A model for the 21st century newsroom pt2: Distributed Journalism

In the first part of my model for the 21st century newsroom I looked at how a story might move through a number of stages from initial alert through to customisation. In part two I want to look at sourcing stories, and the role of journalism in a new media world.

The last century has seen three important changes for the news industry. It has moved…

  • from a world of information scarcity to information overload,
  • from a world where commercial and government bodies needed the news industry to disseminate information, to one where they can disseminate information themselves.
  • from a world where members of the public needed the news industry for information, to one where they can access – and produce – it themselves

In this environment the professional journalist can no longer justify a role simply processing content from source to consumer.

Instead, the modern journalist’s role needs to move above the content.

What does this mean? It means two things:

  • Readers can access commercial and official sources online. Some journalists, then, need to collate , synthesise and verify reaction from the blogosphere and other sources. They need to interrogate sources more, to challenge assertions more, and to investigate stories that are going unreported.
  • Readers can produce opinion, analysis and reporting online. Some journalists, then, need to develop a community management role, to manage content – to bring together bloggers and sources, to set up aggregation, submission and collaboration systems, and to crowdsource stories that would otherwise be impossible to cover.

A large part of both involves what I would call distributed journalism.

Distributed journalism

Distributed journalism means letting go of one asset – content – to build another: community. It means cultivating contacts, not just a contacts book. It means understanding communities, and sometimes being led by them. And it means creating tools and systems as often as creating stories.

Here’s the graphic – note that it is not top-down or hierarchical:

Distributed Journalism - Online Journalism Blog.com

The distributed journalist uses a number of technologies to manage different ‘types’ of contributors. For the ‘brain’, the ‘voice’ and the ‘ear’ tools are central to monitoring and identifying the best ones; for the accidental journalist, the ‘value adder’, the technician and the crowd, systems are more important.

Tool-monitored contributors

  • The brain: journalists already use experts extensively. Traditionally these have been accessed through professional bodies and ‘ivory tower’ academic institutions. But this often means these sources are part of a narrow, political elite, which can have vested interests. New media forms allow people outside of those circles to publish – and develop – their own expertise, and develop their own reputations based on that. In this space, an ‘expert’ is not always officially denoted as such by an institution or organisation, but may demonstrate expertise through hands-on experience or through well supported arguments. The distributed journalist monitors those experts, subscribes to their RSS feeds, quotes when relevant and commissions when they need analysis. There is also an argument for leading by example: a distributed journalist who blogs is demonstrating they want to be part of the conversation, while employing an ‘enthusiast-in-chief’ who brings a reputation with them to lead a UGC site is a proven way to attract contributors.
  • The voice: New media forms allow anyone to publish their opinion, which stands or falls by its own qualities. Separate to the expert, the voice writes well, compellingly, often wittily or in an entertaining fashion, whether or not they have expertise or personal experience – much as the traditional columnist does. Or they produce compelling imagery, video or audio. The distributed journalist identifies the blogger with a voice, brings them into the news organisation when they can, and links to them when they cannot. There is also a strong argument here for integration with other services – if you can allow users to tick a box that publishes their material to Flickr or add their RSS feed to your system, etc. then you are saving them time and effort, and showing you’re not just stealing their content.
  • The ear: someone, somewhere, knows what’s going on in a particular community of space or interest. They may filter that to their blog, or Twitter account, or mailing list – or they may simply note what they see in a social bookmarking account. The distributed journalist subscribes to the RSS feeds or mailing list, becomes ‘Facebook friends’, and supports and encourages this filtering by linking and contributing when they can.
  • And don’t forget the silent population: not everyone has internet access; not everyone has time to do these things. The distributed journalist must make an effort to give a voice to those people too. Partnering with groups who are in contact with those people is one good idea.

System-facilitated contributors

Naturally these categories are not exclusive – the brain may have a good voice (so to speak); the ‘ear’ may add value; being part of a crowd may lead someone to think of filming a newsworthy event when they stumble upon it. Investment in any of these areas should lead to feedback in others, not to mention knock-on effects on circulation, an issue I’ll deal with in part 4.

Read part three of this model: Five W’s and a H that should come after every story


46 thoughts on “A model for the 21st century newsroom pt2: Distributed Journalism

  1. Bas Timmers

    Nice model. One mentality-changing element of it is that journalists have to dive deep into the blogosphere, instead of go to the authorities to check facts as they are used to now. Hardly any journalists are diving into blogs now, but it would give them many more facts and insights than they have now.
    Secondly, it pictures the distributed journalist as being someone totally different than the ‘old’ content-writing journalist. I see them more as being combined into one human body.

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  3. Dr John Cokley

    Paul: I am interested to see your application of the word “distributed” in this context. It works in a nice complementary way with my own application of the idea of “distributed” to the journalistic newsroom which I first advanced with Sally Eeles in 2003: Cokley, J & Eeles, S (2003) “The origin of a species: The distributed newsroom”, Australian Studies in Journalism , 12 (2003): 240–261, and later in the journal “Convergence” with Chris Capel: http://con.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/10/4/55.

    This suggests to me that we have both been thinking (along with others, no doubt) of how the role of journalist should be shared between professionals and others … those we now identify as citizen journalists.

    I first imagined that the technology/platform was the thing which would drive it; your model suggests that the content and process might drive it, since everyone now has the platform available. Good point.

    I’m wondering — however — whether there might be a deeper truth emerging here, dependent neither on platform nor on process … but rather a matter of ontology: “who may have the say?” “whose voice may be heard?” “who has the right to call him/herself a journalist?”.

    Dr Elspeth Tilley (in New Zealand) and I (in Australia) are currently working on such a project and hope to publish our results soon. Should make interesting reading.

  4. paulbradshaw Post author

    Thanks John – will look forward to reading that.
    As for the ontology issue, does it really matter whether we call people journalists or not? People consume very personal news on Facebook, but they don’t think of it as journalism. Some people want to cover stories, but don’t like being called journalists. As for who has the say, there are issues of inequality here that need addressing and that I’ve forgotten to include, so I may revise this later.

  5. Elspeth Tilley

    It’s so good to see these issues being mapped with such clarity; the various questions arising have for so long been circulating but largely unspoken…. I wanted to add two cents to the effect that I personally believe it does matter very much what a thing is named. A name (indeed language itself) is so powerful. Names for things create barriers, suggest categories and limits, load concepts with value connotations, carry histories, construct identities. Names exercise power. The word journalist has power both to include and exclude, to define and delimit as well as to convey certain expectations–and different expectations to different groups of users. Of course all the connotations of a name can be resisted and broken down… but usually only if the connotations are first recognised and ‘outed’ so they can be denaturalised. Anyway, the article that John is talking about above (in which we try to do at least some of that denaturalising, probably only in quite an embryonic way as of yet, but we hope it’s a start) is just being edited, then very soon it will appear online at http://communication.massey.ac.nz/programme.html (There’s already another interesting article at that URL about convergence, incidentally! And watch that site for more articles about journalism in the coming weeks, as conference papers are added.)
    We actually make the exact same point in our article that you make above, Paul, about the need for journalists (of any kind) to make an effort to give a voice to those people who don’t have access, don’t have the platform, don’t feel comfortable entering the public sphere directly (or don’t speak English, for that matter, given so much of the online conversation takes place in English). I think the question of whether ‘journalism’ as a concept entails a responsibility to broaden access is an absolutely key point. Will look forward to your thoughts, comments, criticisms, etc., once the article goes online.

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  11. Charlie Beckett

    Hi Paul,
    A superb exposition of what I call Networked Journalism and what you call Distributed Journalism (after Jay Rosen?). My only quibble is that your diagram and the word ‘distributed’ still gives the impression of the journalist in one place and all those tools and systems feeding in.
    I see the key distinction between current journalism and future networked journalism in that the process is continually networked from beginning to end and beyond.
    As I say, though, it is just a quibble.
    My other difference in emphasis is that I would suggest that your Distributed Journalist is in effect an editor. I think that underestimates the degree to which there will always be a need for journalists, especially specialists, who do actually do the bulk of the content production. They will link, listen etc but they will not look so different from journalists today.
    thanks for the website – I hope you don’t mind if I rip it off mercilessly for lectures and seminars!
    Charlie Beckett

  12. paulbradshaw Post author

    I didn’t use the term Distributed Journalism after anyone, but it’s no surprise it’s been used before. You’re right that they are in effect an editor, but then I would argue journalists will have to become editors in the way they manage content and people. And, for that matter, publishers.

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