Open source journalism — process & product

Yesterday I observed that journalism has always been an open source undertaking because its product gets put into the public domain for discussion and improvement. Today I will reference a a paper published on the Internet journal First Monday that looks at how to create journalism through citizen involvement, making it open source in process as well as product. I am particularly interested in how the paper suggests that large tasks should be broken down into easily-performed bits, so as to invite participation and protect projects from the inevitable flakiness of volunteers.

The article titled, “Constructing a framework to enable an open source reinvention of journalism,” is written by Leonard Witt, chair of the communications department at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Witt is also the director of Public Journalism Network a professional association that is experimenting with new ways to teach and do journalism.

The paper is a good survey of citizen involvement experiments that have grown out of newspapers, like the Northwest Voice (out of Bakersfield, California) and the Fort Meyers (Florida) News-Press, and completely novel undertakings like South Korea’s all-citizen OhMyNews. (Online Journalism Review has a great survey article with details of these and other experiments.)

What I found most useful in Witt’s article was its reference to inviting public participation by breaking tasks into tiny chunks — on the assumption that more people can be enticed to do a little than a lot. For these insights Witt relies on Yale law professor Yochai Benkler, author of “The Wealth of Networks.” Benkler lays out three characteristics of successul group efforts:

“They (tasks) must be modular. That is, they must be divisible into components, or modules, each of which can be produced independently of the production of the others. This enables production to be incremental and asynchronous, pooling the efforts of different people, with different capabilities, who are available at different times.” 2.) “For a peer production process to pool successfully a relatively large number of contributors, the modules should be predominately fine — grained, or small size. This allows the project to capture contributions from large numbers of contributors whose motivation levels will not sustain anything more than small efforts toward the project ….” 3.) “… a successful peer production enterprise must have low — cost integration, which includes both quality control over the modules and a mechanism for integrating the contributions into the finished product,” while defending “itself against incompetent or malicious contributors.”

I read and reread that section carefully and tried to imagine some tasks that would fit the criteria. Say the journalistic goal was to prove downtown blight and spur redevelopment. I could imagine asking volunteers to collect anecdotes about what they saw (transient urinating on Main Street at 3:00 p.m.) and to perhaps snap a digital picture. Such anecdotes would be interchangeable and missing one would not dilute the usefulness of the effort.

I’m sure there could be many other examples. But it also seems to me that Benkler’s prescriptions limit group efforts to tasks that involve observation. Could volunteers be used to discover patterns? For instance, say there were a suspicion that certain builders were getting sweet-heart deals from city inspectors. Could anyone figure out how to break down such a task and train volunteers to look for whatever might indicate a preference? I don’t have a brainstorm in this regard.

Of course that may be a simple lack of imagination on my part. In earlier postings I’ve mentioned the concept of the citizen auditor. I corresponded with the author of the citizen auditor notion and will have an update on that soon. In the meanwhile, the best journalism may be looking for old-world work products that don’t get much attention. Take county grand jury reports, the type that most communities produce as ongoing investigations of local governance. How often do such reports get read and republished — perhaps not in their dry, bureaucratic language but with the examples and anecdotes and story-telling style that are the hallmarks of journalism. Whether this is done by paid professionals or volunteers is less important, I think, than that it does get done. Because even if gets done the old-fashioned way, by paid reporters, the end result is open source — free information to motivate change.

(P.S. Thanks to Amy Gahran of Poynter for calling attention to Witt’s article.)