Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Getting ahead--and producing better journalism--by letting others help us

Wikinomics is a great new book about the open source economy that holds important lessons for us journalists.

The subtitle "How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything" underlines the book's thesis. Technology has made it possible for people to collaborate on projects in ways never before possible. Industries that grasp the power of collaboration, and put it to use in product development, are getting ahead.

Proctor & Gamble, for example, once an insular company, now famously outsources much of its R&D, through a program called "Connect & Develop." The company publicizes a research question they're working on and promise a big payoff to the researcher anywhere in the world who solves it for them. Thousands of individuals or smaller companies around the world, with deeper experience in the relevant areas than P&G has in-house, race to try to find the answer first. The approach gets P&G farther faster than when they did all their research, secretively, in-house.

The book is full of such examples in which companies that open themselves up and invite the participation of anyone who's inspired to participate actually get ahead faster than those who try to keep everything in-house.

So what does this have to do with journalism?

Journalism is a notoriously secretive profession. A reporter gets a whiff of something, tracks it down doggedly, all the while trying to keep his/her project a secret from others, less s/he get scooped.

The open source method (a name coined in the tech world for computer programming projects in which new software is developed collaboratively) could turn all this on its head. Imagine how much farther you'd get as a journalist, how much better a story you'd produce, if you told the world what you were working on and let the world help you with your reporting. Here's what you'd gain:

  • A much quicker understanding of what's at stake
  • A much more accurate interpretation of the information you've gathered
  • Quicker access to documents
  • Insights it never would have occured to you to look for
  • And in the end, a deeper, richer, more accurate and more complete story

In fact, this is already happening at organizations that are giving the open source method a shot. The Fort-Myers, Fla., News-Press posted an appeal to the community to help them investigate a proposed sewer and water rate hike. The response was overwhelming. Readers flooded the paper's online forums to discuss the story and share what they knew.

The newspaper got help from everyone from retirees who had worked for sewer authorities elsewhere and could explain their ins and outs, to a local homeowner who'd been investigating on his own and had collected dozens of internal memos, to a local activist who similarly had been tracking the local utilities system and had other forms of documentation.

Just think about how much time this approach saved the News-Press and how much better an investigation they got out of it.

  • One of the handicaps of being a reporter sometimes is that you don't even know what it is you need to look for. The private citizens who responded to the News-Press' appeal helped the paper clear that hurdle much faster than they would have had they fumbled along on their own.

  • Another handicap is that, without deep experience in a particular domain, like sewers and rate setting, you're not sure how to interpret the information you receive. Sure, we like to think of ourselves as quick studies. But there's no substitute for someone with a lifetime of experience helping you understand the meaning behind the information you've collected.

  • A final handicap is getting access to documents. Even if you know what you're looking for, it can take a while to find it. In this story the News-Press benefitted from others' legwork.

The idea of opening ourselves up to the world doubtlessly feels uncomfortable to many journalists. We've been taught to keep our cards close to our chests, lest we get scooped. And we've been taught that "we're the professionals" and, as such, that we know best how to do this journalism thing.

But in some cases, it's clear that open source methods produce better, more complete, and more accurate stories. And isn't that, in the end, what we're all aiming for?

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