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The Power of Many: How Does Open Source Journalism Affect PR?

This post was first published by Juliana Allen on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.

Open source journalism gathers information from around the world.The “Power of Many” is a business concept that has translated well to other industries, and with good results. By using the power of the public, police have been able to gather valuable tips and evidence about suspected rioters, while parents have sourced creative names for their new-borns.

Crowdsourcing is proof that “more is better.” And given that information is gold to journalists, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so called “open source journalism” has been on the rise. Citizen journalists all over the world are just one-tweeted-picture-of-a-car-accident away from contributing to the lead story on the evening news.

Just as crowdfunding solicits money from a range of supporters to get a startup off the ground, open source journalism is all about anyone other than professional journalists contributing to the news and it usually sourced in a community-like online forum.

Open-Source Journalism: A Closer Look

Prominent NYU journalism professor and civic journalist Jay Rosen has said, “The more people who participate in it, the stronger the press will be.” The thinking is that open source journalism widens the reach of traditional newsrooms and gives more regular, ordinary citizens the power of the pen.

A system without traditional gatekeepers sounds chaotic, but OpenWatch, one of the strongest advocates for open source journalism, believes it can work if eight principles – including complete primary and verified sources, transparency, and continuity – are followed.

OpenWatch has been joined by two popular outlets at the forefront of the open journalism movement – Storyful, through its Open Newsroom Google Plus page, and Reddit, through its “live blogging” feature.

The fact that Reddit has focused its attention on open source journalism is interesting given some of the criticism its users received in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing last year, when several innocent citizens were wrongly identified as being responsible for the attack. This type of misinformation and embellishment is one of the downsides of open-source journalism and unfortunately can be common when so many people are expressing their opinions in a moment of passion. It also shows why OpenWatch’s eight principles are so important.

Of course, reporting mistakes happen even among the most prominent, established media outlets. Just look at the ongoing fallout from the reporting of “60 Minutes” about the Benghazi attack, nearly two years after it happened.

And just as traditional and open source journalism can be equally fallible, they can work together to produce a better news product.

The Shifting Media Landscape

Open source journalism is becoming more prominent at a time when it may actually be most needed by traditional news producers. The media landscape has been shrinking for years, which has forced resource-strapped news outlets to turn to brands for contributed content to fill out their pages.

In the tech industry in particular, the line between the private sector and journalism outlets has blurred. It’s even become common for journalists to become in-house communications experts for corporations, such as Steve Hamm at IBM. Writers like Hamm know how to attract the attention of journalists through compelling content.

The story of home health nurse Atundra Horne is an interesting example of open source journalism. Horne works for Chicago’s Advocate Health Care and requires an armed escort when she visits patients. Advocate’s coverage of Horne on its own internal blog, not a professional local news outlet, led to a feature by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. Now, because it’s already been identified as a thought leader by CNN, Advocate could be looked at by other news outlets as a source of informative, useful, insightful information. In a world where open source journalism is accepted, Advocate Health Care can tell a story that has as dramatic an impact as one told by a major national newspaper.

The Next Step for PR Professionals

The sorts of “wins” experienced by Advocate prove that Open source journalism is a good thing for PR professionals. It presents more opportunities to develop content that reflects our clients’ knowledge and values – content that in an ideal world leads to great media coverage, just as Advocate’s did. Most importantly it shows the value of spending time producing such content.

Open source journalism presents the opportunity for more sources to be involved in the construction of a story, and with the help of PR professionals amplifying their voice, brands can become one of those voices. They can write the first few pages of their own story and co-author subsequent chapters as their brand attracts more attention – they no longer need a major news outlet to be the only author.

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