Journalism as a Service, Not a Product

I came to journalism through community organizing, so for me, news and information has always been important in the context of our communities. That’s perhaps why I was so struck by the way Melanie Sill, executive in residence at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, puts community at the center of her new report “The Case for Open Journalism Now.”

Like many journalism reports released in the last five years, her report begins by asserting that journalism is a “public good.” However, where other authors have used that frame to explore business models or argue for new funding streams (including my own 2009 report), Sill is more interested in how the journalism itself needs to change.

“We need a new orienting idea for journalism,” she writes. If journalism is a public good, she asks, how must it change and adapt to the new digital public sphere and the demands of newly connected (and disconnected) communities. “To bring real change,” Sill argues, “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities.”

Sill sums up this shift under the idea of “open journalism,” a term that doesn’t immediately explain itself. Here is Sill’s definition:

“Open journalism’s core principles are transparency, responsiveness, participation, collaboration and connection. … It’s an idea for making quality journalism a collective endeavor and transforming it from a product driven by factory processes to a service driven by audience needs.”

In this way, open journalism brings together the democratic needs of communities with the increasingly networked technological shifts in media and information. Part argument, part case study, and part handbook for newsrooms, her paper offers a wide range of concrete examples drawn from a diverse set of journalism organizations across the country. As such the paper reads as a study of an emerging movement, one which is gaining steam but still facing very real challenges.

Journalism as a Service, Not a Product

The paper covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on one thread that is woven throughout the paper: the ways that  open journalism calls us to understand journalism as a service, not a product. This isn’t a new idea, but one I think Sill engages productively and helps add some vital new context related to the implications of this idea. As early as 2006 Jeff Jarvis was describing networked journalism as a process, but building on the open source software ethos that undergirds Sills paper, her focus on journalism as a service felt like a helpful extension of this idea. Like Alexis Madrigal’s exploration of Occupy Wall Street as an API, journalism as a service opens up some useful new possibilities and help reframe how we understand old problems.

It is the focus on service, that fuels much of the user- or community-focused emphasis in the paper. According to Sill, open journalism is “based not on the idea that information is scarce but on the recognition that it is abundant, and sees journalism as service that taps that abundance in ways that empower citizens.” Sill describes this as a shift from “we own the story” to “we provide valuable service.”

1) Open Journalism and Building Trust: This shift could benefit journalists, communities and the bottom line. At a time when trust in journalism is still at historic lows, a shift to a more service oriented model may be a key component to rebuilding trusting relationships between newsrooms and communities. “Perhaps,” writes Sill, “as the web matures, newspeople and others can make a conceptual leap that puts journalism fully in service to citizens and consumers and returns respect and value to the work and those who do it.”

2) Open Journalism, Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism: A service frame also helps recast citizen-journalism and the broader trend of personal media making in a useful new light. Sill nicely situates blogging and citizen journalism within the long history of American volunteerism and civic-engagement. A number of projects, not featured in Sill’s report, exemplify this intersection of open journalism and volunteerism: Public Media Corps, Report for America, and the now shuttered Digital Arts Service Corps are a few examples. A quote in the paper from Ted Han, the lead developer of DocumentCloud, perhaps best illustrates this intersection: “People are trying to help people as part of a broader civic impulse,” Han said. “Journalism doesn’t seem like a huge leap.” And, Sill notes, “Han sees both civic and commercial value in such connections.”

3) Open Journalism and the Bottom Line: Michele McLellan points out in the paper that “If news organizations could just reinvent themselves as a service,” it opens up new possibilities not only for how we do journalism but also for how we pay for it. While there is still a lot of truth in the notion that “information wants to be free,” consumers are becoming more and more accustomed to paying for information services. Consider Cable TV, Internet, mobile phones, and innumerable apps that provide unique services as just a few examples. “I think people pay for service,” McLellan is quoted in the paper, and I agree that the people who can, very well might.

However, I think the “public good” and “public service” frame raise important questions about people’s ability to access information. Traditionally, in cases of market failure, our nation has subsidized a wide range of public goods. In the early days of our nation this took the form of postal subsidies for newspapers, but we can think of other sectors such as roads, schools, electricity where this has been true. As Dan Gillmor has pointed out, the modern equivalent might be ensuring universal access to broadband. However, I would argue that embracing an open journalism model should also call on us to look at other media policy questions such as funding for public media innovation, media and news literacy, and more.

Open Journalism Contains Multitudes

While Sill’s paper offers a range of straightforward and pragmatic advice for helping move journalism to a more open ethos, the paper succeeds because it offers that clarity without downplaying the very real complexity of the subject. For example, her paper ends with five concrete action steps for journalists and newsrooms to begin building a culture of openness; however she also provides a list of “100 Ideas, Arguments and Illustrations for Open Journalism.”

Reading Sill’s report I was reminded of a line of poetry from Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The paper is animated by these seemingly contradictory tensions. Open journalism calls on us to focus inside and outside the newsroom, demands “investing trust as well as asking for trust,” recognizing a “cultural shift as well as digital shift,” and on and on. However, Sill argues convincingly that these tensions create new possibilities and “journalism needs more of both, vision and structure, to go deeper on two-way communication.”

In her report, Sill weaves together a fantastic array of voices and models, and in the end produces a blueprint for a changing journalism landscape that feel greater than the sum if its parts. It is an important acknowledgement of the emerging openness movement across journalism, and a framework for others to build on.

Full Disclosure: Melanie Sill consulted with me early in her research for this project and includes one of my blog posts on her “100 Ideas” list.

Image via Rupert Ganzer on Flickr, used via Creative Commons license.

Updated to corrected Ted Han’s title.


  1. Excellent story, I completely agree.

  2. papicek says:

    Not a service, but a societal *utility* vital to the body politic, journalism must be nurtured & promoted. Instead, we have what basically amounts to political repression.

  3. Reblogged this on Transmedia and commented:
    ““Open journalism’s core principles are transparency, responsiveness, participation, collaboration and connection. … It’s an idea for making quality journalism a collective endeavor and transforming it from a product driven by factory processes to a service driven by audience needs.””

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