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.