The Reporter's Notebook
With the NY Times scandal, like Trent Lott, weblogs again sustained a meme to the point where it influenced the media to impact institutional change. This time in the media itself was the institution. A clear example of alternative media providing oversight of traditional media, an increasing role as the industry consolidates.
But the root cause of the scandal could be addressed by social software as well. Jayson Blair took advantage of a culture that allowed contribution without context and a process of filtration that borders on obsolescence.
A copy-editing and fact checking process is typically a top-down defined policy of filtration. Filter processes inevitably result in false positives and false negatives and have a cost of time to press. Accelerating time to press is in the interest of both journalists and publishers. Journalists and copy editors with topical domain expertise and solid journalism ethics are the best accelerator. Culture is the ultimate means of sustaining such quality. However, the external pressures of business ultimately threaten this culture. And topical expertise is expensive and difficult to maintain in an increasingly complex world.
Much of the discussion of journalism and weblogs is centered on the threat participatory journalism holds for traditional media. Either in its power of oversight or as a credible substitute. But countervailing trends are often co-opted by those seeking to retain power and capital. Systems have an amazing power to shape institutional cultures when they involve participants. Before systems arise to this level of impact, individuals experiment with potential component parts outside the institution.
Witness how Dan Gillmor and Jon Udell engage in participatory journalism by posting outside the process. They engage with those with better domain expertise on difficult topics. They harness collective investigation and social filtering. As a result their stories that flow through the traditional process are better informed, facts are checked and if a copy editor needs context they have a wealth linkages to draw from.
At the core of a journalist's practice is her notebook. Stories are built from component parts gained from interviews, research and investigation. A reporter's notebook is traditionally a private resource, and parts of it should be private, but opening components of the notebook could unleash a different kind of source.
If reporters shared their notebooks with their newsroom it would be similar to internal blogging. A resource of journalists and editors alike, it would provide a base of contextual information to draw upon, perhaps increasing quality and speed of publication. A structure to involve specialist freelancers would further diversify expertise in context.
Tools would need to evolve beyond today's personal weblogs -- to facilitate a balance between privacy and sharing, internal and external, speed and quality. And some new forms of collaboration may arise to extend the byline.
Shared notebooks could have brought Blair's poor practice to light or be stemmed from a culture of feedback. The question is if the practice of journalism could accept such transparency and openness within a newsroom. Of course, if it doesn't, the world outside the newsroom will pry open its cold dead fingers.
UPDATE: Gillmor downplay's the role of weblogs in the NY Times scandal.