In March this year, one of the best resourced digital media mastheads ever seen in Australia was launched.  The Conversation was founded by former Age editor Andrew Jaspan and former Yahoo! News executive Jack Rejtman, and had as its mission unlocking knowledge and expertise by bringing journalists and academics into collaboration.

In this, the penultimate episode of this series on innovation in journalism, I want to explore that idea – journalists collaborating with others who are in the same game. By the “same game” I mean a broad range of things, including accountability of the powerful, the dissemination of information and a better informed, empowered and educated population.

Last week I talked about how we might preserve, not only journalists’ jobs, but the total journalistic capacity of society, wherever that capacity might be found. I talked about how journalists might use the knowledge of the audience to improve journalism.

But another way of preserving society’s journalistic capacity is for journalists to enter into collaborations with other organisations, and for non-media organisations to become more journalistic.

Launches like The Conversation, and developments overseas, make it clear that in the future not all journalism will be done by media organisations. Or perhaps a more accurate way of putting it would be to say that many organisations that did not begin as media organisations are rapidly becoming so, and doing journalism along the way.

There is money in this. The founders of The Conversation succeeded in getting a big slice of cash from government, as well as the CSIRO and leading universities. As a result, The Conversation has an impressive team of more than twenty staff. This is more, I am fairly confident in saying, than any other new media startup in Australia’s history.

It is still early days for the publication, but it has produced some quality content as well as stuff not immediately distinguishable from the material that has graced university PR releases for years. Most have welcomed its mission. Some have been critical.

My own view is that it is a worthy outlet that needs to improve if it is to justify the resources it has been given.

But I would also suggest that the way of the future might be to get journalists and academics collaborating at an even earlier stage. At present, the journalists at The Conversation seem to be mainly involved in sourcing content and helping academics to write their material in a way suitable for a broader audience.

But what if we took the collaboration a step further back, and  embedded journalists at the beginning of the research process, actually in the research teams as partners with the academics?

And what if we took it further, and embedded journalists with other organisations as well – not as public relations experts, or merely to write media releases, but to assist in finding things out?

There are enormous issues involved in this, including ethical issues.

Most academic research projects have to clear an academic ethics committee, and the typical guidelines insist that interview subjects, for example, have the power to withdraw their material from the project at any stage.

This is quite counter to the norms of professional journalism, and for good reasons. Why would a journalist give a politician, for example, the power to withdraw a gaff or an inconvenient outburst of frankness?

Yet journalists and academics could learn a lot from each other.

Reading academic research, I am obviously impressed by its depth and rigor. Yet I also find myself responding journalistically and wondering why the academic didn’t attend a media conference and throw a question to the relevant minister, or lodge an Freedom of Information request, or ring around their contacts and get a background briefing.

On a team that included both academics and journalists, the journalists could do the dirty work. Journalists gather information outside the normal and accepted challenges. They work in the field of the unauthorised disclosure, and the rude question.

This – the dirty work – is part of what I mean by journalistic capacity. We might not like it. It is rarely nice. Yet it is part of what we need to preserve.

Yet arguing for the “dirty work” without the network of shared interest is a difficult task.

In an interview conducted on my recent research trip the USA Jan Schaffer, the Director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism, reflected on her long experience of nurturing journalistic start-ups. She suggested to me that in seeking support we should “de-emphasise” the “J –word” and emphasise words like accountability, democracy and information.

It is an easier sell.

Take Non Government Organisations such as the International Crisis Group. It has been cooperating with journalists for some time.

In Europe the idea of NGO’s and journalists collaborating was the subject of a conference that created a white paper in support of European social and civic journalism. A website was created to continue the conversation.

The ideas being explored are how to convert the enormous amount of information produced by the bureaucracy into meaningful material available to citizens. It conceives both Europe, and journalism, as POLITICAL projects, in the broad sense  of that word. It therefore assumes that journalists and others interested in democracy should cooperate.

A key problem here is traditional journalistic notions of independence. What happens when the journalist embedded with the NGO discovers a scandal concerning their employer? Will they be able to publish? And if the answer is no, then are they really journalists or are they in sophisticated PR?

There are now many not for profit journalism enterprises in the USA – probably an unsustainable number, given that philanthropic trusts are making it clear that they cannot support them forever. Those who run these enterprises are out trying to diversity their funding sources, and this involves them in many less than comfortable activities..

Advertising, for one. Nothing new there. ProPublica can doubtless take ads without affecting its independence, but will the pressure to have new content alongside the ads divert the site from its investigative charter, and towards shorter run journalism?

Other ideas I have heard being discussed by other not for profits  include renting journalists out to private organisations as investigators, or making journalists available to report on issues of interest to private and philanthropic donors.

Uncomfortable stuff, but the reality is that the senior journalists who run some of the USA’s not for profits have long since left behind the Chinese curtains that used to divide the ideal newsroom from the means by which money was made. They spend much of their time dealing directly with funders.

Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Do we need to reconsider what independence of journalism actually means?

I don’t have easy answers to these questions. I would point out, though, that journalism has never been entirely independent. It has always been subject to influence, whether from advertising, the proprietor or the political leanings of the editor.

What is important, I would suggest, is not some idealised perfect idea of objectivity, but rather the ability to be slavish in devotion to the facts and the evidence. Which facts? Which evidence? That might well depend on who is paying the piper.

The Conversation concentrates on academic research. The Journalists involved in Social European Journalism concentrate on Europe. That is to identify their territory, not to accuse them of being biased.

So there are many awkwardnesses and problems to be thought through when journalists collaborate with others.

The boundaries between strategic public relations and journalism may well be blurring, and that is dangerous.

And yet, if we are to preserve journalistic capacity, if we are to engage the support of society at large for what journalists do, it may be time to drop our fists a little, and examine the possibilities of alliance.

Peter Fray

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