How transparent should newspapers get?

A little while ago I got myself embroiled in a rather heated debate with another member of the newspaper industry over the “transparent newsroom”.

It’s a policy that has been adopted by The Spokesman Review in the US.

The newspaper has embraced transparency in an attempt to regain credibility in its community. It even has an interactive news conference which is videoed and put onto the web.

Why shouldn’t UK newspapers such as mine embrace this practice, I asked? Surely it would make us more accountable and show a willingness to engage with our readers. Isn’t our biggest battle on the web for trust and credibility? This would be one way to help us establish ours.

Not so, said my friend. It would be dangerous as news conferences will discuss the legalities of some stories, some of which would not be approved for publication. Showing video of these conversations on the web was publication in itself and we could be sued for that.

Also, there are journalists who are very good at what they do and not very good at public speaking – they would come across poorly on video and may actually lose the trust of readers.

Language and “gallows humour” would also be a problem, he suggested.

These are not, however, issues that come up in this video by The Spokesman Review:


[via Colin Mulvany]

The top issues here are nutters and the increased amount of time needed to interact with and justify editorial decisions to readers.

What is also worth noting is that there is also no current statistical information to demonstrate that this practice is bringing more people to the newspaper.

But, it’s an idea that has been taken up by other UK newspapers. Last month, The Liverpool Daily Post dabbled with transparency and became the first paper in the country to broadcast their news conference live over the Internet.

So, should The Birmingham Post be doing the same?

7 thoughts on “How transparent should newspapers get?

  1. Journalists only behave that why in their own closed environment. With a more open newsroom the staff would have to adapt and managers will also learn to recruit people with slightly different social skills.

    I’m optimistic about the nutters problem. They do take time, but the newsroom which shirks being connected closely to the wider public will die out – their competitors wwill be providing a much better quality news service based on being much more deeply roted in their community of readers.

    So learn how to talk to the public or go and get another job, because your newspaper will struggle to survive.

  2. I think I’m on the side of the cynics with this one, although for different reasons.

    I can only see this apealing to your hardcore readership, conspiracy nuts and those in journalism circles. Groups that you’re presumably not currently at risk of losing.

    From my point of view (and I’m a reader with very little experience of journalism as a business), the Post is only one of my sources of news, and a minor one at that. I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to sit and watch the decision processes behind what is presented to me. If I want further detail, emphasis or different stories I can go to other sources.

    Would it be nice to be able to see everything that goes on in the newsroom? Maybe but I doubt I’d ever look – would your core readership? And would the time/expense be justified when resources are being squeezed more and more?

  3. I like the idea of people getting a glimpse of life in the newsroom and the transparency you are suggesting. It might help dispel some myths and give a clearer insight into the world of newspapers, particularly at a regional level. It might also provide a healthy and long-overdue reality check in some newsrooms.

    Yet I’m twitchy about some of the things that are happening. At times I feel there is an element of trying to impress peers rather than retain and attract readers (this is a general criticism, rather than a specific one for the Post – I feel the need to add that these days!).

    I’ve never felt comfortable with journalists being the story themselves.
    Whether it is awards, or live blogging of the newsroom, who is at aimed at and who are they trying to impress – readers, or other journalists and media organisations?

    The Post’s blogging operation (I’m guessing) is providing all sorts of lessons and insights at the moment. Unfortunately, like every other newspaper, you don’t have the luxury of time to fully assess and absorb them all.

    We’re used to tight deadlines on newspapers, but playing catch up at the same time offers a whole new set of difficulties.

    But readers are also on the learning curve and need to be helped along too – I can think of several people who could be regular readers of the Post and contributors to the blogs, but they’re still lurking rather than getting actively involved.
    They said they still need convincing – about what, exactly, they remained quite vague about, but one criticism was a lack of interaction between bloggers and those taking the time to comment.

    Yes to transparency, innovation, interaction – but it must be directed towards readers than peers.

  4. While it’s very interesting to do this sort of thing once or twice (as a fly on the wall documentary), I can’t see the value of doing it regularly. People do behave differently when “on camera”, just as when a big boss is observing them, while there shouldn’t be anything to hide as such it’s bound to make for a less creative environment.

    The openness and transparency that can bring trust is a sort of ‘backchannel’ showing the sources of the journalist’s information, link out to more information about the interviewee if there is, link to the press release you got (if online, but a lot are).

  5. As a reader, I’d only want to see this type of thing as a bit of a one-off curio. In general, I’m looking to the news to have done the work of deciding its angle, what to cover etc before I get to it! I wouldn’t want to see a video of a chef cooking my meal in a restaurant before I ate it: I’m paying for the finished product.

    With my pro-hat on, this would be quite interesting, but again more as a one-off, and out of sheer nosiness, than something I’d bother with generally.

  6. I think in defence of the Liverpool Daily Post, it is doing more than just dabble with transparency. The live blog, and the conference video, is just part of a wider range of projects the LDP has spearheaded to try and break down the traditional “we shout, you listen” approach which newspapers are accused of.

    The project that has delivered the greatest success has been Make The News – the paper’s take on crowdsourcing – which has successfully made users part of the story-generating process by inviting them to say what they want to read about, and what their thoughts on that issue are. It has encouraged countless people to speak up and give their thoughts and opinion, often turning a story as a result.

    If we are to be transparent as we need to be in the future, we have to be more open about how we generate stories, and make people feel as though they are being heard. Make The News does this, as did the live blog – several decisions made almost as a committee with users were reflected in the next day’s paper.

    As for who it was meant to impress, Paul Groves makes a great point. It would be very easy to get carried away with new technology and ideas which appeal, in the main, to our peers rather than our users/readers. The Daily Post’s steps towards transparency were designed with the user in mind, rather than industry plaudits. As journalists, we are always asked why we did this with a story, why we gave another story a different treatment, and why we aren’t covering such-a story. The live blog helped explain our processes to those who were interested, and it was a broad mix of people, while Make The News has helped people shape those stories.

    There are a variety of other transparency ideas in the pipeline which probably won’t attract much interest within media circles, but will still play crucial roles in making a traditional print newsroom much more transparent.

    One final point I’d like to make. Yes, the LDP video news conference was different to the ones many of us would recognise – but the story discussion still took place. The live blog, however, was a true day in the life of the newsroom. The time factor involved means it can’t be a daily thing, but in terms of showing people both inside and outside a newsroom how a news organisation can respond to the challenge of interactivity, it was a great success.

  7. Hi David,

    Yes, “dabbling” was a poor choice of word. Apologies.

    I know LDP are very committed to the concepts of transparency and conversation and are doing a lot of innovative stuff.

    I often watch with envy.

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