“We’re not as far along as we should be. I’d give us a C-minus.” My talk to the Personal Democracy Forum, June 7, 2011. You can watch it here.
I address you today in a mood of frustration. For in the development of pro-am journalism, we are not as far along as we should be. I’d give us a C-minus.
By “pro-am” I mean exactly that: a hybrid form in which pro journalists and their users work together in the production of high quality editorial goods.
My plan of attack: First, I am going to explain this miserable grade, the C-minus. Then I will identify the progress we have made. And I will close with what we need to do to move ahead.
It took me a while to understand this myself, but I want to isolate an important fact at the outset. Professional journalism has been optimized for low participation. Up until a few years ago, the “job” of the user was simply to receive the news and maybe send a letter to the editor. There was a logic to this. Journalists built their practices on top of a one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting system. Most of us understand that by now. What we haven’t quite appreciated is how the logic of the one way, one-to-many pipes sunk deeply, not only into professional practice, but into professional selves.
And so when I talk to journalists about the Internet I try to get them to picture something that they had long ago naturalized: the arrangement of the audience in space under conditions of mass media. At the deepest roots of their thinking they had accepted an image of the people “out there” as connected up to big media, but disconnected or atomized from one another, as well silent and inert, and powerless to make media.
Today of course all these things have changed: people are connected “across” to each other, as effectively as they are connected “up” to big media. This I call The Great Horizontal. People can talk back to the news system and make their own media. That’s a power shift. Most people in journalism are far enough along in confronting these changes to accept that social media is here to stay, that blogging is a normal and useful activity, that amateurs have a part to play in the news system.
But accepting these facts isn’t enough to make good on the editorial promise of pro-am. Look at CNN’s iReport: 750,000 contributors worldwide. When an earthquake and tsunami strikes Japan, iReport supplies the footage that professionals cannot. But this is exactly where we were in December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. The early coverage was provided by amateurs with cameras.
What we don’t see is the CNN newsroom working actively with its network of contributors to accomplish what neither could pull off on its own. (Despite this initial effort. ) We should, but we don’t have worldwide pro-am investigations into, say, human trafficking or climate change. That’s frustrating. And we haven’t built upon the crucial insight my friend Dan Gillmor had way back in 1999.
As one of the first newspaper journalists to combine a beat and a blog, Gillmor realized, as he put it, “my readers know more than I do.” That was always true. It was true in the 1950s. But when the media system ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, there was nowhere for that knowledge to go. Now there is. And yet, twelve years later, we aren’t making high quality editorial goods from the “more” that readers know.
Consder: There were enough readers of the financial press who knew from direct experience about the mortgage mess to put that story together a year or two before the crash of 2008. Real estate agents. Home buyers. Loan officers. Mortgage bloggers. Drones on Wall Street. They knew something was rotten. Collectively, they knew way more than the financial press did. The story wasn’t hidden. It lay uncollected. That knowledge could have alerted the nation well before the crash of 2008.
It was a pro-am moment. But are we nowhere near making it happen. And this is why I come to you a frustrated man. Still, I have to admit: we have made progress. Here are some of the grades I would give us. (In most cases, these grades are the overall performance of the news system itself, as against what outstanding individuals have been able to do.)
Andy Carvin: Twitter anchor and distributed verification wiz: A+
Witnesses record the emergency when journalists are missing or banned: A+
Rise of a pro-am distribution and curation system: A
User generated content: spot news photography: A-
User generated content: on-the-scene video: A-
Social media helps the newsroom locate good sources: B+
“The journalism of the in-box:” B
Wikileaks partners with powerful newspapers: B
Citizens ask the questions of public figures: B
Users help sift through documents and find gems: B-
News organizations run local and expert blog networks: B-
Community-assisted reporting at hyperlocal sites: B-
Domain knowledge experts who blog work together with beat reporters: F
Integrating amateur systems like iReport with pro newsrooms: F
Pro-am editorial agenda-setting: F
Pro-am fact checking networks: F
Pro-am investigative journalism: F
Globally distributed pro-am reporting on global problems: F
Pro-am traffic reports: F
Pro-am ski conditions: F
What explains those grades of C, D and F? Why haven’t we made more progress?
Part of the answer involves what is sometimes called the one percent rule in online life. It says that if you attract 1000 people to your site, 900 of them will only consume the product. About 100 of the one thousand will contribute anything at all, maybe a comment at a blog post. And 10 of those 100 will become regular contributors, people you can count on. But when we design pro-am projects, we often create them for the one percent; then we’re disappointed that only a tiny portion of the users take up our invitation. Our expectations haven’t caught up to what is known. We aren’t being realistic.
A second problem involves what I earlier referred to as the give-get bargain. What do contributors give, what do they get? We simply don’t know enough about what motivates people to get involved in pro-am or open source projects in journalism. Our ideas lack nuance; we haven’t tested them enough. Lots of people complain that amateurs aren’t being paid. (Understandable.) Lots of people are eager to exploit unpaid labor. (Understandable!) Not enough attention on the full range of reasons people might get involved, and the full range of rewards that might encourage them to contribute.
A third problem is that we simply haven’t made it easy enough for people to join in. The ergonomics of participation in pro-am journalism are poorly understood. We don’t have enough experts in it.
Fourth: There are exceptions like Brian Stelter, but in general, pro journalists don’t have the time, the patience, the understanding of online life, or the motivation to get granular with us on these problems. They prefer the iReport solution: where the amateurs do their thing, the pros do theirs, and no one undertakes the hard slog of bringing the two together.
Moving against this pattern, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, laid down an important marker when he called for “the mutualisation of journalism.” What he meant is the users have something to contribute that professional journalists cannot, and pro journalists can do things that the users cannot. That is the founding insight of pro-am. But Rusbridger is an outlier.
I’m coming in for a landing. Here are some things we need to do:
1. Remember the one percent rule. We need to figure out tasks for the 10 percent who are occasional contributors. And what can do the 90 percent do?
2. We have to move from “write us a post,” to “fill out this form,” which is more likely to engage the ten percent. Then we have to figure out how to structure those forms so they result in high quality editorial goods. Structured data is therefore a huge part of the future of pro-am. But we have hardly begun to experiment with it. Frustrating!
3. To engage people in a pro-am reporting project, it is critical that they see and feel the connection between the small part they are asked to contribute and the big story that will result.
4. We need to engage already organized communities, including activists, in journalistic tasks. It’s too hard to create these communities from scratch.
5. Frictionless and fun with ladders of achievement. Pro-am journalism needs to take a page from game design. And I don’t mean, “give ‘em badges!”
6. In situations where the users know more than the journalists, as with my example of the mortgage crisis, journalists need an advanced tool kit for tapping into that knowledge. Sadly, we haven’t given them that.
7. We need more beat reporters or niche bloggers to commit themselves to the networked approach, where the model is author plus hundreds or even thousands of followers who assist in daily production. A simple example would be the transportation reporter who covers the Long Island Railroad or the Washington Metro. Obviously that beat is best done with hundreds of commuter correspondents collaborating in real time with a full-time reporter. We have the tools. We need people committed to the practice.
8. We need the open source version of the online assignment systems that companies like Demand Media and AOL have been developing, which means right-sizing the work combined with brilliantly understandable instructions.
9. Learn from Al Jazeera.
Pro journalism has never been optimized for high participation. But participatory media hasn’t been optimized for quality journalism, either. That right there is the work we need to do.
I’ve been at this since 1989– 22 years. If it takes another 22, I will be… let’s see: 77 years old when the problem is solved. And I’m fine with that. Because I really believe the more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be. I’m not ready to give that idea up. Are you?