Open Source Culture and the Newsroom
For more than a decade there’ve been a number of relatively high profile efforts to integrate Open Source techniques into the editorial process. Most common has been crowdsourcing.
For example, in 2007, Wired collaborated on an initiative called Assignment Zero, an effort to create “pro-am journalism” via crowdsourcing; and the Guardian has often been praised for opening up documents for the public to sift through in support of the journalism taking place within the newsroom.
Even back in 1999 Jane’s Intelligence Review sought to crowdsource by asking Slashdot readers for feedback on a cyberterrorism article they were planning to publish. Eventually, they rewrote their story based on comments they received from the Slashdot community.
At the time, Salon’s Andrew Leonard wrote:
Just as open source programmers would critique a beta release of software filled with bugs, the Slashdot readers panned the first release of Jane’s journalistic offering — and the upgrade, apparently, will be quick to follow.
Open-source pragmatists believe that better software arises from the scrutiny inherent in the collaborative process. Will better journalism ensue if more reporters and editors beta test their own work? Hard to say…
While the above are interesting projects what they have in common is that they focus on the front end: what we see, what we can touch, what we read.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that except for the fact that too many commentators mistake an Open Source technique for something being Open Source in and of itself. The limitation in that interpretation is thinking of the story as journalism in its entirety.
Words here thus become the journalist’s code. Words become the fungible unit that is open to some type of crowdsourced manipulation and examination. The story as the central unit where “bugs” can be identified and eradicated. The story as the central unit upon which additional eyes and ears — provided by the crowd — can create more texture, more depth, a better “front end”.
Which is fine insofar as this is the focus but I’d argue that this focus is limited. Journalism is much more than the produced story. Or, flipped another way, the produced story is merely an output of a network, a system, and an organization where an historical culture and process and vision have come together.
Simply, and I don’t mean to detract from this unit — this story — but it is a simply a cosmetic presentation of the organization as a whole. To open source journalism you have to dig into deeper layers. You have to expose the code of the entire apparatus that creates it. Remaining at the presentation layer — that is, at the story — is no different than saying this or that piece of software is Open Source because you can skin it. It’s saying Microsoft Office is Open Source because you can make a PowerPoint or a Word document look pretty and edit the content within them.
And obviously we know that that suite of tools isn’t open.
Thinking this way I can say that the above projects are crowdsourced, and that this is a good thing in and of itself.
But journalism has always been about crowdsourcing. It’s called reporting. The Internet just opened up a larger audience to query and participate. And this too is a good thing. The more available voices, the more diverse voices, the more knowledgeable voices available to inform a story the better.
But listen to what Gabriella has to say about a functioning Open Source project and the culture behind it. In this case Debian, a free and Open Source operating system. Here are a few of the key components she identifies as essential to its success; and while it’s a bit apples and robots I think with enough imagination you might see how they might be applied to a news organization:
- Transparency: How does the organization or project operate; who or what’s behind it; what can I as an outside contributor get my hands on when I want to start to hack.
- Ethical, Legal and Philosophical Values: This isn’t just knowing what an organization stands for, it’s a contributor being able to argue for, integrate and advocate those values.
- Technical Baselines: No, not just anyone can contribute, they must have proven skills and expertise in a given field. If I stepped into Gabriella’s Debian example, I’d be politely asked to leave. I don’t have those skills.
- Mentorship: This can come from core team members, or those who have been involved in a project long enough that they are able to guide those that are new, or less skilled, in each of the above.
- Governance Structure: How are decisions made and who has final say so that the project evolves/moves forward? Is it a person, a committee, the entire community, or some other structure?
- Committed Community: A successful project needs people coming back again and again ready continue contributing their time and their skills.
- Festive Celebration and Cultural Enchantment: There should always be a party, somewhere. This is important.
Open Source techniques are increasingly making their way into newsrooms. It’s not necessarily a panacea — or magic pixie dust as Jamie Zawinski once described — but the promise and hope of it all is intriguing.
Can we have a radically Open Sourced news operation? Perhaps and I’d like to see it tried. But before getting there we need to understand what it is we’re actually talking about in its entirety and not confuse ourselves with incremental experiments that distract our understanding on the side.
Additional videos with Gabriella can be watched here.