The new journalism commons

“How might we design open-ended systems for news production built around common pooled resources to collectively address critical issues, such as verification or the digital divide?”

The discussion about the role of the commons in journalism seems to have vanished, along with many other themes that once captured the public discourse on the future of news. The commons might even sound like an archaism of the early days of digital journalism —like cyberspace or message boards. But resources shared by a group of people can be a powerful social structure, and it’s one worth revisiting in the context of journalism and its current challenges.

As Elinor Ostrom, Charlotte Hess, and others have explained, when knowledge began to be transferred from libraries and archives to the web, it took on more and more characteristics of the commons, and more and more of the commons’ dilemmas — such as congestion, free riding, degradation, and enclosure. The addition of journalistic information and resources to this shared repository has not abated.

The journalism commons as a resource system, independent of particular property rights, include — but are not limited to — code repositories freely available in sites like GitHub; the myriad of online tutorials, reports, and education resources created by journalism schools and independent organizations to teach new skills; the communities formed around conferences, meetups, and collaborations between news organizations, journalism schools, and others; open databases on critical issues such as police misconduct; and open source software providing a new technological infrastructure for journalism, such as the JavaScript library D3 for data visualization, or SecureDrop, the widely used whistleblower submission system.

Looking at journalistic resources through the lens of the commons reveals “a new (i.e., newly recognized) cultural form that is unfolding in front of us,” using David Bollier’s expression, with profound implications for how news organizations, journalism schools, and foundations participate in the creation of shared resources as a new infrastructure for journalism. How might we design open-ended systems for news production built around common pooled resources to collectively address critical issues, such as verification or the digital divide? How might we harness collective action and social capital to protect and grow shared resources for journalism? Following again Ostrom and Hess, a commons requires clarity, skilled decision-making abilities, and cooperative management strategies to create robust systems. It’s time to revisit the role of the journalism commons in the creation of a sustainable news world.

Carlos Martínez de la Serna is director of digital innovation at Univision News.

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