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Summary:

The Guardian says it’s now going to experiment with allowing readers to help decide what news to cover. The paper announced Monday that it’s going to make its “newslist” public, following the idea that if readers are part of the process, they’ll be more engaged.

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The Guardian, the U.K. newspaper that has been one of the biggest mainstream-media champions of a “digital first” approach and a proponent of “crowdsourcing” the news, says it’s now going to experiment with allowing readers to help decide what news to cover. The paper announced Monday that it’s going to make its “newslist” — the daily schedule of stories the media outlet thinks are worth covering — public, something which the paper has previously kept carefully guarded. But the Guardian seems to have realized what many newspapers have not: If you allow your readers to be part of the news-creation process, they will be more engaged.

In a column announcing the experiment, Guardian National News Editor Dan Roberts says the idea of showing readers — and everyone else — what stories the paper is working on might seem a little strange, since many publishers try as hard as they can to keep this kind of information secret (in some cases, rival newspapers in Britain have paid leakers for access to a competitor’s newslist). But the Guardian editor says that the paper believes opening up to its readers will improve the quality of its reporting, and help it concentrate on the stories that will be of the most interest and/or value. Said Roberts:

What if readers were able to help newsdesks work out which stories were worth investing precious reporting resources in? What if all those experts who delight in telling us what’s wrong with our stories after they’ve been published could be enlisted into giving us more clues beforehand? What if the process of working out what to investigate actually becomes part of the news itself?

Let readers in and they will help make your work better

Roberts notes that The Guardian isn’t opening up its entire newslist, and will be excluding any exclusives the paper might have, as well as embargoed stories that have been planned in advance. And the editor also says the newspaper is looking at this as an experiment, and is prepared to “pull the plug” on the trial period if competitors are benefiting too much — or if readers simply aren’t interested. That said, however, Roberts says the paper is convinced that offering this information to readers will help focus its news-gathering better and provide tips that can improve stories.

[W]e think there are lots of routine things that we list every day which might provoke interesting responses from readers: everything from upcoming press conferences, to stories we need help uncovering. If readers can see that we’ve got a reporter looking into the police killing of someone with a Taser – to use a recent example – they might be able to direct us to other recent deaths or the definitive report on their safety risks.

What the Guardian is doing is quite simple: it is letting its readers behind the wall, pulling back the curtain to show them some of the machinery involved in producing the news, and offering them the chance to help — a smart approach that other media outlets could and should emulate. It’s an extension of what the British paper did with its groundbreaking “MP Expenses” project in 2009, which involved uploading more than 200,000 official expense reports for British politicians and then asking readers to comb through them looking for errors or fraud. In the end, more than 20,000 people did just that, in one of the most successful crowdsourcing projects ever undertaken by a newspaper.

Using readers as a resource is one thing, but revealing what stories are planned and offering to let readers affect that process is another. In the not-too-distant past, most newspapers were almost as secretive as government agencies; the processes involved in producing journalism day-to-day were only revealed to members of the priesthood, and things like story lists were kept under virtual lock and key. Needless to say, this kind of culture isn’t conducive to things like blogs or story comments or Twitter, as is obvious from many mainstream media companies’ restrictive social-media policies.

They are the “people formerly known as the audience”

But opening up to readers — or what journalism professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience” — has obvious benefits, as Roberts notes. For one thing, if they’re involved in a particular story, they can provide details and perspectives that might never have come to light during the traditional reporting of a news event. No matter how expert a journalist might be at covering his or her beat, there’s always going to be someone who knows more about that topic, and giving them the chance to contribute to a story makes the end product better, whether reporters want to admit it or not.

As Roberts notes, this approach has paid dividends for other newspapers that have tried it, including a Swedish regional newspaper that has been experimenting with an “open newsroom.” The large daily uses a live-blog powered by CoverItLive (owned by Demand Media) that’s run by a senior editor, which provides a place for the paper’s staff to talk about the stories they are working on, and allows readers to post their comments and questions. The paper’s editor-in-chief says that doing this has not only driven traffic to the site, but created a more engaged readership.

Other newspapers experimenting with open newsrooms include the Register-Citizen in Connecticut, part of the Journal-Register Co. group — which, like The Guardian, has taken a “digital first” approach under CEO John Paton, now the CEO of the Media News Group — and the Winnipeg Free Press in Canada. The Register-Citizen allows readers to come and go as they please in the paper’s newsroom, and provides coffee and Internet access, as well as inviting readers to be involved in story meetings. The Free Press, a large daily, has stationed several reporters in a coffee shop/restaurant in the city’s downtown core, so that readers can interact with the paper’s staff more easily.

The bottom line is that the secrecy that newspapers used to operate under no longer works. Not only is there more competition for stories, but mainstream media outlets no longer have a monopoly relationship with their readers, who can find the same information from dozens of alternative sources. Either newspapers develop a more balanced relationship with the people formerly known as the audience, by allowing them to contribute to the process, or they will find their audience has gone elsewhere.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and Yan Arief Purwanto

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  1. William Mougayar Monday, October 10, 2011

    How many “Memos to newspapers” have you written so far? I lost track counting, Lol…

    This one is a good idea, but I would put it in the “tinkering” category. I wonder how many readers would care to see that list, especially if it’s presented in that dreadful spreadsheet format as per their blog. A more compelling format should be more interactive and with commenting and voting capabilities. The proof of success for this experiment will be the level of online engagement it gets, i.e. how many readers will really care about being part of the inner walls.

    1. I agree it isn’t all that compelling in presentation, William — and many readers may not care. But I still think the effort is worth making, and the overall message of opening up is a good one.

    2. Here’s an interesting presentation of the Guardian newslists – http://latertodayguardian.appspot.com/

      It’s a cool hack by Chris Thorpe and he’s blogged about it here: http://blog.jaggeree.com/post/11905887945/the-later-on-today-guardian-ipad-apps-and-news-lists

  2. To mention open newsroom initiative, you can also speak about cafebabel.com, a european participative magazine, who received a Knight foundation subsidy to develop such a concept. To have a glimpse, you can have look here : http://www.cafebabel.co.uk/about/participate/

    1. Thanks a lot, Simon.

  3. This makes a lot of sense. As a one-time newspaper reporter, I would have loved this approach, as it might have introduced me to sources for stories that I otherwise might never have uncovered. And, later, in PR for a non-profit, it was often frustrating to see a story in the paper relating to our cause, and wished we had had an opportunity to comment or provide facts that would have added to the story.

  4. William P. Davis Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    We tried this at the Bangor Daily News for a few months. Ultimately the feedback we got wasn’t immense, even though we gave it pretty prominent homepage time for a few yours every morning. You can see what we did at http://bangordailynews.com/browse/the-daily-news-meeting/. I’ll be interested to see how it works for The Guardian.

    1. Thanks a lot, William. Appreciate the link.

  5. H. Butterfield Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    The newspaper in Spokane, Wash. made a big splash about five years ago with its “transparent newsroom.” People could tune in to the morning and afternoon news meetings, post comments on a blog, attend either meeting, etc. Still, the layoffs continued. I think the paper stopped podcasting the meetings, but anyone can still attend. Most readers are busy with their own jobs, their own lives. They want their newspaper to help them navigate the world, not be their buddy or get free labor out of them as a “citizen-journalist.”

  6. I *like* this idea. However, my concern is with stories that have greater implications than what everyday readers may perceive. Under this “crowdediting” model, would Abu Ghraib or Walter Reed make it out into the news ether, or would participating readers spike it because they may perceive covering it as un-patriotic?

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