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?

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.


  1. says:

    Does this “open journalism” mean that paid media outlets will now start paying unpaid bloggers for all the original reporting they steal from them without credit? I used to be able to get paid for my freelance writing. Now, media outlets won’t buy it–they just steal it outright or rewrite it and run it as their own. This “open journalism” concept seems to be a way of legitimizing that theft with nothing in it for unpaid bloggers–many of whom, like myself, are professional journalists who are doing far more original reporting than most paid journalists.

  2. Hello. What you describe (though I don’t know the particulars) doesn’t fall within what I’d consider open journalism. Ethics are ethics.

    Aggregation is one area where more transparency and development of standards would help. People are doing it many ways, both new sites and old media.

    Collaborations can help build capacity and quality, but I think as people have gained experience it’s becoming clear there need to be clear expectations and a spelling out of what parties contribute or gain.

    The “rewriting without credit” is a longtime complaint in local reporting, so it helps to have specifics.