February 17th, 2009

Announcing Digital Sunlight: Publish2′s Platform for Collaborative Journalism

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Today, with the signing of the largest government stimulus program in history, Publish2 is announcing a new initiative to help newsrooms faced with declining resources continue to play the watchdog role that is so vital in this time of crisis. Digital Sunlight is our code name for a new feature set that will allow citizens to help journalists cover the stimulus act and the other big stories that affect our lives and our communities by submitting tips, leads, anecdotes, questions, etc. into a global searchable database.

In particular, we aim to overcome what we believe is a limitation of many “citizen journalism” initiatives to date, i.e. viewing citizen journalism as an end in itself, where citizens are supposed to replace professional journalists, filling up community sites with reporting. We believe citizen journalism is part of a larger process where professional journalists still play the vital role they always have. The key is to enable dynamic and ongoing collaboration between citizens and professional journalists, where citizens can become a true practical extension of the newsroom.

It’s all about collaboration.

Collaboration has always been at the heart of the Publish2 vision, even before the crisis in the news industry made it clear that journalism would have to embrace the power of collaboration in order to survive and thrive in the digital age. Publish2 now has one of the largest communities of journalists practicing online journalism (i.e. link journalism). We have also witnessed some pioneering instances of collaboration among journalists and newsrooms using Publish2, all arising from big news events, e.g. floods in Washington state, Obama’s inauguration, the Blagojevich arrest.

With Digital Sunlight, we are realizing the full vision of a platform for collaborative journalism, which connects individual journalists, newsrooms, and citizens, and harnesses the web as a platform for enabling and distributing public service journalism.

We are fortunate at this inflection point to have the guidance of one of the great champions of public service journalism, Howard Weaver. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Howard was the VP of News for McClatchy through the end of last year. Howard shares our vision that the future of journalism will combine the power of digital and collaborative technologies with the enduring qualities of professional journalism.

Howard has been an informal advisor since Publish2 was just a proverbial scrawl on the back of a napkin. Here’s Digital Sunlight in Howard’s own words (from his blog):

Before long, hundreds of billions of dollars will flow out of Washington and wash across every community in the country. This stimulus spending represents an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis, and defines one of the biggest stories of our generation.

How can today’s news organizations possibly cover it adequately? Even if news staffs were growing, they’d be hard-pressed to keep up with the dozens, perhaps hundreds of projects that will affect individual communities. Even knowing where to look will be bewildering.

I think the new web service for journalists called Publish2 can improve the coverage – and, in doing so, help journalism and the country.

Publish2 pioneered collaborative link journalism , and it’s rapidly being adapted to go a step farther: helping professional journalists enlist the eyes and ears of the audience in covering a huge story like this. The same system that now lets news organizations share links with with readers will soon enable them to ask readers to share tips, opinions and observations about how stimulus spending is working in their area.

Using Publish2′s free system, individual websites can easily let users submit information about projects. Some might be whistleblowers – imagine a Citibank secretary who didn’t think the company should be buying a new jet – while others will simply have questions they think should be asked. Sites can also solicit success stories, tales of stimulus spending that’s working.

Reporters will be able to search a sophisticated database of all the reader submissions – for instance, zeroing in on a particular region, or a certain company, or an individual government department. The system will let them query their readers to solicit feedback and information on specific stimulus topics.

Meanwhile, Publish2 will also provide an aggregated list of links to all the best stimulus journalism around the country, which can be used to augment and extend individual websites.

New features enabling broad collaboration among journalists and citizens will be available to Publish2 users very soon, and every newsroom ought to explore the system and consider participating. To me, the effort looks like a win-win from every angle, helping individual newsrooms cover a big, sprawling story in a time of declining resources, helping enable watchdog journalism on the biggest spending spree ever, and empowering citizens to help.

This could be a breakthrough project in the field of “citizen journalism” – more accurately, a way to let professionals tap into the power of the crowd to help inform and invigorate their reporting.

I’ve been an informal advisor at Publish2 since the idea emerged, and have watched with interest as it’s developed. I believe it’s poised to emerge as a powerful, essential tool for journalists, and its business model lets it do so without costing a dime. (By way of disclosure, I have been asked to think about joining Pub2′s board of directors and am considering that).

Journalists and technologists on the Publish2 team will stand behind this project to help news organizations participate as robustly as they want. I encourage you to explore the possibilities.

As to when the new Digital Sunlight functionality will be available on Publish2, we are baking as fast as we can and will have an update shortly.  In the meantime, check out our Stimulus Newswire — simply add the stimulus tag to links saved on Publish2 to collaborate on rounding up the best coverage of the stimulus act anywhere on the web.

Our goal for Digital Sunlight is to enable the largest collaborative reporting effort in history, and to demonstrate that collaboration is essential to the future of journalism.

  • I guess you plan to do so, but short courses in reporting would be in order. Also on what constitutes an invasion of privacy and many other knick knacks.

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