Value-added journalism

I asked Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, whether his paper should have started Wikileaks. I wondered whether the Guardian was looking at WIkileaks the way it looked at HuffPo when it started (that is, ‘darn, we should have thought of that, so we will’ … and it started CommentIsFree). Is Wikileaks a tool for investigative journalism? Or is it better for Wikileaks to be separate? Would being associated with a news organization subject it to different standards of verification and transparency?

“I think it’s better separate,” Rusbridger responded. Wikileaks does things the paper wouldn’t want to do or couldn’t do. And a paper is easier to attack by governments and companies; it has greater liability than a stateless news organization, as Jay Rosen calls them. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Rusbridger said. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

Right. The Afghan war logs story is a case study in what Rusbridger would call the mutualization of journalism. I’d call it collaboration. The leakers and their medium — that is, their mediator, Wikileaks — did what they did and the paper’s journalists added value: digging through the data, giving it perspective, editing out dangerous pieces, getting reaction, and then giving it audience and attention.

That is the role journalists will continuously perform in the future: adding value. Wikileaks and the leaker didn’t need the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel; as Wikileaks has proven many times, it can publish its information to the world without help. But they chose to work through those publications because of the value they would add.

Thanks to the internet, the marginal cost of sharing information today is zero. So the value of the journalist in merely distributing information is nearing zero. Distribution was just the stranglehold the journalists’ companies had on the market that enabled them to be supported by monopoly economics. They can no longer build their businesses on that barrier to entry. This change in market reality forces us to examine journalists’ true value to the public in the market.

In the war logs story, journalists added value. In the story of a town board meeting, journalists also need to add value, not merely acting as stenographers — a task most anyone could perform — but adding perspective (which might — horrors! — mean having an opinion), standards of behavior (you shouldn’t call the mayor an idiot without the links to back it up), and audience (which doesn’t mean distribution in the old sense of a stranglehold; it means the ability to get people to pay attention because you bring them value and they’ll click on your links).

If you don’t add value, then you’re not needed. And that’s not necessarily bad. When you don’t add value and someone else can perform the task as stenographer or leaker or reporter — and you can link to it — then that means you save resources and money. This means journalists need to look at where they add maximum value.

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  • http://jodischneider.com/ Jodi Schneider

    Andrew Lih has a nice slide about collaboration/mutualization where he distinguishes who’s making the content and who’s doing the curation (professionals vs. the crowd).

    I’d be cautious about calling the marginal cost of sharing info zero — it would help if you would define this more clearly. *Receiving* shared info costs time and attention (even assuming the marginal cost of bandwidth is 0). *Sending* the info could jump sharply at certain points as the audience increases — though it may be zero/near-zero marginally within a certain range — so it looks like a step function to me.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Yes, it depends on one’s goals. I’m simply saying that in a community, if I have information I want to share, I can do so for essentially nothing and more and more information will be passed that way. If I want to record to town council meeting and share it with folks in my town, I can do that for free. Now if I want to add value to that — explanation, context, curation, promotion — that is where journalists can find opportunities. Or not.

  • http://djbentley.net Daniel Bentley

    This is why I don’t like and have argued the term “citizen journalism” essentially useless. A journalist is someone who finds the story in the data, who rationalises, analyses and provides context. Who finds emotion in 92,000 dry military records.
    It is not someone who merely documents something. (In nearly all cases) a citizen journalist is a social documenter, not a journalist.

    • http://jodischneider.com/ Jodi Schneider

      Social documentation is not useless. Without the facts there can be no (fact-based) story.

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  • http://www.rosenet.tv Robert

    Right on the money. I am involved in a community hyperlocally, and for me, the fundamental question that the community journalist will have to answer is not, “what happened?” But “what does it all mean?” Great piece, thanks.

  • http://iamdavebowers.com Dave

    I don’t agree. ‘Being there’ certainly has value. To document without adding opinion and bias is a noble thing. I’ve been reading the local patch.com, who often go to school or town meetings. I can’t get to them, so the value to me is that someone else can.

    If I want opinion and bias, the value that patch creates is the ability of others, there or not, to comment and add their own opinion / version of events.

    Journalism, for too long has told us what to think, to be afraid of, who to hate, who to trust, who not to. Journalism is a dying trade, documentation and curation is the future. Isn’t that what Google would do?

    • http://www.rosenet.tv Robert

      You can explain significance and meaning of an occurrence or event, or decision taken without offering opinion. What people often lack in local communities is the context in which many things take place and the impact of decisions made. Pure regurgitation of facts & occurrences does not get you there. Its not about getting pure facts or being fed opinions. It is about learning what’s at stake, what’s material to the outcome and what’s not. It’s about learning.

      • http://iamdavebowers.com Dave Bowers

        “Pure regurgitation of facts & occurrences does not get you there”

        Get me where? To a place where one person describes an event in one article, often that they have no investment in (how many journalists dream of covering a town meeting), just so that they churn out to get to their next piece of work.

        Journalism has been outsourced to the people because it’s quicker and more personable. I can get footage, written accounts, responses and discussion from the people before the ‘journalist’ has even returned home to write his piece for tomorrow’s edition, posting old news.

        Yes, there will always be big stories in the big papers. But what % of journalists work at the very top end? Did Wikileaks have any issue of getting their information out there without journalists?

  • http://www.axonpublish.com/blog Paul Keers

    What concerns me is the seeming comparison between the boring old world of print journalism, forsaking its investigative role, vs the brave new world of online revelation. It may be worth remembering that the whole MPs expenses scandal was revealed by the Daily Telegraph, in old-fashioned print.

    • http://djbentley.net Daniel Bentley

      The MPs expenses was a leak and it was a digital leak. A USB thumb drive can now leak a wheel-barrowful of documents.

      The other point is that the information should have been open in the first place, and it now is.

      I welcome this new world of leaked data setting new precedents of openness.

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