On the bell curve of building news stories, one of the earliest on-ramps for participation involves simply asking people to vote on the journalism they want undertaken.

Curious City22 in Chicago has been crowdsourcing questions that WBEZ public radio listeners want answered for a couple of years. Here’s how it works: Listeners submit questions. The newsrooms curates them. Voters select from three questions at a time. Top vote-getters are turned into stories, and the person who proposed the question is often invited on the newsgathering journey.

In the project’s first two years, WBEZ received about 5,000 questions that generated some 250 stories. Curious City founder Jennifer Brandel said it was common to get 2,000 to 3,000 votes in any voting round. “Our stories on average generally outperformed stories from the field” in terms of metrics, she said. Now, Brandel is taking the show on the road as CEO of a startup called Hearken23 (because WBEZ owns the Curious City name). Hearken costs a newsroom about $5,000 a year depending on the outlet’s size. Brandel hopes to have 30 newsrooms on her roster by the end of 2015.

In a slightly different vein, MuckRock has launched two reporting initiatives—a drone census and a census on biometric surveillance—by first inviting people to offer road maps for filing FOIA requests. In the drone census, it asked people to fill out a form, sharing contact information for local police departments and government agencies suspected of acquiring drones. The first phase led to 350 FOIA requests and some 20 stories, including how Georgia Tech24 was looking to use drones as a “force multiplier” at special events, such as home football games. “We ultimately got about 1,000 people” participating, said MuckRock’s founder Michael Morisy. A new crowdsourcing campaign launched in August 2015 seeks to discover how local enforcement agencies are using biometric surveillance.25 At issue: how do people think local police departments are tracking your facial features, your fingerprints, your DNA—and even your tattoos? Meanwhile, for several years now CNN Digital has asked for input about which stories to cover—often on social or climate issues.

Case Study—CNN Digital

CNN Digital's crowdsourcing project. CNN Digital columnist John D. Sutter shepherded two major crowdsourcing projects in the last couple of years, and the audience input he collected prompted the American Society of News Editors to award him the 2015 Batten Medal.

In June 2013 he launched CNN’s Change the List project, asking people to bring change to the “bottom of the list.” He invited people to pick five stories from a list of 20 they wanted him to tackle. Seven days and 32,546 votes later, he had his tally. On top was a story about America’s widening rich-poor gap, which got 16,789 votes—nearly half the total.

“At the time, that really surprised me in terms of stories people would be clamoring to read about,” he said. However, as his reporting progressed, he added, “I really saw how central that is to what’s going on in this country.”

The other top-voted topics also surprised him.26 They paved the way for stories about the poor kids of Silicon Valley, the world’s most-trafficked mammal (the pangolin), why Alaska is the national epicenter for rape, and America’s most endangered river (California’s San Joaquin). Plus, he generated a list of 97 other suggested topics.27

Sutter confessed that only 9 percent of the voters wanted to read about the country with 100,000 new cases of leprosy per year, which would have been his “top pick.”

“This is journalism as democracy—rebalanced to give you power,” he told contributors in a column.28 Sutter said his aim is to get readers more invested in stories they might otherwise ignore, such as certain social justice issues.

He also acknowledged that the feedback wasn’t all positive. Some “have tweeted me that this is ‘not journalism’ because the story-selection is crowdsourced. Others called it a gimmick or a marketing ploy,” he wrote.29 Still others thought they should have been asked to submit whatever story ideas they wanted, rather than voting from a list.

Either way, Sutter said in an interview, “I think there was real wisdom in the crowd.” In mid-August 2015, he launched a new crowdsourcing project, Two Degrees. It focuses on “the most important number you’ve never heard of.” Namely, how to avoid a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, which is regarded as the threshold for “dangerous” climate change. The project was an intended lead-up to climate talks in Paris at the end of 2015.

First, Sutter asked which climate “villains” he should write about—voters could pick from four suggestions. The winner, again to his surprise, was animal agriculture (3,942 votes). “I was surprised people knew about it and wanted to hear about it,” he said. “People are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, with eating meat especially,” he said. Globally, he noted, livestock contribute only about 14.5 percent of all these emissions.

Sutter does most of his call-outs on Facebook, Twitter, and in his columns. He’s learned to shorten the time frame between when people first vote on the topics and when the stories actually appear. This allows people to realize they had a stake in making them happen. And he notes that CNN has invested a lot of resources in his reporting. He has traveled to Southeast Asia, Alaska, the Marshall Islands, and Silicon Valley.

For Sutter, crowdsourcing these story lists has been “central” to his CNN work for the last couple of years. “We don’t know everything that’s important in the world,” he said. “We need to do a better job of listening” to citizens.

Plus, he said, “It’s taken me to topics I would not have done.”

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