From Instagram to Open Journalism: Towards Public Space Online

Instagram’s Terms of Service changes are the most recent in a long string of events that remind us of the deal we make when we embrace “free” commercial platforms online. As one person put it – if your aren’t paying, you are the product, not the customer. Plenty has already been written about the changes, what they may or may not mean, and now Instragram is going back to the drawing board and revising at least the framing if not the rules themselves.

However, rather than wait for Instragram to get it right (or perhaps wait to be disappointed when they continue to get it wrong), perhaps we should think about making something different. Maybe it’s time to get serious about creating more community-driven noncommercial public space on the web.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 10.20.25 PM
National Geographic’s message to followers, posted on Instagram.

The changes at Instagram come just five days after Anil Dash wrote a powerful post detailing how companies like Facebook and apps like Instagram have changed the fundamental nature of the web. In fact, Dash’s first example speaks directly to the Instagram situation:

“Five years ago, most social photos were uploaded to Flickr, where they could be tagged by humans or even by apps and services, using machine tags. Images were easily discoverable on the public web using simple RSS feeds. And the photos people uploaded could easily be licensed under permissive licenses like those provided by Creative Commons, allowing remixing and reuse in all manner of creative ways by artists, businesses, and individuals.”

Dash’s post is an eloquent inventory of how the web has in many ways become more closed and fragmented. This impacts how we access information, how we communicate with each, and how we publish and create. We’ve lost key features that we used to rely on,” Dash argues, “and worse, we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world.”

A day later Ryan Singel wrote specifically about Creative Commons licensing as a core value and invaluable tool on the web. Like Dash, Singel points to Flickr as a model, noting that most new social networks have left Creative Commons out of their systems of creation and curation.

For Singel, Creative Commons is part of a value system that is fundamental to the way the Internet has democratized media making and journalism. “Creative Commons embodied an ethos of sharing that went beyond just show-and-tell,” he writes. “It’s been a vital part of sharing on the net, which has given all of us access to no-cost printing presses in the form of blogs; cheap ways to create, edit, and share videos and photos; and democratized distribution channels such as YouTube and Reddit.”

Can Journalism Heal The Web?

While some journalists still like to complain that the web is killing journalism, most acknowledge that even amidst the disruption, the Internet has given more to journalism than it has taken away. Now maybe a moment when journalism organizations can return the favor. As social networks build walled gardens could news organizations help build a networked digital public square?

Open journalism, as defined and explored in Melanie Sill’s 2011 report, imagines a new kind of newsroom that could respond to the concerns both Dash and Singel lay out.

“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.”

What if journalism organizations – especially nonprofit and public media organizations – invested in building meaningful online public spaces that helped re-establish, in Dash’s words, the web we have lost? In a follow-up post Dash suggests that we need to create such spaces:

“Right now, all of the places we can assemble on the web in any kind of numbers are privately owned. And privately-owned public spaces aren’t real public spaces. They don’t allow for the play and the chaos and the creativity and brilliance that only arise in spaces that don’t exist purely to generate profit. And they’re susceptible to being gradually gaslighted by the companies that own them.”

PBS has created the most popular online public space for children in America, why couldn’t some collaboration of public media and journalism organizations do the same for photography, the arts, music or civil debate? The possibilities here are unique – imagine a photo-sharing app with all the polish of Instagram but that also drew on news organizations historical archives to layer topic and geo-tagged news stories over photos that are shared on the site. Imagine “seemless sharing” that was built around fostering in-depth public debate about critical current event, not just about going viral and getting clicks.

Journalism As a Service

These are ideas that call on news organizations to see themselves not as a product but as a service. For 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.” What if newsrooms took seriously the idea of building community, connecting people, and encouraging people to create as well as consume the news?

Should a coalition of newsrooms try to create a Facebook competitor? No. But if journalism organizations aren’t seriously discussing how they can be part of defining a new era in the life of the web, then the Internet will always just be something that happens to them.

However, if we really want to create these new public tools and reinvigorate the public, open and connected nature of the web, we need to think big. It will take leading news organizations coming together to agree on some central principles, if not outright collaboration. In an age when paywalls are on the rise and where it can still be hard to get news organizations to link to outside sources, this is no easy task.


Responses and Reactions:

On Twitter, James Losey points out that National Geographic may indeed be prepping their own social photo sharing platform and points to this tweet:


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


  1. yunghi says:

    There’s lot f notoriety and hype for sure, is it better for journalism, maybe. But no one is making money. Everyone is stealing content. Everyone thinks they are entitled to other peoples work so they can get online traffic and ads. This is not a sustainable model. Most who contribute to Creative Commons have other jobs,and are not full time creators, no wonder they can give their work away for free.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Hi Yunghi – I want to be clear – I’m not advocating for people misappropriating other people’s work. I’ve been working for years to fight for media policies that ensure we have a media system where journalists can get paid well for their work, and to support other press freedom issues. I think we can support and encourage open journalism and still ensure people get paid well for it.

  2. As always, Josh, your column is thoughtful and thought-provoking. And in a perfect world, what you envision would be a perfect solution. But we live in an imperfect, capitalist world, and creative people need compensation for their original work. How does your model provide financial support for quality journalism?

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Hi Barbara – I think there are a few approaches to this. One would be public funding, essentially an expansion of public media (like we outline here: I have outlined where that funding could come from in other places (not necessarily from taxpayers). But in general I think if we believe that the arts, music, humanities, science, journalism, etc… in the physical world are all worthy of some kind of public funding than we need to shift our thinking to how we should/could also support those sorts of endeavors online. But that is just one answer – more in the comments below…

  3. jstray says:

    I agree with you on most points, but any grand plan is unsustainable without a business model. YouTube is expensive to run, for example, because of the huge storage and bandwidth costs (and much more expensive if you’re not Google and own masses of your own fiber.) This doesn’t mean such spaces need to be “commercial” in the cultural sense but they definitely need big sources of funding.

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Jonathan – I think this is a critical point. I didn’t mean to suggest this public space could exist without clear strategies for support, sustainability and paying the bills generally. I wonder if newsrooms created such spaces, maintaining them as “noncommercial,” if the benefit of driving traffic to their site and related news content (with ads) would make it worth it. For some perhaps, for others not likely. Your Google example is apt, but as a nation we did just invest 7 billion in broadband deployment and more and more communities are exploring the benefits of municipal broadband, fiber and wireless networks. One problem is that we don’t have any real conversation or plan for communities to talk about what they want or need from both digital infrastructure and online spaces in a way that could shape strategies like this.

  4. Anna Tarkov says:

    There’s another problem with this other than the business model part. And that “problem” is that most of the people who we would want in our public square are already on Facebook/Twitter/etc. And in my experience, it’s very hard to pull them out of there. These are people who do not use technology or social networks thoughtfully. They just use them, they don’t think about why they use them or the implications. Their lives are already there and they have a hard time taking them elsewhere, even for a short while.

    I think, as you say, public media is the best venue for this. My (perhaps overly cynical) feeling is that commercial media will never create anything truly open, because of the fear of the competition getting something out of it. They don’t yet think of journalism as a service, at least not fully; they still view it as a product.

    1. I agree. The reason news orgs are in these spaces (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) is because that is where the audience is. It’s about taking the news to places where people are already engaging with content.

      Also, if it comes down to public broadcasters, paying for it is going to be a problem. Will people pay for the service, as people do for pro accounts on Flickr?

      Maybe the service could sit in front of existing platforms. So, you share to, for example, but it also pushes the content out to Twitter/Facebook etc. To provide a transitional phase.

      1. Josh Stearns says:

        Right, as I note in the post, I’m not suggesting we try to duplicate Facebook, or asserting that we could lure people away from the networks they have invested so much in. But I do think news organizations could create other networks, or could provide platforms, that serve a purpose beyond FB and other platforms. When there was a rash of fires in my neighborhood the local media was slow to report and didn’t engage the community at all so people turned to Facebook to connect, discuss, launch support efforts, etc… Maybe it is akin to what @garykemble describes, with layers building on each other, but I think there are opportunities to rethink how we approach public space online.

  5. Dear Josh, is a platform that thrives on creating communities around projects by freelance journalists. In 18 months and with not a single $ in marketing, we have managed to fund more than half million dollars of journalism. Our credo are the three P.
    The Public decides, the Public subscribes and invests, the Public brings the Public.
    What we do has been summarized in this that I just read above.
    “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.”
    Hope we can cross path,

  6. As a consumer of a wide range of journalism, I know that I don’t have the capability to pay for all of the good work that I find: Grist, Orion, High Country News, etc. yet, especially this time of the year, we are all reminded that these ventures take money to run and would I just share a little of mine. I would be happy to, but not for all and yet, in a wide sense, I need all. Most specifically, I need media with a good editorial staff that knows what kind of audience they have and will tell us what we need – not want – to hear.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s