The promises and obstacles of process journalism

Process journalism somehow reminds me of cell membranes becoming more permeable.

I’ve been lazy about this blog, I know. No excuse, really. I wrote the last post after appearing on a DRadio Wissen radio show where I discussed virtual communities. Yesterday, I went back on that show to talk about process journalism. And again, the discussion – this time with Julia Hildebrand, Ulrike Langer, and Lorenz Matzat – triggered a number of interesting thoughts that are worth writing down. Continue reading if you would like to find out why process journalism is great and what obstacles it’s still facing.

Process journalism, in my own words, refers to the idea that we stop thinking of reporting in terms of finished articles written by the lonely genius that is the journalist. Instead, we start thinking of reporting in terms of continuous stories, based on and extended by a number of diverse sources. The journalist publishes his or her article as one (albeit authoritative) statement in this process, only to be validated, falsified and built upon by others. This idea was originally publicized by Jeff Jarvis.

What’s so great about process journalism? For at least three reasons, it can result in better-informed reporting that is closer to the actual events. Firstly, it allows journalists to update their stories in much smaller increments. Secondly, it allows them to base their stories on a larger number of sources, some of which are likely to know more about a given event or subject than the usual sources do (e.g. news agencies). And thirdly, it allows them to extend their stories as new facts emerge through various channels.

What needs to be done

So far, we haven’t see many convincing examples of process journalism in the German media landscape. I want to sketch out some of the obstacles that are still standing in its way.

The journalist’s self-understanding

My impression is that most mainstream media still believe they have a monopoly on reporting the news. They tend to believe that an article is a self-contained piece of truth, crafted according to professional standards and based on reliable sources. How dare anybody disagree with it or know more than they do?

Journalists need to embrace the idea that there are lots of people out there who know more about a story than they do. They need to identity and involve these sources before, during and after they publish their story. That means, for example, that they need to have Tweetdeck open (see Sky News), go through readers’ comments, and keep an eye on what bloggers say. They need to think of their output as the starting point for discussion, not as the end of it. The quality of their output should be assessed by how influential it turns out to be in the overall discourse on what they’re writing about.

The journalistic product

A key question that needs to be addressed is: What does process journalism look like in terms of the journalistic product? Will there be no more articles? Yes, there will be. It’s rarely meaningful to report a story as a series of short updates. Readers expect fixed articles that summarize the latest developments or a particular point of view.

However, it’s important to look at what happens around those fixed articles. We should find ways to illustrate the research process and make it more transparent, so that readers and bloggers can get involved if they wish. We should offer spaces for feedback and additional information once the article is out there, for example through readers’ comments, Twitter or facebook. If and when substantial information emerges, we should extend the original article (clearly marking it as updated) or even write a new one. In short, the journalistic product is no longer just the article, but everything that happens before and after it is published, everything that happens around it.

The informants

For process journalism to really take off, we need to think more critically about those additional sources we want to include in our reporting. Currently, the implicit assumption seems to be that bloggers and readers are immediately keen to contribute once we let them in. But why should they?

Mainstream media need to provide incentives for external sources to collaborate. In the case of bloggers, this is fairly easy. They tend to look for links to their own websites in exchange for giving up some of their exclusive information. In the case of readers, it’s more difficult. Why should they bother to give feedback or additional information to an article? Don’t they usually go to mainstream media to consume news, not to contribute to them? And yet, there is something people are usually quite happy to receive: attention. Attention doesn’t just mean that they want to see their name displayed. Attention means that they want to be taken seriously. If we want to involve them in the process of making news, we need to show earnest interest in them, respond to them, and take decisions based on their input.

Adding process journalism to the mix

The above are just three areas in which process journalism needs to overcome considerable obstacles. Journalists need to adjust their self-understanding to think of themselves not just as authors of articles, but as moderators and participants in a continuous debate. The journalistic product needs to put a stronger emphasis on everything that happens around the published article, from the research process to the responses. Finally, due credit has to be given to all those sources we seek to involve, especially readers. If we can make these changes happen, process journalism can succeed – not in overthrowing traditional journalism entirely, but in becoming a widely accepted and often used technique in the news business.

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Some closing remarks: I chose a picture of cells because I like them as a metaphor for how we think about newsrooms. A cell membrane can be rather impenetrable, but it’s usually permeable, allowing substances from the outside to influence intra-cell processes. Or is that image misleading?

Secondly, a former colleague from London, Ainslie Harris, has suggested that process journalism has a lot in common with agile developing methodologies in programming. She might write a post about it. Any thoughts about it already?

3 responses to “The promises and obstacles of process journalism

  1. Interesting thoughts that obviously raise new questions: Technically a product of process journalism would probably require much more space than is available in the print media. And hardly any newspaper will print the same article more than once with a few updates. So, of course, the answer is, process journalism will go mainly to internet based news media. But I wonder if they are interested in such ideas to improve news quality as long as even website offsprings of renowned newspapers seem more interested in keeping readers on their website with gimmicks such as endless photo galleries on even abstract political issues or overly dramatizing catchy headlines on minor scandals.

  2. Lob für den Autor & sein Blog gibt’s von und bei Don Alphonso. Das will was heißen!

  3. Very thoughtful article – and thought inspiring none the less. I would like to comment on this particular argument of yours:

    “It’s rarely meaningful to report a story as a series of short updates. Readers expect fixed articles that summarize the latest developments or a particular point of view.”

    I agree that readers expect this, because they have grown accustomed to it. However, i find the series of short updates to be the more appropriate way of reporting news for one particular field, which is politics.Politics are very ‘serial’ in nature and political news at their core usually consist of little more than “person or party x saying y about z”. Put this in a chronological stream of short (or rather: appropriately long) updates and you have a far superior means of information about each current state of debate as compared to the ‘traditional’ article.

    (in fact this is something i am currently pondering to set up for German politics, so i am craving for input and debate)

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