Emergence of Open News

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URL = http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/brunstext.html


'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.


> 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." (http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/brunstext.html)

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