Process vs. Product: Six New-Media Principles, No. 6

The new-media principles of transparency and openness discussed in my last two posts mean that readers can both see and participate in the process of journalism itself. They are no longer handed the finished product in the form of an article and asked to move along. For both reader and writer the change can be liberating, exciting, and rewarding.

The downside, of course, is that the process is messy and prone to mistakes. Behind every fact-checked and edited story is a tale of false leads, dead ends, and empty promises. Letting their audience in on that ugly and wayward process seems unwise to many traditional journalists.

But the benefits of journalism as a process ultimately outweigh the drawbacks. By turning the process itself into the product, formerly behind-the-scenes editorial judgments can be discussed and validated, news and other information can be shared more rapidly, and inevitable errors can be more quickly identified and corrected.

The controversial aspects of putting process ahead of product are obvious even in older forms of online media such as blogs. But they are far more dramatic in real-time formats such as live-blogging or Twitter. Traditionalists might contend that such real-time publishing leads to a fragmentary and confusing picture. But to new-media proponents, it is a truer picture than that painted by a traditional journalistic product like the self-contained and superficially coherent news article. Rather than imposing a neat narrative structure on events, real-time journalism acknowledges that the information is as yet fragmentary and its meaning still unresolved.

As Jeff Jarvis puts it, changes in the nature of media create effective new ways to communicate: “No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information.”

The process is not pretty. But hiding it benefits no one. Only by sharing the process as widely as possible can we reach the closest approximation of the truth.