How can we make Open Journalism work?

by Stefan Stumpp and Benedikt Fecher

In times of the newspaper crisis it is perhaps worthwhile to reconsider the production process of information, to understand news publishing in transition and the actual production of information as a process. When we talk about Open Journalism, we think about concepts as Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing – in the broadest sense strategies that depict an openening of the former closed publishing process and the inclusion of external knowledge. The guiding questions in this brainstorming blog entry are therefore: Where and how could the news value chain be opened? How could a newspaper profit from opening? And would that really lead to a better product?

We collected a few, in our eyes, innovative examples and ideas along the news value chain that we dwell on in the following blog entry. For structuring purposes, we divided the production and marketing of news in three steps: Editorial research, editing and production and commercialisation.
It has to be said that our excursion focuses mainly on the economic side of news production. Political aspects, for instance concerning the changing role of the fourth estate, are left out. The entry is already long enough…

1. Editorial research

Editorial research is traditionally the job of news agencies, newspapers and other editorial departments. Today, new, ‘online-born’ players (as for instance blogs) play core roles in the agenda setting as well. Though newspapers and such have a more institutional character, they might profit from the social web’s bottom-up logic.

Example 1: User-generated topic selection in the case of theblogpaper

An interesting example for bottom-up topic selection is the British theblogpaper, a user-generated newspaper that appears online and in print. On the webpage, user can upload and discuss articles. Those articles that receive the most user votes appear in the printed paper. Theblogpaper is a good example for the outsourcing of editorial research and agenda setting as it builds almost solely on its community’s topic preferences. It shows how, by implementing modern social communication technology, external input can be included in a newspaper’s value chain. Interestingly, the innovative business model leads to a quite traditional product – a printed paper. It seems as if print can still work.

Still the question remains if user selected topics lead to the best-possible product. Provocatively put: Can normal users better decide on topics as professional journalists? Furthermore: Though theblogpaper still exists after 4 years, there is not much know about the economic sustainability of such a model. Similar business models before already failed (here).

Example 2: Social media monitoring & topic research in the case of storify and Digg

The internet service storify structures news data from social media channels (as for instance Twitter). It works similar to a meta search engine – just for news. It has to be said that there are other, similar tools as Bag The Web, Pearltrees, Bundlr oder Qrait. Theses services can be used by newspapers to identify relevant topics early; they can support the editorial research. For each search term, storify (and the others) curates the content.

Another service that should be mentioned here is Digg, a social bookmarking service for news. The Digg community links to blog entries, news and press releases and rates its relevance. Topics that are rated high by a certain community could as well be interesting for a similar readership.

2. Editorial design and producing

Also the design and production of content can be partly left up to the reader. In practice, there are only a few models in which readers are able to design and edit cross-media content with personal preferences (or do we just not know them?).

Example 1: Personalised newspaper and the cases of Alexander news & Pulse

How could a highly personalised newspaper look like? A newspaper that is designed after the specific preferences of an individual reader? To illustrate the idea, we want to introduce Alexander. Alexander is from Berlin and solely interested in sports and politics; more precisely football and German domestic politics. His favourites are the sport section of the BILD newspaper and the domestic politics section of the Süddeutsche. Obviously, there is no sense to buy both newspapers – it also looks kind of stupid on the train. An Alexanderzeitung instead, which precisely meets his interests (with the sports section of the BILD and domestic politics of the Süddeutsche), could be of value for him.

Let’s say that, in addition to his thematic preferences, Alexander is also able to determine the percentage of pages for sports and politics, the percentage of text, video, audio and maybe the percentage of surprising and unexpected content. Alexander could also read newspapers from other users (similar to a playlist on spotify). This newspaper will be digital and compatible on any mobile device. Metadata and an article data base will help to create an personalised newspaper according to the frequency that suits Alexander best.

Of course the Alexanderzeitung is kind of utopian. The delineated process goes hand in hand with copyright issues, intellectual property rights, cooperation problems between publishers and immense programming efforts. besides, it is not clear if Alexander would pay for his personal newspaper. Also this is not a new idea. Nevertheless: The Pulse-app basically shows how the way personalised news works on a mobile device. With the app the user is able to combine and display articles from different sources. So he can see only articles, he is really interested in. The user has no influence in the article itself but at least in the combination of these articles of his personalised newspaper.

Example 2: User-generated contend of the Huffington Post

The business model of the Huffington Post is based on the active contribution of its readers. The majority of the articles of the US-american online-newspaper is written by voluntaries. The core task of a newspaper, the writing of articles, is outsourced. In 2006, the Huffington Post was awarded with »Bester politischer Blog” (best political blog) and with the Webby Award of the International Academy of the Digital Arts and Sciences. The online paper benefits from its vivid community – considering that it is financed by advertising. There is also a lot of criticism about the business model when it comes to remuneration of its contributors. In difference to theblogpaper, the Huffington Post only exists in a digital version.

3. Commercialization

Surely, the crux of the online-content is the commercialization. Our smart-aleck ideas for opening up the boundaries of traditional newspapers do not yet offer an adequate solution. Paid-content-models rarely work in Germany. They are often complicated, just don’t fit to the digital natives (more obstacles here) or badly implemented. In addition, online-content is regarded as a commodity that nobody needs to pay for. What could be funding opportunities apart from paywalls and advertising?

Example 1: Databaseflatrate

How a financial-model could look like in compliance with the Alexanderzeitung? Maybe it’s a combination of a database-flatrate and personalized advertising (but there are also different opinions about advertising financing of content). For a monthly payment, the user not only gets unrestricted access to content (from different newspapers) but also a personalised newspaper tailored to the customers’ needs – if the product still can be called newspaper. There still remains the question whether the reader will pay for the access and the design of the newspaper.

Example 2: Crowdfunding – Krautreporter

The blogger Dirk van Gehlen writes about the possibility of crowdfunding of journalistic content (see also here and here). You can find such an approach at the German platform (still in beta version) Krautreporter. Sure, the idea of swarm financing of journalistic content is interesting as the reader only pays for content he or she wants. Yet, there is only a few known about the success of this model (see here). The question also arises of how such a model would change the journalistic practice: Will jounalists then only write about the most popular topics in such a case? For example about cat babies or the FC Bayern Munich? Where is the border of Crowdfindung regarding journalistic content?

Example 3: Content for performance: Google consumer services

If the user doesn’t want to pay for content, he should at least work for it! Sounds a little bit like a slogan. Nonetheless is the idea ‘work for content’ is not unthinkable in the Internet. Considering that the personal data of a user is of monetary value, and furthermore immaterial and digitally exchangeable, one could offer disclosure for content. Google’s consumer surveys is a possible tool for such a business model. Users take part in short consumer surveys and receive access to the content they want to read. This model could overcome the reluctance to pay for online content. At the same time, such a model comes with privacy concerns.

What we labelled open journalism at the very beginning of this entry comes with a multitude of unanswered questions – especially when it comes to the marketing and financing of professional content. It is furthermore questionable to which degree open strategies work for established newspapers – a question that possibly only the future can answer. Still, we recognize at least new opportunities for the journalistic practice.

This post is part of a weekly series of articles by doctoral canditates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and asssociated research projects, please contact presse|a|hiig.de.

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