Open-source journalism

Slashdot members' vicious response to a cyberterrorism story spurs a rewrite -- and questions about geek-influenced journalism.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Censorship of the nerdocracy or a giant leap forward for collaborative online journalism? Or both? On Monday, Jane's Intelligence Review, the "international journal of threat analysis" (a must-read on your average CIA spook's list), solicited feedback on an article about "cyberterrorism" from the geeks who hang out at the Slashdot "news for nerds" Web site. On Thursday, after the Slashdot members sliced and diced Jane's story into tiny little pieces, an editor at the magazine announced that the story would not be published as planned. Instead, the editor, Johan J Ingles-le Nobel, declared that he would write a new article incorporating the Slashdot comments, and would compensate Slashdot participants whose words made it into the final copy.

"When you ask for feedback you get feedback," wrote Nobel, "and since roughly 99% of the posters slammed the article, even saying things like 'we'd expect better from Jane's', I've informed the author that we're not going to run with it. Instead I'm going to cull your comments together and make a better, sharper feature out of it -- I'll be getting in touch with several of you for more specific details or for more clarification."

Some commentators sniffed at the fact that Jane even submitted the original story to Slashdot, deeming it pusillanimous journalistic behavior. In his weekly online column for PBS, Robert X. Cringely pontificated that Jane's strategy was "ultimately flawed."

"The only way to write the news is to write the news," wrote Cringely. "You have to do it the best that you can then take the heat, because the censorship of the nerderati is still censorship. That's why newspapers make corrections."

Cringely made his comments before Jane's announced it was killing the original story. One can only imagine his dismay now. News flash! Raging nerds silence journalist! But there's another, entirely different way of looking at the matter. Slashdot has long been heralded as a flagbearer for a new kind of journalism. Even though the site rarely features original, previously unpublished material, it provides great value simply by concentrating so much expertise in its commentary sections, and by centrally aggregating so many useful links to news stories. For journalists who cover programming issues, it's a must stop on a daily -- or even hourly -- basis.

The Jane's incident takes Slashdot's evolution one major step forward. Slashdot readers are now actively shaping media coverage of the topics near and dear to their geeky little hearts. They are helping journalists get the story right, which is a far cry from exerting censorship. Just as open source programmers would critique a beta release of software filled with bugs, the Slashdot readers panned the first release of Jane's journalistic offering -- and the upgrade, apparently, will be quick to follow.

Open-source pragmatists believe that better software arises from the scrutiny inherent in the collaborative process. Will better journalism ensue if more reporters and editors beta test their own work? Hard to say -- in the deadline-crazed world of technology journalism, there's often hardly enough time to get a story properly copy edited and proofed, let alone reviewed by hundreds of frothing critics. Still, the principle is worth taking a long hard look at. There's an immense amount of expertise out there on the Net -- sites like Slashdot are pioneering new territory as they facilitate access to that knowledge, to the great and lasting benefit of us all.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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