A Brief History of Crowdsourcing in Journalism

It wasn’t long after Jeff Howe applied the term crowdsourcing to developing stories with public input that the label began to populate the journalistic lexicon.6 It was a new millennium when journalism thought-leaders urged news organizations to rethink their relationship with news consumers.

Dan Gillmor saw the news transforming from a lecture into a conversation and advocated for tapping the wisdom of the crowds in his 2004 book We the Media.7 “My readers know more than I do, and that’s a good thing,” he said. Jay Rosen, in his seminal 2006 blog post, set forth the idea of the “people formerly known as the audience” who were now creators, not merely consumers, of news.8

One of the first news organizations to excel at crowdsourcing was The News-Press, a Gannett paper in Fort Myers, Florida. In 2006, the paper asked people to help it figure out why water and sewer assessments were skyrocketing. The response astonished editors. 9

“Phones rang off the hook. We learned that if you are going to ask people to ‘come join us,’ you better be prepared to receive them,” one of the editors, MacKenzie Warren, said in a report about the initiative.10 “We had no idea of the level of angst waiting to be unleashed,” he said. The newspaper’s online forum—where the crowdsourcing was happening—attracted more than 6,000 submissions. One of them was a critical, leaked report.

Then in 2007, a startup D.C. blog, “Talking Points Memo,” cracked a scandal involving the firing of U.S. Attorneys General under political circumstances. Editor Joshua Micah Marshall not only pursued tips from readers, he gave them assignments, like poring over a mass of documents (including some 3,000 emails) released by the administration.11

By 2008, the term crowdsourcing was attached to other kinds of contributions, including so-called citizen journalism or user-generated content (UGC) coming chiefly from eyewitnesses at the scene of breaking news. In a 2008 Nieman Reports article, Howe heralded the “wisdom of the crowd” in sharing eyewitness news and photos about the Southeast Asia tsunami, the terrorist bombing of the London subway, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.12

That same year, Jeff Jarvis argued that journalism was increasingly becoming an activity or process, rather than a commodity or a product, and part of that process involved news consumers: “Stories and topics become molecules that attract atoms: reporters, editors, witnesses, archives, commenters, and so on,” he wrote.13

Before long, crowdsourcing was attached to such UGC initiatives as CNN’s iReport, which sets assignments and asks the community to submit photos and videos. The crowdsourcing label was also applied to The Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus,” which, in 2008, served as a home for citizen-created, presidential campaign coverage. It soon attracted controversy when blogger Mayhill Fowler gained entrance to a closed Obama fundraiser as a donor and then wrote about his remarks, igniting a media firestorm. By 2013, GuardianWitness was inviting reader participation on featured assignments through its website and a dedicated smartphone app.

In their 2012 report “Post-Industrial Journalism,” Emily Bell, Clay Shirky, and C.W. Anderson advanced current thinking: “What’s going away are the linearity of the process and the passivity of the audience . . . as citizen involvement stops being a set of special cases and becomes a core to our conception of how the news ecosystem can and should function.”14 Writing about the future of news in 2014 for the Columbia Journalism Review, Dean Starkman found consensus around the idea that the “utility of crowdsourced journalism—volunteers gathering or sorting through news—is real and so far really limited.” The potential, he said, remains “untapped but large.”15

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