As the media have become more social and thereby more “networked” — whether they like it or not — smart publishers like The Guardian and ProPublica have taken advantage of this phenomenon to crowdsource knowledge in a variety of ways. A decade or more after the concept started to become commonplace, the battle over whether it has journalistic value seems to have been mostly won. Now it is about developing a shared vocabulary and methods for helping journalists do it.
New York University professor Jay Rosen has spent almost 15 years working on this idea, work that has included projects like NewAssignment.net in 2006 and a joint venture with The Huffington Post called OffTheBus, which originally launched in 2008 and had at least one spectacular success). More recently, he has built a kind of real-time journalism lab at NYU called Studio 20, and is helping his students not only develop new ideas for networked reporting, but work with a number of media companies to actually implement those ideas.
The shock of inclusion is not as severe
Rosen isn’t just leaving this to his students: he himself is also working on a joint venture with Quartz, the business site that is part of Atlantic Media, to explore the best ways to do “networked journalism” in real time — a venture he launched on Monday night. In a somewhat unusual partnership that seems more like a consulting arrangement than a typical journalism-school role, Rosen asked Quartz for the “specs” of what they were looking for, and then tried to meet them.
In the specifications, Quartz says it wants “to put together a suite of tools and techniques for quickly booting up a network around a fast-moving, ongoing global news story that cuts across traditional beat boundaries.” Gideon Lichfield, the site’s global news editor, has written in the past about how Quartz sees its reporters and writers as indulging in or exploring “obsessions” rather than typical beats, and Rosen said it saw the need for new tools to do that.
In an IM interview (which is embedded in full below, with edits made for clarity) Rosen said that he believes the cultural barriers to seeing the crowd as having something to contribute to journalism — what media theorist Clay Shirky has called the “shock of inclusion” — have been lowered somewhat, so there is less of a sales job for journalists who want to experiment with these approaches.
“That is less of a factor than it was years ago. There are enough people who know what ‘readers know more than I do’ means, and they have experience with the reality of it.”
Remember the 90-percent rule
Rosen also said that there are enough journalists and others even in traditional newsrooms and media entities who are interested in new ways of reaching out to what Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience,” and are just looking for help. So Studio 20 has partnerships with outlets as varied as the Wall Street Journal, ProPublica and Mashable in which students work with the partner to develop and implement new tools and methods.
In terms of what media outlets need to know before they begin this process, Rosen said one important factor is knowing that whatever they do will be governed by the “90-percent rule” — a rule of thumb in social media that suggests most crowdsourcing projects will see about 1 percent of the participants contribute heavily and 9 percent contribute somewhat, with 90 percent just “lurking.”
“90 percent will never participate, so what do we have for them? 10 percent might engage, but you have to have the right ask, the right incentives, the right UI. One percent are your core contributors, but you have to find them, deeply engage them, compensate them. That is way harder than ‘let’s crowdsource this!’”
Sources can now go direct
In some cases, compensation might be monetary, Rosen says — or it might take the form of other rewards (The Guardian and ProPublica have both talked about their experiments with crowdsourcing projects in the past, and what they have learned about how to structure them so that people are encouraged to participate). Mayhill Fowler eventually left the Huffington Post project in part because she wasn’t compensated for her work.
Rosen also said that crowdsourcing doesn’t always have to involve building tools: for example, two of his students used Reddit threads (called sub-Reddits) and extracted information about specific topics that later turned into stories for Mashable.
The NYU journalism professor agreed that good beat reporters have always used some form of crowdsourcing in their work, but says it is much easier now to reach out and find high-quality sources of information in real time. And he added that there is one major difference between now and then: namely, that sources can publish themselves and “go direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described it, and that changes the balance of power for journalists. If anything, he says, this makes the need for effective crowdsourcing even more acute.