April 22, 2013

The Guardian wants you


The Guardian wants you. This week the newspaper launched Witness, an app that turns ordinary readers like you and me into valiant citizen journalists by soliciting original content in response to posted assignments. The concept follows naturally from Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger‘s philosophy of open journalism.

In an online Q&A with readers, Rusbridger explained: “Open journalism is journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world.” Thus, Witness.

The easy access to information Rusbridger describes is largely free access. A paper copy of the Guardian will cost you, as will the iPhone and iPad version. But the website remains free. Last year More Intelligent Life pondered at length whether the Guardian will survive, despite its international popularity.

It is fiercely resistant to charging for its website…Some editors stay out of these choppy waters, saying the decisions are made by their commercial colleagues. Rusbridger goes the other way—not only is he happy to defend the Guardian’s stance, he has built a theory around it [open journalism]…He has become quite evangelical about it.

Witness is the latest incarnation of open journalism. According to the Guardian, the app “will build on the Guardian‘s groundbreaking model of open journalism to crowdsource content from around the globe by enabling users to share videos, pictures and text directly with the Guardian‘s editorial team, as well as to browse the contributions submitted by other Witness users.”

The explanatory video makes the project feel like an urban boy scout adventure. Picture hordes of Guardian readers trotting off to the Shard, because an editor wants some “Views of Tall Buildings.” The badge earned? Publication on the Witness website and maybe—but probably not—on the Guardian website itself. Don’t get your hopes up.

Administrators must approve submissions before they’re published, but their standards aren’t high. Submissions must be relevant to the assignment and considered “decent.” In short, no dick pics.

I gave Witness a quick perusal. Only one photograph struck me as worth the effort—the effort of navigating to the site, not the effort of creating the app: Dubai skyscrapers swimming in a lake of fog. The Syrian refugee stories were interesting, but devoid of context.

And the “Delayed Spring” assignment undermined all the high-minded rhetoric surrounding this project. Over a hundred pedestrian photos of blooming flowers—and trees. One user photographed three evergreens from inside King’s Cross Station on a on a rainy day. How did that pass the “relevant to the assignment” criterion? What season in the UK doesn’t include rain and evergreens?

The concept of a news outlet soliciting reader submissions is hardly new. (CNN does it, ProPublica does it.) The BBC rounds up reader photographs regularly. But their slideshows don’t stand precariously atop excited notions of open journalism. Browsing BBC reader photographs, I don’t think, “The BBC believes that this is improving the state of journalism in a fundamental way.”

Open journalism turns readers into participants in the news culture, and Witness certainly flatters them as participants, offering a brief sense of purpose and a product they can feel good about for a few minutes—“Someone saw my crap photo of evergreens and wrote a blog post about it, bully for me!” But it’s too early to say whether the endeavor will serve them well as readers, or as well as Rusbridger intends.

My question is—might Witness make them any more likely to throw some coins into the Guardian coffer? Rusbridger has never said “never” to a paywall, though the idea apparently makes him cringe. For all his evangelicalism, he told one reader during a Q&A session, “We’re not paywall fundamentalists and continue to keep and interested eye on the economic models of other newspapers, particularly the New York Times.”

Could Witness be the precursor to the Guardian‘s paywall, placating readers with a feeling of inclusivity before introducing some financial exclusivity? We’ll see.

For the time being, Witness seems like little more than a series of collaborative Pinterest boards with a newsy feel.

Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.