Hacks, Hackers and the Future of the Fourth Estate

Journalism is in crisis in the wake of web 2.0, as the industry struggles to adapt to the rapid changes posed by the digital revolution. But these forces could provide a massive opportunity for a radical revision of what journalism means today in this unchartered territory. We’re already witnessing the first steps towards a democratisation of the news. ‘The former audience’ are becoming empowered, active participants rather than passive consumers, so doesn’t it makes sense to start seeing it less as a finished product and more like an ongoing, two-way process or service?

Harnessing these challenges could mean a shift towards a new ‘open’ journalism, envisioning news culture as a kind of collective, community-driven information exchange, actively engaging with the ‘networked public sphere’ or so-called Fifth Estate. Digital means more than on-demand, silicone chips and real time reportage, it’s about what society chooses to do with these new tools after all.

“in the end we have to confront the question of how we subsidise something society needs and where there is evident market failure. For the first time since the Enlightenment, communities are faced with the prospect of living without verifiable sources of news”

The Guardian has become somewhat of a figurehead for this wedded to the web, digital-first philosophy. Former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger defined ‘open journalism’ in terms of encouraging participation; engaging with ‘communities of interest’ and exploiting the potential of crowdsourcing. It’s an audience-driven way of reinventing old media, summarised by their award winning reimagining of the fable of the Three Little Pigs against the backdrop of the newly networked world.

Revolutions, Riots and Crowdsourced Content

Real open journalism is about creating a participatory  culture that doesn’t end with the confines of token comment sections and twitter feeds. The new media mantra that ‘my readers know more than I do’ proposes a real change in the traditional role of journalists as agenda setters to aggregators or curator. Crowdsourced content has come to shape reportage of major news events like the Arab Spring, when journalists like Andy Carvin from National Public Radio tapped into the constant stream of updates from hundreds of thousands of different perspectives. Take the Guardian’s 2009 MP’s expenses project for instance, publishing 7000 documents for volunteers to help analyse. Or, their coverage of the 2010 London riots, built around a database of 2.6 million tweets by 700,000 users through 160 hashtag channels to inform liveblogging alongside survey responses to work out the development of events in real time. This experiment would later form the basis of a collaborative academic study ‘Reading the Riots’ with the London School of Economics and pave the way for their Witness app as a user-generated content platform. But these are just small steps towards realising the full potential for a digital news culture revolution.

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The revolution will be tweeted. Photograph: Flickr user Achifaifa

Harnessing the Hacker Ethic

‘a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future. Maybe that’s every bit as important as informing voters or getting politicians fired.’

If old media needs to learn from the new, then open source ideas might just offer the answers to how to do just that. This concept of traces back to Leonard Andrews’ review of an incident back in 1999 where a Slashdot article about cyberterrorism was rewritten reflecting critical feedback by commenters; compared with the way that ‘open source programmers would critique a beta release of software’. Adopting the ‘hacker ethic’ reimagines the editorial process with community participation; commenting, sharing, fact checking and providing additional material, using shared sources through the likes of Documentcloud. Annotative tools could provide independent fact-checking by public and professional monitors adding depth and detail, merging branded and crowdsourced user-generated content to create organic, evolving stories rather than the current brand of by-lined, standalone columns or blogs.

The whole open source philosophy runs parallel with the principles of traditional journalism in terms of its pro-social mandate as the Fourth Estate. With the ever growing public mistrust of the media in the age of the phone-hacking scandal, the enhanced authority provided by transparency and participation could provide a remedy to that. Journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray illustrates this aptly in a widely shared blog post, calling it ‘a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future. Maybe that’s every bit as important as informing voters or getting politicians fired.’

Participation shouldn’t end just with publication. By making content available to reuse and repurpose, developers and third parties would be able to engage with data even outside of original publications themselves. Databases could be used to compile unused raw materials that never made it to press and give information a new lease of life by organising and making it accessible to the community. This is premise encourages newspapers to start thinking of themselves in terms of ‘data platforms’ upon which content can be constructed, like the content API’s (application program interfaces) run by USA Today and the New York Times which allow access to everything from article indexes to census data for reworking. This kind of collaborative ambition is already being a realised at an industry level (albeit a small scale) through ‘hack day’ events like #newsHACK organised by the BBC, bringing together journalists and developers to sharing resource and cultivate fresh ideas.

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#newsHACK Glasgow 2014. Photograph: Matt Shearer

The Long View

Despite all it’s advantages, open journalism is still a rough concept with its own set of flaws and frustrations that don’t offer a simple solution. There are limits to what can be sharing sensitive information openly and issues with verifying crowdsourced information. Projects rise and fall with the currents of the contributions they depend upon; failing when the necessary mass of participation declines or fails to materialise altogether. So if old media is to succeed in learning how to maintain a solid base of motivated participants, it needs to look beyond the the small circles of established industry groups like hack events.

The question of a commercially viable model for digital journalism, let alone open journalism still persists. The Guardian’s publisher continues to make redundancies, bleeding annual losses of around £40 million to date, though it can somewhat afford to thanks to its support from the Scott Trust, without the pressure of pleasing shareholders. Sceptical voices like author of The Revolution Will Be Digitalised Heather Brooke have been critical of open journalism as ‘a failed business model’, stating that since ‘somebody has to pay… what The Guardian does, by giving it away for free, is it continues this unrealistic expectation the public has that you can do good civic journalism for nothing, and you can’t’. So what’s the alternative?

The Guardian offices. Photograph: Andrew Cowie
The Guardian offices. Photograph: Andrew Cowie

Whether paywalls ‘work’ or not depends on how you define it. They’ve been heavily criticised for limiting growth, characterised as a ‘sandbag strategy’ by Matthew Ingram since ‘they keep the water from coming in, but they don’t really do anything to help companies figure out or deal with the reasons why the water is rising in the first place’. They’re a short term solution that doesn’t address the existential crisis of declining value and volume of advertising, something that alienates an increasingly indifferent younger audience of digital natives. By shutting themselves off, paywalled publications are restricting their reach, especially internationally, in an ever more crowded and competitive marketplace that’s saturated with free content.

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Former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.
Photography: David Levine

There’s no easy answer, as Rusbridger acknowledged that “in the end we have to confront the question of how we subsidise something society needs and where there is evident market failure. For the first time since the Enlightenment, communities are faced with the prospect of living without verifiable sources of news”. We know that innovation means experimentation, so maybe part of the learning curve is a new need to learn to embrace the risk of failure and learning through mistakes. So open journalism takes the long view, looking to grow first, and monetise later.

The possibilities for a reboot are real, while the open journalism model remains an imperfect, embryonic idea, at least it’s an optimistic one; especially considering the spectre of automation looming over the horizon. Whether or not the future of the Fourth Estate will be good news for the news, that’s up to the audience.

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