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Too Radical?

Bill Mickey By
12/18/2006 -03:00 AM

Chris Anderson, Wired editor, Long Tail author and Folio: cover subject, blogged about his ideas on ‘radical transparency’ in magazine publishing: “If the key word is ‘participation’, how could we encourage that to the fullest? If trust comes come from transparency, how might we open the entire process?”

Anderson takes the ideas of reader participation and transparent, ‘open source’ journalism to the wall, setting up a scenario where, among other ideas, writers expose their stories during the development stage and readers get to help – with downside comments, too. For example:

2) Show what we're working on. We already have internal wikis that are common scratch pads for teams working on projects. And most writers have their own thread-gathering processes, often online. Why no open them to all? Who knows, perhaps other people will have good ideas, too.

Upside: Tap the wisdom of crowds

Risk: Tip off competitors (although I'd argue that this would just as likely freeze them; after all the prior art would be obvious to all); Risks "scooping ourselves", robbing the final product of freshness.

3) “Process as Content”*. Why not share the reporting as it happens, uploading the text of each interview as soon as you can get it processed by your flat-world transcription service in India? (This may sound ridiculous, but it’s exactly what wire services such as the AP have long done--they update their stories with each new fragment of information). After you’ve woven together enough of the threads to have a semi-coherent draft, why not ask your readers to help edit it? (We did it here, and it worked great). And while you’re at it, let them write the headlines and subheads, not just for the site but also the punchier ones for the RSS feed and the one that has to work with the art for the magazine.

Upside: Open participation can make stories better--better researched, better thought through and deeper. It also can crowdsource some of the work of the copy desk and editors. And once the story is done and published, the participants have a sense of collective ownership that encourages them to spread the word.

Risk: Curating the process can quickly hit diminishing returns. Writers end up feeling like a cruise director, constantly trying to get people to participate. And all the other risks of the item above.

When you’re brainstorming, it’s always best for someone to present scenarios in one extreme or another – it’s one way of meeting in the middle. But it’s been interesting to see industry reactions. Some agree with Anderson, for different reasons. Others aren’t so sure.

I guess I’m in the second camp. I’m all for finding ways to ratchet up reader and user participation wherever possible. Any way a magazine can get its readers to further absorb the brand and content into their daily lives is essential.

Yet I can’t get my head around opening up content that’s historically been created by a magazine’s editors to public participation for fear of two risks that Anderson already cites, but I find fatal:

1. There’s no way I’d want my story ideas and sources exposed to the competition. Something Business 2.0’s editor, Josh Quittner, is drooling over at the expense of Wired.

2. If I, as a reader, participate in the creation of a story, whether by contributing ideas, sources or simply tweaking subheads, I’ll be burnt out on it by the time the story is finished. The novelty of participating is one thing, but what happens to the informational value of the story once it’s finally done if you’ve already been exposed to every creative nuance?

Some of this is ideal for certain areas of online content creation, something Quittner points out. Yet, Anderson proposes his ideas for the whole operation – print and Web.

Bill Mickey By -- Bill Mickey is editor of Folio:. Follow him on Twitter: @billmickey

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