A future history of crowdsourced reporting

During the second or third or so year of my still-brief career in what we might as well call “the news business” for lack of a more encompassing and descriptive term, I found myself jumping up and down advocating for a tool to standardize the task of gathering data from the news audience.

Crowdsourcing as a term was new, and by definition “bigger” than just “sourcing” because it could happen at scale, where scale could be thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people with the right call to action and programming framework.

WNYC’s “beer, lettuce, milk” price data gathering project was a favorite, although it appears to have been powered by a comment thread, mostly.

That was always one that stuck out in my mind, due to the quantitative nature of it. This wasn’t about asking the news audience for opinions; it was a method of gathering facts about the city and its bodegas, data that wasn’t compiled anywhere, and that made sense to bring together in one place, given the chaotic system (system?) of New York City bodegas.


Matt McAlister has gathered a Big Important List of crowdsourced reporting projects, and he’s notably compiling a list that extends beyond traditional journalism and news organizations, as we all should.

It’s a fascinating list of projects, and a reminder that it’s not always “content” news organizations are looking to “generate” from “users,” but information, or perhaps better yet, analysis of documents or images or cities or rivers or the world surrounding them.

Again, my own interest, albeit usually from afar, in tools like DocumentCloud, is the chance to bring the audience into the reporting process by giving them an assignment. “Read a piece of this giant 1100 page budget, or campaign finance bill, or FEC disclosure, or Friday night data dump (see the classic Talking Points Memo instance here), and annotate it so we can find the important stuff quickly.”


The fun part, naturally, isn’t in examining the past of crowdsourced reporting, but imagining the future. What does a platform to quickly spin up an instance of a crowdsourcing machine when news breaks look like? More than a map, surely, as amazing and powerful as location can be. It has to be flexible and fast and able to parse submissions into something useful, digestible, sortable so the most important information surfaces as if it were weightless.

Or are we already looking at the platform, the system, in Twitter or Facebook or Google Search or the Web itself? I don’t think I believe that. There must be more, or there must be a federated system to harvest and groom information from all these sources — not for the purpose of curation into a story or list or gallery, but for analysis, understanding, quantification at scale.

Continuing to dream of that ideal crowdsourcing platform…

New at IdeaLab: The People Formerly Known as the Audience need a new name

Over at IdeaLab, I’m continuing a conversation I started on Twitter a couple weeks ago that spilled over here as well.

What do you call your readers now that they’re participating actively in the creation and curation of unbundled media?

Do you call them a community?

Better yet, what makes an online “community” and how can local news sites foster an environment that makes that more likely?

Here’s a bit from the IdeaLab post, related to something I read recently at GeekDad:

“Because I’m a geek/dad, if not necessarily a full-blown Geekdad yet, it makes perfect sense. These are people like me writing about experiences that are either familiar to me, or talking about ideas that I’m profoundly interested in as a member of the community of people who self-identify as geekdads.

So maybe readers have a common topic of interest (baseball, city government, gardening), but a community is the topic of interest itself (baseball players, city council members and local activists, serious gardeners).”

What do you think?  Head over to IdeaLab and add a comment to let me know.

Are your readers a community?

I asked my Twitter followers what they think of substituting the word “community” for “readers” and I’m getting lots of good responses, many of them negative.

Either I didn’t know “community” had much of a stigma, or I spent too long working with “community” newspapers to notice. Back then, it seemed like a great linguistic way to hold a grizzled editor or publisher’s hand as they made the leap from thinking of the people in town as their “readers” to collaborating with them as “the former audience” as Dan Gillmor called them.

Twitter conversation embedded below, using Twickie to try it out.

ryansholin: I&#39ve been substituting the word “community” every time I start to type “readers” lately. What do you think?

about 44 minutes ago

lacajag: I like it. That&#39s what communication&#39s all about now.

about 42 minutes ago

greglinch: I&#39ve been liking “the former audience” more and more lately, but mostly avoid using it myself for some reason. Community = good.

about 41 minutes ago

scottros: good plan when readers really are community. True for some pubs/sites, not others. If not, then calling it so just rankles.

about 37 minutes ago

briandonohue: don&#39t like it. Use of community to describe online followers, etc is a pet peeve of mine.

about 35 minutes ago

CatrionaStuart: Depends. You can have readers and not community. IMHO community denotes sharing knowledge/ideas/function. http://bit.ly/3XWBL7

about 34 minutes ago

briandonohue: My readers are not part of my community. They won&#39t babysit my kids in a pinch or coach my kid soccer…

about 34 minutes ago

CharlieBeckett: I think community is almost a dead word now. Just because a group all read something doesn&#39t make them a cohesive community

about 5 minutes ago

Reader poll redux: Who are you?

http://s3.polldaddy.com/p/139693.js survey softwareTake Our Poll

Let’s try this again, as the folks at PollDaddy say the lolcats have cleared out of the servers now.

Jump in and check a box to rough up some unscientific numbers on who is reading this blog.

Are you a pro journalist, a j-school student, a for-the-love-of-it blogger, a programmer, or something else? If you’re catching this in an RSS reader, you’ll probably need to click through to vote.

Mine, mine, it’s all mine!


MyTimes. MyPost. MyThis, MyThat.

Without getting too far into slagging existing products for duplicating RSS readers or an iGoogle or MyYahoo or NetVibes personalized home page, let’s jump straight into a proposition:

If your newspaper makes me register and login to read stories, or participate in polls, or (important one here) add comments to stories, you’re going to need to give me something in return.

It’s a simple matter of give and take. I give you my personal information — even if it’s just an e-mail address — and you give me something — other than access, which I can get with BugMeNot if I really want it — in return.

And now, to the chase.

Here’s what I want:

I want to save my favorite stories, right here, at your newspaper.com. Because really, what’s the sense in Digging a story about my neighborhood? There’s no value in that, and it’s pushing it to say that Delicious or Reddit or any of the other social bookmarking tools we offer to readers have any real value to them at all — perhaps excluding Facebook.

When I share a local news story, I want to share it with my neighborhood. Hence, Facebook might still be useful to me to get a local news link in front of a classmate or a colleague or a friend from around the corner.

So why don’t newspapers offer something like a Digg profile, that keeps track of the stories that I save.

Then, instead of using a clumsy ‘e-mail this story’ function or copy/pasting an elaborate URL, I could just click the [save this story] button and point my friends to an URL like “newspaper.com/readers/gort581.”

Consider this a feature request, developers.

Enough handwringing, let’s get down to business

What’s the future of news? What does the audience want? What will the dead-trees edition be able to do about either?

Lately, it seems like these questions are brought up by newspaper editors and journalism educators fraught with worry over what will become of their medium and of their readership. (And the children! Won’t somebody please think of the children?!)
They write editorials and cluck over how journalism students don’t read the newspaper anymore.

No, we don’t. We read more than that, we do it faster, and we do it at a level of depth that correlates to the amount of time or interest we have for the topic.

What’s far more fun, not to mention useful, is to get down to the research and conversations that are going to lead to real answers.

So enough whining — let’s get to work on brewing up a new business model for the news. Try to lead the experiments instead of following the leaders online all the time. And don’t be afraid of the answers to all those worrisome questions.

For your pleasure reading today, you might take a look at the following:

  • Can the Newspaper Industry Stare Disruption in the Face? – In Nieman Reports, Scott Anthony and Clark Gilbert take a look at the how the newspaper business can keep from being bled dry by the chupacabras of disruptive technology currently nipping at its heels.

    “Too many newspaper companies have replicated their print models online, relying on display advertisements and classifieds, instead of creating new business models. A recent study showed that as few as 10 percent of top print advertisers are top online advertisers in newspaper Web sites.”

  • What does your newspaper’s Integrated Audience look like? We’re talking print-Web integration, here. Scarborough Research released a study (PDF) this week that ranked papers based on their combined print and online market penetration. No suprpise to see The Washington Post at the top, but the San Diego Union-Tribune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch at 2 and 3 aren’t necessarily the first names that jump to your lips, are they? More on the study from E & P. Jemima Kiss at paidContent has some highlights, including this takeaway:

    “The need to understand the distinctiveness of web content is also important. Hyde Post, VP-Internet, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, lists four key audience drivers: urgency, utility, visual energy and community interaction – which is about the most concise and compelling summary of effective web content I’ve read.”

  • Meanwhile, Jay Small tries to reconcile those two pieces of research, and he’s worried about how newspaper execs might read that second one.

    “Establishing mindshare for the Internet as a growth opportunity is not the same thing as consolidating your Internet development, operations, marketing and sales arms into the corresponding printside organizations. But I’ll bet a lot of publishers who read ‘integration of the Web site into the core newspaper business’ think the latter, not the former. And for those publishers who already folded online into offline, whether hoping for innovative outcomes or, more likely, cutting costs, I guess they could look at the Scarborough report and infer a rationale for their decisions.”

    Did you get that, folks? Just because you can meld your print and online staffs into one big happy understaffed newsroom doesn’t mean you should. Oh, by the way, Small is the director of online audience and operations for Scripps newspapers. You may have heard of them.

And now, here’s what you really should be worried about: David Weinberger, Jay Rosen (only in spirit), Dan Gillmor, Mike Davidson of Newsvine, and Jay Adelson from Digg all in the same room talking about the future of news.

In the beginning, newspapers competed with each other, racing to scoop the crosstown rival on the hot breaking news.

After the (still-ongoing) mergers of the last 30 years, newspapers turned their competitive guts toward rival mediums, trying to keep up with local and cable TV, the 24-hours news cycle, and then the continuous updating of online news.

Now that newspapers can shoot, edit, and post video, audio, and text updates nearly as fast as anyone else, they’ve arrived at the next frontier of competition: The Readers.

So how are you going to approach this problem? Are you going to beat your audience to the story, or are you going to compete with your rivals to print their story? Give your readers the attention they deserve, and maybe they’ll be writing for you someday, instead of themselves.

Two takes on the storypushing idea

…wherein the readers push the story ideas up the rankings until a pro journalist takes over to do some reporting on the topic and turns out an article…

So I was imagining this Digg-ish thing where readers would vote for story ideas, adding their own research and insight along the way, preferably with some data wherever possible.

And I’ve now seen two sites that, well, don’t do that exactly, but they do something.

First, I heard Jason Calacanis on the Bloggercon lunch Gillmor Gang this morning talking about the new Netscape.

It’s essentially a Digg clone, but after hearing Jason lay out the reasons why that’s okay, I’m not going to worry too much about that. The point is this: Calacanis has a posse of “anchors” who supposedly are doing bits of fact-checking and follow-up on stories that are posted. It’s an interesting approach, but trying to get a comment from the congressman who told Colbert that he’s into cocaine and hookers is not exactly what I’d call performing a useful public function.

Nevertheless, Jason promises more, so it’s worth keeping an eye on this.

Then I noticed a link to something called AskQuestions.org in the comments of Jay’s post.

Readers, er, ask questions, then vote for the story ideas they like. The folks behind the site seem familiar and credible enough, and I like the simple feel of the site, especially the “Me Too!” button, which is a far more human touch than just coming up with another made-up word for “Digg.”

It looks like they’ve got a pair of writers and a crop of researchers, but no articles have been posted since June 2005, so maybe this is a bit dormant at this point. Either way, it looks like they tried a piece of what Jay is talking about.

The key to this might be keeping it local. Is it really feasible to have a reporter tackle a national issue based on user requests? Maybe, but the army of distributed researchers would have to stretch pretty wide to give any credibility to the results of an investigation. On a smaller, local scale, the information from contributors should be far more detailed and accurate, not to mention easier to confirm, plus you’d have the advantage, hopefully, of a more passionate core of researchers who care about their neighborhood. Maybe.

What do you think?

Are you prepared to ask your readers to help generate and research stories? On what scale? Does this belong on the front page of your newspaper, or off in a hyperlocal corner where the folks most interested can get at it without disrupting anyone else’s ideas about credibility?

The audience question

At some point, I realized that someone other than my mother might actually be reading this blog. If we choose to accept that as a fact, then the following question presents itself pretty rapidly:

“Who the heck IS reading this?”

Please, don’t answer that just yet.

The real question, of course, is “Who am I writing this for?” or, if you’re a stickler, “For whom am I writing this?” (note to j-school students: if the word “whom” is in your story, you need to rewrite a sentence or two. unless there’s an accordion involved.)

Occassionally, in the past, I tried to jump on breaking tech stories, hoping that they might seem as relevant to my readers as they seem to me. RSS? Important. BadFruit? Not so much. But during certain periods last year when I was spending too much time in my aggregator and not enough in the real world, my priorities got a bit wacky. Whatever.

One SJSU faculty member told me to stick to the stuff I had been writing about the J-School curriculum, but of course, that was what he was most interested in.

Do I really care about trying to drive a-list traffic my way by posting about what they post about? Well, not really, unless of course the a-lister is an alum.

I suppose I should try and stick to content that deals directly with the overlapping circles of New Media, Old Media, and J-School, right? Heh, those are bigger circles than you think, but okay.

Here’s the deal: I’ll try to focus the topical range in my posts, and I’ll improve the signal-to-noise ratio around here by putting my delicious links in the sidebar. There they are. That was easy enough.

So who am I writing for? Well, me, of course. So I’ll keep pointing to things that catch my interest, and I’ll keep writing about the things I think are important to people like me. Are you a J-School grad student college newspaper webmaster and reporter looking toward a career at a news organization working in new media? If so, this is the place.