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Crowdsourcing journalism has come a long way, can go even farther

by: Michele McLellan |

In 2007, I was an editor on Assignment Zero, a crowdsourcing experiment that produced a lot of learning but not a lot of content. (Although I am happy to report that my team produced one of a dozen stories that were published in Wired.)

The idea of the Assignment Zero, at the dawn of online crowdsourcing, was to crowdsource stories about emerging crowdsourcing practices. The takeaway for me was the great extent to which a good crowdsourcing effort requires a structure and an interactive process that can elicit, collect and synthesize a lot of small chunks of content or data. That’s the only way people can participate meaningfully within the time constraints we all face. (Here’s a longer take on what went down at Assignment Zero.)

That lesson hit home recently as I read a new report, Guide to Crowdsourcing, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Eight years after Assignment Zero, the new study found that successful crowdsourcing efforts are “high-touch, labor-intensive efforts” that require a high level of newsroom engagement and incentives for contributors as the process unfolds.

Thankfully, further experimentation by news organizations over the years has yielded a lot more learning about effective crowdsourcing, and the Tow study shares an abundance of analysis and examples. The report is authored by Jan Schaffer of J-Lab, Jeanne Pinder of ClearHealthCosts.com, and Mimi Onuoha, a fellow at the Data & Research Society Institute.

I thought one of the most helpful parts of the report is a typology of crowdsourcing efforts. The report focuses on “crowdsourcing” as a process in which the news organizations makes a specific all to action, as opposed to harvesting crowd comments or info from social media and other sources.

According to the report, common types are:

Voting  to prioritize which stories reporters should cover.

WBEZ’s Curious City is one example. The public radio station solicits questions that listeners want answered. The newsroom curates them and the listeners vote from lists of three at a time to identify what question will be covered. In two years, the project generated about 5,000 questions and 250 stories with 2,000-3,000 votes in each round, the report said.

Witnessing events in the news

News organizations enable witnesses to share their accounts, photos and videos of breaking news events. We’ve seen this on a large scale during major nationa and international stories. Smaller organizations have also enabled their users to play this role. One example is Watershed Post, a tiny local news startup in the Catskills, which reported damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011 via updates from a network of locals.

Sharing personal experiences

The New York Times and Pro Publica, for example, created Facebook groups that each attracted thousands of members, who shared experiences about medical care that informed important investigative stories about the health care system.

Tapping specialized expertise

Again, in looking at health care issues, Pro Publica tapped a group of health care providers to help it develop its Surgeon Scorecard. KQED in San Francisco, KPCC in Los Angeles, and WHYY in Philadelphia developed comparisons of costs of different procedures after hundreds of listeners reported what they had paid.

Completing a task

One famous example of this is The Guardian’s 2009 effort - It created a searchable database of thousands of MPs’ expense receipts and asked the public to mine it for interesting information. More than 20,000 volunteers searched more than 170,000 documents, the report said.

Engaging audiences

The report says these efforts may be as much or more about fun as about serious journalism. The Washington Post, for example, solicits photos during heavy weather from its tens of thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers – like rulers in the show after heavy storms. 

Different models may make different fits for publications. I think a value for any organization – in addition to the journalistic value – is cultural.

Practices like crowdsourcing help bring the newsroom closer to users and shows a path for a less traditional, more collaborative and interactive relationship with them. In dozens of newsrooms where I have consulted on culture change in the past decade, I have seen over and over and over that adopting practices that are uniquely enabled by the web and emblematic of Web culture drives meaningful culture change.

For startups that are looking at membership as one potential revenue stream, I think crowdsourcing holds promise as a gateway to membership. A number of local startups have conducted successful crowdfunding campaigns for specific reporting projects. But users who deepen their engagement by contributing to coverage that matters to them may readily move up the ladder of engagement to paid members for the long term.

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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