I’m not a middle-of-the-roader and wasn’t aiming for a compromise position with my discussion paper, “The Case for Open Journalism Now: A new framework for informing communities,” published early this month by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab. Instead, I sought to identify and propel a culture shift that might build a healthier relationship among those who produce journalism and others who consume news and information.

Yet the values and emerging practices I call open journalism stand apart from the polarizing intramural debate on whether quality journalism in the future will come from institutions, information networks or individuals. (Answer: yes.) This intermittent fight, which broke out again following a recent Dean Starkman piece in CJR, forces people into corners. After a recent USC Annenberg event at the National Press Club where I gave a talk on this paper, a young journalism academic told me he hadn’t read “The Case for Open Journalism Now” but added, “I’m probably against it — the whole thing.”

Open journalism should be up for debate, like any idea, but it’s built squarely on some of the traditional journalism values we’re so quick to protect. “Open journalism” just gives it a name and now, a better roadmap for two-way journalism in the digital era (see the five tenets below).

My open journalism idea sees journalism as acts that provide service in the larger context of Internet-era communication. It recognizes that communities gain from skilled and expert journalism (there never has been enough) and that such work has the best hope of success through robust connections to sources, citizens and other contributors in a networked information universe.

Public affairs journalism, especially the time-consuming work of investigative reporting and accountability coverage that relies on accumulated knowledge and expertise, is indeed a public good and must be responsive to those it serves. Those who provide it need to build trust as well as tangible support such as digital subscriptions, e-book payments, organizational alliances, donations or philanthropic grants. In 2012 and beyond, in the communication age that has blossomed post-Internet, such support involves not blind faith but open and active connection.

Explore transparency

Consider the new “Explore Sources” tool unveiled by ProPublica last week as part of a story by Marshall Allen on a Texas woman’s efforts to learn how her husband had died. Explore Sources (which readers can turn on or off) allows web viewers to click on highlighted information and view primary source material. News applications developer Al Shaw’s blog post explained both the function of the tool and how it was built, concluding: “While Explore Sources is just an experiment, we look forward to finding new ways to use it to make our reporting process more transparent and accountable, and when we can we’ll open-source the code so other newsrooms can show their work, too.”

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ProPublica launched its Explore Sources with a story about a Texas woman and her attempts to find out how her husband died. Photo by Sharon Steinmann/ProPublica

I began my work at USC Annenberg in June intending to focus on how journalism contributes to community engagement in public life and to spotlight experiments that seemed to be working. I quickly learned that Joy Mayer, a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, was finishing an academic year’s work on this topic and that many interesting experiments were too young to assess in any fair way.

Rather than repeat Mayer’s work and other recent explorations, I wanted to build on it. Away from the front lines of most mainstream news flow, I found a web-influenced culture responding in new ways to journalism values of serving community needs and making a difference. Peer-level collaboration was sparking invention and problem-solving, especially involving data journalism and investigative methods. Social media tools were enabling more direct dialogue among news providers and their sources, contributors and customers.

In a small but significant number of exceptions to the norm, and in the ideas of a number of writers and practitioners, I glimpsed a nascent but potentially transformative approach to journalism that could build trust and support (moral and practical) for informing communities in key ways amid media upheaval. Alan Rusbridger and The Guardian called their strategy “open journalism on the web.”

Open journalism struck me as the right headline for framing journalism as a true public endeavor: accountable, responsible and accessible, like open government or an open kitchen or “Open Leadership,” the title of a book by social media consultant Charlene Li.

My experience leading newsrooms in North Carolina and California taught me that ideas need both support and structure to turn into improvements. I wanted not just to argue for direction, but to offer useful guidance to practitioners — in any size of newsroom, nonprofit or commercial, and to individuals — on how open journalism can and does work for quality as well as relevance. I highlighted journalism action, not theories, demonstrating creative and often effective new approaches to the core mission of providing timely, accessible and high-quality coverage.

You can find examples and references linked throughout the discussion paper and highlighted in a sidebar element called “100 Ideas, Arguments and Illustrations for Open Journalism.” Additionally, I offered “Action Steps for News People“ in the five key categories I identified for open journalism to emphasize:

5 tenets of open journalism

  • Transparency: Buzzword or not, this is a contemporary cultural value that connects deeply to journalism tradition. Yet it’s a value news providers must more openly embrace in the processes and the presentation of news coverage. For instance, established media sites rest on “brand” and rarely explain their missions or practices. New information and news sites, perhaps because they’re introducing themselves and working to build brands, routinely tell users who they are, what their editorial mission is, and how they’re funded. The best of them provide easy links to staff at all levels and take the next steps to embracing “show your work” tactics such as posting original data, using blogging to explain how journalism is made, and inviting others to make use of resources. News organizations here and there are opening up or webstreaming news meetings, sharing working story lists, soliciting questions and input, and explaining how corrections are handled.
  • Responsiveness and engagement as central functions rather than add-ons: Open journalism makes newsgathering and dissemination two-way practices that ask and answer questions and invest trust even while expecting to be trusted. This matters for community value but also has benefits as business practice. The Internet has changed the expectations of viewers and readers — more broadly, customers. Companies learn the hard way about failing to monitor or respond to user input, which now often happens via social media. In this environment, providers of news and information suffer when lines of communication are unmonitored (online story comments being the case in point) or miss opportunities when these lines operate as one-way channels (e.g., here’s our story, what do you think?) By seeing engagement as part of newsgathering rather than as link promotion, journalists can pick up on news tips and promising sources and, in turn, make their work more useful by delivering on requests for certain information.
  • Substantive and mutually rewarding participation: The interplay among news providers and others who exchange and supply information gets more attention than other aspects of open journalism and fuels the most debate (over citizen journalism, for instance, a term almost no one likes). Yet notable experiments such as HuffingtonPost’s OffTheBus presidential campaign crowdsourcing effort in 2008 (back for 2012) are being joined by a rapidly expanding menu of ways that news and community information sites are tapping contributions and knowledge. On most news sites “user generated content” gets little respect or attention, and again the vandals who troll online comment sites consume far too much of the resources newsrooms have for interaction. We’re ready for the next steps in understanding that people want to participate in life, not news sites. Some news sites are improving interaction tools, using forms and other mechanisms to streamline participation and engaging in more active social media dialogue with contributors.
  • Collaboration: This is an overused word, perhaps, because true collaboration is less common than an expanding list of cross-promotion and content sharing. Yet the open-source ideas infecting some newsrooms via the influence of programmers and technology have produced direct benefits for some kinds of journalism. Practitioners working to analyze data and to map and graphically display their findings regularly share knowledge and software via traditional channels (such as Investigative Reporters and Editors) and new ones including the GitHub software website.
  • Networked presence: Information-sharing happens online through many crisscrossing networks, from fan communities and social media to highly specialized knowledge blogs and discussion forums. It also happens in person, often in conjunction with digital community-building. News sites may be where most people, in one way or another, pick up headlines and traditional news, but other networks supply a vastly greater variety and style of information. By understanding the greater context and looking for ways to carry out their service missions, news providers can make an important leap forward from the gatekeeper role that defined journalism for so long. The next conceptual leap involves community-level collaboration around the goals of information as a service.

“The Case for Open Journalism Now” is one of the first “Future of Journalism” efforts by the Annenberg Innovation Lab, built as a simple website with a response function. Please add your thoughts, criticism and links. However far the Internet has taken us already, those who believe in quality journalism as public service have only begun to comprehend the opportunities ahead.

The only thing certain is that we’re building journalism’s future now through our actions and our omissions. I prefer the former.

Melanie Sill is the Executive in Residence at the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. Before joining USC Annenberg Sill was senior vice president and top editor at the Sacramento Bee in California and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Raised in Hawaii, Sill earned her journalism degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1993-94.