J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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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.

Phillyimc.org
Access / Observation: Very Open [open publishing, no access required, anonymity allowed, available through one link on home page]
picture-11Selection/ Filtering: Very Open [all posts are posted right away; default is post then filter, rather than filter then post]
Processing / Editing: Slightly Open or Closed [an editorial collective moves to center column, but ways to join are listed multiple times on front page. Nevertheless, editorial control is limited to political allies ]
Distribution: Closed [very bad social networking tools; site’s rss feed is hard to find]
Interpretation: Slightly  Open [comments default on; discussion quality by community is fairly poor]
Network: Moderately Open [there is a regional blogwire, a set of rss-fed headlines. limited to political network — network site owners agree with politically]

Phillyfuture.org
Access / Observation: Moderately Open [you need to ask to get a diary or submit your site’s rss feed, but after that, site appears to encourage a fairly liberal  “open publishing” model]
picture-2Selection/ Filtering: Moderately Open [again, you need to get a diary or submit your rss, but after that, default is post-then-filter, rather than filter-then-post]
Processing / Editing: Closed [there is an editorial collective that chooses featured items. Although I’ve seen pubic requests for additional members of collective, there is no way given on site as to how to join]
Distribution: Slightly Open [there is some, not much, social networking wizardry and a well placed,site rss feed]
Interpretation: Slightly Open [comments default on]
Network: Very Open [the idea of the site as a network seems to be the main point of the site, the front page is entirely based around the network concept. Also, network is not limited based on political beliefs]

Youngphillypolitics.org
Access / Observation: Moderately Open [you need to ask to get a diary or submit your site’s rss feed, but after that, site appears to encourage a fairly liberal form of  “open publishing”]
picture-3 Selection/ Filtering: Moderately Open [again, you need to get a diary or submit your rss, but after that, default is post then filter, rather than filter then post]
Processing / Editing: Closed [there is an editorial collective, but no way given on site as to how to join;. The website moderator told me in an interview that the site featuring policy is decided by a “friendly dictatorship” — ie, the people running the site decide, and thats that]
Distribution: Very Open [tons of social network tools, links and ways to share content. There is a big rss feed box, as well as a box through which to get site content by email]
Interpretation: Slightly Open [comments default on]
Network: Moderately Open [the front page of the site contains a number of syndication wires limited by political preferences.]

merecat.org
Access / Observation: Closed [site is a single author personal blog]
picture-41Selection/ Filtering: Slightly Open [Single author, but, interestingly enough, comments show up on the front page]
Processing / Editing: Closed [site is a single author personal blog]
Distribution: Slightly open [very few social networking tools, site obvious has an obvious rss feed]
Interpretation: Very Open [comments show up on the front page even though there are few other audience engagement tools]
Network: Slightly Open [good blogroll with feeds, but is not a “syndicated headline” roll]

beerleaguer.typepad.com
Access / Observation: Closed [site is a single author journalistic blog]
picture-9Selection/ Filtering: Closed [site is a single author journalistic blog]
Processing / Editing: Closed [site is a single author journalistic blog]
Distribution: Closed [there is an rss feed, but it is very hard to find, no social networking tools]
Interpretation: Moderately Open [comments are one click below the fold, but are default on. Additionally, the site has a very strong fan community]
Network: Slightly open [strong blogroll with latest news in sections at the top right, though, these don’t seem to be automatic headline generators (?)]

Philebrity.com
Access / Observation: Slightly open [not an open publishing site, certainly, and no diaries, but, has many “from our readers cellphone” type posts and a tips email link]
picture-5Selection/ Filtering: Closed [what gets published seems entirely in hands of staff]
Processing / Editing: Closed [what gets built and linked to seems entirely in hands of staff]
Distribution: Closed [no social networking tools, can’t email articles, there is an rss reader, but hard to find]
Interpretation: Slightly open [comments are default on, but you must register in order to make comments]
Network: Closed [pretty simple blogroll, no feeds]

Quinnchannel.typepad.com
Access / Observation: Closed [site is a single author hybrid personal-journalistic blog]
Selection/ Filtering: Closed [site is a single author hybrid personal-journalistic blog]picture-6
Processing / Editing: Closed Closed [site is a single author hybrid personal-journalistic blog]
Distribution: Closed [no social networking tools, can’t email articles,
Interpretation: Slightly Open [comments default on]
Network: Closed [pretty simple blogroll, no feeds]

Philly.com
Access / Observation: Closed [Still no obvious way to submit reader content, no link or “send content” here regularly on site. There may be a link that comes up during special events, like Phillies parade]
picture-7Selection/ Filtering: Closed [no reader role in deciding what gets published; no reader blogs]
Processing / Editing: Closed [no reader role in “building out” or linking to]
Distribution: Very open [social networking tools on all articles; easy to email; list of most popular / most and emailed stories on front page]
Interpretation: Very Open [comments default on, w. sensitivity to nature of post; regular reader polls and feedback asked for; live chats]
Network: Slightly open [it appears, despite all the bells and whistles, that nearly all front page content is from the Philadelphia Media Holdings network. This is different on the politics page, for example, and on the sports page]

Philly.com/sports
Access / Observation: Slightly open [“From the Bleachers” allows non-professional outsiders to contribute to the main web page]
picture-8Selection/ Filtering: Closed [no reader role in deciding what gets published]
Processing / Editing: Closed [no reader role in building out or linking to]
Distribution: Very Open [social networking tools on all articles; easy to email]
Interpretation: Very Open [comments default on, w. sensitivity to nature of posts; regular reader polls and feedback asked for; live chats]
Network: Moderately Open [“From the Bleachers,” again, marks a difference between this and the Philly.com front page. Some sense that Philly.com/sports is part of a larger Philly sports network, even if it is the big dog]

2 Responses to “How Participatory is Local Journalism?”

  1. […] How Participatory is Local Journalism? Chris Anderson goes deep on local journalism. This guy is smart. (tags: journalism media theory) […]

  2. […] How Participatory is Local Journalism? « J-School: Educating Independent Journalists […]

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