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Making Your News Budget Public: How And Why

You’ve probably heard the modern-day mantra touted by journalism radicals everywhere: Transparency is the new objectivity. I won’t get into a debate about whether that’s true, but I will point you to some news organizations that are putting transparent editorial strategies to the test through open news budgets (read more from 10,000 Words on open news).

The idea of open news budgets is this: You post your editorial pursuits to the web each morning and give the public a chance to weigh in with tips, suggestions, sources, alternate angles, etc. You involve your readers in the editorial process from the start, rather than hiding your content behind a wall and letting them react after the story is finished.

“But what about our competitors?!”

The Guardian opened up its editorial news list by embedding Google spreadsheets to its site — something easy enough for your news org to do, too (more on that later). The most  interesting part of this experiment is what they’ve learned so far:

Whatever competitive advantage may have been lost by giving rivals a clue what we were up to was more than made up for by a growing range of ideas and tips from readers.

Yes, this brings me to another modern-day mantra touted by journalism radicals: Collaboration is the new competition. Although maybe some competitive edge is lost in publishing an open list, the resulting coverage is potentially stronger across the board thanks to reader insights.

You can choose your level of transparency

Ok, so it’s not really “transparent” if you’re censoring parts of your news list from the public, but the point is that you can start slow. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of posting everything, you can still post parts of it. Writes Steve Buttry about several Journal Register Co. papers who are publicizing their news budgets:

Sometimes you will decide that you shouldn’t include a story that you’re working on. If you are investigating allegations of wrongdoing, you will need to word the budget lines carefully, or possibly exclude such a story. Sometimes you might want to avoid tipping the competition about a story (though most journalists worry about competition more than they should). In such cases, you should at least consider a general budget line that invites community contributions without giving away the competitive details.

But even so, as journalists, we often overestimate competitiveness in news. Jeff Thomas of the Colorado Springs Gazette said in a comment on Buttry’s post (emphasis added by me):

We post our budget to our Facebook wall every weekday. We don’t spend much time polishing it up for public consumption; it’s essentially our internal document, posted in a public place. At the same time, we hold almost nothing back. We’ve done this for months; I can’t recall a single instance of a competitor gaining an advantage over us because of it.

Examples of gettin’ it done: Google docs, blog posts, Twitter and Facebook

  • Like I mentioned before, The Guardian embeds a Google Spreadsheet on a flatpage that contains details about what they’ll be covering for various sections and who the writers are.
  • JRC news organizations like The Reporter publish a blog-post-style text list of upcoming stories, which includes email addresses of people to contact in the newsroom.  The Daily Local News does this too.
  • As we’ve reported here before on 10,000 Words, the Indianapolis Star encourages its reporters to tweet about stories they’re working on using the hashtag #myassignment.
  • Like the Colorado Springs Gazette (mentioned earlier in this post), you can publish your budget to Facebook as a note on your page
  • Philly.com has a What we’re working on” box at the top of their neighborhoods page that highlights an item or two and contact information for the respective reporter. I like this approach because it’s a feature that continually lives in one spot, rather than getting lost in a list of blog headlines. (via Daniel Victor in the comments)
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