Story location:

June 22, 2006

Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism

It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?

(Related post… Case Study for an Unconference: Ken Sands brings to BloggerCon IV.)

Users-Know-More-Than-We-Do Journalism
BloggerCon IV, San Francisco
June 23, 10:30-11:45 am

Dan Gillmor’s famous insight, “readers know more than I do,” makes great intuitive sense. But making sense is not enough. In fact it’s not clear yet how we can take ideas and developments like… distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am production, decentralized newsgathering, we media… and turn them into actual investigations, published reports that draw attention because they reveal what was previously unknown— you know, news.

In this session (here’s the BloggerCon IV schedule and the participants) we are going to figure out how we can use the Net to actually do readers-know-more-than-we-do reporting (also known as open source journalism) and break news with it. Because if users really do know more than “we” do; if it really is possible to tap that kind of distributed knowledge and inform a larger public with it, then we should be able to do stories with these methods that would elude more traditional forms of reporting… Right?

But how? I mean exactly how? That will be my question. By attending you affirm that you may have part of the answer.

It doesn’t have to be a big national ground-shaking story right off the mark. We need more demos, interesting little projects. They can be modest as long as they’re real. They might begin with local stories or matters of interest to a specialized public. The first story ever described as open source journalism (see Andrew Leonard’s 1999 article for Salon) was about cyber-terrorism. It was published in Jane’s Intelligence Review, the “international journal of threat analysis.” But first it was Slash-dotted and improved; therein lies the tale. The readers knew more than Jane’s did, and the editors decided that was a good thing.

Bingo. Seven years later we’re still trying to collect for having bingo back then.

I’m the discussion leader for this one. If you come, don’t expect to debate whether it’s desirable or possible to do reporting in the “distributed” style. John Dvorak can stay home. We’ll assume that it is desirable (because we need better journalism) and it is possible (or why did god give us the Internet?) Then we will tap the intelligence in the room and try to advance the ball on how users-know-more-than-journalists reporting can start to payoff in the currency of news.

That means asking:

I see it as a “put up or shut up” moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. So come to this session if you want in on that.

Now in no way am I suggesting that open source journalism is untried, a “new” idea or that it’s tabula rasa out there. There are cases on record. If you have one that’s illuminating, let’s hear it. Right now the need is for more trials, more fire, and many more collaborations going on so we can see what difference social networks make in the art and science of investigative reporting.

Any given BloggerCon is about advancing the art and science of weblogs. Poo-bah Dave Winer says the theme for this is “empowering the users.” In October 2005 I tried to imagine a project that would demonstrate how big the potential gains were, if you could empowers users. My blue-sky, not-entirely-original proposal then: “A blog-organized, red-blue, 50-state coalition of citizen volunteers who would read and attempt to decipher every word of every bill Congress votes on and passes next year.”

And of course tell the nation what’s really in its laws. No news organization has ever done it. I don’t think anyone outside the industry knows how… yet. On Friday we just wanna advance the ball.

As usual with the BloggerCon “unconference” format: no experts, no panels, no speeches, no lecturn. (Dave Winer explains: “First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience…”)

Going to be at BloggerCon? Introduce yourself here, please. And if you’ll be there and want to help out, great, e-mail me. If you have ideas, suggestions (links to look at) but cannot be there, that’s why god invented comments. More next week….

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

See the case study for the BloggerCon discussion. It’s from the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, an innovative newspaper that wants to do more. Online director Ken Sands wrote it.

Wanna listen? Here’s the MP3 file for the BloggerCon discussion. (1 hour 12 minutes.)

Amy Grahan at Poynter’s E-media blog gives it a thumbs-up review (July 14): “I just got around to listening to the podcast of the Bloggercon IV session on citizen journalism, held June 23 in San Francisco. Wow! If you want your mind blown in a ‘what is journalism’ way, definitely [have] a listen.”

Also see the comments to Amy’s post.

The editors at asked me to look across ten years of Net journalism. The results were posted June 19: Web Users Open the Gates.

Newspaper, radio, television … Web! It made sense at the time. But in the 10 years following the birth of, the Net and its publishing platform, the World Wide Web, have proved harder to master, scarier to get wrong and more thrilling to get right than expected. Wilder, and discontinuous with the past in a way those coming out of traditional journalism never could have imagined.

Among the items covered: the “re-purposing content” error in the mid-90s, the effect of all sites being equi-distant from the reader, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the power shift from producers to users, the huge expansion in press criticism, Andrew Heyward’s “end of omniscience,” Mark Cuban’s blog,’s live chats and the Tsunami coverage. Plus: “If the unthinkable cannot be ignored, professional correctness loses its power.” Read.

There’s also A Brief History of, part of the same package marking the Post site’s tenth birthday, along with As the Internet Grows Up, the News Industry Is Forever Changed by Post staff writer Patricia Sullivan.

They said forever.

From the BBC’s Kevin Anderson, writing at “The London bombings of 7 July 2005 were a watershed moment for ‘user-generated content’.”

It’s important to note that most so-called citizen journalists don’t consider themselves journalists, just members of social networks that share information of interest amongst themselves.

See also Anderson’s post responding to this one at Corante, “We used to talk about broadcast networks, but the future is obviously in social networks. What is the role of the journalist in the age of social networks?”

And a further follow-up from K.A.: Technical and cultural issues for ‘Networked Journalism’ Part I.

“Networked journalism” is the term Jeff Jarvis says should replace “citizen journalism.” Read why:

“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news.

…Julian Sanchez of Reason said in email that he’s using “distributed journalism” and I agree with that. I use it, too, in certain company. Only problem is, when I say that in front of newspaper folks, they think trucks.

Amy Gahran at Poynter:

When I talk to people about citizen journalism and other kinds of participatory media, often people who are above the age of 40 or who are print or broadcast media veterans contend, “Well, most people don’t care about participatory media, so it doesn’t matter. You’re talking about a very small world.”

…To which I generally respond, “Well, ‘most people’ would rather watch Wheel of Fortune or Days of Our Lives than World News Tonight. But then, quality journalism is rarely intended for indiscriminate, lowest-common-denominator audiences. Participatory media matters because it’s where the most influential part of the mainstream media’s audience is increasingly turning, now and in the near future. And the news business does — and should — should care very much about the influence it wields, directly and indirectly.”

Good reply to something I also hear.

Susan Crawford—new media law professor and blogger—heard Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour on “On Point.” She also read this post. Suppose we asked him the question: “Can we take good ideas like… distributed knowledge, social networks… and put them to work to break news?” Crawford:

Jim Lehrer’s answer would be, “No way.” No such thing. Professionals gather news and assess what’s a story and what isn’t. Just a small matter of finding a sustainable business model, but we’re not leaving.

More Susan channeling Lehrer: “There will always be a demand for high-quality, professional news reporting. And so therefore it will always exist. Yes, people fire off emails and bloggers do their posts, but what they’re all doing is reacting to the news — and where did the news come from? From professional reporters.”

I’ve heard it too many times to even listen any more. But I’m glad Susan is.

Dan Gillmor, head of the Center for Citizens Media, in the comments:

What we’re discussing here are projects that can be broken down into little pieces where lots and lots of people can ask one question, or look at one document, or solve on piece of a big puzzle. Then the results are aggregated, parsed and reassembled into a coherent whole. It’ll almost always require some folks at the center. We used to call them editors.


Lex Alexander of the News & Record in Greensboro, NC reacts in the comments: “At the local level, we’re still struggling to find a way to do this. Leading a group of nonprofessionals in an investigative project for the N&R and participants’ respective blogs is my dream gig at this point.”

Mark Howard of News Corpse raises a problem in comments: “Once an investigative project is put on line in an open forum (in order to exploit the knowledge of a broad community), the story is also revealed and can be either usurped by other ‘reporters’ or pre-debunked by partisan opponents.” It’s an issue. But there are answers to that. See Paul Lukasiak’s reply.

In Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media (Sep. 29, 2005) I discussed an example of “distributed reporting” and what happened when traditional news professionals reacted to it.

In November of 2004, Josh Marshall got mad when Republicans voted to change ethics rules to benefit their Majority Leader Tom DeLay: (“There was a vote. It wasn’t recorded. There’s no official tally. But everyone who was there was asked to say yea or nea. Why shouldn’t they be willing tell their constituents what they said?”) So he asked readers of his blog who live in Republican districts to call their Congressperson, as a constituent, and try to get an answer: was it yea or nea on the rules change? If you get a reply or a clear refusal to say, e-mail us, Josh says. We’ll make a list and tell everyone else. And by such means—distributed fact-collection—he and his readers tried to get the vote recorded.

I told them this story. They liked it. It made “citizens journalism” a lot less abstract. And they insisted that Josh’s callers would be less reliable than journalists. Blog readers wouldn’t know when they were being fed a line. Because they’re partisans suspicious of DeLay, they would hear only what they wanted to hear. Dan Gillmor tried to inform them that Talking Points Memo was widely read on Capital Hill. Staffers for a Republican Congressman would know if Marshall had screwed up. They’d fire off an e-mail right away to correct the record. This information made no visible dent. Big Media was adamant. One could not trust information gathered by amateurs.

Stephen Baker wrote about it today at his Business Week Blog: “But how reliable was the reporting, media execs asked. Who were their sources? How about if one of the citizen reporters had it in for one of the Republicans? I didn’t add my two cents on that point at the meeting. Here it is now: As a reader, I’m happy to look at that citizens’ reporting. It’s additive. There was nothing. Now there’s something. True, the anonymous reporters are not accountable for their work. So I wouldn’t cite it, journalistically, as evidence that a certain Republican voted one way or another.”

But the exercise Marshall and crew undertook wasn’t designed to answer the question: who voted which way on exempting DeLay? That information was lost to recorded history. Marshall said so at his blog. He was asking: was there pride in the vote? (“Why shouldn’t they be willing tell their constituents what they said?”) In his scheme, Congress people and their staffs are met with a second decision: what to say to constituents about the first? Who’s willing to stand up and be counted? The object was to re-establish accountability—and minimal transparency—after the majority party put them on holiday. I thought it was great journalism.

Still do.

Josh Marshall is recruiting readers to help track “where various politicians stand on the Net Neutrality bill making its way through the Senate.” See the list.

I was a guest on Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source June 14, discussing whether “truth with edge” reporting, a construction of NPR’s ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, was an adequate formula for the press as it struggles to get beyond “balance” and he said, she said logic. Other guests were Dvorkin, Brent Cunningham of CJR, and William Powers of National Journal.

“The truth telling system has been overwhelmed by the party in power, people understand that,” said I. “How much innovation has there been in the news business in the art of telling complex stories?”

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 22, 2006 1:06 PM