Last week’s invitation by the Sydney Morning Herald to its readers to sift through MP expenses claims in search of newsworthy stories provoked handwringing from those who fear the continuing decline of quality journalism. Is properly-resourced investigative journalism now to be replaced by the free labour of well-meaning amateurs?
Was this another nail in the coffin of professional journalism?
No, it wasn’t. On the contrary, the vast resource that the internet represents to journalism requires user-generated content if it is to be fully made use of. And in facilitating that role, the professional skills of journalism become more important to the understanding of evermore complex reality, not less.
In July 2009, following the London Telegraph’s breaking of the UK MPs expenses scandal - accompanied by the release of a digitised data base containing some 700,000 separate claims - The Guardian recruited its readers to do precisely what the SMH has done this month. What better way, one might ask, to enable the swift sifting through of a mountain of bureaucratic information in search of those nuggets of pure journalistic gold?
In the analogue era, data in such quantities simply wasn’t available, nor were the digital tools which make them easily searchable to anyone with a computer and some time on their hands.
There was big data in those days, of a kind. All The President’s Men has an iconic scene in which the Bob Woodward character sifts by hand through thousands of library borrowing records in search of incriminating evidence of White House wrongdoing.
Now, when the Washington Post is owned by an online start-up called Amazon, a journalist must deal not with thousands of bits of data, but hundreds of thousands, or millions, often in raw form, transferred on disc or down internet cables. The big WikiLeaks data dumps of US Iraq War records, for example, took the form of highly technical, jargonistic dispatches, each of which had to be decoded before the newsworthy angle within could be revealed.
By enlisting its readers - of whom there are millions worldwide - The Guardian was able to apply the necessary labour power to this herculean task. The sheer computing mass of the crowd focused on one thing – exposing the excesses of MPs expense claims on the public purse.
Some MPs, it turned out, claimed for gardening costs and cable TV subscriptions. The latter, embarrassingly for the Home Secretary involved, included a porn channel accessed by her husband. Others claimed public money for private campaigning costs – not unlike Tony Abbott’s use of the tax dollar to subsidise his sporting interests while kissing babies and gladhanding seniors. Some of these claims were uncovered by investigative journalists, others by the enthusiastic readers. At the end of it all, the system changed for the better. Journalism, aided and abetted by the crowd, did its job.
Both groups worked together, combining the sheer weight in numbers of the crowd with the processing expertise of the professional hack, who was able to recognise news and to distinguish it from “nothing to see here, move along” variety of news-fluff.
The old media were like a cathedral, someone once argued – solid, authoritative, hierarchically structured from the bishop and the priest down to the passive throng, meekly inheriting the earth.
The new media are more like a market – noisy and chaotic, with many voices and vendors striving to be heard. Turning this vibrant - sometimes aggressive - online organism into a useful information resource, structured and orderly, requires the input of the professional journalist, who sifts, sorts and makes sense of things just as he or she always did. Now, though, it’s in willing collaboration with the readers, not assumed superiority over them. The journalist is no longer the priest, but the guide, or the facilitator.
Some worry that the rich potential of this new relationship between journalist and user will provide the alibi for cash-starved media organisations to cut their editorial resources, particularly in the area of investigation. This is a risk, for sure, but let’s be clear – investigative journalism has been in decline for decades, and since long before the internet became a factor. Even in the era of press superprofits proprietors sacrificed quality to the bottom line.
Some media organisations still do investigation, though, and they – The Guardian, for example; the SMH in Australia; News Corp – are pioneering the involvement of the reader-user in data gathering and sifting. For organisations such as this - which consider the investigative role of journalism to be essential to their Fourth Estate role - user-generated content strengthens investigative journalism, extends its reach into the vastness of the online data bank. It democratises the process of critical scrutiny, passing ownership of that process to the citizen.
Not only that, it strengthens the engagement of the user base in the production process. In finding and suggesting stories for publication, readers may feel themselves to become part of the organisation in ways which were never possible before. In the fragmented online information marketplace, such participation builds brand identity and loyalty. Journalism becomes a genuinely collaborative enterprise, on a truly global scale.
So it’s all hands on deck, and let’s apply the power and wisdom of the crowd to those pollies’ expense claims. You know you want to!