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?

What is journalism worth?

What is journalism worth? That’s the question journalism managers and entrepreneurs have been trying to figure out ever since it became clear, years ago, that the Internet was disrupting local publishing monopolies.

And so we’ve endured years of conference panels, email exchanges, and blog posts about paywalls and paid content strategies, as publishers try to figure out exactly how much people are now willing to pay for news content.

Lost in this is the realization that people have been telling us – for generations – how much they’re willing to pay for news.

Start with newspapers. For most of my life, newspapers cost 25 or 50 cents per daily copy. Think how many stories appeared in each of those papers – perhaps a dozen or so staff-written stories at smaller papers, up to several dozen or more at a major metro. Add in the wire stories and syndicated features, too, and we’re talking about hundreds of items of content in each daily paper.

Now consider that the cost of the daily paper included home delivery of a physical copy and usually included a fair number of coupons, too. Subtract the value of the delivery, the copy on paper and the coupons. How much of that 25 or 50 cents is left? Not much. Divide that paltry remainder by the number of items of content in that paper. It ought to be clear that the marginal value to a consumer of each newspaper story is pretty much zero.

Let’s think about magazine stories. Magazines cost more, from a couple bucks to several dollars a copy. And they include fewer, though often longer and more in-depth, stories. Again, you’ve got the benefits of home delivery and a copy on paper (but typically not so many coupons as a newspaper, if any). Once you subtract the value of that delivery and the paper copy, you’re left with a much more than you had after you subtracted the same from the cost of a single issue of the newspaper. Divide that remainder by the number of stories in the magazine and you will probably find that each magazine article has some value – though it is small, ranging from a few cents to closer to a dollar for exceptional examples.

Still, it’s better than the newspaper articles’ value.

Now let’s consider books. A typical non-fiction book retails between $10 and $30 and usually has just one item of content within – the narrative of the book itself. (Anthologies are different, of course.) Again, you have the value of the printed copy, but there’s no home delivery (if there were, you paid extra for it) and almost always no coupons. Therefore, the marginal value of the content in a book is substantial – several dollars per work.

That’s the way it’s been in the past, and if you’re willing to face facts, that’s the way it remains today.

Consumers have told us what they believe the value of journalism to be. And in a market economy, consumers’ word is law. Incremental, commodity daily news reports have close to no cash value to the consumer. Longer, more in-depth magazine-style pieces have small but significant value, but almost always under a dollar and usually just a few cents.

Only book-length journalism has substantial per-unit value, in excess of $1 and often much more.

That is why I’ve been writing so much about eBooks lately. Incremental daily journalism traditionally has had no financial value to a publisher beyond its value as a vehicle for advertising. Magazine-length journalism has had some income value, but typically has relied upon a healthy amount of advertising income as well. Only book-length journalism has been able to rely consistently upon the income from its consumer value.

As Internet competition has cut the price of advertising, it has cut the income of publications – such as newspapers and many magazines – that are dependent upon the value of that advertising. But what the Internet took away from journalism in newspapers and magazines, it is giving back in books. Journalists who can produce book-length-and-quality work now have unprecedented ability to publish directly to a global marketplace. And the collapse in advertising revenue is not affecting them one bit.

Yes, there’s more competition in the book publishing space, too. But 1,000 eBook readers deliver a heck of a lot more income to a writer than 1,000 blog or newspaper website readers. If the journalism industry is going to keep professional reporters employed, books and eBooks are going to have to play a much larger role in this industry than they have in the past.

"Mojo" working — on journalism and the Web

If you’re interested in how journalism on the Web might be freed from its often-clunky constructs to flourish in the digital age, you should stop by the website where participants in the new Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership (Mojo for short) are mixing it up this month.

A kind of online summer school, the Mojo Learning Lab is running webinars, discussion, reference pointers and coaching for more than 60 people — those who made the first cut in a process that’s part contest, part collaboration and large part public experiment.

While not alone in trying to harness tech innovation for better news and information flow, the Mojo effort has drawn several hundred idea pitches — for better online discourse and storytelling, better tagging and linking of parts of video and other improvements — that touch on both the problems of current formats and the opportunities of evolving Web tools.

The $2.5 million project is a joint effort of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation. It aims to “embed” 15 people and projects in partner organizations over the next three years. This year’s selection process began with a broad call for ides and meetups around the Web and in several countries and will continue with 20 participants being picked for a two-week “hackfest” in Berlin this fall before five finalists are selected.

Mojo is interesting not just for what it wants to do — connect Web innovation with journalism needs — but also for the way it’s trying to do it.

Instead of spinning winning ideas and their authors off with some prize money, the partnership hopes to develop them in working news operations. The 2012 partners: Al Jazeera English, the BBC,the Boston Globe, the Guardian and Zeit Online.

Organizers also promise, and are hammering home to participants, that winning projects must be built using open Web standards so they can be broadly used for greater impact. The program website describes a process that will train participants to turn concepts into code and offer publicly available demos and reference materials.

Anyone can follow along at the Learning Lab and project website, or via Twitter at #MozNewsLab.

Spreading “lessons of the Web”

All that can sound a little abstract, but a lecture the other day by London based “international developer evangelist” Christian Heilmann of Mozilla connected some of the dots. Heilmann’s focus was on programming standards, particularly regarding HTML5, but his illustrations focused on making news and information on the web easier, simpler and more elegant — both for people who create material and for people who use it, no matter the device, browser or screen type.

Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman,who stopped by the lecture to introduce Heilmann, told participants the Mojo partnership aligns with the foundation’s decision to reach beyond its signature Firefox Web browser to other projects “in particular places where we feel like the future of the Web is going to be shaped.”

“Journalism and media is one of these places,” Surman said. Mozilla, he said, has two main interests, “One, that the lessons of the Web and how organizations like Mozilla operate are things that media can tap into,” and second that new tools and services are based on common standards, including HTML5.

Both Knight and Mozilla hope the Mojo project, beyond the software it produces, can act as an accelerant to the frustratingly slow movement of innovation into the core of news culture.

In a recent interview, Jose Zamora, journalism program associate at the Knight Foundation, referred several times to “bridging the gap” between innovation and organizations with significant news capacity and audiences.

He noted that Knight has committed $27.1 million in the past five years to the Knight News Challenge, a contest-based grant program aimed at jump-starting media innovation, funding 76 projects from 12,000 applications.

Zamora said the Mojo partnership is a different approach with similar goals to the news challenge, aiming to pull ideas and skills of programmers, Web designers, artists and other disciplines into thinking about news and information.

“The environment is changing so fast and it’s constantly moving, that we don’t even know exactly what we looking for,” he said. “It’s probably things that we haven’t even imagined.”

To that end, Zamora said, Mojo reached out worldwide and to many disciplines outside journalism to solicit applicants, few of whom came from traditional news backgrounds.

“In the first round it will be more about technology, but it’s about trying to bridge a divide and create a different culture,” Zamora said.

Mojo’s supporting foundations joined forces after Surman met Alberto Ibarguen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, and recognized “a kindred spirit” in terms of civic aspirations and interests in finding ways to accelerate technology innovation in journalism and news.

The two organizations share a commitment to information as part of civic life and want to “build stuff, not just talk about stuff,” Surman says. As he and the Knight leadership talked, Surman said, he also attracted by the “subversive idea of really getting inside big media organizations and playing inside.”

Can “open” ideal come true?

Yet Mojo has built some large challenges into its plans. The first is trying to stimulate both competition and collaboration — and open prototyping — at a time when ideas for apps and solutions crowd the marketplace.

“Figuring out the balance between contest and collaboration is both intentional and not easy,” Surman said.

Another tall order is Mojo’s promise to make outcomes open to anyone who wants them, an ideal that has not proved out with some Knight News Challenge projects.

“Nobody’s good at taking iterative inventions that are interwoven with something bigger and pushing them back into the world,” Surman said. Mojo’s paid fellows will be working in news organizations with their own content management systems, he noted.

“We won’t know till we get there what it means to do it in the open usefully in ways that others can pick up and run with it,” he said.

Along the way, Mojo’s champions hope to link like-minded people: news and information experts, programmers, designers, videographers and others who want to build better tools for creating and consuming news — and who’ll do so using open platforms and collaboration.

“We want to create a bit of a school of thought around these changes,” said Phillip Smith, a Toronto-based digital publishing consultant leading Mojo’s operational process.

Smith said he talked to dozens of journalists, journalism educators and newsroom programmers before putting out calls for ideas. The other day he blogged an invitation for journalists to lob their suggestions into the Mojo process. He also has posted at PBS MediaShift about Mojo.

The Mojo participants trend more heavily toward code than newsgathering, but offer a notable mix of interests, backgrounds and information passions.

Chris Keller, who’d worked in print and online roles in newspapers before joining to work on audience development, is hoping to develop better topical pages for news issues. Corbin Smith, 23-year-old working on his graduate thesis in Toronto, pitched his idea for a “kind of fact-checking and narrative building platform” that would be associated with a user rather than a web site.

Dan Whaley, a San Francisco entrepreneur who’s founded and sold one major dot-com company and is involved with several nonprofit ventures, was drawn in by a Mojo challenge inviting proposals for taking online discourse “beyond the comment thread.”

“This to me is mankind’s biggest problem, is how do we understand what’s credible?” Whaley said. “In order to figure that out, we have to have a feedback channel that works.”

Whaley submitted the outline for, which he described in the pitch as a platform that “will enable sentence-level (i.e. annotation, or “atomic” commenting) critique of written words combined with a sophisticated yet easy-to-use model of community peer-review.”

Whaley’s bio notes that he wrote the original code and cofounded the online travel reservations company, which Sabre/Travelocity bought in 2000 for a widely reported price of $750 million. isn’t dependent on the Mojo process, but Whaley said he was impressed by the participants and enjoying discussing his ideas with like-minded people.

“This challenge is kind of like the hashtag for people who are interested in solving this problem,” Whaley said. “In that way it’s attracting people like myself with a wide set of backgrounds.”

Does Web innovation need foundations?

Mojo organizers say they’ve heard some complaints and criticism, mostly in email and project comments. There were questions about whether technology innovation could happen in newsrooms at all. Some newsrooms questioned the selection of the first five partners — operations that seemed to have a leg up already on Web innovation.

There are practical concerns, too. Most legacy news organizations run on closed or proprietary content management systems, built for print or broadcast, that don’t afford easy integration with new technology. Incoming Mozilla journalism leader Daniel Sinker, who will take over Mojo’s leadership, noted that some newsrooms have found ways to work around such obstacles — implementing new features at the front end of systems rather than the back end, for instance, or building apps that work outside the CMS.

“Most limitations around CMS are cultural limitations,” Sinker said.

Others wondered why there was a need at all for a Mojo project, given the seemingly infinite supply of ideas, new tools and startup ventures for online information.

Zamora, however, said Knight sees gaps that the marketplace isn’t filling and a need — as a foundation focused on journalism’s changing role in the digital era — to actively promote news and media innovation. He also emphasized the impact that could come with working through Mozilla, an organization that’s “of the Web, not just on the Web.”

Despite all the players competing on Web technology, Zamora added, few take an open approach that “allows everyone to use services or products… or to learn from their projects, successes or failures.”

Success, he said, will be measured not just by the news partnerships and new products themselves but by whether Mojo succeeds in creating ripples that carry out many circles beyond its core.

“I think one of the main things would be to create this new culture of news organizations being more proactive and more open to constant changing on the Web,” Zamora said.

At Mozilla, Surman also hopes that Mojo’s ideas infect newsrooms. Mojo’s circle of influence seems modest so far – voting was light on the idea pitches and only 24 nonparticipants were following the Learning Lab early this week, according to the web site counter. Surman wants more “community-building” — and more impact.

At the end of a year success would show up not just in the newsroom projects but in relationship building among participants, the broader Web community and among the news partners and their business structures, he said.

He hopes the Mojo project will lead newsrooms to hire more people like those chosen for fellowships “to work on projects like the projects we introduce,” Surman said, describing “a cultural transformation piece, where decisions are being made.”