Is our news now open source?

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Is our news now open source?

Elon Musk certainly thinks so. The owner of ‘X’, previously Twitter, recently retweeted a tweet (an X?) from Steven Sinofsky, a former president of the Windows Division at Microsoft, that suggested today’s newsgathering process was now akin to open source. Open source is a term more commonly used when we talk about the development of software. But what does it mean to apply that concept to our news, and should we be worried if that comparison makes sense?

Open source software is software with source code that anyone can see and change. The source code is the part of software that most computer users never see; it’s the code computer programmers can manipulate to change how a piece of software works. Programmers who have access to a computer program’s source code can improve that program by adding features to it or fixing parts that don’t work as they should.

When it comes to software development such a process makes sense. Often organisations know they need a piece of software to perform a certain task for their stakeholders or for their processes, but they don’t know exactly what code would give them exactly what they need. Open sourcing is like asking the best minds to pitch in with their ideas.

Obviously, some source code has always been kept private by organisations. Software that performed certain tasks very well is likely to be commercially valuable. We would call this type of source code “proprietary.”

I am not a software developer – as if you couldn’t tell! – but at this point I am able to see the read across to the world of news which was the point Sinofsky was making.

Newsgathering was proprietary when it was a process that could only be performed by a few chosen people or organisations. Journalists needed to be qualified. News production required huge resources of usually very rich individuals or corporations. Printing presses had to be built and run. Cameras, crews, and studios were expensive. Barriers to entry in terms of news gathering, production and distribution were very high.

Even as this world began to be challenged by the rise of the internet and the resulting commodification and atomisation of news, the mainstream media had a solution. Much mainstream news began to retreat behind a paywall to maintain the equivalent to proprietary source code. In the UK access to mainstream broadcast news has really only ever been allowed with the purchase of a TV licence.

Next the rise of the smartphone essentially meant we all had a camera crew in our back pocket. The citizen journalist was created and the proprietary nature of news creation which kept ordinary people out was breaking down. There was much talk of news being “co-created” with an amalgam of ordinary people and news journalists.

But this isn’t the end of the story in terms of all Sinofsky means with his Tweet.

Despite the changes in the media landscape so-called hard news relating to serious economic and geopolitical developments was still even in the social media age proprietary in that it relied on, as Sinofsky says, “… access to people, information, data that is not available to laypeople.”

We could upload our camera footage to our chosen social media platform and, of course, whilst ‘seeing is believing’ can be powerfully persuasive, ordinary people did not have access to credible means of verification as to what that footage appeared to show. Ironically, it is often not the case that the citizen journalist’s contribution to the news agenda gains credibility until it is showcased by the mainstream media and endorsed by their preferred experts.

Despite many hoping that the phenomenon of citizen journalism could wrest power from the traditional sources of authority this may not have happened at all. In fact, we may not have moved far from the Marxist view of the mainstream media reinforcing the dominant ideology by ensuring that powerful “nodes” direct the flow and narrative of news. It’s just that the flow now comes from many more sources, but the stamp of credibility still needs to come from the traditional figures of authority.

Whilst there have always been so-called “armchair experts” ready to comment on an unfolding story there is now according to Sinofsky: “a community of people willing to test the veracity of that (news) information.” And furthermore, there is: “a vast array of sensors from satellite imagery to maps, witness recordings, historical information and records, and an incredible collection of data sources—many provided by the government itself. These sources provide more inputs to a wide-ranging community testing the validity of stories. Finally add to this that often there are true experts on events that are no longer bound by organizations involved who are willing to lend their opinions…. The(se) participants are available around the clock, in every language, in every time zone. No newsroom has that no matter how big.”

Trusted news is now therefore breaking free of the paradigm we have long been familiar with. And any organisation wondering whether it can “get away” with anything other than the truth will find in today’s world the information forces ranged against it are vast, credible, quick to respond and very difficult to influence.

So where does the world of PR fit in with this new news ecosystem?

We could say that PR professionals have long been acting for those so-called traditional “nodes” that direct the flow of the news narrative. We largely do this by subsidising the news gathering process by providing access to our organisations’ spokespeople, footage, data, commentary etc.. Inevitably as the media has struggled to adapt to falling revenue from people buying newspapers, for example, we have often stepped in to fill that vacuum using our skills to lead journalists to our organisations and to our stories.

If news creation does indeed move out of the production model we are familiar with then our life will be that much more difficult. In a crisis even more so as it will be very challenging to be on the front foot against a barrage of round the clock highly credible commentary that is in no way mediated.

But as for Elon Musk, if open source news really is a thing then his desire to see X at the heart of that process becomes clear.

This article was written by a human. The AI image was created in Bing Image Creator to illustrate news reporting without people.