“OK open systems beat great closed systems every time”

The title of this post is a quote, via Steve Yelvington, from Prodigy’s Vice President of marketing around the time that the Web arrived and changed the online game. Usually I just reference links like this in Delicious, but Steve’s post Early to the game but late to learn how to play needs a little more attention.

In the current business climate for newspapers, Steve brings a wealth of experience and history that few folks in the industry have and, as he points out, it is not that newspaper didn’t try to adapt but that they tried to adapt the web to their existing business rather than adapting for the web. Newspapers tried to keep their closed systems as they moved online, locking their content in online services. The web might have arrived ‘pathetic and weak’ but it was ‘open and extensible’, says Steve, and it eventually buried online services like Prodigy, Compuserve and even AOL. He quotes Jack Schafer from a Slate piece titled “How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web:”

From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions.

I’ve long fought against the re-purposing reflex of shovelware, mindlessly slapping content from another medium onto the web. As we move to integrated newsrooms, we’re often still treating the web as just another distribution channel that simply has to be optimised for Google. Here is why it isn’t. To quote Steve:

Many of us who were there at the time knew that human interaction, not newspaper reading, would be the most powerful motivator of online usage. Certainly I knew it; I had run a dialup bulletin board for years as a hobby. But as hundreds of newspapers rushed to “go online,” few even bothered to ask basic questions about content strategy. It was, many declared as of they were saying something wise, “just another edition.”

But it’s not.

If human interaction is the ‘killer app’ of the internet, which I agree with Steve it is, how would this make a news site different? It is only in the so-called Web 2.0 era that we finally started adding social elements into our news web sites. And if human interaction is primary motivator of online usage, can we as journalists fail to interact and still hope to remain relevant? Open systems are not just about a choice of technology. The philosophy of open systems is also about how we use technology. Open is a philosophy that drives us to use technology to bolster human interaction. It is why Steve talks about the mission statement of his news site as being to increase the social capital in the communities Morris serves.

Jay Rosen has been doing a lot of thinking about closed versus open editorial systems, and he characterised this comment as one of his clearest comparisons yet of the two systems:

The strength of a closed system is that it has controls, in same sense that an accounting system puts controls in place. Stories are assigned, reported, edited and checked (copy edited) by a team using a protocol, or newsroom standard. These are the hallmarks of the closed system. The controls create the reliability, right?


Open systems take advantage of cheap production tools and the magic distribution system of the Web. This leads to a flood of “cheap” production in the blogosphere, some of which is valuable and worth distributing in wider rings, much of which is not. Thus, a characteristic means of creating value online is what I called the intelligent filter to do that sorting and choosing.

If you look at successful open systems, they don’t try to prevent “bad,” unreliable or low quality stories from being created or published. They don’t try to prevent the scurrilous. But the Los Angeles Times would. Typically, successful sites within open systems “filter the best stuff to the front page.” And this is how they try to become reliable, despite the fact that anyone can sign up and post rants.

That way of creating trust (or reliability) is different than the way a closed system–like the health team at Time magazine–does it. Therefore the ethics will be different.

And he talks about hybrid systems, which is where I think some of the most interesting work is going on. We live in an AND world not an OR world, and I fear sometimes journalists’ tendency to paint the world in black and white infects our approach to our own way of working.

For me, I don’t use technology simply because I’m neophilic. I use it because it helps me do better journalism, in a way that is more useful to people in my network, or as Dan Gillmor says, the people formerly known as the audience. The internet as an open system means that my methods aren’t a fixed destination but an ever evolving, extensible process that adapts as the network changes, whether I conceive of the network in terms of the technology or the people I’m interacting with. Through all this my core journalistic values and ethics haven’t changed. That’s the constant.

I’m feeling a little philosophical at the start of the New Year. I am an online journalist. If the road trip I took for the US elections reminded me of anything, it reminded me of the power of networked journalism, which in terms of both the technology and the human connectedness increases almost constantly. Let’s just look at the expanding reach of mobile phones and data. In 1999, I got my first mobile modem and started to be freed from my desk. It ran at 9600 baud, slow even then. In 2009, I used a DSL-class mobile network card, and when I was on the move, I used a Nokia N82, which like the iPhone and Blackberry, allowed me to continue to use key internet services like Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. The network is not only mobile, it is on my mobile.

Open systems are a huge opportunity for journalists, not a threat to our professional livelihoods. We journalists don’t have to limit ourselves to closed systems, we have a vast range of open systems that can support and improve our work. I know that 2008 ended with a lot of anxiety for many journalists, much of it from a sense that our professional lives were out of our control. But by embracing the network, you can start taking back control of your professional destiny.