Dan Gillmor: In a posting yesterday about how bloggers helped keep the pressure on U.S. House Republicans to reconsider an ethical issue, I mentioned the way two bloggers convinced average citizens to call their members of Congress and ask how they’d voted on the issue (it was a secret ballot). The inquiring citizens then let one of the bloggers know, and he posted the running results of the tally.
said this was an example of something I’m calling “distributed journalism.” Chris Nolan called today to ask what I meant by this, and here’s some of what I told her. (Here’s the eWeek story on the subject.)
I think of distributed journalism as somewhat analogous to any project or problem that can be broken up into little pieces, where lots of people can work in parallel on small parts of the bigger question and collectively — and relatively quickly — bring to bear lots of individual knowledge and/or energy to the matter. Some open-source software projects work this way. The important thing is the parallel activity by large numbers of people, in service of something that would be difficult if not impossible for any one or small group of them to do alone, at least in a timely way.
Distributed journalism isn’t new. Professionals have been doing it for a long time. When I was the Vermont stringer for the New York Times, back in the early 1980s, the paper’s National Desk would occasionally put the word out to stringers in all 50 states, asking them, for example, to call state government people about some topic or another and send a memo back to New York. The same kind of thing is done all the time by major publications with their own staffers on big stories. One person may write the piece, but a collection of many, many reporters does the legwork.
It’s not new online, either. Bulletin boards have done some of this kind of thing, though not in a particularly easy-to-use way, by aggregating lots of data about specific issues, people, companies, whatever. The collection of knowledge often is greater than the sum of its parts if you somehow learn something valuable. The Wikipedia experiment shows the power of assembling many brains every day.
The potential for distributed journalism to be a key part of tomorrow’s news strikes me as immense. We in citizen journalism — and, if we’re smart, in professional journalism — can focus the energy and knowledge of regular folks, and especially their willingness to do some small amount of legwork to help feed a larger whole, on all kinds of things.
Suppose, for example, that we assemble a nationwide group of volunteers — lawyers who are familiar with statutes — and ask each of them to take a small section of one of those immense congressional bills that the members of Congress don’t even read themselves. Suppose, further, that we could get this analysis posted before the House and Senate did their final votes. We might catch a lot of sleazy stuff before it became law. Today we’re lucky if we know about any of it before it actually passes.
That’s just one example. I’m sure you have others. Let’s talk about this below, and see if we can come up with ways to distribute reporting in ways that collectively might create real value for all of us.