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Archive for November, 2008

How Participatory is Local Journalism?

Posted by chanders on November 30, 2008

How “open” is the new local journalism?

I’ve adapted David Domingo’s categorization of the five steps in the journalistic process, and have added a sixth (“networked nature”) in order to try to see how open to user participation different “ideal typical” websites in Philadelphia were. The sites I analyzed included the Philly IMC, Philly Future, and Young Philly Politics, a few major and not so major blogs– Citizen Mom, Philebrity, Beerleaguer, and Mere Cat— and two main pages on Philly.com (the front page and the sports page.)

Basically, Domingo and his co-authors argue that the process of journalism can be broken down into five steps; and under our current professional, institutional media system, professional reporters (or reporters who are specifically affiliated with a news organization, i.e., they can be volunteers, but members of that organization) do the work in all five steps. So …

  • Access / Observation: In journalism, people observe and record events, things. In the modern media system, the people doing that observing and recording were professional reporters. Theoretically, now, anyone can observe and record (open publishing).
  • Selection/ Filtering: There is an endless number of events, so someone must choose what is important enough to highlight or publish. In the modern media system, editors and executives have played that role. Now, in theory, selection and filtering can be a collaborative process (open editing).
  • Processing / Editing: Observed and bundled content can be packaged, bundled, built out. In the old media system, this process was done by professionals. Nowadays, at least in theory, this can be a collaborative process.
  • Distribution: How does this observed, filtered, edited news get distributed? In the old days, it was the responsibility of the news organization and their fleet of delivery trucks. Now, deinstituionalized and networked structures exist that can do all the distribution (from email to rss to digg)
  • Interpretation: This distributed news has always been interpreted by the people reading it. In the old days, though, this interpretation was done outside the news producer, or done on someone Else’s dime- at most, there was a page for letters to the editor. Now, interpretation is capable of being integrated into the heart of news organizations themselves.
  • Network: Finally (and this is my own addition to Domingo’s list) how do news organizations see their place in the news universe? Do they see themselves as networks or as one stop shops? Through the power of RSS, every web site can be as much of an aggregator and curator of content as it can be a producer of it. Are the sites network hubs or do they see production as occurring mainly “in house.”

I’ve rated the 9 sites above in each of these 6 categories, ranging from “closed” (the process is entirely carried out my affiliated members of the organization), “slightly open,” “moderately open,” and “very open” (the process is entirely carried out by non affiliated members, volunteers, or in strong partnership with them.) You can see the full results below the digital fold.

Some general results, though, first. My look at the Philly.com front page confirms what Domingo and other researchers have been finding–

The bottom line is that, overall, online newspapers are eager to open interpretation to the audience, as this is coherent with their definition of the audience as audience. Access, distribution and even processing are open to a lesser extent, but selection is completely closed to participation, as this is the core of the journalistic profession.

Philly.com ranks “Very Open” when it comes to distribution and interpretation — almost all of the energy of their site redesigns have been focused on finding ways for readers to interact with content (comments on all articles, poll questions on every page, “digg” and “buzz up” on all articles, lots of rss feeds) but much lower when it comes to the core journalistic jobs of access, filtering, and editing. These– reporting, editing, and design / production– are still almost entirely in the hands of staffers. The addition of the idea of “network,” and a comparison with Philly.com/sports, shows one way to add more nuance to this analysis. The Philly.com/sports “From the Bleachers” box (an RSS generated blogroll of headlines from sports blogs around the city) is probably the most authentically norg-y aspect of the whole Philly.com site (although Philly.com/politics is pretty norg-y as well,as I noted in an earlier post).

An example of a site designed almost entirely as a network is Philly Future; its life is aggregation.

Why might Philly.com have concentrated on opening up distribution and interpretation? This is only a guess, but I would venture to say that opening up these processes potentially boost site traffic. Having more citizen media of a fire or a car accident on a street does not boost page views. And for a commercial web site, page views are everything.

Indeed, most sites I looked at seem to do one of two sides of the coin well, but not both. Philly IMC, as opposed to Philly.com, has turned many of the core journalistic features over to total amateurs. This doesn’t mean that decision has worked out well, though (see below), and it also seems they’re not nearly as good as Philly.com in giving users ways to interpret and distribute information.

Finally, there’s the irony of blogs. This entire discussion about the future of journalism started with the emergence of blogs, but it seems that blogs are the least open, in terms of reader participation in the core journalistic functions, of any site I looked at. Blogs democratize journalism because anyone can start one; on the other hand, they really are one man or woman shows. Most of them are closed when it comes to observation, filtering, editing, and network functionality. In other words, blogs are only democratic insofar as they link to and communicate with– are in dialog with– other blogs. Otherwise, they are more closed than most of the major newspaper websites, at this point. They are largely unidirectional. This also means that we can underestimate the democratic nature of the web if we only look at blogs.

Some final thoughts: first, a static look at how these sites appear today, in November 2008, only tells the end of the story. To really understand how Philly.com thought about user participation, we have to look at how it evolved between 1995 and 2008. That’s a long time, and we can learn a lot more if we think historically than we can if we just look at the state of the web today.

Second, none of these analyses are final; I’m hoping the people who run the websites will chime in here and tell me what they think of my analysis, especially when I’m wrong.

Finally– none of this is a judgment about the value of openness. It could very well be that having an open journalistic process creates sucky journalism. This analysis isn’t saying that Philly.com is “bad” for not being more open in certain core ways– indeed, they may be a better news site because they are partially closed. Or maybe not.

So, full results below the fold. Enjoy and please chime in.

Read the rest of this entry »

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