Crowdsourcing in Newsrooms
Crowdsourcing has gained momentum as web technologies have changed the nature of journalistic work. Journalists can now quickly and seamlessly identify and track communities, organize data, follow real-time developments in breaking stories, and imagine a type of journalism that is less transactional and more about relationships. For digital-first startups, in particular, crowdsourcing provides a means of cultivating new audiences from scratch and producing journalism that delivers a more pronounced value proposition.
From roles at The New York Times to his current position as The Guardian’s executive editor of digital, Aron Pilhofer has observed how crowdsourcing has shifted from a new idea to something much more solid, usable, and integrated:
Within newsrooms, crowdsourcing has become a recognized specialty. Reader submissions are a source, just like any other. A bad story idea and a bad crowdsourcing idea will end up a bad story or bad crowdsourced piece of journalism. There’s no magic to it, it’s a source just like anything else.
Pilhofer partly attributes crowdsourcing’s increasing normalization and effectiveness to how thinking, conventions, and tools within the field have matured. “Things that in 2009 were novel—like progress bars indicating the headway contributors had made—are more and more becoming recognized as necessary,” he said, although they are still not prevalent.
Crowdsourcing has ardent advocates who say it adds tiers of value to the process of journalism. It can lead to better journalism, surprising stories, and communications with audiences that have life long after the news stories appear.
“I think you get a more diverse pool of voices. I think it builds connections with readership and, ideally, loyalty with readership,” said Koren, recalling efforts at The New York Times. “There’s a lot to be said for bringing readers into coverage and asking their opinions of things.” ProPublica’s crowdsourcing initiatives build pipelines directly to the people who are affected, noted senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora. “We are creating lists of consumers interested in our stories.” Still, there are tensions within the industry about the use of crowdsourcing. Some fret about giving the audience too much sway over what their newsroom covers. Others worry about the accuracy of the contributions citizens make—a concern that long-time users dismiss as a non-issue with crowdsourced submissions, unlike with user-generated content. Many investigative reporters, in particular, balk at telegraphing their intentions through an open call for contributions, with ProPublica representing a major exception.
Others hesitate about committing the resources. Done well, crowdsourcing is a high-touch enterprise. Journalists must strategize about the type of call-out to make, the communities to target for outreach, the method for collecting responses, and the avenues for connecting and giving back to the community of contributors. That is all before the contributions are even turned into journalism.
While some digital startups like ProPublica have bet their futures on crowdsourcing, other news organizations have set their sights elsewhere. The Associated Press, for one, pioneered advances in user-generated content, but it has since moved from targeted call-outs to sourcing content through social streams and using analytics tools such as SocialFlow, Dataminr, and NewsWhip to follow themes and stories with a goal of helping the AP bolster its coverage.
“It’s a subtle but important move from plucking out good stuff to support our content, to seeing the flow of conversation in social as a source and using that data to develop stories for the AP,” said Jim Kennedy, the AP’s senior vice president of strategy and enterprise development. The New York Times, too, has shifted focus. From 2011 to mid-2014, crowdsourcing was a “huge part of our work,” recalled Sasha Koren, then-deputy editor of interactive news. But after The New York Times Innovation Report16 surfaced in May 2014, attention zeroed in on social media and audience development, said Koren, who took a buyout at the end of 2014. Still, individual reporters and desks at the news organization do structured call-outs.
Likewise, the crowdsourced platform that The Washington Post launched in 2012 is currently dormant. “We tried it. It was pretty successful for its time,” said Greg Barber, the Post’s director of digital news. “But it had some problems not of its own creation,” including some “jerry-rigged” tools. Now Barber is working with The New York Times and Knight-Mozilla Open News on the Coral Project,17 which has tasked engineers with building open-source software that aspires to be the Holy Grail for kickstarting and managing news interactivity and user engagement. Crowdsourcing, said Barber, “is a main course on our menu of aspirations.”
So where is crowdsourcing happening? Beat reporters at these news organizations often spearhead their own projects. Niche news startups featuring hyper-local news, commuter information, or health care use it to build out their communities of interest. And many digital-first outlets see it as key to unlocking better journalism and a community of supporters.
Some say there is a strong business case to be made for crowdsourcing done right. They assert that loyal and engaged consumers are much more valuable than itinerant advertisers. While there are promising clues, no one has made a firm business case yet that inviting audience members to be sources directly impacts the bottom line as much as it strengthens the journalism.
Jim Schachter, vice president for news at WNYC, a crowdsourcing leader, said the engagement levels seen in crowdsourcing help the station get grants and bolster its outreach to donors. He wrote in an email:
The business case (though secondary) is real. Someone who has undertaken a task for the WNYC community, or a sub-community, has demonstrated a deep engagement with us. That person seems on the face of things to be likelier to donate or become a member than someone who doesn’t have that link to our community. More tactically, we use our crowdsourcing efforts to gather email addresses from participants who volunteer them—and that allows us to follow up, in appropriate and carefully designed ways.
He added: “WNYC’s ingenuity in community engagement creates opportunities of all kinds by underscoring that we work on the cutting edge of media innovation.” In particular, Schachter credits crowdsourcing with helping to secure major grants from the Charles Revson and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations, as well as a grant to fund the hiring of WNYC’s first Washington correspondent.
Jennifer Brandel, who spearheaded the Curious City initiative, said that inviting Chicago’s WBEZ listeners to vote on which stories were assigned brought in highly engaged people who were new to the station. Of the more than 5,000 emails the assignment series collected, 56 percent were not in WBEZ’s customer database, she said. Unlike Curious City, Brandel’s new platform, Hearken, offers citizens asking questions of newsrooms an “opt in” button so those email addresses can be added to newsroom CRMs. ProPublica’s Zamora believes that correlating crowdsourced participation with revenues is still a task at hand. “We have a theory that smaller, more targeted audiences generate more reach and spend more time on the site, but this is something we want to measure and analyze over the next year,” she said. She recently recruited more than 100 media professionals to join a new Crowd-Powered News Network to share tools and techniques.18
Recently, the Knight Foundation awarded multimillion-dollar grants to support audience engagement efforts at both ProPublica and The Coral Project, signaling philanthropic interest in tools for audience participation.
Moreover, businesses based on crowdsourcing are increasingly populating the media landscape. Crowdsourcing ventures such as Public Insight Network, Hearken, and ClearHealthCosts.com are offering B2B crowdsourcing solutions to media companies. CleverCommute.com is also offering B2C crowdsourcing on train delays for New York City commuters and creating information for news outlets.
At least one business has leveraged journalism crowdsourcing to attract investors. Amanda Hesser, former food editor of The New York Times Magazine, left her job to launch Food52.com with partner Merrill Stubbs. Community members send in recipes, comment on recipes, ask and answer cooking questions, enter contests, and send in blog posts. Among the premises, Hesser said, was “trusting that there were a lot of people out there who had valuable things to share.” Her site gathers contributions“fairly organically” via editors reaching out to people engaged in its social media channels. Since its start in 2009, Food52 has raised $9 million in capital, employs 55 people, and tracks five million visitors a month. Also, crowdsourcing apps like WXXI’s Yellr, the recipient of an innovation grant from INN.org, are being developed to make it easier for news organizations to issue call-outs via mobile phones and collect audience responses.