Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A brave new noisy world: What libraries can learn from the Guardian's open journalism model


World is crazier and more of it than we think, 
Incorrigibly plural.

-Louis MacNeice, 'Snow'

On Friday, we closed our engage: social media michaelmas term with a session of the Digital Media Users' Group (DMUG). These termly sessions aim to support those in the University who are creating and distributing digital media. This time, we heard from Nancy Groves, editor of the Guardian's Higher Education and Culture Professionals Networks. Nancy, an art journalist by background, walked us through the professional networks model and how these networks are changing journalism at the Guardian - as well as reflecting changing ideas about information around the world.

Nancy noted that the networks' key roles are to 'aggregate, curate and debate'. The sites are just that - networks. Top-down journalism is gone, and what would once have linked those in a sector - business-to-business journalism, perhaps - is now open journalism. There are more experts outside the Guardian than in, and it would be dangerously short sighted for the newspaper to ignore that.

So why should you be open? Nancy noted a creative imperative, a funding necessity and a democratic imperative. In allowing more voices, they're looking for a 'better approximation of the truth' (in the words of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger). Of course, it can be argued that more voices = more noise, but, as Nancy said, 'Better noise than silence.'

I spent some time hemming and hawing over the title of this post, because although I believe libraries can learn from open journalism, the open movement is already a big part of the library conversation. There are specific elements of the Guardian's tactics and ethos, however, that are instructive, and it is helpful to place the library world in the wider context of the open movements.

One of the questions raised by the Guardian and in the library world is how you continue to make money (or, in our case, show the value that results in funding) with open content. This isn't just a Guardian issue, as we all know - it's a sector-wide issue when applied to research, and a global issue when applied to content. This goes hand in hand with the question of authority. How do you maintain your credibility - for the Guardian, as a provider of news, and for libraries, as curators of information - when you allow others to contribute? 

Many - though  not all - libraries need to work harder at selling our role in an updated world. The Guardian doesn't just say, 'Look, aren't we great curators? Observe and adore.' Curating is important, and we should indeed love them because they have savvy editors who can pull together disparate views and make us think. But really we return to them because, on top of the aggregated and curated content, they continue to provide authoritative comment - the news. The content they provide is still underpinned discipline and quality control, but it's an extended network of expertise.

Libraries already do this. We play a growing role in the open source movement (in ways ranging from offering open journals to vocally lobbying for more access). We're using crowdsourcing, tagging, reviews and more. And knowledge and the authority underpins our work.

But we've existed by selling ourselves as the go-to source for information, and we all know that's no longer enough - that topic's been beaten to death. Still, open journalism provides an opportunity to look at other industries doing it well and learn from them. According to Melanie Sill, journalism executive in residence at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, open journalism is transparent, responsive, accountable, participatory and networked. How do we meet those criteria? Do we allow participation? Do we make ourselves accountable? We may think so, but I'd suggest there's room for improvement. As R David Lankes writes, we need to market our libraries so that people 'expect more'.