Just gimme the facts, ma’am

The last post I wrote about open lines of communication prompted a few comments (thanks all) including a well-reasoned argument from James Goffin that, sometimes, people just wanted the facts. Not interaction, not contribution, just… to know clearly and concisely what was going on. You can find more at his newspaper blog.

And I started to post a reply, James, but it got so long I’ve ended up lifting it out as a standalone post; I hope you don’t mind.
See, I am convinced to the point of being mildly obsessive that open journalism is a vital part of our future.
And I know, when I suggest we should operate wiki principles in our newsgathering and story-presenting, that not everyone out there will want to get involved. Some will indeed just want the facts.
However, the opportunities we can now offer those who do want to interact are now so great that surely we have to take every advantage of them? Even if it occasionally blows up in our faces like this.

I’d be willing to bet a large proportion of people (our potential if not existing audience) do want to be more involved with news-making – it’s just that they have little opportunity other than through online commenting, or by ringing the newsdesk to get barked at by someone who equates rudeness with importance.
For many, a newspaper must be a completely unfamiliar and impenetrable institution, possibly to be contacted in extremis, when other avenues have been exhausted. If they’re really unlucky they might even have blundered into a newspaper’s online forums and been put off for life.

Newspaper journalists who blog about their subjects have a great platform for interaction but not everyone uses it as a way of conversation yet, although I think that will change pretty quickly.
We don’t dispute that crowdsourcing is journalism, involving multiple contributors. It means that instead of a reporter setting out with a fixed idea of where the story will go, contributors take control. It can also mean a story becomes something very different to what the newsdesk originally thought it would be – and that’s a good thing, I think.

I understand the point James makes when he says “I just want someone I trust to tell me what is going on” – many people who ring a newsdesk phone are essentially saying that. But the whole issue of trust is a tricky one.
How do we trust someone? I’d guess it’s by establishing a relationship with them.
Do journalists on your average regional daily have that kind of relationship now?
I’d say not.

We need to be more open, invite collaboration, and earn trust. Existing readers probably do have a fair degree of trust and faith in their local paper but the competition is now so great, and the options for audience to go elsewhere so varied, that we need to be making far greater efforts to connect and set out our stall.
And why should someone trust us? Because we’re journalists? Nope, not going to happen. But if what we do is open, visible and open to comment and questioning, and if they are involved, then the dynamic starts to change. It’s hard to argue with the success of Spot.us, and I’m excited to see where Help Me Investigate goes.

Anyway, enough. Melanie Sill, of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, says it better than me:

Good journalism should speak for itself, but that only works if people are reading or listening.

We have to have an audience for what we do; the best way to build that audience is to offer people the chance to get involved, and produce great journalism they want to read. Otherwise, we’re writing for our newsdesks…

2 thoughts on “Just gimme the facts, ma’am

  1. Have you seen the Google Wave previews?
    Each story as a Wave that anyone can edit in real time and chuck in links and pictures with a playback that shows the changes sounds like your nirvana.

    The Neal's Yard stuff link is actually a great example of how interaction can be both beneficial – blowing apart a newsdesk's preconception of what the story should be, a cosy PR job trashed – and detrimental – a few obsessive individuals monopolising the space (which is exactly your point on newspaper messageboards).

    Personally I think readers do trust local reporters. Perhaps it's just sleepy East Anglia, but I was always shocked at the name recognition I had locally – readers noticed my byline more than I did. (And I'm as vain as the next hack.)
    Beyond that, the institution has trust because of a history of good practice. That's the same for a small local rag or monoliths like the BBC.
    It's much harder to place trust in an anonymous blogger, pseudonymed commenter, or Wikipedia IP address.

    The bigger point though is apathy. With the technology available we could have direct democracy with everyone voting on every law – could be a quick way of solving MPs expenses – but two-thirds of people can't even be bothered to vote once every five years in the European elections.
    I'm not disputing the benefits of a wider range of inputs on a story, but I do question the practicalities.
    And it seems a little cheeky to be asking the reader to do so much of our work for us.


  2. I think a certain proportion of readers trust their local newspaper (in my case, people who ring the newsdesk are either furious with d'Echo or have implicit faith in its ability to solve their problem). Sustaining that trust and expanding it to a wider audience is something I think we should maybe spend a bit more time working on.
    Apathy is a big worry. There will always be a hardcore of people who care about things (ususally sat the public gallery of council planning meetings). Is uncovering the things that make more of them care is journalist's role? Maybe – or maybe that's too high-minded.
    Anyway, thanks James for such a lucid and useful discussion – it's given me lots to think aboutin terms of real world scenarios.
    And yes, I'm very excited about Google Wave 😀


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