News produced by the people, for the people, without the involvement of traditional journalists – it’s a nightmare vision for survivors of the digital hurricane that has battered news organizations over the past decade.
Alternatively, it’s a vision of the future in which hyper-local events get covered that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radar of traditional media or would go unreported because of newsroom cuts.
The prospect of the audience doing it for themselves, providing “journalism as a service,” triggered researchers Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Elena Agapie to conduct a trial they called Eventful at Microsoft Labs in Seattle, Wa.
The pair presented their findings at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Conference in June, acknowledging that: “Professional journalism is a complex endeavor that we are not proposing to replace with Eventful.
“However, we are inspired by citizen journalism as a model that opens up new possibilities for non-experts to carry out journalistic tasks.”
They used their experimental platform to recruit crowd workers as writers, reporters and curators, to assign “missions” and to trial six events they felt were unlikely to be covered by mainstream media: two town hall events, an art show, a hackathon, a festival and a public talk.
These crowd workers were asked to perform tasks such as taking photos, recording audio or video, conducting interviews while getting real-time feedback from content curators, before the final piece was stitched together by writers.
Overall the tasks were accomplished and most within an hour of the event ending. Hernandez and Agapie believe they showed that Eventful could provide a sustainable end-to-end solution for local news production given time-commitment contributions from the community and what they called “interest aggregation”.
The barrier to the kinds of events it can be used on necessarily remains low before questions of legality, balance and accuracy make implementation far more trying. “Pro-am” partnerships seem to offer far greater potential and have a good track record of excellent results.
It was a different kind of “interest aggregation” that led ProPublica to set up its Patient Harm Community group, a community which now has more than 2,300 members. It did so not on its own site but on Facebook, an interesting departure for a news organization.
The group is “a place for those who have experienced harm while undergoing medical treatment and their loved ones to learn, share resources and connect with others”.
While the site is moderated by ProPublica staff, the information shared in the group is public and therefore open to competitors to mine for contacts, quotes and case studies. That’s fine by ProPublica too.
In an interview with the Neiman Lab, ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen described it as a form of service journalism: “Not so much by putting them in touch with us, but more by putting them in touch with one another.”
It’s an enlightened view. For many newsgathering operations the audience is a source to be plundered. There are few long-term relationships in the quest for news; it’s mostly a series of one-night stands.
ProPublica made good with another of its collaborative pieces of journalism, crowdsourcing the flow of ‘dark money’ political ad spending during the 2012 presidential election.
Almost 1,000 people rallied to the cause and after 10 weeks of effort and 16,000 files later a billion dollars of ad contracts had been logged. It also prompted the company to challenge the Federal Communications Commission to require TV stations to submit a series of key points as structured data to make ad spending more transparent.
In the UK, one of the early triumphs of The Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts came when it tackled the expenses claims scandal of British Members of Parliament.
Buried by a government data dump of 700,000 documents covering every claim from each of the 646 MPs over four years they turned to the audience for help in digging out the best stories. Within the first 80 hours almost 70,000 files had been reviewed by readers.
Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the newly-published book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, believes important lessons emerged from that exercise and that they continue to resonate today.
“The reason it worked well was down to publication, timing and implementation. The Guardian could reach out to an audience who had a pre-existing interest in politics and this type of accountability journalism.
“Timing was critical as the project was launched when the topic of MPs’ expenses was in the news, so it tapped into the contemporary zeitgeist, but one key element was the implementation of the project,” said Prof Hermida.
“The Guardian made it easy for people to engage on different levels. They could look at a couple of receipts or at 10. It also added a social factor, where readers could see how they stacked up against other readers. So it also took advantage of game mechanics to make it fun to participate in the crowdsourced project.”
Prof Hermida spelled out four key components that he thought contributed to best practices in crowdsourcing initiatives:
1) Focus: Make a clear and specific ask so that your audience knows what is required of them.
2) Levels of commitment: Enable audiences to participate on their own terms. Some people may have an hour to spend on the project, others a few minutes. Providing a range of options will help to attract a broader range of contributors.
3) Recognize and reward: Make sure to acknowledge publicly the contributions from your audience and even reward them, not necessarily financially but socially, for example through a list of the most active contributors.
4) Cultivate community: Build on your existing audiences and engage with new ones before making the ask. If audiences have a connection to your organization, they are more likely to help out with a crowdsourcing initiative.
Above all, share the project with the audiences. Engage, listen and acknowledge contributors throughout the process.
Prof Hermida said: “They are as much part of the project as the media organization. This means moving away from a transmission mindset and viewing the audience as a source. It is about communication and the audience as partners.”
That chimes well with fellow Professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, who revealed plans for a new social journalism degree at the City University of New York (CUNY).
The course was still awaiting state approval, he said at this year’s Online News Association conference in Chicago, but if it was given the go-ahead for January it would be turning journalism on its head.
“Rather than starting with the idea that we make content, it starts with the idea that we serve communities. How do we start? By listening to those communities, understanding them, understanding their needs and then serving them with all the tools we have at hand.
“Social journalism is more than just social media. I think that we in media look at social journalism as another way to publish, another way to get our stuff out there and that’s part of it but really, truly, social media is about connecting with real people and no longer treating people as a mass.
“You know gigantic Google understands me as an individual, it knows where I live and where I work. My newspaper doesn’t. That’s kind of ridiculous so how do we get a news organization to know people as individuals and communities first, understand what those needs are first, then figure out how to serve those needs….it’s really about relationships with the public, it’s not so much about being a content factory.”