1. Give your users prominent space to substantively interact, express themselves, and participate in the genesis and dissemination of news. Include people in your reporting projects, and facilitate connections between those who would like to collaborate among themselves.

2. Comb the web for people experimenting with news—building databases or analytical tools, writing programs that might have some news application, pursuing one-off projects designed to last for the lifespan of the event they were was created to analyze and record. Promote these efforts. Critique them with an eye toward improving them. Integrate them into your own site and encourage the experimenters to use your site to disseminate their work.

3. Devote sections of your site to training users in news and computer literacy, which is key if we are to grow a generation of responsible digital citizens. Make yourself into a place where people can go to learn how to read and evaluate a news story; offer tutorials on computer programming. Give engaged citizens the tools to become articulate participants in any given discussion.

4. Encourage and cultivate productive dissent. Make it easy for people to explain what you’re doing wrong and how it could be done better; consider and respond to these critiques. Illuminate your internal workings in a way that a hundred-billion-dollar company would never illuminate its own.

At base, at their best, news organizations have always wanted to responsibly inform and thereby empower individuals to become assets to their communities. By turning their websites into hubs for collaboration, experimentation, education, and dissent, news organizations can extend their pursuit of that goal and advance a true vision for the future of social news.

At the f8 conference this September, Mark Zuckerberg called the changes that he introduced “an important next step to help tell the story of your life.” Helping people tell stories is a laudable goal, certainly, but what does it actually mean?

News organizations, for all their flaws, have always held high the notion of the story as a useful, powerful, sacred thing. Stories told thoughtfully and disseminated widely can and have changed the world. Mark Zuckerberg also wants to change the world—and the evidence indicates that he wants to change it into a blander, more homogeneous place, where people express themselves within limits and are reduced to their affinities and preferences; where stories double as market-research reports; where everybody knows something about one another; and where Facebook knows everything about everyone and uses that knowledge to enrich itself in manifold uncomfortable ways.

The story of digital news, as told so far, seems to be leading to an equally bleak denouement. Yet there’s still time to write a better ending. News organizations must not allow slogans and corporate blandishments to take the place of true, collaborative innovation; they must find ways to use digital media to its best extent, rather than enabling its disfigurement for the sake of a few extra click-throughs. The open web and all it represents will wither if there is nobody to tend it; the news as a public good will not survive if its future rests in the hands of people who don’t actually care about the news. 

 

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.