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December 28, 2004

Top Ten Ideas of '04: Open Source Journalism, Or "My Readers Know More Than I Do."

The audience always knew more, but it didn't have a network for pulling its scattered self together. An atomized public needed the journalist to know for it. That's how we got a professionalized press. Now Gillmor says his readers know more than he does. Open Source journalism builds on that insight.

Background is PressThink’s Top Ten Ideas for 2004. (“The year in press think, as it were.”) I’m explicating them. Here I am on Number 4.

4. Open Source Journalism. Or: “My readers know more than I do.” I’ve said it many times already, but in Dan Gillmor’s statement—an admission of fact—there is deep truth.

“But it was always true,” he likes to say.

“But you have to be open to it,” I like to say.

It was always true that the readership of the San Jose Mercury News knew more than the editors and writers employed by the Merc. But so what? There was no way the readers could awaken and mobilize that knowledge or use it to inform themselves. There was no easy way for them to communicate horizontally (also called peer-to-peer) in order to share and sift what they knew.

The audience always knew more than the journalist about a great many things, but it didn’t have a network for pulling its scattered self together. The public needed the press to know for it. These are the foundations of a professionalized press.

That was then. Gillmor saw, long before others in his profession, that once an effective horizontal network (the Web) arrived, professional journalism had a natural competitor. It’s not that blogs will suddenly rise up and “replace” the traditional media in the market to inform the public.

It’s that blogging is only one part of a larger development—citizen’s media—that forces smart people in the press to confront the paradox of the self-informing public, previously thought to exist only at the level of the primordial village. This is what is about. It’s consciously pointing back in time to the image and scale of a self-informing public, where news passed over the back fence.

Everywhere the cost of putting like-minded people in touch with each other is falling. (Idea number 8 on my Top Ten list.) So is the cost of pooling their knowledge. The Net is ideal for horizontal communication— peer to peer, stranger to stranger, voter to voter, reader to reader. When you talk about the Web era in journalism think: audience atomization overcome. Then you will be on the right track.

Think: media tools in public hands. We are in the middle of a producer’s revolution in media, also called Citizens Media by its great promoter and sage, Jeff Jarvis, following in the steps of others, who recognized what a big shift this potentially was.

The term open source journalism, which I have used to describe aspirations in Greensboro, came into public use with a particular event in publishing, a sign of the times that surfaced online five years ago. This is from a 1999 account in Salon by Andrew Leonard, entitled Open Source Journalism:

Oct. 8, 1999 | Censorship of the nerdocracy or a giant leap forward for collaborative online journalism? Or both? On Monday, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the “international journal of threat analysis” (a must-read on your average CIA spook’s list), solicited feedback on an article about “cyberterrorism” from the geeks who hang out at the Slashdot “news for nerds” Web site. On Thursday, after the Slashdot members sliced and diced Jane’s story into tiny little pieces, an editor at the magazine announced that the story would not be published as planned. Instead, the editor, Johan J Ingles-le Nobel, declared that he would write a new article incorporating the Slashdot comments, and would compensate Slashdot participants whose words made it into the final copy.

That’s distributed knowledge being brought to bear by Slashdot to improve and correct journalism. It was always the case that the readers knew more than Jane’s Intelligence Review about cyber-terrorism, but Leonard told of a case where that knowledge had been brought usefully forward. And better reporting resulted. (Get it?) The potential was clearly there. (See this too, a pdf file.)

Open Source journalism is all journalism that derives from the Janes Intelligence Review case, which was, in fact, “a giant leap forward for collaborative online journalism.” (There were other leaps too, the most important of which is Oh My News.) Not satisfied with that definition? Simpler one: Dan Gillmor says his readers know more than he does. Open Source journalism builds on that insight, which is foundational.

After the election we saw another good example— an exercise in distributed political reporting via blog. It was not about tapping what the audience already knew, as the Jane’s example was. This was getting the audience to go out and “know more” than the individual journalist (blogger) ever could. This was mobilizing the distributed troops. It happened at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s blog.

When I spotted it (Nov. 19) I wrote Jeff Jarvis an e-mail, hoping he’d do something at Buzzmachine:

Jeff: Josh Marshall is engaged in distributed fact gathering. He’s having readers of his blog call their Republican Congress person to ask if they voted for the Delay rule exempting Rep. Tom Delay from loss of his leadership position if he’s indicted. The vote was a voice vote with a handful of no’s, according to Republican honchos in the House. But the votes were not recorded. So Marshall is trying to get them recorded.

When constituents call, it’s more effective than the national press, which isn’t even trying to find out how the Rep’s voted. Great example of blogging doing journalism one better. Note also that Marshall gives Republican House members credit when they are being up front about their vote, even when they supported this dubious rule change. Of course many are ashamed of their vote, so they give callers the run-around. But isn’t that information too?

That’s open source reporting coming true. Jarvis had other ideas for it:

You ask your readers to call their congressmen to find out a stance and put together a chart (a wiki would work better for this than blog comments, by the way). You have your fellow bloggers each tell you whether the newspapers and TV and radio stations in their town covered a story you think is important and even have them all call the papers’ editors to ask why not… But it’s not restricted to bloggers alone: A smart reporter could start a blog and ask readers what’s happening in the communities they cover.

First journalist to do it is going to get a lot of recognition. Create a newsy weblog that succesfully “pulls” knowledge in by tapping open source tools and the spirit of earlier examples like the open source software movement. In an earlier post, I advised Greensboro News-Record to do just that. “Create one or two blogs, the main purpose of which is not to project the author’s knowledge… but to draw knowledge from its dispersed location around town and around the Web.” I said these blogs would be “learning machines run by a journalist.”

Learning machines. First journalist to create one that really, really works is going to have a big effect. It will happen soon enough. Or it already is…

On December 9, Dan Gillmor announced he is leaving the Mercury News for a start up company that would be open source. Clearly, open source journalism is a consequential—and more and more intelligible—idea these days. But you have to be open to it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links.

“Collectively we’ll cover the world.” Doug Muder at writes: “the Internet empowers the determined amateur.” From his resource page Open Source Political Reporting:

So here’s my plan: When an issue raises my interest and I can’t find the kind of reporting I want to see in the mainstream media, I’m going to go it myself, and post the results here. I hope other people do the same. If enough determined amateurs do their homework and post the results on the Internet, collectively we’ll cover the world.

Will Richardson, blogging evangelist and Supervisor of Instructional Technology and Communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ, writes the weblogg-ed blog. It’s about how the same tools transforming media are going to transform the schools— teaching and learning, K-12 and in college. Richardson, a loyal PressThink-er, took my Top Ten Ideas for 2004 post and re-wrote it for educators. His list includes “legacy educators,” “teacher said, students did,” and others. Thanks, Will.

Fortune magazine in its 10 Tech Trends feature: Why There’s No Escaping the Blog: “Freewheeling bloggers can boost your product—or destroy it. Either way, they’ve become a force business can’t afford to ignore.” The article, well-researched, is by David Kirkpatrick and Daniel Roth. The focus is on business and marketing rather than politics or media:

The blog—short for weblog—can indeed be, as Scoble and Gates say, fabulous for relationships. But it can also be much more: a company’s worst PR nightmare, its best chance to talk with new and old customers, an ideal way to send out information, and the hardest way to control it…. Says [Six Apart] CEO Barak Berkowitz: “When everybody has a tool for talking to the rest of the world, you can’t hide from your mistakes. You have to face them. Once you commit to an open dialogue, you can’t stop.”

Curiously, the only links in an article (which explains the importance of links) are to the Fortune 500 companies mentioned. So Microsoft gets a link, Six Apart does not. Weird, huh?

Hugh Hewettt: A Unified Theory of the Old Media Collapse. “Asymmetrical tolerance and the collapse of Big Media credibility: How 2004 brought doom to legacy media.” (Weekly Standard, Dec. 28, 2004)

Foundational: The Media Center report We Media: “How audiences are shaping the future of news and information.” Written by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis. Edited by J.D. Lasica, senior editor Online Journalism Review

Dan Gillmor in OJR, 2001: “I doubt there is a beat at any newspaper or publication or program where it is not the case that the readers collectively know more than the reporter,” he says. “That shouldn’t come as any great revelation. Anyone who’s dealt with networks knows that the network knows more than the individual.”

Greensboro News & Record reader in comments at the Lex Files: “One more thing: if you use my idea don’t EVER use the term open-source journalism again. Ever. It should be banned. Do we really need more jargon that sounds like Dilbert dreamed it up?”

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 28, 2004 12:58 AM