Our research shows that crowdsourcing has been credited with helping to create amazing acts of journalism. It has transformed newsgathering by opening up unprecedented opportunities for attracting sources with new voices and information, allowed news organizations to unlock stories that otherwise might not have surfaced, and created opportunities for them to experiment with the possibilities of engagement just for the fun of it.
In short, it has done just what the pundits predicted a decade ago: helped turn journalism into more of a conversation than a one-way megaphone.
Crowdsourcing is also credited with shaping journalism into more of an iterative process: as data or stories come in from contributors, reporters see new possibilities for their journalism—and news organizations see opportunities to incrementally publish those contributions in ways that tease out more.
Moreover, once communities of sources are built, they can be retained forever—if news organizations take care to maintain them with updates and ongoing conversation.
But crowdsourcing can be high-touch and high-energy, and not all projects work the first time.
For all its potential, crowdsourcing’s promise is widespread and systemic at just a few big news organizations—ProPublica, WNYC, and The Guardian, for example. At other mainstream news organizations, like CNN Digital and The New York Times, only a handful of reporters and editors—and not the institutions themselves—are the standard bearers.
To be sure, crowdsourcing businesses are flourishing outside of journalism. But within the news industry, wider systemic adoption may await more than enthusiasm from experienced practitioners and accolades from sources who welcome contact.
We would like to see more research and evidence exploring whether crowdsourcing can foster increased support for journalism. That support might take the form of audience engagement, such as attention, loyalty, time spent on a site, repeat visits, or contributing personal stories. Or it might involve financial support from members or donors, from advertisers who want to be associated with the practice, or from funders who want to support it.
Also to be explored is whether crowdsourced stories have more real-world impact, such as prompting legislative change, than other types of journalism do.
Until this data is available and a better suite of tools and practices is developed, some news organizations may be wary of joining the ranks of long-time practitioners and investing the time and resources needed to support crowdsourcing projects.
However, newsrooms that do support crowdsourcing are pushing it in new and interesting directions. One hallmark of this more experienced version of crowdsourcing is the idea that better crowdsourcing involves earlier integrations of community contributions, said The Guardian’s Pilhofer. “This is where I think crowdsourcing and journalism meet. The results can be powerful.”