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Monday, June 23, 2008

Dial a journalist

I've been meaning to point to this for a while. US journalist Dave Cohn, aka digidave, is exploring new models for journalism with a site he's building called

The site aims to put news consumers in touch with journalists and publishers - allowing the consumers to request news about topics of interest. As Dave says in an introductory video: "If you have 200 people, they can all hire a journalist to write a story that those 200 people agree is important."

As I understand it, will assist not only in putting news consumers together with journalists (presumably freelances) but will also try to find publishers in relevant locales willing to publish the story once it's written.

This is an interesting exercise in empowering consumers to contribute to the news agenda - traditionally the preserve of news editors.

If it gains traction it could prove a useful middle ground between trained/paid journalists and citizen journalists who have an eye for a story but lack the time, resources or expertise to develop it.

It's certainly a step up - in terms of transparency and inclusion - from news hotlines, private emails to reporters and those 'email us your pictures' invites on mainstream sites.

Transparency, one of the key qualities of successful online business ably described by the folks at The Cluetrain Manifesto, has long been lacking in news.

Your average consumer has no idea what's involved in gathering and reporting news. They've never heard of news editors, copyfetching, sub-editors, production editors or page layout. And journalists tend to think readers should trust them implicitly with the business of gathering and telling news stories. They give very little away about how they go about it.

Reporters may quote people and sources in the story, but they give no indication of how many people they spoke to or over what time period, whose comments were dropped owing to lack of space or erudition, how much of a given story came from the wires, where the initial lead came from. They seldom reference the websites they've looked at while researching the story, or books or journals. Yet these are all pieces of information that give context to a story.

The practicalities of listing an entire set of resources for each story are prohibitive: it would take too long and clutter the website/newspaper. So the trust does have to be there. But I believe far more openness about newsgathering processes will become essential as online sensibilities take hold and as news sites become more prolific and less uniform.

A good start would be to make sure there's information on news sites about editorial policies and processes, style guides and how front page stories are chosen - what the acid test is for a good story. Making journalists more accessible is also a good idea (including email addresses with stories, encouraging those who blog to engage in conversation with readers, using social networks to work more collaboratively with sources, for example).

I hope that over time seasoned news veterans and newer non-mainstream journalists will learn from one another and adopt a loose set of standards for news. Such that all stories, whether published on a blog or on a mainstream news website, will include details and links for their sources (people and websites) to enable readers to check the facts for themselves if they want.

Bloggers, of course, have made an able start having adopted the practice of routinely linking to source material and generally including some information about themselves on their sites. There's room for more information though about how they go about gathering material, what policies they have for quoting people, accepting free stuff, checking facts etc.

Astute readers will notice I haven't done this on my own blog. Fair cop. But it is on the to-do list, along with a complete redesign of my various online outlets. Someone give me a nudge if I've made no progress by the end of next month.


DigiDave said...

Hey - thanks for the nod.

"If it gains traction it could prove a useful middle ground between trained/paid journalists and citizen journalists who have an eye for a story but lack the time, resources or expertise to develop it."

You are absolutely right - this is one of the advantages I see for Spot.Us or "Spot Reporting." It is news for the public and by the public - except they "dial up" a journalist to do the heavy lifting for them. The real question is, of course, if people are willing to donate money towards journalism.

Let's find out ;)

Julie Starr said...

Hi Dave,


Thanks for your comment.

Yep, that's a very good question alright - whether people are willing to donate money towards journalism.

Given that so many people choose free news over paid at the moment - web versus newspapers, for example - it will be interesting to see whether being a stakeholder in the process will affect their willingness to pay.

Will look forward to hearing about the site once it's up and running. Good luck with it.