Juliet Dobson: Open journalism and social media

Juliet DobsonThe Guardian is well known for being at the forefront of journalism and for pushing forward ever more innovative ways of covering the news. A talk at King’s Place on Friday 14 September looked at how journalism is changing and how social media, particularly Twitter, are changing the way news is reported and read.

The talk was by Dan Roberts, national editor, Guardian. He opened the discussion by looking back to his first job at a local paper. I loved his description of working in an office that was above the printing presses. He said you could feel the hum and vibrations of the presses in the office as the papers were printed. It was a very industrial process and this was reflected in the way journalists worked. Journalists wrote and readers consumed. The papers were printed and then delivered in lorries all around the country. But now, in the 21st century, this producer-consumer balance has shifted as smartphones have given everyone the ability to gather information and publish it.

This change is demonstrated in the Guardian’s experiment to publish its news lists online everyday. Far from giving away all its scoops, it actually means that readers become more involved and engaged in the news and contribute to it by leaving comments. The idea is that this will actually enhance news reporting as readers can add useful information or spot omissions in the list.

Live blogging from an event seems to be ubiquitous these days on most news websites. Roberts said that this works well with fast moving stories as blogs are so flexible. As a reader, I think the blogs are effective not just as a way to follow a breaking story, but also to look back and see how a story developed. Readers respond and send in a lot of comments, which for the journalists writing the blogs is a great way to check the facts. Interestingly Roberts said that the Guardian’s live blogs always get the most hits and comments of all their articles. The NHS live blog usually has lower traffic, but the quality of the responses and contributions tend to be very high.

Another way of getting readers to contribute to the Guardian’s output is by asking them to write theatre reviews. Roberts pointed out that although the Guardian employs a great theatre critic, he only goes to the first night of most shows, and reviews productions early on in their run. The great thing about having readers add in their reviews is that the production can be reviewed as it continues through its run, like a sort of constant review.

The power of reader’s opinions is best displayed in the Guardian’s comment is free (cif) pages. Not only does this allow the Guardian to cover a whole range of topics and events, and showcase a wide range of thoughts and opinions, but they have also discovered some great writers. 70 regular cif writers now write “above the line” as well.

The debate then moved briefly towards “open” vs “closed.” Should online articles be free to access or not? Roberts didn’t really say, and he did point out that the question of costs and finances is “another whole conversation,” but he did say that in terms of user engagement the “open” model clearly works better. He compared two recent articles in the Guardian and the Times. Both were about gun control, and both were published on the same day. Jeremy Clarkson’s article in the Times, only had 11 comments. This was compared to Gary Younge, writing in the Guardian, whose article had 1165 comments.

But is this what journalism is about? And how useful is it to have to sift through 1165 comments, however thoughtful they are? A member of the audience asked whether the Guardian ever thinks about different ways to organise their comments. Roberts response was that the paper has recruited community coordinators to sort through and respond to people who leave comments. This works better than simply moderating them. The Guardian is also planning to improve the technology it uses, and hopefully comments will soon be organised by theme rather than chronologically.

Does Roberts ever worry that the skill and experience that journalists have is now blurred by social media? Journalists have a training after all, but social media allows us all to create the news. Roberts said that he does find it depressing to see journalists tweeting their opinions before investigating the truth behind a story. He felt that some journalists need to be more circumspect about what they tweet—although I felt that was probably good advice for everyone. The advantage of social media is that it makes everything more transparent. Journalists have always had opinions and now it is easier to point out if someone has made their up mind before looking into the facts of a story.

The talk wrapped up on a discussion about print vs online content. The common consensus these days seem to be that print is dead, so it was refreshing to hear Roberts say that he thinks that there would always be a market for a printed product. He qualified that by saying that perhaps during the week papers will cease to be printed, but he thinks that a weekend paper will exist for a long time. The Guardian aims to think of the print and online versions of the paper as “one paper,” and try to feed the vibrancy of the website into the printed version. He said that the printed version is really just a distilled, and edited version of the website. This kind of curation is still not achieved in the same way online, despite linking and bundling articles together. The web can still feel a little “bitty,” he thought. Inevitably this led the discussion back to the question of money. He agreed that it is sad that the economics of paper do not work out, and of course the great limitation of printed papers is that they just can’t move fast enough.

I left through the sleek, modern building that is King’s Place, also home to the Guardian offices. As I left I looked up and into the Guardian offices from the indoor courtyard. It is a vibrant, social place—home to concerts, talks, exhibitions, and all sorts of productions. There were lots of school parties milling around and people from all parts of town. The vibe was busy and social. It made me think back to the description Dan Roberts gave at the start of his talk about the printing presses working away in the basement. If that reflected the old, industrial way that journalism worked, then this is the new, inclusive future.

Juliet Dobson is the assistant web editor and blogs editor, BMJ