Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obama might transform the press before he transforms the government

Recently, I wrote about how Obama’s pledge to open up government is likely to empower the new wave of amateur journalists, bloggers and students to actually break news in a way that has been pretty rare until now. Turns out, Obama’s drive to transform government is having an impact Obama: on many aspects of the press.

Just today, two posts dropped into my Google Reader feed, from different news sources, but both promising the same thing: Tell us what question you want answered, and we will ask the president. This probably isn’t the first time a news organization has offered to do this, but seeing these two on the same day, in conjunction with all that’s going on, seems like the start of a trend rather than a blip.

On the one hand, this isn’t enough to constitute a leap forward for open government. After all, former press secretaries have openly acknowledged that a press conference is rarely anything more than theater, a carefully choreographed dance between reporter and press secretary. Even with all of Obama’s promises, this has remained true, as Robert Gibbs has proven to be just as adept at avoiding meaningful answers as Bush’s press secretaries were.

Beyond that, it’s also hard to say if reporters will end up asking better questions as a result of this “poll the public” approach. True, there’s something satisfying about hearing someone ask the question you voted for, but I bet it’s not very satisfying hearing Robert Gibbs or President Obama give a non-answer and call on the next reporter (did you really think that Obama would actually give a thoughtful answer to your question about legalizing pot or prosecuting Bush administration officials?). They already dodged answering plenty of direct questions voted to the top of the “Open for Questions” feature.

On the other hand, I do see some real value in this, and I believe Obama sees it too.  If all of his new open government initiatives depend on his administration’s actions, then it can all be washed away with a changing of the guard. Someone with a different attitude towards transparency gets elected, and we are right back to the Bush years. However, if Obama can raise the public’s expectations of journalists, and give journalists the opportunity to provide news reporting of a higher caliber, those changes can’t be undone by a secretive president in the future (at least not as easily).

This is why Obama’s rhetoric on transparency is so important. Even before his new policies take hold, he is changing the public’s expectations, and ultimately, this is the only way to break out of the vicious cycle created by low-quality “journalism”.

The same effect comes into play during change efforts in the business world. Long before new programs and policies have begun, the leadership will take about the exciting culture changes on the way - “empowerment! accountability! teamwork! customer focus!” This is not just a sell tactic, it’s part of creating the culture change. It’s important for two reasons: first, it creates a perception of culture change which eventually transforms into real culture change (fake it till you make it). And second, it creates the expectation for the change among the rank and file of the company, and now the management is locked into to delivering.

Obama is probably going for both of these effects here. He wants credit for creating transparency now, even if there haven’t been substantial changes. And he is creating a demand for transparency, which has created some new trends in journalism that will keep his administration on the hook to deliver.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Transparent government will transform journalism (sorry, newspapers!)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about who is going to use all this wonderful data and information that will become available as Obama’s team works to open the floodgates of transparency and access. Pretty clearly, at least one audience is going to be the bloggers and developers on the web.

Many blogs right now are simply forums to expound on current events. The worst blogs regurgitate the same news that has already been reported a hundred other places; the best blogs add value to the news by providing analysis – sharing their expertise, giving additional context, tying stories together to create a bigger picture, or using raw statistical ability to find insights that others missed.

Then there are the rarest blogs that can actually break news. This might mean having sources like a traditional journalist. It might mean having the tenacity to pursue a story that no one else cared about. It might mean crowd-sourcing an huge mass of work to your audience. But it is a rare blogger that can accomplish any of these things.

That’s about to change.

Eventually, we will reach a day when the transcript of every non-secret meeting is shared online, when every government report is available to the public and reams of data in standardized format are accessible to all. This will be the death blow to the already beleaguered newspaper industry, but it will also be the birth of a new wave of journalism.

I’m not certain that this new journalism will be better or more effective than traditional journalism. But the journalism we have today is not up to the standards of tradition. As budgets get slashed and ad revenue falls, newspapers are cutting their editorial staff and relying on pool services like AP and Reuters for more and more of their content. We’ve seen the trend towards stories which are nothing more than the talking points given to the press. And cable news networks have blurred the line between information and entertainment so thoroughly we needed to create a word for it.

We may be losing the professionals, the people who get paid to do the investigating reporting, but fortunately the solution is just around the corner. The coming wave of transparency and access (and whether Obama makes it happen or not, it’s coming soon) will empower amateurs, bloggers, developers and students to take over the soon-to-be-foreclosed fourth estate.

If you want to read more about this topic, you can get some “future vision” thinking from TechPresident here.