Posts about provenance

The importance of provenance

News, like art, requires provenance.

I tweeted that today, joining in a conversation between Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen as they tried to understand how the Washington Post could quote only unnamed complainers in its McChrystal story. Tweeted Jay: “We’re supposed to trust it because the Washington Post ran it. And that’s the problem. It gives us no other grounding for trust.” In the Post’s view, then, its brand provided all the provenance needed: it was the source for trust. But in our view, we expect to know where these opinions came from. We want to go to the source.

Provenance is becoming more important in many fields I’ll outline in a moment. Why? Because it’s possible. And because it’s possible, it becomes expected. The link enables provenance: click here to see the source. The web enables provenance: search here to find out where this came from. The link economy requires provenance: link to support journalism at its source. The link ethic demands provenance. Period.

The journalistic and conversational ethic of provenance I’ve learned especially in blogs is that one must link to one’s sources…
* So I show my work and so you may judge and understand it accordingly.
* So the reader may judge my sources: “Don’t take my word for it,” the link says, “click and see for yourself.”
* So the reader may dig deeper; provenance is also a service.
* So the source gets credit.
* So the source may find value in the traffic I send, through ads or relationships or however she likes (if the source is smarter than Rupert Murdoch and realizes there is value in those people to click to come).
* So we then support original journalism. (This is one reason why Google News now looks for citations to find the originator of a story: to give us a better source and give the source better support.)
* So the journalist proves that she added real reporting and real value rather than merely rewriting press releases.
* So the news organization may save money and use journalists for higher valued work (do what you do best and link to the rest).
* So the news organization may save money through collaboration.
* So responsibility is taken. I will trust what I read more if I know who says it; anonymity devalues trust — for the source who hides behind it and for the journalist who takes the easy route through it.

In content, as creation becomes overabundant and as value shifts from creator to curator, it becomes all the more vital to properly cite and link to sources and even to add value to those links, explaining why the click is worth the time and encouraging people to take the trip. Good curation demands good provenance.

But the new importance of provenance affects much more than journalism. It affects any company providing a product. See Rob Walker in today’s New York Times Magazine on our desire — he hopes — to know where our gadgets are made so we do not contribute to poor working conditions in Asian factories. This trend follows the same need in the fashion industry to demonstrate a move away from sweatshops (one of my entrepreneurial journalism students, Jenni Avins, is making a site and a business out of following the source of what you wear at When it comes to products, we want to know:
* where it was made,
* by whom,
* in what conditions,
* using what materials,
* causing what damage,
* traveling what distance,
* with whose assurances of quality,
* with whose assurances of safety.

During the rash of dangerous products coming out of China, we want to know the provenance of everything from dog food to dry wall to know about its safety.

The transparent marketplace made possible by the internet reduces companies’ ability to profit through opaque pricing — we can always find the cheapest. So companies will increasingly need to compete on ethics. That will require that they open up their sources, supply chains, factories, and businesses so we may judge them. Given two equal products — two toilet papers — the provenance of the one — our ability to know where and how it was made — may give it the competitive edge. But we won’t take the company’s word for it — any more than we should take the Washington Post’s. We’ll demand that they show us. Publicness (I’ll argue in my book) becomes an asset.

But provenance can also be a mark of higher value. When we know where the grapes come from, we may pay more for the wine made from them. Jersey tomatoes, everyone knows, are worth more than Florida’s (ya gotta problem with that?).

Provenance is, of course, becoming more important in politics and government. We want to know the source of a politician’s funding and the influences on her. We want to know who created an earmark so we may hold them accountable.

Provenance has always been expected in the academe but now citations empowered by links have even greater value — not merely to give credit but to give students the opportunity to explore and learn on their own.

Finally, in a remix culture, one way to share credit and value is to link back.

This is why editors at the Washington Post and everywhere else must learn that it’s no longer good enough to think that the buck can stop at them, that they can be the validators of trust, that we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about where their news comes from. This is why we, the readers, must get better at accepting and valuing the results of more openness and be proficient at judging sources for ourselves. This is why companies must understand that they will be expected to open up their processes.

Provenance is no longer merely the nicety of artists, academics, and wine makers. It is an ethic we expect.