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Three Modest Proposals for Online Journalism's Future

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 16 2009

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed that I spent my lunch hour at the Open Society Institute today for a talk on "The Future of News" by Paul Steiger, the longtime managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, who is the head of ProPublica, an "independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest." It was a mostly gloomy session, framed by the news that 11,000 professional journalists have lost their jobs in the last two years, and all the bad news currently coming out of the newspaper industry.

You also probably know, if you follow me on Twitter, that I was gnashing my teeth for much of the time, frustrated by several questions from audience members who wanted to focus on shoring up the failed business model for today's dying newspapers (mostly by charging for content) instead of figuring out what comes next and how we insure that intelligent, inquisitive and informed reporting and analysis continues to enrich our society. Almost no one in the room seemed cognizant of the arguments being made by thinkers like Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson, either about the inevitable death of print newspapers or the vibrant rise of a rich online ecology of topical, and often deeply investigative, journalism.

In fairness to Steiger, I should note that he personally seems well aware that, as he said at one point, the horses are already out and attempts to slam the barn door shut would probably not work. He also spoke optimistically about emerging forms of online media, and more than once expressed hope that crowdsourcing, as practiced by OfftheBus (whose chief wrangler, Amanda Michel, he has just hired at ProPublica), could be a viable model for pro-am collaboration.

I left the lunch a bit depressed, but as I thought things over on my subway ride back to the PdF office, a few ideas began to coalesce in my head about how we could perhaps foster a stronger ecology of investigative journalism in the new online environment. So, instead of beating a dead horse (to mangle my metaphors), here are three ideas for projects that could help sustain investigative journalism however it is practiced going forward:

1. In an Age of Mass Participation, Make News Easier to Make Together
We need better tools for mass collaboration. The OfftheBus model, as described by Amanda in a terrific essay she wrote for the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review, is highly labor intensive. About 12,000 people volunteered time and shoe-leather to the project. As I understand it from her article and from talking to her, there were all kinds of headaches involved in managing this outpouring of volunteer energy. She writes, "the challenge was not persuading them to sign up. It was figuring out what they were willing and able to do after that, and then cost-effectively coordinating their efforts so that they added up to real journalism."

The future will be reported by more of such dynamic pro-am collaborations, but few of the existing tools for working on a project together (such as parsing a long document and sharing notes) work very well for small groups, let along large groups. To take another, perhaps more esoteric example, on OpenCongress.org, over the last year, more than 40,000 people have commented on legislation to extend unemployment benefits. They're congregating there by accident. People go online searching for information about extending unemployment benefits and discover that OpenCongress's page for that bill allows comments (unlike the official Library of Congress page). First they shared information about what was holding up the bill, but now if you look at the thread the comments have evolved into a self-help group of people helping each other figure out how to get their state's unemployment office to release their benefits as quickly as possible. If this is what a random, unorganized group of people can do on a threaded discussion, imagine if we had better tools for large groups to sort themselves into teams, or to track each other's work.

2. In an Age of Data, We Need Easier to Use Visualization Tools
Earlier today, my colleague Nancy Scola tweeted at the start of her SXSW talk on White House 2.0 and open government that "Data is the new 'plastics'." I think she's right. Whether it's all the government data being liberated by my colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation, or being shared by government itself, or the new APIs that a handful of forward-thinking news organizations like NPR and the New York Times are making available.

But how to make sense of all this data? I think we need easier-to-use tools, and that some targeted investment in fostering better tools might produce a huge payoff. Blogging took off because free tools like Blogger made it so you didn't have to know how to write .html code to publish a web page. Videosharing took off because YouTube made posting video online as simple as attaching a file to an email. But data visualization is still too hard. I want to be able to grab a database and toss it onto a Google map without having to know how to convert it to .kml. I want to be able to play with MotionChart without needing a design wizard to decipher Google's missing interface for it. The only reason I was able to make this chart below showing the growth over time of the financial sector in financing campaigns was because I had the help of Kerry Mitchell, one of Sunlight's crackerjack designers.

When I brought up this complaint at Transparency Camp, some folks suggested trying out GeoCommons, and I was pleased to discover that that site offers some relatively easy tools for quickly mapping data. But I think we are just barely scratching the surface of what is needed if we want to see an explosion of dynamic, data-driven (3-D) journalism online.

3. In an Age of Mass Information, Make it Easier to Find and Share Investigative Reporting
Steven Johnson's hyperlocal media site Outside.in currently tracks news, views, and conversations in 11,860 towns and neighborhoods. If you search on the words "political scandal" you get more than 3,000 results. I have no idea how many of these stories are of national significance, or if perhaps there are hidden connections between seemingly disparate local events. Nor could I tell you how many of these stories are being generated by old fashioned media outlets, or if they represent the work of new media entities like bloggers. Similarly, if you search YouTube for recent videos about "political scandal" the top current result is an audiotape of a top aide to the mayor of Mt. Vernon, NY discussing all kinds of local corruption.

Does anyone have any idea how many stories, blog posts and videos are published every day that shed light on local, state or national corruption? What about corporate crime? Last week, Cheryl Phillips, the president of the 4000-member Investigative Reporters and Editors organization, mentioned to me that her paper, the Seattle Times, had done a big expose on the improper sealing of court records, an endemic tactic often used by businesses to hide embarrassing information from the public, and often occurring without justification. She has a feeling there's a national trend worth uncovering, and perhaps certain multinational corporations are using this as a tactic across state jurisdictions. But she has no way of connecting those dots.

Well, maybe some smart information hackers can pull together some algorithms to scour the web and help us see the hidden patterns to what old and new media outlets together are publishing online. For example, how about a "Memeorandum" or "TechMeme" that aggregated attention around content containing keywords like "scandal," "corruption," "political", "corporate", "Congress" and/or "statehouse." Government transparency is going to spur far more coverage of government and/or contractor misbehavior. How will we sort and prioritize this information? If we want more investigative coverage, we need to develop better filters to help us zero in on the good stuff and also find hidden patterns in seemingly disconnected stories. Plus, better filters might eventually channel more traffic toward producers of good investigative journalism, and thus prop up whatever business model they may be employing.

There are undoubtedly other answers to the question of supporting serious reporting online (focusing on things that people care about, as is done by the blog Consumerist, might make more sense than trying to churn on eye-glazing six-part exposes that win old-fashioned journalism prizes but few readers, for example.) But I guess what I'm roughing out here is an agenda for technologists who want to turn their talents to strengthening democratic culture and practice. Can you make a better collaboration tool, or an easier-to-use data viz tool? Do you have one that we don't know about? Do you think it makes sense to build a ScandalMeme or an Investigandum? I'm talking with my colleagues at Sunlight about all of these ideas, and hopefully we can make some contributions in these arenas. But nothing beats learning from people smarter than you--so if you've got something to add to this discussion, please chime in or spread these questions (and answers) where you think best.

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