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A screen grab from the online ad for the Guardian's open journalism project.
A screen grab from the online ad for the Guardian's open journalism project.

Simon Houpt

How open journalism reimagines the story Add to ...

If my colleagues and I show you some leg, will you help us do our jobs?

Sorry, I don’t mean to put you off your coffee, so let me explain. For the past few years, The Guardian newspaper in Britain has been running its newsroom with a strong commitment to something called “open journalism.” It means, mainly, that reporters keep readers informed at every step along the way – usually over Twitter – as they develop stories.

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It also means that every morning the paper posts its news list, that traditionally secret inventory of stories it’s working on for the following day’s paper. So if a reader has information that might help advance a story, they know how to pass it on. On Wednesday, the paper was working on a story about payday loans, and asked readers to fill out a confidential form on its website with details of their own payday loans.

This is tough. Most journalists believe secrets are the currency of their trade. In some newsrooms, reporters don’t even share information with their colleagues.

Many newspapers are gently experimenting with open journalism, but The Guardian has made it the house religion. Last week, it also sought to make open journalism a central part of its brand, with a flashy two-minute TV ad the official police account of the man simply collapsing in the street, and then dying. But one week after the vendor’s death a New York banker, who had seen Lewis’s reporting as well as a tweet from him asking for assistance, reached out to say he had been in London and had video of what appeared to be a riot squad officer striking Tomlinson.

The paper posted the video. The police force’s official story crumbled. And this June, the officer will finally stand trial for manslaughter.

“That was a real moment for us in thinking – crikey, this is powerful, this really projects your reporting net so much wider than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Ian Katz, the paper’s deputy editor, told me this week.

There have been other successful collaborations. For months last year, the reporter Rupert Neate pursued allegations that the U.K. defence minister Liam Fox regularly brought along his friend Adam Werritty to high-level meetings with foreign dignitaries, misrepresenting him as an official adviser. But it wasn’t until a random reader with a special interest in Sri Lankan politics sent him to a YouTube video showing Werrity and Fox meeting the president of Sri Lanka that Neate had the story. Fox resigned.

“All of that only happened because Rupert was absolutely playing out his reporting, if you like, on his Twitter feed as he was doing the work,” said Katz.

But in the world of journalism, where scoops still matter, the openness of that process created a problem of its own. After the tweet, “Rupert rang me in a panic and said, ‘Look, anyone can look at my Twitter feed and see this guy’s tweets. How are we going to preserve this exclusive?’ To which the only answer is, ‘Well, you’ve got about an hour to get that written and on the website.’ ”

It’s not only a handful of individuals who are helping out The Guardian. When a scandal over expenses claimed by members of Parliament led to the release of millions of previously confidential documents on one day in June, 2009, nearly 25,000 readers volunteered to help The Guardian find the needles in the paper haystack.

“The most interesting thing about [that]experiment, really, was what it told you about the amount of will there was out there. Among people who were well disposed toward you as a news organization, and how much work they’d do – not on your behalf but alongside you, if invited,” said Katz.

On Tuesday, The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger became the first non-American to be given a Goldsmith career award for excellence in journalism, granted by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in part because of his commitment to open journalism.

It doesn’t come easily, mind you: Katz says reporters have to be genuinely open and transparent with their newsgathering; they can’t just ask for help whenever they need it, and then shut people out. “You need to kind of show a bit of leg, really, in order to accrue the good will of people who will then do their bit to help you.”

So why aren’t we all doing this? Lots of reasons – only a few of them good. Yes, there are stories that we need to keep under our hats or they’ll fall apart: Sources will scatter or clam up, or another reporter will get the scoop. Sometimes, trying to sort the wheat from the chaff that comes across the transom isn’t worth the trouble. And many news organizations have been burned by publishing photos or stories submitted by “citizen journalists” without properly vetting the material.

It’s also important to remember that the biggest U.K. media story in more than a decade – The Guardian’s coverage of the News Corp. phone hacking scandal – was the result of old-fashioned, “closed” journalism: one reporter, working alone for more than two years, chasing countless dead ends, banging against a stout corporate edifice until it began to crack and then crumble. The Guardian experience shows that both sorts of journalism can co-exist.

And we know we need to adapt, even if it’s hard for journalists to break the old habits, to learn how to do things differently. If open journalism is a religion, we’re going to need to have a bit of faith.

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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