Open Journalism in Modern Media Ecosystem

by Ellie Chen

Remember The Guardian’s award-winning “Three Little Pigs” campaign in 2012 that pictured an open media world where the public fully participated in the news coverage of a criminal case behind the classic fairytale story? The campaign marked The Guardian’s critical step to take the “open journalism” philosophy into its marketing strategy, aiming to bring “the reader into the editorial experience” and translate it into “a consumer proposition that would be understood.” Five years have passed, and the topic of open journalism remains just as relevant in today’s media ecosystem.

Open Journalism Today

While there is no set definition of open journalism, it is generally accepted that open journalism stands for an ongoing, interactive process where the audience is empowered to be involved in the newsgathering and reporting of a news. The term “open” suggests that the general public are welcomed to not only read the news, but also discuss and contribute to each stage of the news production. It is a dramatic shift from the traditional idea that professional journalists should be the only one to cover an entire story.

According to Judy Franks in her book Media: From Chaos to Clarity, the development of digitization brings in modern media convergence, and the increasingly open circuits of media allow content and opinions to be shared and collected across platforms. With the unrestricted information flow and the assemblage of different consumer perspectives, open journalism encourages the public audience to take an important role – either as the eyewitness, the evidence provider, the commentator, or the analyst – in the process of news making and reporting. Franks points out that media channels are now taking a new role as brands rather than merely products; the meaning of practicing open journalism extends to keeping a brand promise of being “transparent, responsive and interconnected with civic values and customer needs.” In the case of The Guardian, open journalism serves as a way to reinforce its value proposition – to provide “the whole picture” for the audience and reach “a better approximate for the truth,” explains The Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger.

Could Open Journalism work?

In the article “Guardian Bet Shows Digital Risks” published on USA Today, media critic Michael Wolff noticed the constant financial losses of The Guardian over the past years and attributed this undesirable performance to its migration to digitization, calling it “some kind of epochal and quixotic test of digital faith.” Wolff claims, from a business point of view, that simply relying on advertising revenues without erecting paywalls could lead The Guardian to shrink rather than thrive.

However, we have reasons to believe that digital expansion to support open journalism is not a doomed utopia, but rather an inevitable process traditional media are encountering in their attempts to survive in the new marketplace. The truth is that digital advancements and the proliferation of media platforms provide consumers with more choices and bargaining powers than ever before. The Guardian is not alone in its financial struggles—the is facing financial dilemmas as they try to cope with new ways to meet consumers’ changing expectations, even large newspapers with paywalls such as the New York Times.

Open journalism can work if the idea of considering media outlets as brands could be taken one step further. Rather than extracting every possible penny from media consumers through paywalls, open journalism advocates like The Guardian developed the foresight to place the customers at the core of their business model and in doing so have established a trusting, interactive customer relationship that will benefit long-term profitability.

On one hand, it strives to build a cross-media platform that welcomes a variety of audiences, instead of staying on the periphery of news commentary, to partake collaboratively in unveiling the true story. On the other, by doing so, it raises the level of media transparency in an era of media hostility. Under the supervision of the public, it earns enough trust to build and maintain a closer relationship with the readers (and even their network). As a result, the higher levels of consumer involvement and reliability will attract an even larger audience that would draw the interest of paying advertisers. In an effort to balance finances, The Guardian requires customers to pay a small fee to buy its mobile or tablet app, a smarter profit-making move than the simple paywall that impedes the audience’s initial attempts to connect with the media.

Possible Concerns with Open Journalism

One issue concerning open journalism lies behind its “openness” with the public’s role in news generation. Once the media decides to give the public the ability to produce its own news, it also foregoes control over potential ulterior motives that may capitalize on the “openness” to achieve a seditious or detrimental purpose. In the article “Did the Three Little Pigs Get a Fair Trial?” on The Atlantic, the author discusses, with the example of the “Three Little Pigs” coverage being put under the context of modern American legal system, the benefits and damages this journalistic openness could possibly bring to legal trial and justice. One thing he points out specifically under such case is the “prejudicial pretrial publicity that undermines a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial,” since it is possible for some interest groups to divulge incriminating information under the cover of “open journalism” to direct the public opinion.

In a broad sense, it is true that lies are spread as widely as the truth in such an open digital word. More often than not, the darker side seems more “attractive” as people are more likely to be instigated to retaliate by controversial events and situations that easily rile their personal values and emotions. The Guardian’s editor Rusbridger concedes that there’s no clear line in how to “filter the good responses from the bad” and we know that the explosive information online only makes it harder for media to pick the right message to publish. It is definitely the right thing for the news producers and operators to consider establishing effective censorship against fraud or malicious manipulation over open media.

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