I’ll be leading a crowdsourcing workshop this afternoon at the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., the first of 18 Journal Register Co. newsrooms I will be visiting in June and July. The workshop starts at 4:30 p.m. and we’ll be livestreaming it.
Some aspects of community engagement draw skepticism from traditional journalists because they represent significant new directions. Old-school journalists should embrace crowdsourcing because we have always worked hard to find good sources in the community. Crowdsourcing gives us more efficient techniques for finding sources.
I frequently hear a valid concern from journalists that the demands of digital journalism and community engagement give journalists more and more to do. But crowdsourcing can also save journalists time, connecting them with sources more swiftly than traditional journalism techniques.
Some people define crowdsourcing to include gathering content from the community, provided through social media and blogs. For the purposes of this workshop and blog post, I am going to define crowdsourcing more narrowly as efforts by journalists to ask the public to provide information or actual content. I will address the issue of gathering the content the public is producing in a later blog post and workshop on curation and aggregation.
Crowdsourcing is not a magic wand that suddenly produces eyewitnesses and whistle blowers just because you asked. You need to build connections and credibility:
Engage the crowd. Crowdsourcing works best when the crowd is listening to you and trusts you with its information. Don’t expect that you are going to get much response to a crowdsourcing request on Twitter if you have only 100 followers and most of them are journalists and friends. You also won’t get much response to a crowdsourcing request if you tweet only headlines. As I blogged recently, you need to build engagement. Be conversational on Twitter, in your blog, in your newspaper column, and people will feel more like conversing with you when you are asking for their help.
Use multiple platforms. Twitter is a great tool for crowdsourcing, but reaches only a small slice of the community. Place crowdsourcing requests on your blog, your home page, your Facebook page, with installments of continuing stories, in the newspaper, on your newscasts, and in personal engagement with the community.
Do the groundwork. You will sometimes get (and deserve) a response from the crowd that says, “Do your own job.” If the crowd can see you working hard to tell important stories, they will be more interested in helping you tell them. If they see you begging for everything, they will tune you out quickly.
Keys to the crowdsourcing conversation:
Say what you know. Journalistic tradition is that you hold back everything until you have all the facts. Too much of the time, this is the silly fear of “scooping ourselves” that confused early efforts on the web. The fear of tipping the competition about what you are working on remains strong in many news organizations, particularly in investigative journalism. Sometimes this is a valid concern. But more often, saying what you know early puts you in front of the story. And a responsive crowd will help you stay out front.
Say what you want to know. Your crowdscourcing efforts need to include specific questions and requests. You do need a general appeal for information on the topic (because sometimes you won’t know enough yet to ask the right questions). But the more you specify exactly what you are looking for, the more likely to are to get responses. An interview works best with a combination of specific questions and general invitations to talk. Crowdsourcing is essentially interviewing the crowd, so ask the same combination of general and specific questions.
Say what you don’t know. If you ask your questions effectively, your crowdsourcing efforts will stimulate discussion in your community. Your requests will imply some knowledge on your part, and some people may infer incorrectly some other knowledge. Be clear and specific about what you don’t know, both to identify correctly what you want to know and to avoid spurring rumors.
Say what you still want to know. Provide updates on your story, both to show what you have learned and to specify what you’re still looking for. Your updates will catch the attention of some people who missed your first appeal and they will build some credibility with some people who didn’t respond to your first appeal.
Don’t spread rumors. Some stories (or pieces of stories) are not suitable for crowdsourcing. If you are investigating reports of wrongdoing by an individual or agency, you must be careful in wording crowdsourcing requests. Or you may decide that you have to use other techniques in pursuing this story.
Vet the sources and the information. Crowdsourcing is an essential place to ask the most important question in journalism: How do you know that? Especially in investigative or sensitive stories, you can’t crowdsource yourself into publishing rumors and false stories. Out of malice and misinformation, people will pass along information to you that is false. You can’t rely on the Judith Miller excuse of “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.” Your responsibility is to get the facts right, wherever they come from. NPR’s Andy Carvin is doing an outstanding job of showing how you can use the crowd to help you vet sources and information. He retweets information he has not confirmed yet, noting the need for verification, asking questions of his many followers and quickly nailing down the facts.
Crowdsource throughout the storytelling process:
Ideas and tips. Solicit story ideas from the community. This can be an old-fashioned tip line for people to call in story ideas. It can be an appeal on Twitter. Molly Rossiter, who covered faith and values at The Gazette when I was in Cedar Rapids, would ask her tweeps for suggestions when seasonal stories such as Advent and Lent rolled around. You can solicit story ideas with a submission tool on your website. Some sort of reward for the best tip of the week or month might keep the tips coming. You can use the community as your assignment editor, as Daniel Victor did when he was at the Harrisburg Patriot-News. (He was planning a similar project at TBD when the owner decided to cut our staff.)
As you gather information. After you have your story idea, you can ask more specific questions. This is not necessarily a onetime appeal, but a conversation. Dan gave an excellent explanation (with a graphic inspired by Meg Pickard) on his blog post, My true motivation behind a month-long series about dating.
When you have data to search. One of the most spectacular crowdsourcing successes was the Guardian’s data dump of the expense claims of members of Parliament. The wisdom — and numbers — of the crowd enabled the Guardian to find the suspicious expenses much quicker than reporters working alone could have.
When you publish. However much you have involved the community in your reporting effort, the publication of a story is a great time to ask the community to continue the conversation and give more information.
You can use crowdsourcing in a variety of situations:
Investigations. One of the first (perhaps the first) newspaper exercises that was identified as crowdsourcing was the Fort Myers News Press investigation of excessive sewer and water hookup fees in Cape Coral, Fla. By asking the public to “help us investigate,” the journalists swiftly collected individual stories and received a copy of a city audit that had not been released. In days they cracked a story (and got results) that could have taken months of traditional painstaking investigative reporting. In addition to the Guardian’s expenses project, Talking Points Memo’s investigation of the firing of U.S. attorneys was one of the most famous examples of crowdsourced investigative journalism.
Breaking news. Your staff reporters and photojournalists frequently aren’t on the scene when news breaks. They may arrive minutes later, but the most immediate photos are usually taken by people on the scene with cellphones. Ask people to share their photos and videos and their accounts of what happened. My case study of how @statesman used Twitter to cover a spot story in Austin, Texas, shows how crowdsourcing fits into aggressive coverage of breaking news.
Annual stories. The Veterans Day story is a journalism staple: A reporter interviews a veteran about his or her war experience. At TBD, we asked the crowd to tell the stories of the veterans in their lives, inviting them to post stories on a Google map and using a #wheretheyserved hashtag on Twitter. This is an example of how crowdsourcing is a traditional part of journalism. I remember in 1991 at the Minot Daily News, on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we asked people to share their memories. Memories of mom have been a Mother’s Day staple of newspapers for generations.
Community information. Your community knows the best places and the worst places to experience different facets of community life. Ask the crowd to help you identify them, as WNYC does with its bird-watching map and SUV map. The Register Citizen is already doing some effective community information crowdsourcing by asking its community to vote on a weekly Top 5 list.
Supplement staff work. When TBD staff set out to check every escalator in the Washington Metro system, we asked the community to report on escalators with us. We wanted to be sure that we checked all the escalators (some major stops literally have dozens of escalators), and reports from the public might not be as specific as we would be (they might report an escalator at West Falls Church wasn’t working, but we would report that the up escalator from the bus parking lot to the station wasn’t working; they wouldn’t mention whether they had checked all five other escalators but we we would report that five of the six WFC escalators were working). But the public reports added some immediacy (one reported an escalator lurching to a stop as she was on it), humor and commentary that were a great supplement to our staff work.
Crowdmaps. The Veterans Day and escalator stories used Google maps, but Crowdmap is developed specifically for crowdsourcing. We used it at TBD for maps of Metro transit and election problems. The Ellensburg Daily Record used it last month to show where the community was flooded. My former TBD colleague Mandy Jenkins developed an excellent tutorial on using Crowdmap.
Ask people to share photos: When big news events happen in your community, even if you send staff photojournalists to capture the images, people in the community are taking photos. Invite the public to send you photos using a Flickr channel, Twitter hashtag or a submission tool on your website. We did that a lot at TBD for events such as rallies on the National Mall.
A blog post about crowdsourcing wouldn’t be complete without an appeal to the crowd. Please share your crowdsourcing tips and examples in the comments.
Crowdsourcing resources and examples:
Here are my slides for today’s workshop: