News Organizations: How Transparent Can We Be?

Back in the spring, I made an analogy about journalism being a game of chess. On the chess  board of journalism, content is King (the most important piece) but collaboration is Queen (the most powerful piece).

To extend the analogy further: transparency is the board itself.

Unfortunately, freelancing is a horribly antiquated system. It works behind closed doors. Independent freelancers are left out in the cold and have to build personal relationships with editors to get any paid work.

These relationships are always one-to-one. This make it an outdated model. It made perfect sense 30 years ago, but now it needs to be re-thought. That will only happen when the process of journalism, including the business processes of news organizations comes out from under its cloak.

It was in conversations with Steve Katz that I realized one of the breakthroughs of Spot.Us is that we help make the process of journalism transparent.

Traditionally, news organizations are transparent with their finished work. “Extra, extra, read all about it.”

That is necessary but in my opinion it is no longer sufficient.

If transparency is the new objectivity — more than our finished product must be revealed.

In a discussion with another editor last week I realized another transparency boundary Spot.Us is pushing on organizations that collaborate with us: We force them to be transparent about where they spend their money with freelancers.

Freelancing is outdated

Thirty years ago, I would probably snail mail my pitches to editors with a self-addressed envelope inside so editors could write me back. Today the Internet allows freelancers to email pitches. But that seems to be the ONLY evolution in the process. Our communication in the process of procuring work, writing stories and editing stories is faster, but fundamentally happens in one-to-one relationships. The public never sees this. Nor do they see the pain of waiting — which was the topic of one of my earliest blog posts from 2005 — for responses, edits, or checks.

Here’s what I wrote last week to the editor: “To work with Spot.Us you have to be transparent about where you would spend your freelance budget. Every organization that works with Spot.Us is transparent about where they are putting their dollars or at least where they are putting their editorial efforts.”

The editor responded that it would be scary to make an editor’s freelance budget so public.

That’s exactly the point!

We are supposed to shine a light on other industries, public and private. How can we be expected to be a public beacon if we ourselves hide behind a veil of secrecy?

Some valid counterpoints

As always, I want to push boundaries but recognize that some aren’t going to go anywhere. A few reasons why.

  1. The process of journalism (editing, re-writing, etc.) is boring. We can make it transparent for the nerds who are interested, but let’s not scare our audience off. Also: If you are investigating the mafia you don’t need to title that in your Spot.Us pitch (I’m not THAT young and naive).
  2. It takes energy to be transparent. Just because an organization isn’t transparent doesn’t mean they are nefarious — it simply means there’s 2,134,241 other things that they’re focused on instead of this issue.
  3. You tell me!

I recognize I come at this from one extreme. I believe transparency is the new objectivity and that news organizations are hurting in part because as large institutions they are ill-equipped to be transparent. Here’s how they are ill-equipped:

  1. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their personalities: It’s okay to have a voice. Personally, I’m sick of the traditional news voice. But it’s the only one they have.
  2. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their editorial processes. Distributed reporting is an emerging art and large news organizations¬† have yet to master it. (For some good examples of distributed reporting, see NewAssignment.Net, OffTheBus.Net, ProPublica’s efforts and this Nieman Journalism article.)
  3. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their business processes. Distributed funding is also an emerging field. (See Spot.Us, ReelChanges.org, Global For Me.)
  4. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their day-to-day operations: It’s a dream of mine — a newsroom cafe.

As always: I say this not to be an “anti-old media” person. That’s not what I’m about. I bring it up in an effort to point to areas where I see room (and need) for improvement.

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