing many chances, partly because we need to work on more systemic approaches to reinventing journalism relationships.

Here’s an example of one such system: American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, a system of signing up members and tapping their experience through email and web postings. The network has grown to include 120,000 registered sources tapped by 45 news partners in commercial and nonprofit media. Through the network, now expanding, journalists can solicit people’s knowledge to directly inform and improve reporting.

The idea of tapping into people’s experience is hard to debate; lacking systems to do it, resource-strapped newsrooms often don’t.

What’s the next breakthrough? What systems and frameworks does open journalism need to succeed not just as a concept, but as a new set of practices supported by people because they find them valuable?

The "hyperlocal" lessons of America's weekly newspapers

In her new book, award-winning broadcast journalist Judy Muller goes deep into the experiences of small-town and rural newspapers to draw lessons for anyone passionate about doing community journalism right.

While her book focuses on print weeklies, Muller’s subject matter is just as relevant for the growing number of online editors and independent publishers working to serve neighborhoods and towns — what’s now called hyperlocal news.

“Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns” takes us off the main highway — not just geographically, but away from the big-media conversation that dominates journalism discussion these days. And like physical journeys to new places, this one rewards us with insight and appreciation — for the sometimes-heroic, sometimes-flawed, always influential small-town news people and for Muller, our enthusiastic and honest tour guide.

Muller, a veteran television and radio journalist and associate professor at USC Annenberg, is a fan of these papers. She announces right away that journalism is “alive and kicking in small towns all across America thanks to the editors of weekly newspapers who, for very little money and a fair amount of aggravation, keep on telling it like it is.” Some 8,000 weeklies operate in the U.S., she reports, and “most of them are doing quite well,” with less disruption from Internet competition so far than national and metro dailies.

Whether or not that will last, the core of “Emus” isn’t about a publishing platform, it’s about the role local journalism and the people who produce it play in small towns and rural communities across America.

Online editor/publishers who have taken on the job of informing local communities might harvest many lessons from the rich traditions of weekly newspapers: How do you report on conflict as well as community events? How do you handle stories of high interest but intensely intimate subject matter, especially when someone begs you not to publish their name? What makes it fun?

Being journalistically honest in a community takes courage, which Muller details in stories of steel-spined leaders such as W. Horace Carter, whose Tabor City Tribune in North Carolina campaigned against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. Carter persisted in the face of death threats, eventually turning the tide of local opinion, helping bring prosecution of dozens of Klansmen and sharing the first Pulitzer Prize (with the Washington, N.C., News Reporter) ever awarded to a weekly paper. She features several others equally admirable for gutsy, unwavering willingness to expose local corruption.

Muller also recognizes the everyday heroism that will resonate, too, with online community editors who are writing, editing, posting photos and videos, selling ads and going to community events. Publishing through good times and hard times takes constancy, which she describes in editor/owners who rarely vacation, do most jobs themselves and who sometimes are just one or two advertising accounts away from losing money.

While she doesn’t dig deep into the flaws and harm that less-ethical community papers can bring, Muller doesn’t ignore the rough edges of these institutions. With a keen eye and a light hand, she traces the complex journalism story behind a conflict in eastern Montana that got national coverage when the town of Hardin offered to house prisoners from Guantanamo Bay at a new detention facility that was unoccupied. One of the players was a seasoned daily journalist, newly arrived as editor of one of three community papers, who ended up crosswise not just with local political leaders but also his own colleagues.

Who was right? Muller lets you decide, but she shares her own questions in untangling the ego conflicts, viewpoint clashes and competing alliances in this case, a classic illustration of how personal community journalism can be to those who practice it and those who read it.

“Emus” explores the lighter side, too — the eternal appeal of funny police blotter items, the unapologetic styles of curmudgeonly editors and the tactful omissions of the local obituary. Behind all this, Muller shows us, is journalism informed heavily by geographic proximity — not the view from nowhere, but the view from where the community lives.

She mentions “Harold Starr of the Herald-Star,” the fictional small town weekly editor in Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and his motto: “I have to live here, too, you know.” Muller’s book, however, is better than fiction because it is deeply, richly reported.

The author visited many of her subjects personally and interviewed townfolk, other journalists and multiple sources to tell each paper’s story. Her characters are flesh and bone, real people, the kind of people many of us would like to know.

Like oh-so-many other journalists, I started my professional career at a small-town paper and learned how influential a local editor and publisher could be in a tiny community. I took pictures of a tomato that resembled Abraham Lincoln, rode around all night with local sheriff’s deputies and suffered when a story I wrote, featuring a rape victim who wanted her story told, was killed by an editor. With two daily journalism internships under my belt, I was certain the paper was wrong. In reading Muller’s book, I’m reminded that such decisions aren’t simple.

“Emus” demonstrates that the best local journalism begins with community connection and knowledge — not just with a dateline — and is heavily dependent on those who lead it. No matter what the platform, journalism at this level can serve communities powerfully or fail them significantly. Muller makes us glad for the “hyperlocal” stalwarts who do things right.

“Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns,”246 pages, University of Nebraska Press.