Merging crowdsourcing and feature journalism?

by CBJ

Back in 2006, Jeff Howe, Editor at Wired Magazine, defined crowdsourcing as “[…] the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.” This type of action seems to be in the very essence of the Internet and when it comes to journalism, engaging the masses and combining the knowledge of thousands of people is an opportunity not to be missed. In this post we will take a closer look at how crowdsourcing or certain elements of this phenomenon can be assessed specifically in the context of online feature and narrative journalism.

The world has seen a great deal of exciting experiments involving the readers/users in online journalism the past couple of years. An example could be the Guardian and its launching of an experiment in 2009 involving thousands of readers in trawling through thousands of political documents related to MP’s expenses. However to do this type of crowdsourcing you need at least one vital thing: a big audience with an incentive to put in the work. It’s difficult doing as a startup as well as in the sphere of single-piece and feature journalism, which sometimes can be months underway. But perhaps there are other ways of involving the audience in these formats? Spot.us is an online platform where journalists pitch ideas and readers contribute money, thereby crowdfunding the realization of an idea. While the idea of community-funded reporting sounds promising and has proved its worth to some degree, Spot.us has not been a total success. A lot of “community members” were willing to donate money, but getting them to participate further by interacting with the writers, sharing knowledge and tips or helping otherwise, proved difficult. When asked in a study by Tanja Aitamurto (2011), the donors explained that they weren’t really interested in engaging in interaction. The reasons behind the donations were altruistic (supporting the common good), and the writer was seen as the expert, so it wasn’t really a peer-to-peer relationship. However the community members still had great impact in the sense, that they decided which stories was realized.

Another example of crowdsourcing within longform journalism is ‘The Big Roundtable’ founded by Michael Shapiro. The basic idea is that anyone can submit their stories and gatekeeping editors are cut out of the mix. Instead a panel of readers receives an excerpt of the story via e-mail and decides whether its interesting or not. If they say yes, the story is sent to another panel of readers, and if someone there too wants to read more only then does an editor begin working with the author. In the end the non-fiction piece is sold on the website and the author gets 1 dollar from each sale. This way the readers get to decide the stories (as on Spot.us, but without an editor who decides which stories people can choose from), not editors with old ideas and commercial concerns. However, the degree of crowdsourcing depends on the amount of readers asked to vet the stories, and even though everyone can submit a story, you have to be a skilled writer to get through the eye of the needle.

Whereas community members weren’t really interested in contributing anything than money on Spot.us, The Atlantic is a good example of an online community being mutually beneficial for both readers and writers. Last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates won a National Magazine Award for his essay ‘Fear of a black president’. The essay was brought in print, however as a response he wrote a blog post thanking “the horde” online, for assisting him in his reporting and ultimately helping shape the content: “People often praise this site for its online community. They speak to me as though I am doing a public service. In fact, my aims are wholly selfish. This is my notebook. The scribblings and post-its have to actually help me,” he wrote. This is a good example of what Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine, 2006) calls ‘networked journalism’ in which journalism is a collaborative process with professionals and amateurs working together, sharing links, perspectives, ideas and so forth. The feature writer is the expert who synthesizes all the information, presents it in a compelling narrative, giving it back to the readers, who can then comment again. It is not the type of crowdsourcing that for instance The Guardian uses, but when it comes to feature journalism a skilled writer is needed. Audience and readers can contribute with fruitful inspiration, ideas and tips. However, it requires a fitting model and a community that stimulates this kind of mutual interaction. The question is how you build and sustain such a thing? Well, for one thing it takes time and effort and you have to make the community members feel like they actually have an impact on the journalism and are taken seriously.

In the end there are several different ways to engage the public. From low-level participation like creating a poll and asking users for their opinion to a high level of engagement, for example asking readers to write their own articles. The possibilities to use the wisdom of the crowds are tremendous. As the previous example of The Atlantic shows, writing stories can benefit immensely from user generated input. However, it seems as though the different ideas and projects around crowdsourcing are still in an early phase of development and the question of, what perfect crowdsourcing for feature journalism looks like, remains. What we can do though, is to ask you, the reader, to comment and tell us what you think about writing for and with “the horde”. After all, this is what crowdsourcing is all about, isn’t it? //

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