Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The age of transparency

Many otherwise smart people thought Brian Lamb was a nutcase 30 years ago when he wanted to put full Congressional hearings on the air without any analysis, commentary or editing. Sounded like the most boring TV programming in history. That programming, though, would eventually spawn the C-SPAN network of cable TV and radio channels. The concept wasn't for everybody in the American viewing public, obviously, but it found an immediate audience and carved out a unique place in the media landscape.

I couldn't help but think of C-SPAN this morning when I stumbled across an audio file at featuring an interview public radio had done recently with Elizabeth Warren. This is the woman overseeing the program distributing federal TARP money, and NPR had produced a segment including portions of the interview, as it always does.

But in this case there had been a hue and cry about the context of her comments. That by itself is not uncommon; readers and listeners complain daily about events or comments "taken out of context." What was less common was that NPR responded by putting the entire Warren interview -- small talk, goofy asides, dead-end questions and all -- online for listeners.

Good for NPR. Taking a page from Brian Lamb's playbook, we should all do the same with every major interview in the future. Every city council meeting and locker room interview. Every press conference by local cops.

Most readers won't bother to listen to a 15-minute (let alone a two-hour) interview online. If they're interested in an issue at all, they'll read or watch or listen to the story we produce and generally leave it at that. But in the age of transparency, there's no reason we shouldn't provide full interviews for the handful of people who believe we might be hiding something or who are so deeply interested they want the full meal deal.

There are logistical issues in recording all those interviews and press conferences, and in hosting large numbers of them online. There are practical issues, too. It will almost certainly take newspaper reporters longer to produce stories if they have to go back and double check every quote in their notebooks against recorded versions. (Some do this already, but not most.) Some sources might not want their full and unadulterated comments put out for the world to hear. And, finally, we might give ammunition to our critics by letting them hear the context of every comment.

Ultimately, all of that is outweighed by the goodwill -- and the journalistic benefit -- generated by this relatively simple process.

We're professionals who get paid to talk with people and distill the information we learn into a coherent package accessible to the average reader or viewer. But go ahead and listen to our interviews yourself. You might hear the same words and come to a different conclusion. Fair enough. We'll make it easy for you. Either way, we're providing news and information that informs your life.

Another possible advantage: Posting interviews puts an arrow in the quiver of higher-quality journalism outlets. The ambulance-chase TV news cycle will be hard pressed to offer any substantive conversations, but other outlets will be able to get mileage out of the research and interviewing and hard reporting work they do.

Like C-SPAN in 1979, full audio versions of interviews would find an immediate audience and quickly carve out an important niche in our coverage. There are no downsides for readers. Technology makes this feasible for the first time in history. So what are we waiting for?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are blogs dead?

Funny. I started this blog in the fall as a way to think out loud about the future of journalism, and to connect with other journalism futurists. But over time, I've increasingly put my energy into listening and posting on Twitter instead. The poor, unloved blog has languished.

Twitter feels real time in a way blogs don't. But much of what we want to chew over needs to be more than 140 characters, and I suppose that's where blogs are still relevant. They give us URLs to miniaturize at or other shorteners, which we can then post on our Twitter accounts.