Opening Up  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2005

Opening Up   

John Robinson, editor of North Carolina's Greensboro News & Record, talks about his decision to plunge his newsroom headlong into participatory journalism.

Related reading:
   » Journalism’s Backseat Drivers

Last year John Robinson, editor of North Carolina's Greensboro News & Record, decided to plunge headlong into participatory journalism and newsroom transparency. In June, Robinson spoke via e-mail with AJR's Barb Palser about the impetus for his decision, the resource challenges involved and what it feels like to let go of the reins. Robinson is quoted in "Journalism's Backseat Drivers"; here is the full text of the e-mail interview. Robinson's blog is The Editor's Log.

Q: How did your decision to commit to open source journalism evolve? Was there a light bulb moment?

A: It's a long story. We have an active blogging community in Greensboro. The bloggers comment on civic affairs. They attend meetings. One blogger was a serious city council candidate. They comment on the newspaper, and, at the time--2003-04--they were usually misinformed about why and how we did things. And that all intrigued me. After a few conversations with Ed Cone, a nationally known blogger who lives in Greensboro and writes an Op-Ed column in our paper, I quickly realized that we needed to swim in the pool with them. Within a month in 2004, we had three blogs going, including mine, about the newspaper.

Meanwhile, Managing Editor Ann Morris and I asked Mark Sutter, our metro editor, to take a month to research readership, reader habits and the future of newspapers and to write a report with recommendations on the direction the paper should take. His key two recommendations were that the paper should target younger readers and create an intensely local community connection in the news coverage and throughout the organization. He said we should become a virtual Town Square.

We liked it so much that we asked Lex Alexander, a reporter, editor and longtime blogger, to do the same for our online operation. He asked visitors of his blog to help. Jay Rosen of PressThink weighed in and asked his readers to help and that was that. Suggestions flowed in. Lex compiled them, made some recommendations that essentially suggested we embrace citizen journalism, and we were off and running. At the same time, I was reading Dan Gillmor's "We the Media," which was very influential.

The light bulb moment was probably the realization that we had to do something. Doing nothing was not an option, given all the readership trends and research. Once we came to that understanding, it quickly followed that NOT embracing citizen journalism would be foolish. Besides, if nothing else, it would be fun.

Q: Do you think some of your colleagues in the news business might be a little reluctant about the resource commitment implied by making time to be transparent about their reporting processes and conversing with their audiences? Afraid of opening the floodgates? How has the experience been for you? Time-consuming? Exasperating? Natural?

A: No question about it. And who can blame them? Newsroom staffs are being cut beyond where they should. Now the editors are thinking about adding on additional duties to already overworked and underpaid reporters? It's hard enough just to find enough people to cover the community in print.

Plus, much of the new media is antithetical to the traditions we journalists know. The pioneers of blogging, or at least the ones who have made national headlines, take a point of view and drive it. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn't what newspapers do outside of their editorial pages. So there's this sense that blogs are vehicles for one-sided preaching, often without their writers having done much reporting.

I argue that that is simply a misinformed view. The medium allows all sorts of voices, views and perspectives. Our blogs--particularly those written by news reporters--adhere to all the traditional journalistic principles of integrity, objectivity and fair play. In fact, we see them as yet another way to reach readers with relevant information about their community and their lives. We've posted audio and video of government meetings online. We've linked to blogs of elected officials to add that perspective to the discussion. We've answered readers' questions in the comments sections of blogs. All above board. All journalistically correct.

But I digress. Maintaining a blog is time-consuming. You're putting yourself out there. You're acknowledging mistakes. You're talking about yourself for the whole world, which, while easy for some, is difficult for me. And there are many people lurking in the blogosphere who routinely use that as an opportunity to smack you from the blind side. So you have to have a thick skin to deal with those folks who prefer to criticize you personally rather than to add to the civic discussion.

But as I said on the blog last fall, I couldn't imagine ever not blogging again. I still feel that way. It has turned out to be a wonderful way to talk with readers, to explain to them very quickly--rather than waiting until my Sunday column-- why we did something that turned out to be controversial or unusual or wrong. And it's been a learning experience to ask for and hear their suggestions. They have helped us improve both the paper and our online initiatives.

Given all that, why wouldn't you embrace the advantages of this new journalistic channel?

Q: Since the News & Record started getting attention for what you're doing, have you fielded a lot of questions from other newsroom managers? Do you see more newsrooms moving in this direction?

A: A lot? Not really. Half a dozen who have asked for help. Another half a dozen who have wanted quotes for stories. That said, I do see more newsrooms trying to move in this direction. There are a lot of issues involved that news managers have to work out, not the least of which are related to libel and how journalists spend their time. The real issue for many newsrooms is the commitment to let loose the reins. Once you decide to actively interact with readers, those polite and those not so polite, on a daily basis, you have to let go of some of the control. That's what citizen journalism is all about, and some newspaper managers have difficulty with that. And there are a lot of gnarly issues they can hide behind as a way to say, "Nah, we don't want to go there." But, to repeat myself, you also can't underestimate the power of not having enough people in the newsroom to cover a community the way it should be in the newspaper.... So how can you expect them to embrace adding more work onto the load?

We, of course, just held our nose and jumped right into the pool.

Q: How have your efforts affected your news coverage and your relationship with readers?

A: I don't really know the answer to that. I can't point to anything specific off the top of my head where our online initiatives have affected the news coverage. I hope that it has made us more open to readers and to stories they suggest. I know that by having more of our journalists tuned into the local blogosphere, we've seen stories the citizen journalists have posted on their blogs and followed them. That is, they've scooped us.

But I don't have any real sense of how many traditional newspaper readers visit the blogs. We have had monthly increases in page views of our blogs, so that we were up to 330,000 pages views in the month of May. But, of course, we don't know who they are unless they leave a comment.

Q: Can you empathize with the feelings of some mainstream journalists that the bloggers who criticize them are hypocrites, partisan operatives, jeering from the sidelines? What would you say to a journalist or news manager who feels resentful or besieged?

A: Yes, I empathize. I have been there. Hell, I am there. Just visit my blog. But the fact is that the toothpaste is out of the tube. Ignoring them or belittling them will not make it all go away. As everyone knows, people have been criticizing newspapers for one reason or another for years before there were blogs. Now they can make their criticism read around the world. So the world has changed. Our responsibility, our challenge, is to explain why we do what we do. It's hard and it's intimidating and it's frustrating. But none of those things are excuses for not rising to the challenge. Bottom line, we just need to get over ourselves.

In the end, blogs and citizen journalism can improve the service we provide to readers, can fuel civic discussion and, if we do this right, will help create a more informed citizenry.

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