Achieving a more transparent newsroom

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far away the ethos of Web 2.0 is from traditional journalism.
As a trainee I learned I had to always protect my sources of information; there’s an unwritten rule that a journalist should generally imply the story on the front page has been obtained purely through painstaking, journalistic endeavour.

This is why, I think, some journalists feel what they do is a public service (rendering unto the reader Enlightenment?) We assume it’s our job to know, to be first, and we can be deeply suspicious of alternative sources of information (just ask any journalist their view of the local rival paper and you’ll see what I mean).

So the Web 2.0 idea of sharing knowledge, linking, exchanging information and ideas, can be a hard concept to grasp. In your average newsroom, knowing more than your colleague can increase your influence, both internally and externally – so why would anyone cede some of their power by going public with sources, especially websites, that others could then use?

The Daily Post’s front page today was found on whatdotheyknow.com – a Freedom of Information website which UCLAN’s Andy Dickinson has been highlighting in his training courses with Trinity Mirror.

In the case of the ‘bullying’ story, a member of the public had submitted an FOI question which was duly responded to. The reporter then sought various comments on the information provided, and wrote up the story.
Then he credited the website where he found it, and the original person who had submitted the question. The panel, in print and online, reads:

How the figures were revealed
THE figures were released after a member of the public made a Freedom of Information request. Stephen Gradwick used democracy website http://www.whatdotheyknow.com to submit the enquiry. The original request, all letters and emails and the council’s response can be found at http://bit.ly/14Xm6

I know some of our colleagues have been confused by our decision to do this. Why would we blatently tell people that it wasn’t 100% ours? why would we admit that we found and used information someone else (gasp – not a journalist!) had set in train?

Well, we did it because it was in everyone’s interest to say where it had come from.
We found the information sitting on a public website. Any of our readers could have used it; how many were aware of its existance is another matter.
I think it’s fair to say that, as a result of us crediting the origin of the story, those who were unaware of this site’s existance before now knows:
a) S/he can use it to obtain information
b) It works
c) Their question may get picked up and highlighted by the Daily Post

In short, everyone’s a winner. Except for Liverpool council in this case, who probably wish whatdotheykow.com’s parent site, mysociety.org had never thought of the whole FOI-made-easy idea…

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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4 Responses to Achieving a more transparent newsroom

  1. Dilyan says:

    What your newspaper has done is great and that you have used a shortened URL is very smart for the hard copy. But if you’re going to continue publishing links in print, why not make it even easier for readers to follow? You can add some token (or a barcode) that people can take a picture of with their cameraphones and use it as a key to access the data online.

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  2. Alison Gow says:

    Hi Dilyan, I’ve looked at barcodes but haven’t got round to seriously suggesting them yet (it’s amazing how little <>time<> there can be in a day sometimes – frustrating!) I guess I ought to get myself in gear and find some papers that are using them, so I can show the bosses. Tiny urls are ok (and I would have preferred it if the bit.ly one displayed with this story had been customised so it said bit.ly/foi or something similar) but telling reders they can swipe a barcode and go would be seriously cool…

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  3. May I suggest moving to an office made out of glass? ;-D

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