Deeper reporting builds community
Hear Reed's definition Run time: :28
A crowdsourcing example
Advice on crowdsourcing
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The authors are grateful to Matt Reed, Florida Today and Gannett for supplying the video and granting permission to publish it here.
Tips for using crowdsourcing
Identify venue for soliciting responsePost an original document to spark feedback
Check every tip for accuracy
Don't cast too wide a net
Focus on a specific topic
Don't confuse passion with accuracy
Consider a confidential place for readers to send tips
A guide to ‘crowdsourcing’
Reader-supplied information and documents help nail down stories
"Crowdsourcing" is a great-sounding phrase that actually means what it says: Ask the crowds for information.
To Skip Hidlay, executive editor of Gannett Company's Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, the term means "calling on citizens to help the reporter fully report the story."
To Matt Reed, an assistant managing editor at a sister newspaper, Florida Today, it means "asking your readers, or your audience, to help you solve a problem."
To everyday volunteer journalists, or people who write for citizen media, it can mean widening your circle of information-gathering beyond your own phone or e-mail. You not only open the door to generating news tips, you also can get help verifying information in hand. WIRED magazine's Jeff Howe covers the growth of crowdsourcing, in journalism and beyond, closely in his blog.
Crowdsourcing at work
Let's look again at Florida Today. (Full disclosure: Amy Eisman, who developed this module, has co-authored training modules for Gannett). Editors at the paper, based on the east coast of central Florida, had received a tip claiming that homeowners were being charged too much for storm insurance premiums.
Reed, the assistant managing editor, knew the reporting team needed documentation, but insurance policies are not part of the public record.
So he turned to his blog, where he asked homeowners to share their insurance experiences. He also requested copies of policies.
The paper received hundreds of tips, and at least two dozen readers allowed reporters to bring appraisers into their homes. Journalists found the verification they needed. "Companies were methodically overstating these things," Reed says of the policies. The story made front-page news. One of its conclusions: Homeowners were being overcharged by as much as $600.
Hidlay's New Jersey staff also uses information from readers to help the newspaper extend its reporting.
"A lot of times, the challenge as a reporter is how do you get inside knowledge," Hidlay says. Crowdsourcing "is a particularly effective tool when you have people inside an organization who may not be reachable through normal channels by a reporter."
Crowdsourcing can be risky
Hidlay's "best advice is to put the word out in some fashion, through (your) printed paper or the Web." Florida Today, for example, has a watchdog section that solicits information from readers.
But an open call for tips comes with a serious warning.
"When tips come in you treat them like any other tip or lead," Hidlay says. "We never use anything given to us by crowdsourcing raw. Verify. Verify. Verify."
"At the heart of journalism is accuracy."
— Rich Gordon,
He recalled one recent investigation of a major homebuilder. The paper had two reporters working the story full time for three months, collecting and posting documents, as well as checking tips sent in by readers. Only "one out of every three" was right, Hidlay says.
Rich Gordon, director of digital media in education at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, says this emphasis on checking information applies to citizen media sites as well as professional news sites.
"Any journalist who's ever covered a small community knows that some of the most active and vocal citizens are also, shall we say, some of the loosest cannons," Gordon writes in an e-mail. "What they say may be completely wrong and, even when right, they can get obsessive and difficult. Working journalists usually have developed an approach to dealing with folks like this, which often amounts to ignoring them. Which they do at their peril, because just sometimes these folks are absolutely right."
Hidlay puts it simply: "Citizen volunteers have to understand that the heart of journalism is accuracy. You can't take shortcuts."
Advice for citizen journalists
Of course, Florida Today and Asbury Park Press are professionally staffed newsrooms. So think hard about what you can take on. Longtime newsman Gordon Joseloff, who founded WestportNow.com, chooses instead to focus on training writers rather than creating a database of information in the crowdsourcing sense: "We don't have the staff to compile a lot of that," he says.
Medill's Gordon likewise says focus is key. He says The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., successfully launched an investigation because "they knew they were interested in some developers, so they invited people to share what they knew."
"Sharing" is also the word at American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio, where the four-year-old Public Insight Journalism initiative has drawn input from 30,000 sources and produced about 250 stories based on their collective insight.
When producers have specific ideas, or want to explore a topic, they send an e-mail query linking to a short online survey, says Andrew Haeg, senior producer. The e-mails are private. Topics can range from economy and health care to travel, with lots more in between.
"It reverses the process of going to the experts first," says Haeg, who turned to the network to explore whether the economic recovery a few years back really covered everyone. (It didn't; see the story.) "We received 100 responses in our network from all over the state."
Haeg couches his advice in two ways. One is aimed at traditional newsrooms, which he thinks should open up to the public, rethink old mindsets and embrace broader views of the world.
The other is for CitJ sites to consider partnering with traditional media who may have the expertise to build the gathered information into a wider narrative. Sometimes the citizen publisher does not have enough time or resources to "take those germs of an idea and build them out," he says.
To both sides, he says, "drop your prejudices." Working together can help serve the community.