Open Journalism is a way of bringing information to audiences that tries to transcend the traditional method of collecting information and reporting it as a finished product. Instead, Open Journalism tries to involve audiences themselves as much as possible. The concept has been around since 1999. Back then, Andrew Leonard, a writer for Salon.com, wrote an article in which he described how the editor of a website on counterintelligence asked a community of self-described geeks and nerds on Slashdot.org to help him edit an article about cyberterrorism. In the end, the geeks picked apart the article's original version almost completely, and the editor decided to rewrite the article incorporating the Slashdot community's commentary.
This idea of using online communities to improve on a piece of journalistic work has since taken hold within the mainstream press. Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian and one of Open Journalism's leading advocates, puts forward ten principles that define this mode of journalism:
- It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response
- It is not an inert, “us” or “them”, form of publishing
- It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes
- It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals
- It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web
- It aggregates and/or curates the work of others
- It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest
- It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values
- It recognises that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end
- It is transparent and open to challenge, including correction, clarification and addition
The Open Journalism approach has a number of advantages, especially for established media outlets: by being fully integrated with the internet, it allows journalists to harness the power of social media and attract an engaged online audience. In a media environment where audiences' attention is often fleeting, which has lead to drops in advertising revenues and declining subscription numbers, Open Journalism can be a way to build a community of loyal subscribers.
Secondly, trust in the mainstream media is currently at a low. Open Journalism's focus on transparency and appreciation for audience input could help rebuild this trust.
Thirdly, plummeting advertisement revenues are forcing many media outlets to slash their budgets. This has an effect on journalists' ability to do their work. Therefore, if fewer journalists are working to produce the same amount of content, allowing audiences to participate in or contribute to content production can be a practical, cost-effective way of dealing with this problem.
Open Journalism is not for everybody. For example, many readers quite like the idea of receiving a well-researched, finished product, written by a professional journalist with a clear idea and thesis in mind. Although the process of participatory journalism is still overseen by professionals, there's no guarantee that a collaborative project will have the same clarity and poignancy as a journalist's own work. But then again, many do like the feeling of being engaged in the practice of journalism, and are happy to consume an essentially unfinished product. The problem is monetising it: how can you expect readers to pay for something that may change completely later on?
The largest problem, however, is to do with Open Journalism's democratic mission. The concept has been around for a long time, and throughout its existence only parts of its mission have been a proven success. The most important one is the comment section: websites with thriving communities of commenters often manage to build up a stable reader base, and can use the prevalence of vibrant debate on their site as a way to attract new audiences.
But not all websites with thriving comment sections are sympathetic to Open Journalism. Take, for example, Breitbart and The Huffington Post, two US-based websites with a huge, active reader base. In both cases, the presence of a thriving online community hasn't exactly lead to a more participatory form of journalism. Instead, these communities form an ideological bubble that directs its criticism of the media outward, not inward. The home site is seen as trustworthy (in some cases the only trustworthy outlet out there), and ideological opponents are set aside as biased, propagandistic, or "fake news".
Whether this is true or not is beside the point: exceptions aside, I fear that online communities are prone to an inability to self-reflect, which hampers some of the stated goals of Open Journalism. While it may be good for advertisement revenues in the long run (and let's hope so; we need a vibrant, pluralistic media landscape, and we need media outlets to turn a profit for this to exist), rebuilding trust in the media through Open Journalism has been and remains a daunting task.