Friday, May 04, 2007

No more secrets. Get over it.

Like many things described as "radical," the notion of radical transparency is probably over-hyped, oversold and over-promised.

But it's not wrong.

I remember how proud I was to be a journalist yeas ago when I read in some former cabinet secretary's memoirs that he often made decisions by asking himself, "How will I feel when I read this on the front page of the Washington Post?" Yeah, that's it: hold them accountable.

Well, how many times in the last few years have you wondered, "How is this memo going to look when they post it on Romenseko?" I now know the names of alternative weeklies in most of the McClatchy cities, because that's where I find stories about the internal debates at your papers. Some lucky folks even have entire blogs devoted to critiquing them; see Tribal Fires in Anchorage, which this week says of me that I'm falling down on my job, "performing his usual function of explaining how this latest development is further proof of his boss's brilliance."

That's just the way it is, and that spirit of openness and access is only going to grow. As a profession based on the idea that people can't (and mainly shouldn't) keep secrets, journalists in particular need to get used to it. People get to call you names. Pissed off staffers get to leak your memos for the world to read. Competitors and disgruntled former employees get to start blogs and trash you.

But you also get to operate in a kind of healthy sunlight that can engender growth. For every cheapshot taken in a critical blog, there are a hundred opportunities for us to employ the same tools for richer, deeper conversation with readers. Stories that are blogged while they're being written – before actual "publication" – will inevitably be better for having been tested and refined. (The Star Tribune's "Big Question" feature is one interesting approach to this.)

The article about radical transparency in Wired is worth your time – not because everything it talks about is a technique you need to adopt right now, but because it accurately describes the landscape we're navigating, and offers important signposts to help guide us through it.

We need to keep thinking and talking about this.


  1. ...performing his usual function of explaining how this latest development is further proof of his boss's brilliance.

    Oh man, I'm still laughing...


  2. I used to have –30– as a license plate in Alaska.

    I've heard a copuple of theories about where that came from. What's yours?

  3. The (perhaps apocryphal) story as I understood it from J-school was it was used to indicate the end of text in wire copy.

    Was -30- just a rear plate, then?

  4. Oh I just thought, since this is "etaoin shrdlu" fer cryin' out loud, that something else from the bowels of Journalism history would be a fun tag line.

    Yeah, as I understand it it was the "end of text" on the wires. I'm told there was a whole list of em, but no one remembers the others.

    I say, "as I understand it" because I really don't remember seeing it on wire copy, but then who cared then?

    I had the unique pleasure of watching the announcement of the end of hostilities of the first Gulf War (1991) on an actual AP teletype. I believe that would have been my last witness to "-30-" in the wild (the teletype went the way of the Dodo shortly thereafter).


  5. My favorite theory about -30- (which we did indeed use regularly to signal the final page of typewritten copy) is that it dervies from the days of telegraph news delivery. In those times, this story goes, telegraphers would type three Xs to signal the end of a transmission. XXX is 30 in Roman numerals, and thus ...


  6. Howard, my wife and I have a very large collection of journalism books.

    One of our older textbooks gives the same explanation of "30" as you give. It's the one I believe to be true. It makes sense.