Sunday, 14 June 2009

Just gimme the facts, ma'am

The last post I wrote about open lines of communication prompted a few comments (thanks all) including a well-reasoned argument from James Goffin that, sometimes, people just wanted the facts. Not interaction, not contribution, just... to know clearly and concisely what was going on. You can find more at his newspaper blog.

And I started to post a reply, James, but it got so long I've ended up lifting it out as a standalone post; I hope you don't mind.
See, I am convinced to the point of being mildly obsessive that open journalism is a vital part of our future.
And I know, when I suggest we should operate wiki principles in our newsgathering and story-presenting, that not everyone out there will want to get involved. Some will indeed just want the facts.
However, the opportunities we can now offer those who do want to interact are now so great that surely we have to take every advantage of them? Even if it occasionally blows up in our faces like this.

I'd be willing to bet a large proportion of people (our potential if not existing audience) do want to be more involved with news-making - it's just that they have little opportunity other than through online commenting, or by ringing the newsdesk to get barked at by someone who equates rudeness with importance.
For many, a newspaper must be a completely unfamiliar and impenetrable institution, possibly to be contacted in extremis, when other avenues have been exhausted. If they're really unlucky they might even have blundered into a newspaper's online forums and been put off for life.

Newspaper journalists who blog about their subjects have a great platform for interaction but not everyone uses it as a way of conversation yet, although I think that will change pretty quickly.
We don't dispute that crowdsourcing is journalism, involving multiple contributors. It means that instead of a reporter setting out with a fixed idea of where the story will go, contributors take control. It can also mean a story becomes something very different to what the newsdesk originally thought it would be - and that's a good thing, I think.

I understand the point James makes when he says "I just want someone I trust to tell me what is going on" - many people who ring a newsdesk phone are essentially saying that. But the whole issue of trust is a tricky one.
How do we trust someone? I'd guess it's by establishing a relationship with them.
Do journalists on your average regional daily have that kind of relationship now?
I'd say not.

We need to be more open, invite collaboration, and earn trust. Existing readers probably do have a fair degree of trust and faith in their local paper but the competition is now so great, and the options for audience to go elsewhere so varied, that we need to be making far greater efforts to connect and set out our stall.
And why should someone trust us? Because we're journalists? Nope, not going to happen. But if what we do is open, visible and open to comment and questioning, and if they are involved, then the dynamic starts to change. It's hard to argue with the success of, and I'm excited to see where Help Me Investigate goes.

Anyway, enough. Melanie Sill, of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, says it better than me:

Good journalism should speak for itself, but that only works if people are reading or listening.

We have to have an audience for what we do; the best way to build that audience is to offer people the chance to get involved, and produce great journalism they want to read. Otherwise, we're writing for our newsdesks...
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