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!

About Melanie Sill

USC Annenberg executive in residence, former editor of The Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. Currently exploring ways journalism can provide value in the digital age.