Axel Bruns

The open source software movement has made some significant gains in recent years - some of the software packages it has produced have become virtual industry standards, in specific fields even gaining an edge over proprietary solutions produced by Microsoft and other major commercial operators. Well beyond the field of actual software development, open source ideology itself has also become increasingly recognised as a possible alternative to, or at least alteration of, standard corporate production models, and using open software has become a form of stating one's resistance to the corporatisation of key electronic services. Open source is now beginning to be translated to activities other than programming, with sometimes surprising results.

One 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).

Indeed, 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. (Opensource.org 2003)
An equivalent statement of principles for open news could read: "the basic idea behind open news is very simple: When news producers and users can read, redistribute, and modify the source information for a piece of news, the understanding of news 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 news reporting, seems astonishing.We in the open news community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better news than the traditional closed news model, in which only a very few editors can see the source reports and everybody else must blindly use an opaque news story."

> The Move towards Open News: An Alternative to Gatekeeping

To 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?

Open 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.

This '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.

> Gatewatchers

That 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

Gatewatcher 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.

Open 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

In 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.

Their 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

Rather 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)

As 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.
In short, open news sites attempt to be seen as the first and only point of entry into a field that users will ever need. Another way to describe what gatewatchers do would be to say that they attempt to construct a meta-site spanning all that they consider important to know about a particular field of interest, by bringing together material from many different actual sites. By analogy, this is akin to creating a topical encyclopedia by collating and annotating pages ripped from other books on the topic (but in a far less crude way, without damaging the other books, and with constant updates).

> Open News and the Future

An 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.


Emmott, Stephen J. (1995) Introduction. Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures. Ed. Stephen J. Emmott. London: Academic Press, 3-13.
Opensource.org. (2003) "Open Source Initiative OSI - Welcome." 13 Jan. 2003 .
Stalder, Felix, and Jesse Hirsh (2002) "Open Source Intelligence." Openflows, 24 April 2002. 13 Jan. 2003 .
White, Peter B. (1996) "On-line Services: The Emerging Battle for Transactional Space." Media International Australia 79 (Feb. 1996), 3-9.

This 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.

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