Chapter 7: How media might respond
Media organizations will need to rethink some of their basic ideas about journalism, organization and the role of audience if they hope to remain indispensable resources to their readers and viewers.
This chapter explores effective ways of integrating participatory journalism into existing media operations.
Connections = ValueOur research suggests a simple proposition for media in the network economy: Connections equal value. There are three types of connections that media should consider:
1. Continuous connections: Magazines and newspapers need Internet counterparts that are providing continuous updates to their audience. This doesn't mean a web site filled with shovelware content. It needs to be a 24x7x365, living, breathing, responsive extension of your brand. Increase the frequency of connections with daily email newsletters, weblogs, RSS feeds and forums.
2. Network connections, online and off: Use your content (print and online) as a platform to guide and direct readers to additional news, information and experiences on the Web and in other media. Ultimately, this will make your content more valuable because it's connected to similar information. As well, your customers' media diet is becoming more varied and vast. Don't leave your product in a cul-de-sac.
3. Intercast connections: A successful news Web site is a platform that supports social interaction around the story. Print media must begin to engage and grow online community in order to build affinity and loyalty to their brand experience. Community members have a stake in your brand when they engage the journalistic process — by providing valuable commentary, displaying their mastery of a subject, offering grassroots reporting and acting as filters for their fellow readers.
News organizations have policies, practices and traditions that discourage connections. Despite this, the audience is still managing to become part of the news equation by creating links and commentary that center on news events. The emergent behavior of participatory journalism suggests that audiences want to create intimate connections with news organizations, reporters and the stories they produce. The challenge in newsrooms will be to persuade writers, editors and advertisers to stop thinking in terms of a broadcast model (one-to-many) and to start "thinking network" (one-to-one).
At the strategic level, a corporation must decide: Is the value of your audience going to be its size or the quality of its participation? Most likely, both factors will come into play. That leads directly to the next set of questions: What is it worth to acquire participants? What are you willing to do to keep them for the long term?
Make your newsroom responsive to changeAccording to Albert-László Barabási, author of Linked: The New Science of Networks, media organizations are tree networks. "The CEO sits at the root and the bifurcating branches represent the increasingly specialized and nonoverlapping tasks of lower-level manager and workers," Barabási writes. "Responsibility decays as you move down the branches, ending with drone executors of orders conceived at the roots."1
This is the standard model of corporations, one that has been ingrained in their DNA for more than 100 years.
"These days, however, the value is in ideas and information," Barabási writes. "As companies face an information explosion and an unprecedented need for flexibility in a rapidly changing marketplace, the corporate model is in the midst of a complete makeover.
"The most visible element of this remaking is a shift from a tree to a web or network organization, flat and with lots of cross-links between the nodes."
The internal remaking of media companies, transforming them from tree organizations into web networks, is only one consequence of a network economy, Barabási says. "Another is the realization that companies never work alone. They collaborate with other institutions, adapting business practices proved successful in other organizations." In the case of participatory journalism, this means that media companies will increasingly collaborate with their audience, either directly in a one-on-one fashion, or indirectly using audience-created communities such as Slashdot.org leads for story generation.
But none of this will happen unless the media organization and its business culture are transformed.2 Such a radical change will not occur overnight. This is uncharted territory for most and large-scale change in corporations is fraught with pitfalls.
With media companies still generating respectable returns on investment, the smart money will be on those organizations that can integrate successful experiments supported by better staff training, equipment and practices that encourage reporters and editors to interact with their audience.
Give your staff some level of autonomyMedia companies must consider that the role of reporters and editors are in flux. Your audience wants a closer relationship with the storytellers. Reporters and editors must find the proper balance between encouraging audience participation and producing something ready for publication or broadcast — and finding that balance may prove difficult.
Reporters and editors will need to be empowered to grow communities of interest online. As the value of their communities grows so will it enhance the value of the media organization.
However, we are increasingly seeing media companies force their employees to make the choice between their jobs and their weblogs, rather than trying to determine how blogging can serve the interests of both parties. Such controlling behavior on the part of media companies sends a negative message to their audiences. Readers begin to wonder, "If journalists cannot be heard, then what is the media company hiding?" Weblogs are an excellent way for staff members and readers to bridge the communication gap.
A key component of what makes a good journalist, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, is an obligation to personal conscience. "Every journalist — from the newsroom to the boardroom — must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility — a moral compass," they say in their book The Elements of Journalism. "What's more, they have a responsibility to voice their personal conscience out loud and allow others around them to do so as well.
"The top-down structure of oligarchies usually makes it more difficult for individuals to be heard on abstract matters, such as ethics or questions of conscience. As long as we have one newspaper and only three or four TV stations doing news in most cities, we cannot rely solely on the marketplace to protect journalism ethics."
But providing journalists with some measure of autonomy goes beyond questions of ethics and conscience. Such a move can lead to more compelling stories, fostering a closer relationship between audience and storyteller, outside of the classic construct of a newspaper or TV station. Ultimately, the audience develops an allegiance to those who are authentic and open in their pursuit of journalism.
News organizations and audiences will have to become more comfortable with a duality they have wrestled with for years — journalist as objective observer and as an informed conscience.
Embrace the audience as valued partnerCritical to any participatory model is the understanding that the audience needs to play a meaningful role in the news process. Ohmynews.com relies upon thousands of citizen journalists to produce the majority of the site's daily content.
While that model might appear extreme to many traditional news organizations, it illustrates that there are thousands of people eager to contribute to the news equation. Publications such as the Santa Fe New Mexican, Dallas Morning News and BBC News have taken a step in that direction by soliciting reader photographs, news accounts and other user-generated content.3
News organizations also need to consider how to empower the audience as a valued intermediary of the news. When deciding on what news to read, the audience often trusts other audience members for recommendations before they trust an editor. Thus, the popularity of "most-read and most-emailed stories" pages on news sites. Likewise, this is one of the reasons why weblogs are useful. Weblogs act as a filter on the news, helping its audience cut through the fat of the news and get to what's important to them.
News organizations face a challenge in deciding the extent to which they want to leverage audience participation and incorporate it into their news products.
Embrace customers as innovatorsAccording to a Harvard Business Review article on turning your customers into innovators, organizations need to provide some type of free toolkit to effectively collaborate with their customers.4 Here's what a customer collaboration toolkit for news media might contain:
• Open-source style guide: One of the hidden parts of journalism is style. If media are going to enable its audience to produce news and information, then it behooves media to educate its audience on the best ways to produce it. Why not make your style guide open source? Being accurate, reliable and consistent has value, and something like an open-source style guide is critical to infecting social networks with the power to adopt journalism's best practices. The BBC offers its style guide online along with journalism courses.5 Many universities also post their style guides online.
• Provide a journalism learning program: For those audience members who really want to become full-fledged journalists, a learning program is the next step. Such a program would encompass writing, editing, audio, video and still photography. Participants should do more than take notes; they should report on an event and then engage in a group discussion that examines best practices. Such a course also must include an ethics guide. Certification, or graduation, could be a requirement for a participant to become a "trusted" contributor. Media might consider adopting a program similar to MIT's OpenCourseWare, which includes lecture notes, video lectures, simulations and lab courses.6
• Encourage low-cost content management solutions: Large newspaper sites use expensive and complicated content management systems, but that doesn't mean their audience should, too. Encourage audience members to create their own content. This, in turn, will make a more fertile ground for your content. If you cannot provide the publishing tools for them, guide them to open-source tools or other reasonable platforms. Consider offering Web services, as Amazon, eBay and Google do, to provide audiences with a way to create new products that enhance your news and information. Some blogging tools, such as MovableType, have features that provide notifications when someone has commented on a story. Integrating such functionality in news sites can greatly increase the interest and goodwill of communities.
Don't own the story. Share the story.
"We have to convince journalists that the consumer owns the story," says Dan Bradley, vice president of broadcast news at Media General and former news director of WFLA-TV.7
The last and perhaps most important step for a media company to take is to relinquish control. News media are geared to own a story. They shape it, package it and sell it. But that mindset might make organization blind to the larger opportunity.
"The story itself is not the final product, it's just the starting point, because ultimately the goal of every story is to start discussion, to start a lot of other people saying what they think about it," says Rusty Foster, founder of Kuro5hin.org.
"A story (on Kuro5hin.org) isn't considered complete when it's posted (online). That's just the beginning of the story, and then people post comments and discuss the story. And eventually, after a while, you have sort of a complete view of an issue because many people are talking about it."8
Today, news media organizations are actually story instigators. They track down important stories and relay them to the world. Once they are released, stories transform and can take a life of their own beyond the control of the news organization. The Internet community (and other media) appropriates the stories, retells them, comments on them, adds additional information or overlooked angles, and reworks them as part of a broad-based web of ideas and information. That's not only a good thing, it's essential. If it's not happening, it means your reporting has little value to your audience.
If journalism is indeed about informing the community and lifting up our fellow citizens, we need to evolve. We need to tell better stories and, while doing so, we need to engage the world.
1. Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Perseus Publishing, May 2002), p. 201.
2. See "Managing the Connected Organization," by Valdis E. Krebs for advice on how to create effective connections within your organization.
3. J.D. Lasica, "Participatory Journalism Puts the Reader in the Driver's Seat," Online Journalism Review, Aug. 7, 2003.
4. Stefan Thomke, Eric Von Hippel, "Customers as Innovators: A New Way to Create Value," Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2002.
5. BBC News Styleguide
6. MIT OpenCourseWare. Also see David Diamond’s article, "MIT Everywhere," which recounts the impact of MIT’s online learning program (Wired, September 2003).
7. Cory Bergman, "The Convergence Culture," LostRemote.com Web site, Feb. 18, 2002.
8. From a panel discussion, "Journalism's New Life Forms: Community Publishing, Weblogging, Self-Broadcasting and More" at the Online News Association Annual Conference, Berkeley, Calif., Oct. 27, 2001.