02 May 2008


“The failure of one citizen journalism Web business after another this year ought to be showing news publishers that a business model based on readers doing reporters’ jobs for free isn’t working.”

This view was put forward by Online Journalism Review (OJR) at the end of last year in its list of five lessons to be learned from 2007.

OJR declared that the future of citizen reporting lies not with traditional journalism formats, but instead with “crowdsourcing techniques”.

More recently, “Long Tail” author Chris Anderson says news providers should harness the collective power of their “engaged, smart, informed, opinionated readers” in order to succeed in the digital age.

But how exactly can this be done? Is anyone already doing it? And what exactly are crowdsourcing techniques?

These are the questions to be addressed in this fortnight’s SPOTLIGHT post, and we’ll begin by taking a look at some definitions of crowdsourcing.

“The Rise of Crowdsourcing”

Jeff Howe is often credited with coining the term “crowdsourcing” in a Wired article of June 2006, entitled “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”.

Since then, Howe has produced two definitions for the term, which are worth quoting here in full:

“The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

“The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.”

So crowdsourcing involves utilising the talents of a big group of people to collaborate openly together to produce a large-scale end product.

Apply this specifically to a journalistic context, and the definition according to Poynter becomes:

“Crowdsourcing is taking a task traditionally accomplished by a professional journalist and includes outsourcing to a large group through an open call.

“Members of the public might be asked to gather information, use their expertise to examine documents, or participate in other ways.”

So one could say there is a spectrum of crowdsourcing techniques: At one end, users could be asked to perform small simple tasks such as reading papers, and at the other end the public could be researching and writing traditional journalism articles.

What unites these different types of projects though is the underlying assumption that the efforts of many non-specialists can prove more effective than those of an informed individual.

Or as Dan Gillmor neatly sums it up for all journalists: “my readers know more than I do”.


It should just be mentioned here that crowdsourcing is by no means a fixed definition and there are several other terms which are used interchangeably with it by some writers and practitioners.

Examples include pro-am journalism, which emphasises the collaboration aspect between users and professionals, and open-source journalism to stress transparency and freedom.

For the purposes of clarity, this post will adhere to the term crowdsourcing but will offer in its further reading section links to resources for anyone interested in knowing more about this aspect.

The Spectrum

As we’ve seen from Poynter’s definition, crowdsourcing can involve varying degrees of involvement from its amateur participants.

So the examples we’re going to look at will follow the pattern of this spectrum, starting with projects which require the least active engagement from readers.

We’ll then move on to examples where users and journalists are equally involved and also see some crowdsourcing multimedia techniques.

Finally, we’ll arrive at the opposite end of the spectrum where it’s the public which sets the agenda and produces fully-formed journalism pieces.

Lend Us Your Eyes

At its simplest level, news groups are deploying crowdsourcing techniques to help them quickly evaluate masses of data.

In essence this involves journalists obtaining reports, facts and figures, making these available to people and enlisting their help in reading them.

An excellent example of this at a local level comes from the Washington Examiner, which has established its own Community Action Network (WECAN).

Journalists have made databases available online and asked users to have a look through and report anything of interest.

Editorial Page Editor Mark Tapscott reveals that the network made public a database containing details of education sector workers’ compensation pay schemes and subsequently received numerous leads from readers.

Tapscott says the project “illustrates how the internet encourages an innovative partnering of media with the region’s residents and civic groups in expanding the resources available for independent analyses of local and regional public services”.

Similarly, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has opened a RocDocs section on its website where visitors are encouraged to examine databases containing information on local issues such as business, education and property.

Both these examples are permanent online fixtures, but the crowd can also be called upon to help with one-off reading projects too.

For instance, the Dallas Morning News recently got its hands on copies of numerous reports relating to the assassination of US president John F Kennedy which were found in a district attorney’s safe.

The scanned and uploaded documents are now online and visitors are busy reading through and alerting Morning News journalists to anything of potential interest.

And attracting the help of willing readers has also been used at a national level too, most notably in the US by independent website Talking Points Memo (TPM).

The site’s Muckraker blog enlisted the help of users to read through some 3,000 pages of a government document relating to the dismissals of attorneys nationwide.

Volunteers posted summaries of the sections they had read and also helped TPM gain a national perspective on the situation by submitting any extra information they had about attorneys in their area.

And the Guardian has shown how readers can be found to help with stories of an international significance too.

The newspaper has an online section devoted to its investigations into the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia.

According to UK journalism expert Charlie Beckett, the data made available on The BAe Files site has “encouraged a network of amateur and professional investigative journalists around the world to add to the digging”.

Data Collection

Getting users to spare a bit of time at their desks to read a few government papers is one thing, but how about enlisting their help in the field?

Well, a significant number of news groups have persuaded the audience to get out and about collecting facts and figures in order to create some rather impressive databases.

“Are you being gouged?” was the dramatic title for a New York radio station’s crowdsourcing project, which asked listeners to help find out the cheapest and priciest shops for certain foodstuffs.

While last November, Press Gazette reported that the Shropshire Star was asking its readers to provide details of local fuel prices.

As seen above, New York’s WNYC station is a keen advocate of crowdsourcing and it also enlisted the help of the public in finding out how many gas-guzzling vehicles are on its streets.

Such projects not only provide databases, they can prompt leads to news articles for both print and online newspapers.

This is exactly what happened last year when the Liverpool Daily Post appealed for any information about budget airline safety issues and ended up with a splash on the subject.

Leading the way with these crowdsourcing investigations in the US is publisher Gannett, which has restructured its newsrooms to better suit this way of interactive working.

The company’s biggest success so far has been the Fort Myers News-Press’s investigations into a utility pipeline scheme, which received over 6,500 posts from local residents.

Crowdsourcing The Multimedia Way

So far we have looked at text and database content produced from crowdsourcing initiatives, but there are plenty of other tools which can reinforce the impact of a story.

Independent media site ePluribus Media has used a timeline to present information submitted by residents about the events in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Mapping technology has also proved a useful tool in presenting crowdsourced information.

For instance, the Cincinnati Enquirer asked users to report any problems with their polling stations during an election in 2006 and mapped the resulting information.

Elections are fertile ground for crowdsourcing techniques and the New York Times is currently managing a project harnessing the photographic talents of its readers.

The NYT says its Polling Place Photo Project enables the public to document local voting experiences and to “contribute to an archive of photographs that captures the richness and complexity of voting in America”.

Journey’s End?

As we draw nearer the opposite end of the crowdsourcing spectrum, we’re going to take a brief look at some of the big projects – both current and planned – which require a little more from their volunteers.

Wired For Crowds?

Assignment Zero was a joint project between Wired magazine and Jay Rosen’s New Assignment.net.

The idea was to crowdsource a trend rather than an event, and they chose for their subject...crowdsourcing!

Jeff Howe explains the project’s objectives: “Have a crowd of volunteers write the definitive report on how crowds of volunteers are upending established businesses, from software to encyclopedias and beyond.”

The project accumulated a mass of narrative pieces, essays and interviews, and key players Rosen and Howe produced a couple of interesting articles discussing the successes and failures of the experiment.

Crowd The Campaign Trail

OffTheBus is another collaboration project from NewAssignment.net, this time with the Huffington Post website.

The plan is to provide “ground level coverage of campaign 08,” and some 1,800 unpaid volunteers are supplying articles, audio clips, video content, blog posts and other information to the site.

Its official wiki says the aim is to provide people with an idea of what’s really going on during the presidential nomination campaigns.

And it’s already scored its first controversy after a volunteer publicly disclosed comments made by Democratic hopeful Barack Obama during a political fundraising event.

The posting has prompted debates on the ethics of citizen reporting, with well known figures such as Jeff Jarvis and Michael Tomasky joining the discussion.

Crowd Control

We reach the end of the crowdsourcing spectrum with a proposal from UK online journalism lecturer and blogger Paul Bradshaw.

Bradshaw’s Citizen Investigation plans, which have been shortlisted for Knight News Challenge funding, would see the crowd not only research and write the story, it would also see them decide the story to be covered in the first instance.

Through a voting system, a large group of people would therefore be able to set the agenda and decide for themselves the issues they would want to work on.

Resources / Further Reading

Anyone interested in the history and development of crowdsourcing may want to take a look at James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”, which discusses the advantages of using aggregated information from a mass group.

Jeff Jarvis’s blog post about networked journalism is also worth a read, as is the blog from last year’s Networked Journalism summit.

While an invaluable resource for those who want to know the origins of the term is Jeff Howe’s blog dedicated to all crowdsourcing matters.

Meanwhile, the results from the Assignment Zero project about crowdsourcing contain some valuable essays about its development.

Among the 12 reprinted by Wired are “Creative Crowdwriting: The Open Book”, “What Does Crowdsourcing Really Mean”, and “Open-Source Journalism: It’s A Lot Tougher Than You Think”.

Practical Guides

For journalists interested in the nuts and bolts of crowdsourcing, OJR has a useful guide.

And American Journalism Review has a good article entitled “Crowded House” which has more examples of putting crowdsourcing ideas into practice.

While an online publisher from the Spokesman-Review has provided his top tips on putting together a network of engaged readers to help with stories.

Finally, OJR is currently asking journalists to give details of any good crowdsourcing projects dotting the landscape.


So that’s it for this fortnight’s SPOTLIGHT, we hope it’s been useful and, as always, please get in touch if you have any crowdsourcing examples you’d like to share.

And we’ll leave the last words on the subject to the man who coined the term, Jeff Howe, who reminds all journalists:

“One thing any volunteer project must inspire - be it citizen journalism, an open-source programming project or simply an AIDS drive - is passion.”



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