When health care reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal needed to find patients for her stories, she stood in a hospital parking lot looking for the right prospects. “It’s kind of low-yield and it’s cold,” she remembered. But when she tackled a series for The New York Times on the cost of U.S. medical care two years ago, she tried a new approach. “Obviously, I needed patients,” she said.
A simple invitation to readers on February 11, 2013, opened the door to finding sources that populated the 10 stories of her award-winning “Paying Till It Hurts”.1 She queried: “Have you had a hip replacement? Tell us about your costs and bills.” And 512 readers responded.
Soon, responses multiplied—addressing the costs of colonoscopies, pregnancies, emergency room visits, and more. Rosenthal tapped these street-level views to craft many of her stories. “It really changed my view of how crowdsourcing could give you insight,” she said. Although it was not that long ago, her use of crowdsourcing—reaching out to ordinary people to capture their experiences on her subjects—was a teachable moment for The New York Times. Rosenthal recalled that the news organization had few templates for how to frame the questions she asked or where to place them on a web page, and few tools for searching the responses. It also provoked discussion on what the policy should be for emailing and thanking contributors, and even whether to permit a public Facebook page for a growing community that wanted to stay engaged.
Two years later, many of those issues have been resolved. Rosenthal’s crowdsourcing led to the creation of a database of some 12,000 contributors that New York Times reporters can now use, and a Facebook Group with more than 6,500 members.
Her discovery of the potential for capitalizing on community experiences represents far more than an isolated event. It fits neatly into a larger trend of newsrooms’ willingness to increasingly embrace the role that the crowd can play in gathering and contributing information.
Wired writer Jeff Howe was the first to spotlight this trend in a 2006 article, wherein he anointed this kind of activity as “crowdsourcing.”2 But the ways in which news organizations have come to define and employ it since vary enormously.
This guide is organized around a specific, journalism-related definition of crowdsourcing and articulates a new typology designed to help practitioners and researchers understand the different ways it is being used both inside and outside newsrooms.
In exploring how crowdsourcing is evolving in the media ecosystem, we asked journalists about the kinds of jobs crowdsourcing is helping them to accomplish. We interviewed 51 people, analyzed 18 survey responses, and engaged in online explorations of dozens of projects. We also developed in-depth case studies of particularly successful crowdsourcing protocols at four news organizations, which helped to identify key elements of effective projects and their outcomes in terms of participation and impact. By no means does this guide capture all journalism crowdsourcing to date. A number of different initiatives by a range of organizations could populate the categories in this report, if space permitted.
Almost daily, some news organization reaches out to the public for help in reporting a story. Sometimes that request is fun and engaging for the respondents, like WNYC’s Subway Agony Index.3 Sometimes the news organizations seek to capture what people witnessed during a catastrophe or a breaking news event, such as the Boston Marathon bombings. At other times, it mines deep wells of social injustice or taps personal histories of pain and suffering, as in ProPublica's "Patient Safety" series.4 At the highest level of engagement, news organizations ask people to do work for them, as did The Guardian’s MPs' expenses story.5
The goal of such initiatives is to get people to share what they know individually so that journalists can communicate the collective information. With social media now deeply inculcated in most newsrooms, these so-called “call-outs” have become easier than ever to promote. What has become harder is managing both the front end and back end of invitations for public contributions that can generate hundreds, even thousands, of responses.
While many newsrooms pay lip service to its benefits, crowdsourcing finds itself at the intersection of the markedly different paths news organizations are charting to engage and grow audiences. For some, crowdsourcing is the epitome of authentic interaction and community building. Others prefer a less onerous strategy of harvesting audience input from social media channels.
We argue, however, that crowdsourcing requires a specific call-out. If a newsroom simply uses information or content already available on the social web, we don’t believe this constitutes crowdsourcing. For us, the people engaging in crowdsourcing need to feel they have agency in contributing to a news story.
In the following report, we give a brief history and definition of crowdsourcing, before describing how it is being used—both inside and outside of newsrooms. We then outline some typologies that we have found useful for grouping crowdsourced efforts and expand on those with interviews and case studies.