Me at Nieman Lab: Hacking Consensus

For the past few years I’ve bent quite a few ears about how much better arguments could be online. The earliest of these ear-bendings (that I can remember) was in Q1 of 2008. Since then I’ve talked to policy wonks, developers, journalists and plenty of friends and family about how I think the basic op-ed model should be improved. Four years since that first conversation, I finally have an essay on the topic that I feel comfortable standing behind.

My piece is up at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and I hope you’ll give it a read. I’d appreciate any feedback you have. Here’s the intro:

In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman argued that we should impose a tax on financial transactions, citing the need to reduce budget deficits, the dubious value of much financial trading, and the literature on economic growth. So should we? Assuming for a moment that you’re not deeply versed in financial economics, on what basis can you evaluate this argument? You can ask yourself whether you trust Krugman. Perhaps you can call to mind other articles you’ve seen that mentioned the need to cut the deficit or questioned the value of Wall Street trading. But without independent knowledge — and with no external links — evaluating the strength of Krugman’s argument is quite difficult.

It doesn’t have to be. The Internet makes it possible for readers to research what they read more easily than ever before, provided they have both the time and the ability to filter reliable sources from unreliable ones. But why not make it even easier for them? By re-imagining the way arguments are presented, journalism can provide content that is dramatically more useful than the standard op-ed, or even than the various “debate” formats employed at places like the Times or The Economist.

To do so, publishers should experiment in three directions: acknowledging the structure of the argument in the presentation of the content; aggregating evidence for and against each claim; and providing a credible assessment of each claim’s reliability. If all this sounds elaborate, bear in mind that each of these steps is already being taken by a variety of entrepreneurial organizations and individuals.

Please read the rest!

Nieman Lab on Journalism and Open Source

Nieman Lab – far and away the best resource for tracking the evolution of journalism – has a good post up the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, and on what lessons journalism can learn from open source. Overall it’s characteristally excellent, but I have to take issue with this:

Finding 4:
* Open-source development is collaborative, free, and flexible.
* Producing news costs money, and open source may not get to the heart of journalism’s business problems.

Open-source software development is premised on the idea of coders working together, for free, without seeking to make a profit at the expense of someone else’s intellectual property. Bit by bit, this labor is rewarded by the creation of sophisticated programming languages, better-and-better software, and the like.

But there’s a problem: Journalism can’t run on an open source model alone. Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news.

I think this ignores the rich mixture of motivations, business models, etc. that comprise the open source movement. Take the line “Producing news costs money.” Someone might say the same about software. Doesn’t producing software cost money? Well, the history of open source tells us, basically, not always in the ways you would think. The big shift for the software community has been to question very basic assumptions like “producing software costs money” or “producing software requires organization by firms.” For journalism to truly adopt the lessons of open source software, it must question those basic assumptions as well.

Well, ok, fine. But at the end of the day doesn’t producing news cost money? Sure. But even here it seems that the Nieman summary is missing an appreciation for the richness of the open source model. Specifically, the line “Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news” ignores the great number of for profit entities operating in the open source software space. Companies like IBM and Red Hat play a huge role in the development in open source software because their involvement brings strategic and financial benefits. Coders in the employ of companies like IBM are crucial to the development of open source projects like Linux; it is a mistake to ignore these contributors when thinking about open source. And Red Hat operates on a service model, making it easier for customers to successfully adopt open source software in their businesses.

Maybe these sorts of arrangements transfer into the journalism space and maybe they don’t. But to act as if open source software offers no lessons on how to make money is to ignore a significant piece of the open source landscape.