Memo to newspapers: Let your readers inside the wall

The Guardian, the U.K. newspaper that has been one of the biggest mainstream-media champions of a “digital first” approach and a proponent of “crowdsourcing” the news, says it’s now going to experiment with allowing readers to help decide what news to cover. The paper announced Monday that it’s going to make its “newslist” — the daily schedule of stories the media outlet thinks are worth covering — public, something which the paper has previously kept carefully guarded. But the Guardian seems to have realized what many newspapers have not: If you allow your readers to be part of the news-creation process, they will be more engaged.

In a column announcing the experiment, Guardian National News Editor Dan Roberts says the idea of showing readers — and everyone else — what stories the paper is working on might seem a little strange, since many publishers try as hard as they can to keep this kind of information secret (in some cases, rival newspapers in Britain have paid leakers for access to a competitor’s newslist). But the Guardian editor says that the paper believes opening up to its readers will improve the quality of its reporting, and help it concentrate on the stories that will be of the most interest and/or value. Said Roberts:

What if readers were able to help newsdesks work out which stories were worth investing precious reporting resources in? What if all those experts who delight in telling us what’s wrong with our stories after they’ve been published could be enlisted into giving us more clues beforehand? What if the process of working out what to investigate actually becomes part of the news itself?

Let readers in and they will help make your work better

Roberts notes that The Guardian isn’t opening up its entire newslist, and will be excluding any exclusives the paper might have, as well as embargoed stories that have been planned in advance. And the editor also says the newspaper is looking at this as an experiment, and is prepared to “pull the plug” on the trial period if competitors are benefiting too much — or if readers simply aren’t interested. That said, however, Roberts says the paper is convinced that offering this information to readers will help focus its news-gathering better and provide tips that can improve stories.

[W]e think there are lots of routine things that we list every day which might provoke interesting responses from readers: everything from upcoming press conferences, to stories we need help uncovering. If readers can see that we’ve got a reporter looking into the police killing of someone with a Taser – to use a recent example – they might be able to direct us to other recent deaths or the definitive report on their safety risks.

What the Guardian is doing is quite simple: it is letting its readers behind the wall, pulling back the curtain to show them some of the machinery involved in producing the news, and offering them the chance to help — a smart approach that other media outlets could and should emulate. It’s an extension of what the British paper did with its groundbreaking “MP Expenses” project in 2009, which involved uploading more than 200,000 official expense reports for British politicians and then asking readers to comb through them looking for errors or fraud. In the end, more than 20,000 people did just that, in one of the most successful crowdsourcing projects ever undertaken by a newspaper.

Using readers as a resource is one thing, but revealing what stories are planned and offering to let readers affect that process is another. In the not-too-distant past, most newspapers were almost as secretive as government agencies; the processes involved in producing journalism day-to-day were only revealed to members of the priesthood, and things like story lists were kept under virtual lock and key. Needless to say, this kind of culture isn’t conducive to things like blogs or story comments or Twitter, as is obvious from many mainstream media companies’ restrictive social-media policies.

They are the “people formerly known as the audience”

But opening up to readers — or what journalism professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience” — has obvious benefits, as Roberts notes. For one thing, if they’re involved in a particular story, they can provide details and perspectives that might never have come to light during the traditional reporting of a news event. No matter how expert a journalist might be at covering his or her beat, there’s always going to be someone who knows more about that topic, and giving them the chance to contribute to a story makes the end product better, whether reporters want to admit it or not.

As Roberts notes, this approach has paid dividends for other newspapers that have tried it, including a Swedish regional newspaper that has been experimenting with an “open newsroom.” The large daily uses a live-blog powered by CoverItLive (owned by Demand Media (s dmd)) that’s run by a senior editor, which provides a place for the paper’s staff to talk about the stories they are working on, and allows readers to post their comments and questions. The paper’s editor-in-chief says that doing this has not only driven traffic to the site, but created a more engaged readership.

Other newspapers experimenting with open newsrooms include the Register-Citizen in Connecticut, part of the Journal-Register Co. group — which, like The Guardian, has taken a “digital first” approach under CEO John Paton, now the CEO of the Media News Group — and the Winnipeg Free Press in Canada. The Register-Citizen allows readers to come and go as they please in the paper’s newsroom, and provides coffee and Internet access, as well as inviting readers to be involved in story meetings. The Free Press, a large daily, has stationed several reporters in a coffee shop/restaurant in the city’s downtown core, so that readers can interact with the paper’s staff more easily.

The bottom line is that the secrecy that newspapers used to operate under no longer works. Not only is there more competition for stories, but mainstream media outlets no longer have a monopoly relationship with their readers, who can find the same information from dozens of alternative sources. Either newspapers develop a more balanced relationship with the people formerly known as the audience, by allowing them to contribute to the process, or they will find their audience has gone elsewhere.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and Yan Arief Purwanto