If there is one newspaper that has stood apart from the crowd in terms of its eagerness to embrace a digital-media world, it is the Guardian in Britain. The paper was one of the first to make user-generated content — and crowdsourcing — a key part of its business, and it was also one of the first to try to turn itself into a truly open platform for data sharing. Now, in what appears to be a response to the wave of paywall-ism that is sweeping the newspaper industry, editor Alan Rusbridger has launched a new campaign aimed at reinforcing the Guardian’s commitment to “open journalism,” an approach that he says is the only real option for media in the digital era.
The centerpiece of the campaign is a great video (embedded below) that reimagines the story of the Three Little Pigs as a modern morality tale, from the opening scene — in which riot police bash in the door of the third little pig’s row house — to the Occupy-style street demonstrations in support of the swine, and ultimately a courtroom battle that sees the pigs admit to destroying their own homes in an attempt to frame the Big Bad Wolf, because they were unable to make their mortgage payments. Throughout the clip there are people commenting on Facebook, posting to Twitter with hashtags and uploading videos.
What does practicing “open journalism” really mean?
The idea that people can now comment on the news and otherwise interact with the output from newspapers isn’t going to come as much of a surprise (hopefully) to most people. But the point of the video is not that this happens, but that any modern media entity has to become part of that process and make those interactions part of what they do — and that means a lot more than just showing random tweets on television when someone like Whitney Houston dies (former newspaper editor Melanie Sill recently published an excellent report on the concept of “open journalism” and what it means for media).
In a blog post, Rusbridger elaborates on some of the ways in which the Guardian tries to take advantage of these new tools and methods of interaction: “A man dies at the heart of a protest: a reporter wants to discover the truth. A journalist is seeking to contact anyone who can explain how another victim died while being restrained on a plane. A newsroom has to digest 400,000 official documents released simultaneously.” The last example is a reference to the newspaper’s pioneering MP Expenses project, when it asked readers to comb through hundreds of thousands of budget reports, and more than 20,000 people took them up on the offer. Rusbridger continues:
The travel section is searching for a thousand people who know Berlin like the back of their hand. The environment team is seeking to expand the range, authority and depth of their coverage. The foreign desk wants to harness as many Arab voices as possible to help report and explain the spring revolutions.
The page at the Guardian website devoted to the open-journalism project describes other ways the newspaper is trying to incorporate contributions from readers, or the “people formerly known as the audience,” as journalism professor Jay Rosen has called them: one of the most recent methods is what the Guardian calls its News Desk Live feature, which goes over all the stories that the paper is trying to cover in a specific day — complete with a version of the “story sked” that editors review — and allows readers to contribute ideas or suggestions about those topics.
Don’t try to reimpose scarcity; become an open platform instead
There’s also a description of the Guardian‘s “open platform” effort, which allows developers and third-party services to take data from the paper’s archives and use it for their own purposes. This project, launched two years ago, is one of the most ambitious of its kind — although other newspapers, including USA Today, are experimenting with similar uses of APIs to distribute their content in new ways. While it has yet to generate massive amounts of income for the paper, it is the ultimate extension of the concept of a “mutualised” newspaper, as Rusbridger has described it in the past.
In a video included at the site, the Guardian editor says that while others are taking the closed approach of paywalls, his paper sees the open alternative as being the only reasonable way forward — in part because a newspaper that chooses to remain closed off from the web “is going to have to try and generate everything itself,” he says, and that simply isn’t possible (or wise) any more. British journalist and physicist Nicola Hughes made a great point in a blog post responding to the Guardian‘s campaign, in which she described the paradigm shift that is underway in journalism and media as a whole:
[O]pen journalism is not something The Guardian is trying to make happen. It is something that is happening to journalism and The Guardian is realising it. In this case, The Guardian is breaking ground by realising the power of adapting to the changes that we are creating.
That’s a pretty good way of describing the reality of the media business today, and one Rusbridger would probably agree with. It’s not like the Guardian suddenly decided that open journalism was a great marketing slogan, or the surest path to generating ad revenue (something that isn’t entirely clear, as more than one critic pointed out in the wake of its advertising campaign). Instead, Rusbridger has made it plain that he sees it as the most reasonable response to what is happening to the industry — and ultimately a better approach than putting up walls to try and recreate the old scarcity that media entities of all kinds used to rely on.