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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Community op-eds: a threat to newsroom editors?

You've more than likely heard of the Los Angeles Times' failed Wikitorial experiment which included readers by permitting them to add their own contributions to a published Internet op-ed article. Maybe LAT didn't get it right, but another recent shot at collective op-eds may have hit the bullseye... and threaten the job of traditional editors.

In the middle of a conference he was attending, Joi Ito of Technorati received an email from the New York Times asking him to write an op-ed piece on the anniversary of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not quite in the right frame of mind, Joi decided to Instant Message his Japanese friends for ideas. This seemed to work . It only took him a half an hour to string his sentences together. But here's the real kicker.

After writing, Joi posted the column on his personal Social Text website which, in the spirit of a wiki, allows multiple people to work on the same project in real time. Essentially, Joi had a small circle of friends and colleagues edit what he had written before sending it to the New York Times, giving them a peek of what was to come in Sunday's edition. Now, certainly, at least one editor at the Times reviewed the article and the editorial staff still had to decide whether or not to include the column in the paper. But does this collaborative article model have legs? Could it become the standard for newspaper op-ed pages? After all, it has been said that blogs have rendered op-ed pages obsolete seeing as both are merely opinions of a writer with a rant. The difference is that nobody edits a blog but the blogger, although people are allowed to comment, so blogs are theoretically less trustworthy than an op-ed piece in a major metro paper which is reviewed by multiple editors. But Joi's SocialText opinion piece could prove to hold even more water than the conventional op-ed. Instead of having two or three staff editors not necessarily educated in a specific topic go over a story, will the future of newspaper opinion columns be left to groups of specialists invited by columnists to edit their piece on a Wiki?

Source: Joi Ito's blog

Posted by john burke on August 11, 2005 at 03:36 PM in a. Citizen journalism | Permalink


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Maybe you're right that a group of individuals are in some cases better suited to scrutinize an op-ed than a few newspaper staffers, but I think this is wrong in most cases because of 4 main factors.

1. Efforts such as WIkipedia have thrived because of a massive volume of contributors, which have manifested in a certain collective intelligence. But level of veracity brought by this volume of contribution, can’t apply to the process of writing a single op-ed. Because op-eds by definition involve opinion as well as fact (wheras wikipedia is mostly fact), there would simply be too many varying opinions and it wouldn’t work. The final product would get homogenized, and its edge smoothed off. On the other hand, if you’re dealing on a smaller scale such as Joi Ito’s group of contributors, then you don’t have that critical mass that makes a Wiki's fact scrutinization work as well. So it might not work either way.

2. If as a writer you don’t have a small group of
acquaintances versed in a particular topic (as Ito did in your example, and as most writers don’t in most situations) then you will reach out to expert sources that aren’t acquaintances. And letting expert sources “in” on the production of a piece – especially an op-ed - is a big mess in my experience.

3. There is the issue of accountability. With a job on the line, newspaper editors and staffers will do a better job than a random group of wiki contributors.

4. Even individuals well versed in a given subject
sometimes can't achieve the journalistic scrutiny of a good newspaper fact checker.

Posted by: Michael Boland at Aug 18, 2005 10:16:01 AM

We could have/should have used a wiki, but we didn't. I interviewed a number of people on IM initially. I passed a file around to people on IRC to edit. The people on IRC pointed out things that were difficult to understand and contributed key elements that helped the flow. The NYT editors did a lot of work on the piece as well and were vital in the process.

Posted by: Joi Ito at Aug 14, 2005 1:08:45 AM

I apologize to Mr. Boland. He made some great comments that sparked a very interesting debate. Unfortunately, they got lost in a technical editing problem I had yesterday. Completely my fault. We should all hope he posts his comments again to provide us with a better understanding of Mr. Ito's op-ed.

Posted by: john at Aug 12, 2005 12:22:39 PM

Do you delete comments that challenge your assesment? what happened to my comment? it was there yesterday. gone today. And you still have peek spelled wrong in one place.

Posted by: michael boland at Aug 11, 2005 10:27:18 PM