Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Define "Open"

During the discussion about unnamed sources a few weeks back I brought up the idea that creating further protections for journalists just makes the process less transparent and that has a negative impact on how journalism is viewed by the public.

Media consumers, I argued, want more transparancy, not less. Shelley Murphy had talked at length about how she hated giving more definition to her unidentified sources. I can see her point, as she's trying to protect her sources. But speaking for the readers, I think it's important to have as much definition as possible in order to decide whether to trust what's in print.

Charlie Kravetz responded by simply pointing out that a shield law just puts in place many of the protections that have already existed thanks to the courts. Fair enough. I don't agree, but it's a good answer.

The problem came as he continued the conversation, talking directly to NPR Reporter Richard Knox about how that organization has shown its openness by reading listener letters on the air, even when those are fairly critical.

If this is how the media define openness, then they have a problem. Just reading a sampling of critical letters is a start, but it's not truly open. A news organization needs to listen to its customers, and then respond to them. Not just from on high, with an ombudsman (which should be a standard part of any newsroom) but all the way down to the reporter level.

The whole thing reminded me of a story that I've heard Nat Friedman tell. Nat founded a former client of mine called Ximian, an open source company which was later sold to Novell. While at MIT, Nat spent a summer doing an internship at Microsoft and through that had a chance to talk with Bill Gates. They were discussing open source and the Apache server, which was growing in popularity.

Gates couldn't understand why developers would need access to the source code. He offered that if it's functionality that people wanted then Microsoft should just add that functionality to its servers. Nat came away feeling that Gates just didn't "get it," that the openness of the code WAS the draw. While many of the developers and users may never take advantage of the code, they wanted the option to peak under the hood and make changes and adjustments, should they feel the need. I've rarely, if ever, looked under the hood of my car, but I certainly wouldn't purchase one that didn't let me in.

Microsoft's armor is much thicker than big media's, but open source has been successfully chipping away at that causing the software giant big headaches. Big Media better learn these lessons fast, or their headaches will be much larger than they are already.

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