THE EMERGENCE OF OPEN NEWS
key field where this has led to significant developments is that of online
news reporting. Sites such as Slashdot.org ("news for nerds, and
stuff that matters") with its 450,000 registered users publish what
might usefully be termed 'open news', more or less explicitly adapting
existing open source principles of collaborative software development
to arrive at a highly successful form of collaborative news coverage.
Many other sites, often using the Slash code, Slashdot's open source Web
engine, or similar packages like PhP-Nuke or Postnuke, have copied this
model and applied it to a wide variety of new topics. At least one site,
Openflows (also running on the Slash code), makes this connection to the
open source movement even more explicit, by referring to its activities
as 'Open Source Intelligence (OSI)': "for us, OSI is the application
of collaborative principles developed by the Open Source Software movement
to the gathering and analysis of information. These principles include:
peer review, reputation- rather than sanctions-based authority, the free
sharing of products, and flexible levels of involvement and responsibility"
(Stalder & Hirsh 2002).
starting from generally accepted definitions of open source software it
is not difficult to translate such principles to other forms of engagement
with information. Opensource.org states that "the basic idea behind
open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and
modify the source code for a piece of software, the Software evolves.
People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen
at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software
development, seems astonishing. We in the open source community have learned
that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the
traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see
the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.
The Move towards Open News: An Alternative to Gatekeeping
a large extent, the collaborative information-processing practices of
open news are a response to what are perceived as the shortcomings of
today's commercial news media, coupled with the emergent DIY ethics of
special interest communities which see themselves enabled by new Internet
technologies. Some seven years ago, Peter White wrote that "the emerging
media systems will result in a diminution of the kind of power which had
been exercised by the controllers of scarce broadcasting channels in the
past. It could be argued that this power will be diluted so that large
and small organisations without any previous involvement in the media,
together with the powerful and powerless, will find themselves on more
equal terms when it comes to the distribution of information and entertainment
on the abundant channels of the future. (White 1996, 5) The lack of scarcity
on the Net has its downsides in the fact that there are now no controllers,
no gatekeepers of information who decide what is and what is not worth
publishing. The Web realises the McLuhanite vision that 'everyone's a
publisher', for better or for worse.
Librarians, Not Gatekeepers?
news systems don't employ dedicated editors or a strict dichotomy of 'suitable/unsuitable
for publication', as it exists for example in print or broadcast news.
Rather than keeping the gates, they merely watch them. To speak of open
news sites as 'librarians' rather than 'gatekeepers' might in fact be
more productive: where gatekeepers screen information and (as part of
a publishing organisation) allow readers access only to that portion of
all they survey which they deem of sufficient interest or quality, librarians
(who are not publishers themselves) ideally point library users in the
right direction (that is, the direction most suited to their needs), but
cannot and do not attempt to limit users' access to all the other works
contained in the overall library.
'librarian' position contrasts markedly with that of the traditional ideal
of the 'objective', 'impartial', and 'disinterested' gatekeeper-journalist.
This 'librarian' position does not claim to aspire to such norms in the
first place - open news sites are often clearly biased -, but at the same
time in refusing to keep the gates it also commits to upholding the right
to free speech even for those speakers it strongly disagrees with. Librarians
may comment or advise on, or warn about, some of the contents of their
library, but they do not censor them.
these supposedly 'librarian' sites are themselves part of the 'library',
and can be found in its catalogues (the search engines), indicates that
the librarian metaphor breaks down at this point: in contrast to real-life
librarians, the online 'librarians' are themselves necessarily also publishers,
as everyone providing information on the Web is perforce a publisher.
The sites described here, therefore, are neither in the traditional sense
gatekeepers (since in contrast to their print and broadcast counterparts
they do not have exclusive control over the 'gate' through which information
passes to the reader/user) nor librarians (since they are not merely keeping
track of what is published in their field of expertise and advising users
about it, without themselves being part of an operation publishing selected
content), but rather combine aspects of both models into a new form of
content tracker and advisor which might usefully be termed gatewatcher:
They observe what material is available and interesting, and themselves
provide condensed content guides and selected material.
Collaborative Gatewatching: Open News Production
sites frequently become central gathering points for their users. As in
the case of Slashdot, large user communities can form around such sites.
Where this is the case, it enables the sites to make the crucial step
from 'closed' newsgathering approaches (done by a clearly delineated team
of 'editors') to truly open news, involving the users of a site as gatewatchers.
The divisions between producers and consumers online are increasingly
blurred in practice, which has caused Alvin Toffler to coin his famous
term 'prosumer' - to avoid the overly commercial tone of this neologism,
however, perhaps it would be better to speak of 'produsers'. Some Web
participants predominantly produce information, by publishing Websites,
submitting news, spreading press releases and other reports, while others
mainly use information, receiving and processing it in private and to
their own ends. The vast majority of participants, however, will employ
some combination of both approaches (those who are in the main users might
also produce small amounts of information), and at the heart of open news
(as well as open source) processes are those participants who combine
both on equal terms and at a high level of engagement: hence, produsers.
news content consists most of all of an extensive and highly structured
array of very precisely directed links to information on other Websites,
organised according to topics, ranked by relevance, usefulness, and degree
of sophistication, and especially pointing out recent additions. This
requires careful judgment on part of the gatewatchers: they must include
enough to inform, but not overwhelm their readers, and must thus learn
to accurately assess the importance and relevance of information. Also
of crucial importance is the acknowledgment of an information source,
and so links pointing to items deep within another site are frequently
accompanied by links to the site's main point of entry, for example. This
is one feature of what may be identified as an overall 'code of ethical
conduct' (unstated though it may be) generally observed by gatewatchers.
Such ready acknowledgment of other operators in the field - rather foreign
to other media forms - may also lead to some form of direct cooperation
between these and the gatewatchers.
From Publishing to Publicising
the main, then, open news sites are not usually publishers of original
information: rather, they publicise what is already available in various
scattered locations elsewhere - and was discovered during the gatewatching
process. They are thus secondary information disseminators, but because
of their offer of conveniently centralised information resources, they
often constitute a primary source for information seekers. Gatewatchers
also accept extensive commentary from their users, which is attached immediately
to the source material. Contributors are openly acknowledged here, which
at once gains the community's respect, motivates further users to contribute,
and helps to legitimise their views and concerns by making them more 'official'
through publication. This may also improve institution-community relations,
and thus places open news sites in a truly intermediary role.
continued in-depth, communal engagement with a field makes open news sites
particularly knowledgeable commentators. Their openness and their discursive
mode of news coverage is a key aspect of attraction for their users, who
may be disenchanted with the highly policed, sanitised content of more
traditional information sources. Of greatest importance, however, is that
these sites address the interactive drive: not only by interacting with
users through search functions and options which offer users email notifications
and allow them to submit their own news, rumours, or commentary, but also
by enabling users to participate as gatewatchers and to interact amongst
themselves in discussing, evaluating, and critiquing news items. Appealing
to their users as produsers is the crucial factor determining an open
news site's success.
> Developing Open News Sites
than expect open news sites to emerge in great numbers from established
institutions, we can see them grow out of community endeavours, such as
small-scale private and community homepages which gradually become elaborate
and organised enough to be regarded as open news sites; thus, "this
is a revolution that will be driven by users (consumers) rather than by
media corporations. It will be users - individuals, groups, and organisations
- as the critical drivers for the development of multimedia and interactive
applications who will determine the value and the impact of information
superhighways. It will be this impact that will ultimately shape, in a
profound way, the political, social, and economic force of the increasingly
digital world in which we will live. (Emmott 1995)
these sites develop, they slowly move away from an ad hoc style of discussing
and presenting issues important to these groups, towards somewhat more
structured forms both of communication and of informational organisation.
During this move, the site's operational policies are developed virtually
on the fly, which can be a pitfall, but such a lack of top-level control
and established structures is also likely to be experienced as liberating
and empowering for site creators, and indeed explains much of the continuing
enthusiasm amongst Web content producers outside the institutional realm.
Open News and the Future
issue still to be resolved by the open news movement is the question of
the extent to which it is truly able to affect mainstream attitudes. In
many ways, this is a problem shared with the open source movement: while
the user base of sites like Slashdot with its 450,000 users, or the uptake
of open source software for example for Webservers appears impressive,
both have yet to break out of the geek ghetto. Not enough mainstream users
have been tempted to dump Microsoft Windows and other proprietary software
packages in favour of Linux, and the readership of open news services
pales in comparison with the audience for traditional mass news media.
It remains to be seen whether open source and open news can close this
gap in the immediate future.
Stephen J. (1995) Introduction. Information Superhighways: Multimedia
Users and Futures. Ed. Stephen J. Emmott. London: Academic Press, 3-13.
is a shortened version of a longer article, "Community Building through
Communal Publishing: The Emergence of Open News," edited by Joanne
Richardson for Indymedia
Romania. The longer version originally appeared in Mediumi.