BOINC for journalism

The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication brought Marty Baron, Editor of the Boston Globe, to Eugene today to give the 33rd Ruhl Lecture. My overall opinion is that, although it was fun to be physically present at one of these #thedeathofnewspapers presentations, he didn’t cover anything particularly new or groundbreaking. It began with a pretty backward-looking, pessimistic tone, and then continued into something that lead Bryan Murley to ask whether it was an “informercial for The Globe.” In fact, I think the entire perspective of the audience could’ve been shifted if, instead of calling the lecture “The Incredible Shrinking Newsroom,” it were called “The Amazing Growth of the News Ecosystem.” We need more conversation about what the future can look like. But I digress.

One of the arguments he had as a lament for the death of newspaper journalism was reference to reporting done by the Miami Herald after the 2000 elections. According to Baron, The Herald did its own count of the Florida results and that, in reference to restructuring in Chicago, there’s no way a newsroom of 26 could do similar work.

If you get creative, I think there is. It’s called BOINC and we could apply it to journalism. The Berkley project is a distributed computing platform where ordinary people volunteer computer time to process data from a number of scientific projects. The results are verified because some “projects,” as the data sets are called, are repeated across multiple machines. Journalism related to data verification can be massively distributed in this method; it’s just a matter of experimenting with the correct means and tools of doing so. For more information on BOINC, Leo Laporte did a thorough interview for FLOSS Weekly recently.

At the end of the lecture, Bryan Murley prompted me to ask Baron what he’s doing to restore credibility, citing the 2009 State of the News Media report. I interpreted this as: “What steps is The Boston Globe taking to restore credibility in itself as a news organization? What have been the successes and challenges of these steps?”

Marty Baron, however, argued that The Globe hasn’t suffered a loss of credibility, and that he doesn’t like to use the term “restored.” Instead, Baron says that they have a “long, very detailed” ethics policy, and that they make sure their reporting is “fair, honest, and accurate.

He’s missing the point, in my opinion. Credibility isn’t what you think of yourself, but rather how your community thinks of its information relationship with you. His response dealt too much with “I, I, and We, We,” instead of exploring ways to increase the ownership Boston has in The Globe.

After the Q&A session was over, I decided to follow up with him to see if he could clarify from the community perspective (there are also a couple of questions about The Globe’s web presence):

Again, though, he didn’t answer the question I was asking. If I had thought of it, I would’ve asked these questions as well:

  • What is your definition of journalism?
  • How is journalism related to civic engagement, and how might the web be a better tool for increasing that engagement?

Last, but not least, kudos to Suzi Steffen’s Reporting 1 class for live-tweeting the entire thing. They did a thorough and excellent job (and their tweets were certainly useful to me for compiling my thoughts).

Later: The full text and audio of the lecture are available online on the J school website.


CJ Ciaramella April 2, 2009 Reply

I thought it was a good speech, especially for a member of the “old guard” of journalism. You have to admit the stuff about hyperlocal journalism was pretty cool. Also, his points on the cost of real investigative journalism were spot-on. For an example of what he was talking about, check out this article by David Simon. (Simon is about as anti-citizen journalism as you can get, so be forewarned.)

That’s not to say that good investigative journalism can’t be accomplished by independent writers. Some of my favorite journalists are guys like Michael Totten and Radley Balko. Totten is supported by reader donations. Balko is subsidized by some think-tanks, but he’s still largely independent and doing great work. (Check them both out if you haven’t already.)

My concern is that you can’t just claim “Internet POWER!” and pretend it will fill the void of dedicated news organizations. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big supporter of free markets, and in the case of the newspaper industry, the market is clearly speaking. I’m worried about what will happen in the meantime before news organization figure out how to be profitable again. As Marty Baron noted, there are some areas where citizen journalism and web 2.0 just fall short.

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