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Distributed Journalism Conversation at Pressthink, Bloggercon

Over at his blog, Jay Rosen writes about — in preparation for a session he’s leading next Friday at BloggerCon“Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism,” saying:

It’s a “put up or shut up” moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like… distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting… and put them to work to break news?

The answer is absolutely. Read the posting and comment thread for some good discussion. Here’s what I posted:

Generally speaking, what we’re discussing here are projects that can be broken down into little pieces where lots and lots of people can ask one question, or look at one document, or solve on piece of a big puzzle. Then the results are aggregated, parsed and reassembled into a coherent whole. It’ll almost always require some folks at the center. We used to call them editors.

Reading all the laws is a great project, but I think it’s too big to chew on except as a long-term goal. I’d suggest paring it down to something smaller and much more essential:

The next time Congress gets ready to pass an appropriations bill of any sort, we need an army of lawyers and others who understand legislative language to parse it *before* it’s passed.

This may not be possible, of course, given the leadership’s increasing tendency to force members to vote on bills they haven’t had time to read, and after injecting last-second stuff that no one except a few staffers and lawmakers knows about.

The way to experiment with this is to take it down a level, to the state legislature. Pick a state that’s relatively uncorrupt and do roughly the same thing. The project will be more manageable, though you’ll probably find less, if much at all, of the material that turns into headlines.

Last fall, I proposed that major media organizations bring in the citizens for a project on the Katrina reconstruction. No takers, unfortunately, but I still think it was a good idea. (One organization is still thinking about doing this but hasn’t acted.)

I also, more recently, suggested that the Wall Street Journal expand its brilliant coverage of the stock-options scandal and do a thorough, citizen-driven database of how widely (or not) this sleaze has spread. Stay tuned on this one.

As to the question of whether it’s a good idea to tell your competition what you’re working on, this depends on what you want to accomplish and whether it matters if the thing is done in full view in the first place. Is the goal to do good journalism, to serve the public? Or is it a professional scoop? Wouldn’t someone “stealing” the idea be seen as a thief, if he/she used the material gathered under your wing without credit? And aren’t there many kinds of investigations where it’s just fine to let the targets know they’re being investigated?

I don’t expect Seymour Hersh to tell us ahead of time precisely what he’s working on. But many, many kinds of investigations are better done in the sunlight. Some — like the ones we’re talking about here, where there’s no way to do them without massive help from the community — should be done that way.

6 Comments on “Distributed Journalism Conversation at Pressthink, Bloggercon”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 18th, 2006 at 8:39 am

    You really should distinguish between:

    1) Asking experts to fact-check an article in their field – generally a small task, easily delegated to a grad student or similar.

    2) Postulating huge number of people are going to work for free, doing somebody else’s slave labor.

    I understand why #2 is great if you can make it happen – but really, it’s a lot easier said than done (and some of the ways to do it are ethically dubious).

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Jun 18th, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    Huge numbers of people volunteer for things every day, including things that are making money for someone else. They see some value apart from pay. They definitely aren’t slaves.

  3. #3 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 18th, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    Make it “grunt labor” if you find the phrase “slave labor” to be too harsh. Nonetheless, the basic remains that generating large amount of volunteerism for drudgery, is problematic in a market economy.

  4. #4 Atrium - Media e Cidadania » Blog Archive » “Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism”
    on Jun 19th, 2006 at 10:00 am

    […] Antecipando a sua participação na BloggerCon deste ano (de que já aqui falámos), Jay Rosen acaba de publicar o texto que põe a debate, este "Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism". A sua proposta é simples – se os meios estão disponíveis e se a 'capacidade instalada' para produzir informação de forma alternativa (Open Source Journalism) é cada vez maior, então o que é preciso para que isso aconteça? O momento – alega Rosen – é este: "I see it as a “put up or shut up” moment for open source methods in public interest reporting". Numa das muitas respostas ao desafio, Dan Gillmor escreveu:"The answer is absolutely". Explore posts in the same categories: Internet, Conferências, Jornalismo Digital […]

  5. #5 Eric Eldon
    on Jun 19th, 2006 at 12:35 pm

    Here’s a news organization that has successfully integrated participation from readers – for free.

    Two market returns for readers:

    – Each reader has the opportunity to get the information covered that they think is important. Especially for readers with causes, the benefits from coverage can be huge. Think: an article vs. paid advertising, ringing doorbells, gathering petition signatures, etc….

    – Each reader who does get their information covered may personally benefit from the resulting fame (that classic greed/lust factor that motivates many people to action).

    Social networks don’t centrally aggregate readers and information — there’s no MySpace user-produced news aggregation site, for example — because privacy and invidual connections are the focus. News organizations are in an ideal situation to fill this hole.

  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 19th, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    Eric, note what I said above, about the importance of distinguishing “asking experts” vs. “grunt labor”. The article you note is a fine example of “asking experts”, which I think is an extremely praiseworthy endeavor. That’s very different from building castles in the air regarding how wonderful it would be to farm out drudgery. Using the term “citizen journalism” for both of these wildly different categories can lead to much confusion.

    Most importantly, “asking experts” requires promoting humility and openness on the part of professional journalists – again, an extremely worthy task, and I commend Dan’s efforts in that direction. But it’s a matter of engaging with those in power, and saying they should be humble. There’s a potential for push-back there. Whereas “grunt labor” can have very dubious aspects of preying on ordinary people’s frustrations and powerlessness, for a marketeer’s benefit. There’s not much check on the down side of hype and overselling.