What think tanks can learn from experiments in open journalism

No sector or industry is immune from the ‘open revolution’ – from software development, scientific research and publishing, to how businesses innovate more generally. Here are three experiments in ‘open journalism’ which also suggest how think tanks could work more openly.

1. Open sourcing

The Guardian newspaper has embarked on a programme of open journalism. As Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, has noted: “Journalists are not the only experts in the world.” ‘Open journalism’ is the Guardian’s name for the way in which it is attempting to involve its readership not just in commenting on stories, but contributing to and even determining its news agenda, as a way of creating a two-way relationship between journalists and readers.

As the Creative Review notes, this reflects the changing nature of media. Given the competition that has emerged from other forms of media, especially social media, newspapers are having to be less about relating ‘the story’ (as they see it) and more about acting as a platform for a topic to be explored by multiple participants, including readers, in real-time.

At the moment, this mainly means that reporters keep readers informed as they develop stories (usually via Twitter). Every morning the paper also posts its ‘news list’, the usually closely held plan of stories it is working on for the following day, partly in the hope that greater openness about the paper’s agenda will prompt information from readers. The Guardian has cited the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots in London and the resignation of the defence minister Liam Fox as two examples where readers helped to substantiate stories.

2. Open editing

In February Wired magazine published an article about GitHub, a ‘version control’ website that allows programmers of open source software projects to upload code and share it with other developers but also keep track of who made what changes and to merge these changes together. What was interesting was that the writer used GitHub to invite and capture suggested edits and amendments to the article itself (the GitHub repository for the article can be found here).

GitHub was designed for software development rather than collaborative editing, but Wired’s experiment shows how mainstream media can engage informed readers to produce better written, better researched reports – a form of Wikipedia for journalism.

3. Open agenda-setting

OpenFile is a ‘community-powered’ news organisation which operates in seven Canadian cities. Its journalists cover stories which start out as suggestions from readers. OpenFile works with hundreds of freelance reporters across Canada; once its journalists are assigned to a story they collaborate with readers to deliver their reports, typically on local news and issues.

This is rather different from ‘citizen reporting’ (or ‘participatory journalism’ – see for example the Media Trust’s newsnet platform), since the main journalistic activity here is still being conducted by professional reporters. Nevertheless, this public direction of a news organisation represents a highly disruptive model – more like ‘media-as-a-service’ rather than the traditional industrial model of media production.

We’ve suggested here before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why traditional media is being disrupted by social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Journalism is increasingly recognising the need to reinvent itself, including by experimenting with mass collaboration (as in the MPs expenses scandal) and even crowdfunding (though not yet at the level of individual stories). So what could think tanks learn from these kinds of experiments in open journalism?

At the conceptual level, think tanks could also try to create more of a two-way relationship with their customers and audiences. This would mean less telling people what ‘the story’ is, but instead acting more as facilitators who offer a platform for collaboration between interested parties in real-time, including the policy and decision-making audiences they want to influence. As we’ve suggested before, this is probably why think tanks such as Chatham House, which seek to act as ‘meeting places‘ for a range of experts rather than presenting themselves as the ‘only experts’, have been so successful and why audiences like them so much.

More practically, think tanks could consider:

  • sourcing ideas, information and contributions more frequently using social media;
  • experimenting with open and collaborative drafting, reviewing and editing of reports;
  • microtasking their research (as in the MPs expenses scandal);
  • inviting audiences to set their agendas;
  • attempting to crowdfund their projects and programmes openly and transparently.

Economic and cultural changes have forced traditional media to respond with these experiments in openness. Faced with similar challenges, what will think tanks do?

Not asking for permission

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, is to act as an unpaid adviser to the UK government to support its “agenda to open up policy-making to the public.” His ideas on how technology could be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking might be very valuable, and government should certainly try to create better platforms for public participation. But let’s recognise that the main barrier isn’t technological. It’s political.

One of the ideas behind this project is that policymaking would be better (i.e. higher quality) if it engaged and involved more of the people with practical experience of the issues at hand (in the case of social policy, this especially means frontline public service practitioners and service users). But such is the widespread scepticism about government consultations that it seems unlikely that government (or the Government) will be successful in attracting many more members of the public to respond to such exercises, whatever technology it employs. Perhaps it will be possible over time to shift this scepticism, but trust (and so willingness to participate) can also be destroyed virtually overnight when any government is seen to ignore majority or professional opinion (as in the case of the NHS reforms).

It’s good that the Government is considering what ‘all this’ (wikis, social media etc) means for policymaking. But I’m not sure that what we want  are savvier forms of government-sponsored engagement. I think what we want most of all is for government to listen when we do express a view, through whatever means. A wiki could be a great way to develop policy collaboratively and transparently. But if government wanted to more accurately and faithfully reflect and respond to public or practitioner opinion, then it wouldn’t need a wiki to do it.

We can recognise that government is difficult, that there are lots of conflicting and competing interests that act on policymaking, that there are times when policymakers actually think that much of the public is ‘wrong’ on an issue, and that politics – which is to say party political interests – is often the defining factor in decision-making. This means that the challenge isn’t ultimately about finding the right methods for participation, however important this is, so much as developing the right mindset about policy and politics.

Part of this challenge is that government is somewhat inevitably attached to a ‘consultation mindset’, where it sets out certain times and ways in which ‘we’ (by which it typically means respectable and ‘responsible’ organisations) are asked for their views on a specific proposal. But social media is not about asking for, or being granted, permission to voice your opinion. It’s about taking that ‘permission’ for granted (which is to say, not asking at all). Spartacus didn’t ask for permission. Neither did Occupy the SEC. If the Government really wants to explore how technology can be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking, why not just give a bit of money to 38 Degrees and a few other organisations and see what happens?

This makes me think that we don’t so much need better ways in which government can invite us to register our views (which it may or may not subsequently listen to anyway). Rather what need are powerful platforms that we own, that are ours. No-one needs official authorisation, or that much money really, to experiment with various kinds of platform to support collaboration around how policy could be improved. We could and should do it right now if we want to. In fact, we are.