Few documents are more carefully guarded in newspaper offices than the newslist. The mixture of what’s coming up and what the editors are hoping for can be so valuable that rivals have even been known to pay for a sneaky look. Some newsrooms I’ve worked in have relied on code words to describe really juicy stories. Often, it can be an embarrassingly blank sheet of paper – best kept hidden, even from the boss.
The idea of giving this information away before publication might therefore seem to be putting digital dogma before common sense. Just because the internet theoretically allows journalists to give readers a peek behind the curtain by sharing the list with them does not make it a good idea.
We suspect otherwise though at the Guardian. What if readers were able to help newsdesks 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?
It might seem a minority pursuit, but the experience of covering breaking news already suggests otherwise. Like many websites, we are discovering some of our best-read stories are the live blogs that report events as they unfold, often with brutal honesty about what we don’t know or hope to find out.
With this in mind, the newsdesk at the Guardian is planning an experiment in opening its doors. The idea is to publish a carefully-selected portion of the national, international and business newslists on a daily blog, which will launch on Monday morning, 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. If readers can see that we’ve got a reporter looking into the police killing of someone with a Taser – to use a recent example – they might be able to direct us to other recent deaths or the definitive report on their safety risks.
It’s a bit of a leap in the dark, we know, so we’ve decided to structure it as a short trial starting this week and we are ready to pull the plug if we suspect we’re giving away too much competitive advantage or falling on deaf ears. What we won’t do is give up our right to exercise our own judgment about which stories are important, or pay much attention to pestering from PR people, but we do think it is worth listening to our readers.
It is not the first time this has been tried. A Swedish regional newspaper called Norran has already been successfully using a blog and Twitter to engage readers in a conversation about the editorial decision-making process. Eventually, I suspect, a generation gorged on reality television and social media might demand this from all sorts of media companies – from radio stations deciding which music goes on their playlist to public service broadcasters deciding what to spend money on.
Of course, it may turn out that the only people who are interested are news editors on other papers – delighted that we’re doing a bit of their job for them. Almost the only guarantee is that we will provide a little bit of material for teasing in rival newspaper diary columns. Sometimes people will see how deathly quiet it is; other times you might wonder how we intend to fit it all in. Given these are live documents, edited and read by dozens of journalists hundreds of times a day, there is no doubt things will look a little rough around the edges.
As Bismarck is said to have remarked about the process of passing legislation, many still think the business of making news is a bit like the business of making sausages: best kept out of sight from the end consumer. But 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.
Dan Roberts is the national news editor of the Guardian