Journalism’s new rules? We’re getting closer.

In 2009, as I was working on a book about media literacy, I published a list of “rules” describing how I’d like to see journalism organizations operate in an age of digital communications.

Social media hadn’t become remotely as ubiquitous then as it is now, and its near-absence from my list demonstrates mostly that I’m no better at predicting the future than most people. But the list did summarize why and how I believed — and had believed and written for some time — the core of journalism should change. Among the items were the following:

** Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.
** We would invite our audience to participate in the journalism process, in a variety of ways that included crowdsourcing, audience blogging, wikis and many other techniques. We’d make it clear that we’re not looking for free labor — and will work to create a system that rewards contributors beyond a pat on the back — but want above all to promote a multi-directional flow of news and information in which the audience plays a vital role.
** We would create a service to notify online readers, should they choose to sign up for it, of errors we’ve learned about in our journalism. Users of this service could choose to be notified of major errors only (in our judgment) or all errors, however insignificant we may believe them to be.
** We’d make conversation an essential element of our mission. Among other things:
— If we were a local newspaper, the editorial pages would publish the best of, and be a guide to, conversation the community was having with itself online and in other public forums, whether hosted by the news organization or someone else.
— Editorials would appear in blog format, as would letters to the editor.
— We would encourage comments and forums, but in moderated spaces that encouraged the use of real names and insisted on (and enforced) civility.
— Comments from people using verified real names would be listed first.
** For any person or topic we covered regularly, we would provide a “baseline”: an article or video where people could start if they were new to the topic, and point prominently to that “start here” piece from any new coverage. We might use a modified Wikipedia approach to keep the article current with the most important updates. The point would be context, giving some people a way to get quickly up to speed and others a way to recall the context of the issue.
** We would help people in the community become informed users of media, not passive consumers — to understand why and how they can do this. We would work with schools and other institutions that recognise the necessity of critical thinking.
Again, most of these were thoughts I’d been pushing before (e.g. a 2005 post called “The End of Objectivity,” which contained briefer versions of many of the ideas that ended up in the 2009 list), and some were not original with me. But except in my own work as a columnist and author — when I routinely told readers what I was working on and solicited their help — I’d never had the opportunity to help put them into practice beyond talking about them.

That’s one reason why I’m so jazzed to be focusing much more of my time, starting next week, on our recently launched collaborative lab, the “News Co/Lab” at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’m finally in a position to help more directly.

The 2009 post coincided with a melting business model for traditional news organizations (a phenomenon that’s still under way). Even if people had wanted to try these ideas, they had bigger problems to handle. But in the past several years, and especially in recent months, attitudes have evolved in the news world and beyond.

While transparency, community engagement, and news literacy haven’t reached anything close to critical mass, they’re gaining serious attention — and activity — in the U.S. and abroad. Our Co/Lab will be sewing seeds in newly fertile soil.

Transparency, surprisingly given the journalists’ traditional hostility toward openness (except that which they demand from the people they cover), is in a boomlet. In a comprehensive blog post this week, my friend Jay Rosen, a media scholar at New York University, has pulled together a lot of the work being done in that arena. Read it now if you care about this topic.

On the engagement front, there’s also lots to note. One of the most interesting efforts is Gather, a University of Oregon Journalism School project to pull together knowledge and activity in that expanding arena. We hope to be collaborating with Gather and many of the resources it’s highlighted, such as the fascinating Hearken project.

We’re already under way in a project with the McClatchy news company to help several of its newsrooms become more transparent and conversation-minded with their communities. We’ve visited the three pilot newsrooms in Modesto (California), Kansas City, and Macon (Georgia), and will be moving ahead with local teams there.

We’ll be providing the McClatchy folks — and anyone else who wants it — an evolving “cookbook” of how-to recipes for emerging best practices in transparency and certain kinds of engagement that serve the larger goals of improving communities’ news awareness and literacy.

More and more people are doing work that looks effective, and we hope our experiments will help them do more of it. They include, among others, the Trust Project, American Press Institute, News Literacy Project, Center for News Literacy, Poynter Institute, and Newseum. We’ve getting help on the research and metrics front from Talia Stroud at the University of Texas and leading media literacy scholar Renee Hobbs at the University of Rhode Island.

At ASU, where student-operated Cronkite News has become one of Arizona’s most essential news sources, we’re going to work with the students and their professors to experiment in what we hope will be transformative ways. One project will leverage the WordPress platform, used by countless news organizations in the U.S. and abroad, to embed tools in the content management system to make transparency easier to do.

None of this would be happening without our initial funders. Facebook, the News Integrity Initiative, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Democracy Fund have stepped up to address what more and more people now agree is a vital issue.

As a journalist in the mid-to-late 1990s I realized two things: First, the people who were reading what I wrote in Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper knew more than I did, and were glad to tell me what they knew. Which meant, second, that journalism was becoming a conversation, not a lecture. I’m glad these and other notions are gaining adherents. Mainstream? Not yet. But definitely no longer weird.

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