Do social reporters need to be accountability journalists too?

After suggesting yesterday that socialreporters might adopt Make Sense, Be Positive and Help Out as guiding principles – or even resolutions – I’m wondering whether to add Investigate if No-one Else Will.

Euan Semple kindly reblogged my diagram, prompting @mark_barratt to tweet “Where’s exposure of cant, lies?”
My initial response was, we can leave that to all the other reporters. But then thanks to @marshallk I read Clay Shirkey’s talk at the Shorenstein Centre. Not new (last September), but a wonderfully
timely tweet.
Clay argues that historically reporting has been funded through highly-priced advertising, and that isn’t going to be around in future at the levels needed for news organisations to maintain what he calls accountability journalism. He says that – in the US anyway – it means that in most towns there will be no-one to do the daily chore of following what’s happening in public bodies, and certainly not to undertake major investigations.
He says that there are three ways to create public goods (like journalism in the public interest). You can go to the market, to public bodies and nonprofits, and …

… then you can have social production where a group of people, just to get together and do something for themselves. Markets are how most cars are produced. Public goods are how much roads are produced. Social stuff is how most birthday parties are produced, how most picnics are produced, right? It has just not been a big feature of the landscape. But, now it is.

Clay adds:

What the Internet does is it makes all commercial models of journalism harder to sustain — not impossible, but harder. And it makes public models easier to sustain — partly because of the lowered cost, partly because of the [inaudible]. And it makes social models much, much easier. So we’re seeing, I believe, a rebalancing of the landscape in terms of the logic of the creation of public goods away from a market dominated by commercial interest into a market where all three of these modes of production are going to be operating side by side in different ways.

Social models of news are coming into play through blogging, YouTube, Twitter and the host of other ways in which people can rapidly spread the word. So once a story breaks, it can gain impact in a way unheard of in the past unless it topped the bulletins or the front pages. It used to be that journalists judged success by how far other news media followed their “exclusives”. Now I suspect it’s as much about Twitter trending.
None of this analysis is new, but Clay’s presentation is particularly compelling. He argues it is important that news is not behind pay-to-view walls, otherwise stories can’t be spread. He celebrates the growth of local and other news sites, while warning they are not a substitute in the short-term for traditional accountability journalism. It’s going to take time for the ecosystem to adjust.

I think a bad thing is going to happen, right? And it’s amazing to me how much, in a conversation conducted by adults, the possibility that maybe things are just going to get a lot worse for a while does not seem to be something people are taking seriously. But I think this falling into relative corruption of moderate-sized cities and towns — I think that’s baked into the current environment. I don’t think there’s any way we can get out of that kind of thing. So I think we are headed into a long trough of decline in accountability journalism, because the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place.

In short, if far fewer people are doing the hard civic slog of accountability journalism, and the digging of investigative journalism, Twitter isn’t going to have as much to spread that’s in the public interest.
Clay was writing mainly about the US, which of course doesn’t have the BBC. But then, the BBC doesn’t fill the gap left by good local papers. How good they are in many case may be open to question, but they do offer local accountability journalists a platform.
Will Perrin and the Talk About Local crew are doing a great job in applauding existing community sites, supporting development of new ones, and generally evangelising the potential of social models … and if you want a terrific example of new-style accountability journalism take a look at Pits n Pots.
I can certainly see the role of community reporters in accountability journalism  (though it will be tough without the backing of news organisations). When writing about social reporters yesterday I focussed on other activities which I think are just as important:
Make Sense by using social media to capture content at events and elsewhere; listen out for the conversations taking place; highlight the stories that you hear; interpret for different interests; comment to add your own ideas, and aggregate to make it easier for people to follow what’s happening in many different places.
Be positive so there’s more chance of good things emerging from your reporting: make friends, applaud other people’s successes, celebrate together, and spot opportunities (while not ignoring the problems).
Help out and promote collaboration (rather than highlighting conflict) by encouraging, supporting, and signposting people to other resources.
How easy is it to mix Investigative and Accountability Journalism with these fairly benign activities, in a personal portfolio? Can investigative sites provide the positive, sense-making, helpful activities as well … or will they lose their friends?
Clay points out that major newspapers breaking challenging stories have in the past pressed ahead even though advertisers threatened to withdraw support. How can community and social reporters develop that degree of confidence and durability?

Update: now inviting discussion over in the Socialreporter group at Do join us.