In the digital future, the Guardian must turn its readers into a resource

The Guardian’s whole ‘open journalism’ narrative seems to be pushing the potentially quite insidious idea of readers contributing more and more unpaid work to the ‘brand’. You get the sense that The Guardian looks enviously at the Huffington Post, where the unpaid efforts of countless bloggers has turned a nice profit for Ms Huffington. Yet if you spend any length of time looking at Huffington Post articles, the sub-editing is generally appalling and there is a very real sense of a giant echo chamber where pieces are published largely in order to appeal to self-identifying liberal clicktivists. There are arguments that The Guardian has already gone far down this route (most notably in ‘Comment is Free’), but this piece floats the idea that:

…eventually the “Guardian reader” is going to turn into a “Guardian member”. Call it what you like – a community, club or network. Not only will they sign up for the paper or the app, they could contribute directly to content creation. One speculative idea floated by the editor, Alan Rusbridger, was that volunteers might come in to the newsroom to help moderate reader comments on the Comment is free section of the website. Someone in that session immediately offered his services.

This is a masterclass in PR, floating the exciting idea that you too could be fortunate enough to be involved in the creation of The Guardian. Behind the fluffy, friendly prose however, this is surely suggesting that the Guardian work towards the creation of an unpaid army of workers? Given that the appeal is presumably the status and experience, this doesn’t sound particularly different to the unpaid internships which (rightly) so horrify your average Guardian reader. There are very real implications for paid journalists and broader employees of print media which are completely nudged out of the picture. There are also very real implications for quality and breadth, as it seems reasonable to believe that ‘volunteers’ for these roles would be a very self-selecting group (of the kind who attend a Guardian Open Weekend, in fact).

It seems bizarre to me that the response to the changing media landscape would be for a long-established newspaper to attempt moves toward a blogging model. This seems doomed to fail as The Guardian could only ever compete uneasily in this field. The obvious response here would be to speak of the expertise, authority and talent which people expect and respect in ‘traditional’ media. However, Harigate and the fall-out suggests that this is much overstated and there is a large, willing audience out there for people repeating their prejudices back to them. Indeed, this is something we’re all good at spotting in the right-wing press. So perhaps moves in this direction would be fruitful, attracting traffic while driving down costs.

One thing which I found amusing in this piece is the inclusion of ‘smug’ in the list of terms used to describe The Guardian. Amusing because I have absolutely no doubt that if people used this term about individual pieces/writers, there would be a large body of opinion that instantly dismissed them as ‘a troll’. If ‘Open Journalism’ is to mean anything then The Guardian has to get a lot better at engaging with fierce critics. At the moment it is very much a closed shop, where columnists can pour vitriol freely (as long as it’s at an acceptable target) while affecting mock outrage whenever one of their own is challenged. The self-regarding dialogue between many of these writers is something to behold and it’s completely antithetical to the idea that ‘Guardian members’ could ever possibly be serious contributers. Because, just as it skates over the negative implications of ‘Open Journalism’, this piece pretends that The Guardian is not part of a hierarchy and seeks to negate the privileged position enjoyed by its writers. The line:

One woman emphasised how she really liked the angry and fractious debates in the readers’ comments on Comment is free. The last thing she wanted was Guardian journalists interfering to tone down a good online scrap.

is remarkable because the comments below Comment is Free are clearly held in much contempt by many at The Guardian. Indeed, it’s a regular feature of following a few of them that they will mockingly link to comments.

The sense that ‘Open Journalism’ would, in reality, mean cheap/free labour by those who “toe the line” dictated by the paid writers is overwhelming.

In the digital future, the Guardian must turn its readers into a resource

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