Guardian’s Open News List initiative – What does it mean for PR, if anything?

Guest post by Matthew Hickley, Head of Media, Blue rubicon

You’re probably aware that the Guardian has started an experiment to publish its twice-daily news list on its website (or at least an edited version of it) and inviting readers to have their say and make suggestions. It’s worth our knowing about it. See here

What does this mean? Specifically, what does it mean for our clients and the way we help them communicate?

For daily newspapers the news list is the equivalent of a broadcast bulletin running order. It’s a working planning document which goes through two or three iterations each working day – being the basis for news conferences – and it sets out all the main stories being covered in the next day’s edition, lists the different elements being worked on and the angles being worked up and names the journalists writing the story.

Traditionally it’s been a very closely-guarded piece of paper, because newspapers are so competitive. At the Mail every now and then there’d be a leak inquiry, and we’d go through phases when the news list wasn’t distributed beyond the editor and his key henchmen. Often when there was some big exclusive the top item wouldn’t be revealed or discussed, but would just refer to a “special”. Certainly the idea of the Sun or the Mirror publishing their news list in advance is pretty unthinkable.

So the Guardian’s out on a limb among UK newspapers. Open news lists aren’t an entirely new approach among some broadcasters outlets, and the Guardian itself points out that a Swedish newspaper has tried something similar, but British papers haven’t done this before.

Why bother?

By the Guardian’s own account this is about crowd-sourcing – the idea being that by telling people what reporters are working on, they’ll encourage readers to make genuinely helpful suggestions about what angles to cover or where to go for information. Interestingly they want people to tweet #opennews rather than email newseditor@guardian.co.uk, so that everyone can see what’s going on.

It’s a bit like eating in a restaurant with an open-plan kitchen.

As news editor Dan Roberts wrote in the Guardian on Sunday: “What if readers were able to help news desks work out which stories were worth investing precious reporting resources in? What if all those experts who delight in telling us what’s wrong with our stories after they’ve been published could be enlisted into giving us more clues beforehand? What if the process of working out what to investigate actually becomes part of the news itself?”

He billed the open news list as an “experiment”, and made clear that they’ll only reveal parts of the daily news list, adding: “The idea is to publish a carefully-selected portion of the national, international and business news lists on this daily blog and encourage people to get in touch with reporters and editors via Twitter if they have ideas.

“Obviously, we’re not planning to list all our exclusives or embargoed content and we’ll also have to be careful not to say anything legally sensitive or unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, we think there are lots of routine things that we list every day which might provoke interesting responses from readers: everything from upcoming press conferences, to stories we need help uncovering.”

Critics may scoff, and question whether the Guardian will get anything useful out of this. They’ll also point, with some justification, to the stripping of newsgathering resources out of the loss-making Guardian, and question whether cheap crowd-sourcing is any substitute for experienced, talented and properly paid journalists.

In fairness, the move is very much in keeping with the Guardian’s digital vision. A few months ago you’ll recall that they announced a “digital first” strategy. Stories now go up on the website long before the print edition unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise. The Guardian put down a marker clearly showing their belief that the future of news is online.

It’s also in keeping with the paper’s aspiration to build and host online communities – to be the place where informed people go to discuss things online, as well as going to seek news coverage itself.

So, does the open news list give much away?

Not a huge amount, judging by yesterday’s effort. The public were able to learn that the Liam Fox story was top of the Guardian’s news list, that it was being written mostly by political editor Patrick Wintour, and that various other court cases and bits and pieces were being covered, including Home Affairs Correspondent Alan Travis covering the big speech on immigration.

So far, so unsurprising. The foreign news and business news lists were likewise interesting but not really startling.

How can we use it?

Blue Rubicon will be keeping an eye on the open lists as part of our media monitoring, and for quick-hit opportunity spotting. We’ll be checking for clients’ names on the morning news list – or more likely the business news list – and flagging up references. The list may highlight an issue our clients should be commenting on or reacting to in some other way.

And it might some offer reassurance if a story we’ve sold in appears on the list – although items often make it onto the morning list but then never actually making it into print. And bear in mind, if the Guardian’s got something properly juicy up its sleeve, it won’t mention it on the open news list.

Can we use this whole thing as a selling-in tool?

The Guardian claims not. Dan Roberts pledged that they won’t “pay much attention to pestering from PR people.” Well, that’s put us in our place!

Nonetheless we hope to be approaching journalists and making suggestions, as it should be a really good way to work with the grain of the Guardian’s news agenda and check for opportunities. In keeping with social media best practice and our own Blue Rubicon guidelines, we’ll always be transparent about this. If we’re speaking up on behalf of a client, then we’ll say so.

Will the Guardian’s approach work?

Hard to say, yet. It may catch on it or may well prove more effort than it’s worth and be allowed to die quietly.

The key will be whether Guardian staff actually get anything useful out if. It will inevitably use up resources. Trawling through readers’ tweets is perfectly possible, but actually sifting through to find those that appear useful – and then pursuing them to check whether they really are useful – takes a lot of time, and news journalists don’t have much of that to spare.

Dan Roberts ends his piece on a moral high note: “In a world where many readers have been left deeply cynical about journalism after this summer’s phone-hacking revelations, it seems there are more people wanting to know where their news comes from and how it is made. Painful as it might be for journalists to acknowledge, they might even have some improvements to make on the recipe too.”

True. Or open new lists may attract a lot of noisy trolls, without adding much value. Time will tell.

We’ll be watching closely.

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