Open Source Journalism at the Guardian

crowd sourcedA few months ago I wrote a piece called the Death of Journalism which talked about how – even if they find a new revenue model – newspapers are in trouble because they are fundamentally opaque institutions. This built on a piece Taylor Owen wrote called Missing the Link about why newspapers don’t understand (or effectively use) the internet.

Today Nicolas T.  sent me this great link that puts some of the ideas found in both pieces into practice. Apparently, in the wake of the MP expense scandal in the United Kingdom, the Guardian has obtained 700,000 documents of MPs’ expenses to identify individual claims. Most MPs probably imagined they can hide their expenses in the sea of data, for what newspaper could devote the resources to searching through them all?

No newspaper could, if by “newspaper” you mean only its staff and not its community of readers. The Guardian, interestingly, has taken on this larger community definition and has crowd sourced the problem by asking its readers to download and read one or a few documents and report back any relevant information.

What makes this exciting is it is one example of how – by being transparent and leveraging the interest and wisdom of their readership – newspapers and media outlets can do better, more indepth, cheaper and more effective journalism. Think of it. First, what was once an impossible journalist endeavor is now possible. Second, a level of accountability previously unimaginable has been created. And third, a constituency of traditional (and possibly new) Guardian readers has been engaged – likely increasing their loyalty.

Indeed, in effect the Guardian has deputizing its readers to be micro-journalists. This is the best example to date of a traditional (or mainstream) media institution warming (or even embracing) at least a limited concept of “the citizen journalists.” I suspect that as institutions find ways to leverage readers and citizen journalists and that the lines between journalist and reader will increasingly blur. Actually it will have to.

Why is that?

Because for the Guardian model to work, they had to strike an agreement (a bargain – as Clay Shirky calls it) with their community. I don’t think anyone would have been satisfied to do this work and then simply hand it back to the Guardian without the right to access their work, or the work of other micro-journalists. Indeed, following the open source model, the guardian has posted the results for every document read and analyzed. This means that the “raw data” and analysis is available to anyone. Anyone of these micro-journalists can now, in turn, read the assemblage of document reviews and write their own story about the MPs expenses. Indeed, I’m willing to wager the some of the most interesting stories about these 700,000 pages will not be written by staff of The Guardian but by other parties assessing the raw data.

So what does that make the Guardian? Is it a repository, a community coordinator, an editorial service…? And what does it make those who write those stories who aren’t employed by the Guardian? Caring about, or getting caught up in these terms and definitions is interesting, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that journalism is being reinvented and this is one compelling model of why the new model can tackle problems the old one couldn’t even contemplate.

10 thoughts on “Open Source Journalism at the Guardian

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  3. Chrystal Ocean

    What a GREAT idea! Good on the Guardian for doing this. And you're right. What we call this new form of journalism doesn't matter. That something new is emerging which involves the wider community does. Now THAT's citizen engagement!

  4. Anthony

    what the Guardian is doing is interesting but its not the whole picture. The Guardian now has access to the same heavily censored documents all the media have but for the past 6 weeks one newspaper the Telegraph has had the unedited data . They kept it to themselves releasing it in drips , breaking the scandal and being in total control of the UK news agenda for the past month. They hugely increased their circulation, online presence and general brand. Its not worth any media paying journos to go through censored data in the hope of now finding something the Telegraph missed so this is an interesting solution for the Guardian and a way of getting some nice online buzz. But its naive to think that if the Guardian had had what the Telegraph had they wouldnt have done exactly the same. Its hardly a revolution in journalism – the fact is a newspaper did ” devote the resources to searching through ” all the data and reaped the rewards.

  5. Conrad Barwa

    I think you are getting excited over nothing here. Much of the hard work has already been done by the FIA campaigners and it was the Torygraph that investigated and exposed a lot of the more egregious scams weeks if not months ago.Also it isn't as if anyone needs to wade through every single of the 700,000 documents. There are aggregate … Read moreindicators for each MP and how much they claim in a year – so if a single backbench MP is claiming thousands of pounds in a year then you can investigate further. What has really got peoples' goat is the abuse of the second homes allowance and the flipping of homes desginated under such a label by MPs.. There is a maximum claimable under this category of £20-30,000 per year and it is relatively easy to go through the list of MPs to see who is claiming the maximum or near maximum year after year. Some like Hazel Blears who claimed the maximum permissible every single year, despite several changes of address, clearly did so to exploit the fullamount they could be reimbursed for, rather than actually claim their real expenses.Also I don't think the trap MPs were relying on was to hide behind a sea of data; if you followed the case properly, yo would know that they actually fought the release of the details and when they lost this legal battle in court are only officially releasing them… Read more though the Parliamentary offices with key details redacted – this makes determing abuse of certain allowances like the second homes allowance almost impossible to determine as the addresses are blacked out etc.The Torygraph will be publishing a separate magazine pull out on Saturday which will have the aggregate figures and breakdown by category for every single MP.

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