Sink/Source Journalism – A News Model for the Digital Age

Posted: August 18, 2011 in My Data Journey, Open Data Movement
Tags: , , ,

I consume, code and curate news. I am no longer in the ‘newsroom’ per se, but taking a step back and looking deeper in to the nuts and bolts of the news platform has given me time for reflection. I reflect off hard surfaces. As such, I would like to present three sources of information that has my brain waves bouncing and the resultant concoction of “Sink/Source Journalism” i.e. a news model for the digital age.

Here are three reasons why news organisations needed micro-startups:

  1. A journal paper titled “Network Journalism: Converging Competences of Media Professionals and Professionalism“*
  2. A blog post by Alan Mutter called “Newspapers need a jolt of Silicon Valley DNA
  3. And a TEDx video by Jeff Jarvis called “This is Bullshit”:

Now you have my materials here are my thoughts. Journalism constrains the medium around the story, creating the source. Online media builds a platform to allow stories to form, thus creating a sink. Unlike most journalism students, I didn’t set up a blog to put my picture and CV on and upload all my ‘work’. I created a sink, a semantic sink. I wasn’t searching for something. I wanted to gather sources in order to find out what might be out there that I had not heard about. I want a medium which gathers inwards rather than expels outwards. This is the opposite of what journalism is, but I think it’s worth trying.

Alan Mutter writes: “With new technologies, media formats and business models emerging at an ever-quickening pace, newspapers must learn to think and act like start-ups – or risk falling to the margins of the media world.” What I would like to see implemented at a news organisation is a micro-startup team which builds sinks. A sink needs to iterate at the speed of web and its success will depend on whether it metamorphoses into a source of its own accord. What do I mean by this?

Philip Meyer, in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” (2004), predicts that the final copy of the final newspaper will appear on somebody’s doorstep one day in 2043. Bardoel & Deuze suggested ten years ago that:

This is not to say that the end of mediated communication is near, but it only shows that due to new technology the exclusive hold of journalists on the gatekeeping function to private households comes to an end. Ironically, it was the old (newspaper) technology that has brought journalists in this privileged position, and it is the new (on-line) technology that might remove journalists from that position again … technology does not determine what will happen here, but it will take a patient process of ‘social shaping’ that determines what will be the impact of the new communications technologies

And as Jeff put it “We should question the form”. Now The Guardian has gone digital first. More will follow. But will they follow the old form? Again, Bardoel & Deuze a decade ago write:

For journalists it is quite a challenge – or should we say less ironically a threat – to serve this multi-faced and fragmented public, for whom the news ‘product’ is no longer sacred in se. Since the scarcity of the offering has turned into abundance people can make a choice, for journalistic selection and scope or for other information intermediaries. This, again, shows that the power relation is shifting.

This was known (albeit in academic circles) before the explosion of twitter and social media. And the reliance on social media to turn ‘old’ media into ‘new’ media is misguided. If the medium is the message then the community is the code. The part of the social media model that should be taken is: build a sink for a community and let them make it into a news source. But, from a news angle, your sink should not be an application per se. It should be built from open data. Make it opensource. Why? Because you need to make a prototype/alpha fast. Make it quick and dirty. If it works, other people can fork the code but they can’t fork the community. And that’s what makes a sink a source.

What sort of projects am I talking about? Well, things like Schooloscope, Who’s Lobbying, and The Public Whip. These are brilliant public information service sites but they cannot make it as a business. They have been made by dedicated developers who cannot maintain them as they have no business model. These ‘code communities’ of scraped information need to be adopted by news organisation. They have the resources and community links to change these code sinks into sources. In the way that B2B media make their money by hoarding and reselling data to individual businesses so the news organisation in the new digital age should adopt this model by scraping public data and reselling it to the individual. This is Bardoel & Deuze’s conclusion at the turn of the millennium:

Journalism will become a profession that provides services not to collectives, but first and foremost to individuals, and not only in their capacity as citizens, but also as consumers, employees and clients

The Public Whip has had to find a new home. Schooloscope and Who’s Lobbying are shutting down. The databases they gather and feed off are a resource for journalists. Their design interface is a valuable resource to the public. By integrating them into a news model, into a community of readers and informed citizens, they can become powerful sinks around which you build a community. And this becomes a powerful source for a news organisation. A source of revenue even.

The gathering of the data, in the form of scraping, is a huge hurdle for developers but should be a standard for the new age of digital journalism. Now the barriers to building a prototype quick and dirty using a community is being significantly lowered. The company I work for, ScraperWiki (disclosure here), is being built for that. I wanted to be part of that process and the open data movement because I believe this is the route to go down when it comes to a news model for the digital age: Sink/Source Journalism.

*Bardoel, Jo, Deuze, Mark, (2001). Network Journalism: Converging Competences of Media Professionals and Professionalism. In: Australian Journalism Review 23 (2), pp.91-103.

  1. Umm, Schooloscope was funded by the venture arm of Channel 4. I believe there are some journalists there. It was a valuable service, but not one that was making economic sense for Channel 4.

    I haven’t heard news of Who’s Lobbying shutting down. Source?

    • Nicola Hughes says:

      After running a ScraperWiki workshop in Berlin, an attendee, a Computer Science Lecturer has started a module at the University to build a Schooloscope for Germany. I should put her in contact with the C4 team in charge.

      I think each news organisation has a different economic model and ‘funding’ projects is very different to running/integrating them. If organisations aren’t hands-on involved with teams within the newsroom working on fledgling projects then there’s no way a sink will become a source. I think a lot of the progressive agencies have experimented with ‘venture arms’ but ideas need to come from and go through the newsroom, just look at Document Cloud. 4iP is relatively redundant as a ‘venture arm’ and is being integrated into C4 online (which is exactly what I’m suggesting here). Although I don’t see why they should close down good projects like Schooloscope.

      I don’t think news organisation realise that you can turn a sink to a source and want to make sources from the offset. I think if they take a Silicon Valley approach to these ‘ventures’ then these projects can survive and thrive.

      As for Who’s Lobbying, it’s creator has told me he doesn’t have time to manage it and is looking for a way to keep it going but will have to shut it down if he cannot.

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