Pro-am journalism: How to improve Rosen’s report card

A couple of weeks ago Jay Rosen gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum titled “The Past and Future of Pro-Am Journalism“. In it he spoke of public journalism’s achievements to date, but was ultimately disappointed with its progress. Indeed, since Rosen published What Are Journalists For?, the media doesn’t seem to have moved on in the way that he or I would have liked it to.

Rosen posits his thoughts as a report card – awarding grades to certain concepts depending on how well they’ve been executed or developed. He starts by saying that he is in a mood of frustration, and that pro-am journalism in its current state should be given a C Minus. What I’m going to do here is select a couple of observations, and suggest ways of improving those grades.

“Comment threads supply knowledge that improves accountability – C minus”

Comment threads are often touted as something that has changed what journalists do. In some senses, it has. Journalists reading “below the line” can see what the public think. They can point out inconsistencies and correct inaccuracies. Most of the time they are used for stimulating a debate around the article that continues long after it goes live on a site.

But the key problem with them is that they take place after the article. They still rely on a journalist posting what he or she believes to be the full picture, and then letting the public debate that after the fact. Dynamic comment threads could work as a form of story-builder.

Jeff Jarvis has come under fire recently when his views on the article were somewhat misrepresented, but his idea of assembling news as it happens is something that can be facilitated by better comment threads. Not everyone is part of Twitter, Facebook and other sharing networks. But a lot of people do check in to a news website. Using comment threads to help with the newsgathering and clarification process is a logical step. The article posts what the reporter knows (as soon as he or she knows it) and the comments help to fill in the blanks.

People familiar with the 1:9:90 rule (for every 100 people involved in an article, one will write it, 9 will comment, and 90 will just read) know that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Filling in a form, specifying what category the comment falls into to make for easy newsgathering, or including factcheck boxes can all contribute to a better form of thread than daily one upsmanship over on Comment is Free.

“Pro-am investigative journalism – Double F”

A tricky one. Investigative journalism is often thought of as epitomising journalism – a check on power and exposure of corruption. Sadly it is in limited supply thanks to both the financial resources required as well news organisations’ race to the bottom. But how to improve investigative reporting through pro-am journalism? The distributed network that we see in social media could equally be applied to large-scale investigative operations.

If a newspaper had reason to conduct a large-scale investigation into say, a financial institution, they could involve their ‘contacts’ far more than how they currently do. Journalists’ contacts are often treated like prostitutes – they are contacted when needed, for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time. But pro-am investigative reporting could see news organisations using the power of the expert distributed network over a much longer period of time.

How would they do this effectively? By first identifying the level of engagement that each participant wishes to give to a project. At the very top level you could include financial analysts who have specialist knowledge and want to see changes made to the financial system as a whole. At a lower level there are people who have a more local grip on things – experts who see the effects of the institution in their part of the world, but not the bigger picture. And at the basic level, you have a public who are prepared to sift through pages of spreadsheets to identify relevant information.

So far this part has already been done. The Guardian do it a lot. The last example of this was the Sarah Palin emails, something with little news value but a brilliant test to see how this kind of journalism might work. Using networks to help people join the dots (as Rosen notes could have been done pre-financial crisis) is a crucial skill that news organisations could provide.

To put it succinctly – in 2011 we are doing more, but we should be doing so much more. Rick Waghorn has identified the need to roll out the collaborative mindset from a content-centric basis into things like advertising (the same should be said for all aspects of a news organisation), but the way in which content is produced is still imperfect.

Rome wasn’t built in a day – it took over a thousand years to develop and expand into the city it is today. Lets hope it doesn’t take that long for journalism to rebuild itself.

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