In the hours after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis on August 1, staffers at the Des Moines Register posted a message on the paper's Web site asking readers to send details from the scene. Though Des Moines is about three hours to the south and the incident occurred in the early evening, the next morning's paper contained a story filled with vignettes from eyewitnesses: a 30-year-old woman coming home from the gym who drove over the bridge mere seconds before it fell; a man on the scene who described seeing a truck "crunched like an accordion."
Asking readers for help to broaden a story is a typical reporting technique. But a strategy known as crowdsourcing has breathed new life into the concept, allowing journalists to blend an age-old tactic with new technology and resources.
Yes, multiple editors and media veterans agree — at its core, crowdsourcing is similar to what journalists have always done: elicit the assistance of readers while gathering material for a story. Wired magazine contributing editor Jeff Howe says crowdsourcing is the natural outgrowth of reporters adding, "Do you have tips for me? E-mail or call" at the end of a story.
Crowdsourcing, which can take that notion much further, has become an integral part of the far-reaching restructuring at the nation's largest newspaper chain, Gannett, which on May 1 transformed its newsrooms into "information centers." Dividing newspapers into seven departments that rely heavily on multimedia and hyperlocal news, the new approach also seeks to heighten reader involvement in the newsgathering process. The goal is to recruit readers at the beginning stage of stories, publishing inquiries on the papers' Web sites and in their print editions, and ultimately using citizen contributions to help produce high-quality content.
"We're no longer waiting until the day of publication to get feedback, but working very early on cultivating and asking for the expertise of anyone who is interested in the subject matter," says Jennifer Carroll, Gannett's vice president for new-media content. "That's what's new and interesting. We have always had forums and encouraged debate... I would put [crowdsourcing] on another level."
Gannett papers have found that crowdsourcing can be helpful in investigative endeavors. At New Jersey's Asbury Park Press, a large effort by readers aided a story about the ramifications of a prominent home-building company filing for bankruptcy. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the 16,000-circulation Daily News Journal, was able to follow up on a controversial idea for a Bible theme park after a reader invited a reporter to sit in on a meeting when the developer came to her house. The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, pulled off what is considered Gannett's first crowdsourcing success when it asked readers for help in its exploration of homeowner utility costs last year. People responded in droves, resulting in a full-scale investigation of a utilities expansion project. The project abruptly shut down. When it resumed, homeowners found their costs reduced by several thousand dollars.
"While we certainly have had tips from readers before, crowdsourcing is a more proactive way that has given us many tips and has led to more stories than ever," says Karen Magnuson, editor of New York's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which is also a Gannett paper.
In March, a reader alerted the Democrat and Chronicle to groundwater contamination in Ontario County, part of the paper's core circulation area. The paper's first story about the issue invited readers to share additional information and prospective leads.
Reporters received dozens of messages, which provided the paper with data it would not ordinarily have obtained. "Crowdsourcing has definitely helped us with the depth of our whole reporting," Magnuson says. "I think that certainly we're publishing more watchdog work today than we have in many years. It's like having hundreds of mini-reporters helping collect information."
The News-Press in Fort Myers decided to be even more ambitious with the concept. Calling the idea "crowdsourcing 2.0," the paper recruited volunteers and launched Team Watchdog, says Kate Marymont, the paper's vice president/ Information Center. The group, led by special projects editor Betty Wells, is made up of 20 retirees, among them former lawyers and police officers and an ex-fighter pilot. They assist reporters with research and generate story ideas.
The formation of the team has led to page-one stories, Marymont says, such as a piece on whether the Florida National Guard would have enough equipment in case of a hurricane, considering how much material had been shipped abroad. The idea came from a Watchdog who had worked for the Department of the Army.
Marymont admits that, at first, she wondered if reporters would be wary of the Team Watchdog approach. Journalists quickly found, however, that it was extremely helpful to have easy access to advice from, say, a retired CPA on a business story, she says.
"Newspapers everywhere are tightening their belts," Marymont says. "Team Watchdog is not a way to get rid of reporters, but a way to assist and do better watchdog journalism."
Howe, a former writer for the Village Voice, says crowdsourcing should not be confused with trying to turn readers into journalists. In fact, he says, it is arrogant to assume that people even want journalists' jobs; asking readers to write newspaper articles, in his view, is like "asking them to rewrite their term papers."
He adds, "They want to contribute to the paper, but they want to do it on their terms. I'm confident that leaves a lot of need for news professionals."
Some reporters seem to have adjusted to the concept. Asbury Park Press business writers David Willis and Michael Diamond relied on crowdsourcing a great deal while following the saga of the bankrupt home-building company. Willis says crowdsourcing seemed to make people feel comfortable talking to him; sources were more open when they approached a reporter rather than the other way around. "It really streamlined the reporting process," Willis says. "It helped give a human face to that story."
Tara Connell, Gannett's vice president for corporate communication, says it's clear the practice is paying dividends. "The other day I was listening to an editor who said that two years ago, [the paper] would have spent six months doing deep investigation and delivered it to the readers whether they liked it or not," Connell says. "Now, they can ask readers what interests them, deliver the reports they want, and it helps them make changes to the community. It's a real win-win."
Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez says he would be wary of asking readers for help with investigative pieces, particularly ones about specific individuals or companies. All it takes is a reader to post a conspiracy theory on a comment board, and someone else could associate it with the newspaper and assume it is a fact, he says. "I think that's one of the risks, if you're asking a question and doing it through a [public] posting," Rodriguez says. "You can get into trouble on the Web site, because people might associate it as true."
Journalists have an obligation to make sure there is no confusion between news content and discussions that proliferate online, says Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute. It is also imperative that investigative reporting, which frequently deals with complex issues and accusations of wrongdoing, be done by those with a high degree of competence in journalism skills and ethical decision making, Steele says.
"Journalists doing investigative reporting should be focusing on serving the public interest and searching for the truth," Steele says. "It may be that non-journalists who are participating in this crowdsourcing concept do not have proper independence. Citizens can have competing loyalties in their roles in the community that can undermine their independence."
Jim Naughton, president emeritus of the Poynter Institute and a former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor, says he fears that crowdsourcing may be largely protective cover for corporate cost-cutting. "I have yet to see evidence that it has produced groundbreaking investigative reporting," he says, noting that it's important to remember the practice is a device for getting tips, not for turning crowds into journalists.
Whatever the caveats, some proponents say crowdsourcing shows the value of melding the past and the present. "We think that's what distinguishes us in a swirl of media — using new technology to do old journalism," Marymont says. "And crowdsourcing is one tool we've had a lot of success with. There are some smart people out there."