Journalism and the Age of Free Information

I wanted to write a blog on the international effects of the golden open access by the UK government. However, I got caught in an interesting discussion between a Dutch journalist and a website owner and chief editor on the way the website uses information and articles written by the journalist. The website called Nearby.nl (Dichtbij.nl) uses amateur writers, paid writers and secondary sources to fill its website with local news.

The Dutch journalist accuses the website owner of stealing his articles by reproducing them at his own website and of robbing him of his means of living. In his own words: the reader has the choice to pay about 300 Euro to read a newspaper or read the same items onscreen for free? The owner/editor has two answers to this. Firstly, he states that they “facilitate peoples hobbies, providing a place to publish their writings”. Secondly, he states that some journalist find a paid job working for his website. 

I think both of the discussants miss the point. The emergence of internet allows people to publish their opinion on everything, everywhere, for everyone to read and react. This can be on their hobbies (cats seem to be especially interesting at least at Facebook) but also a review of the local football club or starting a discussion on books they have read. Some will chose Facebook, WordPress or another personalized website; others will join a existing website as Dichtbij.nl. It is even allowed to add external links to your own website, as Dichtbij.nl does, linking to available internet contributions of newspapers and other news agencies. When the text of the internet item is reproduced and the source is only given in small print at the end of the item, it becomes less clear if this is still allowed.

However, as the news agencies themselves put the items online, the journalist is wrong in perceiving this as a danger to his occupation. In general, news gatherers should rethink their role in society. In this they could be helped by the vision of the website owner/editor: describing simple facts and events as they appear is too simple to justify the payment of hundreds of euro’s for a newspaper. In the present society, information is, or becomes fast, free.

To deny the view that journalism is no more than reporting events, requires an alternative vision. Question is what a professional reporter adds to the plain description of the events? Taking the Business Canvas approach, it is important to determine who is the customer, what are the core resources and activities, the essential partnerships of the (freelance) reporter?

Not being a journalist myself, it is complex to answer these questions. Assuming that (world and local) events will be known through social media and free websites, the journalist could provide a context to the isolated event. Either by investigating journalism, using strategic partnerships, describing the unknown background or hidden agendas, or placing the single event in time; deterministic or unique.See for example the different models of Jeff Jarvis on sustainable journalism.

In this sense the journalist plays the role of the teacher as described in my former blog about data, information and knowledge. The journalist helps the reader to make sense of events which isolated may look insignificant or too important. Furthermore, the journalist can act as the memory of the readers, confronting politicians with former promises, acknowledging series of events leading up to this particular happening. Journalists have to become an authority, building a reputation of integrity, expertise and sensitivity to the news. Question is if every of the present day journalists can play this role of investigating reporter?

Lastly, the view of the website owner/editor reflects a post-modern approach to expertise. This approach denies the importance of experts as journalists, teachers and GP’s.  As all information is freely available on the internet, we can all make our own newspaper, become self-learners and diagnose health problems. This ignores the fact that experts have the competences to translate information and data into knowledge. A website with local facts and figures will certainly attract enough visitors to make a business model based on advertising worthwhile. It also ignores objectivity, the mentioned events can be brought to the attention of the website by enthusiastic amateurs, participators, and public but also by the organizers of an event.

Open and free access to data and information will force several types of industry to discuss their core activities. The owner/ editor of the website thinks that his core competence lies in the use of amateur journalists, because -1- they have a deeper knowledge of the local situation; -2- they are less expensive than professionals. Question is if he adds so much to the open information he copies that his website generates enough traffic to attract advertisers (his earning model in my view).

Journalists, teachers and even GP’s have to deal with the flow of free information (open resources). This may not be new (free magazines, learning on the workplace or medical columns in magazines) but the size and speed makes the supply of information different from these older examples.

Yet, it is here to stay…………………………………………….

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