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Summary:

Journalism professor Jay Rosen says one of the lessons he has learned in his career is that “the more people who participate in the press, the stronger it will be.” In other words, while “crowdsourcing” can produce plenty of noise, journalism is the better for it.

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New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has written a blog post in which he describes the central lessons about the craft he has tried to convey to students in the 25 years he has been teaching, and one of the main lessons is, “the more people who participate in the press, the stronger it will be.” In other words, while “crowdsourcing” and blogging and Twitter and other real-time publishing tools can produce plenty of noise, in the long run, journalism is better for it. Many traditional journalists may not like to admit this is true, but Rosen is right.

In his post, Rosen describes what still stands as one of the major triumphs of large-scale crowdsourcing: the “MP Expenses” project launched by The Guardian in 2009 to investigate financial disclosure by thousands of British MPs. More than 20,000 people combed through close 200,000 documents looking for irregularities, with a rate of participation that dwarfs virtually any other similar project (about 56 percent in the first iteration). Not only that, but the experiment was a brilliant competitive move as well: The Guardian’s competitor The Telegraph got the documents declassified originally, but it was The Guardian that made the best use of them.

As Rosen notes, the rate of participation for many such social-media experiments isn’t high, since not everyone wants to be a journalist, or to function as one. But even if only one percent of the readers of a blog on a specific topic take an active role in helping to produce the journalism associated with it, that can still be hundreds of people.

And Rosen isn’t just talking theoretically about the merits of crowdsourcing journalism. The NYU professor has also been involved with several experiments aimed at testing the limits of this kind of new media. One was a project called Beatblogging, and the idea was to help reporters on specific beats connect with knowledgeable readers and sources who could help them. Beatblogging was wound up in 2009, but one of the journalists involved — David Cohn — went on to create a journalism-related startup called Spot.us, which crowdsources funding for journalistic projects.

Rosen was also involved in two other early crowdsourcing experiments. One was called “Assignment Zero”  –a joint venture with Wired magazine, where writer Jeff Howe first coined the term “crowdsourcing” — which was aimed at producing a series of articles through a mix of professional and amateur journalism. Howe later wrote about what he learned from that experiment — which he called a “highly satisfying failure” — including that crowdsourcing takes a lot of effort in terms of organization and co-ordination.

The other project Rosen helped launch was Off The Bus, a partnership with The Huffington Post aimed at reporting on the 2008 federal election campaign with more than 12,000 “citizen journalists.” That group included a retired teacher named Mayhill Fowler, who got not one but two scoops from the campaign: one involving a comment by Barack Obama and one by former President Bill Clinton. Critics complained Fowler should have divulged she was a reporter in both cases — and Rosen agreed that she probably should have — but the incidents showed that the practice of journalism had changed irrevocably. Now, anyone with a blog or a Twitter account or a cellphone camera could be a journalist, at least for a moment.

That has since been proven over and over, with photos and videos and reporting of everything from a plane landing in the Hudson River to earthquakes, and more recently, uprisings and revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Traditional journalists still have a role to play as well, in part because all that “crowdsourced” content has to be aggregated and curated — and verified and added to — by people such as NPR’s Andy Carvin, with new social-media powered tools like Storify.

But the reality is that the web, and the proliferation of cheap bandwidth and mobile devices and social tools, has made it easy for anyone to contribute to journalism — and as Rosen says, that does nothing but make the final product stronger.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Yan Arief Purwanto

  1. And just like TV, where there are more channels but less on, there is now more news but less information.

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  2. There is some truth to that, but there also has to be some guidelines and standards for that. For instance take a site like Topix. It claims to be a news aggregator and information site with citizen journalism, yet every other post is things like who is sleeping with who, who is the biggest whatever in town, tons of libel and defamation, etc. That is not journalism whatsoever. There has to be a balance and how that is achieved I am not exactly sure. Using Topix again as an example, requring users to register and having moderators approve or disapprove what gets out over the site (and no that is not restricting speech, it is simply making sure there is journalistic integrity and standards including writing style and content are being met) would be a positive step. To me the concept is the same as blogging. I have read some great blogging where people post their name and talk about things that newsworth and take pride in their writing styles and content. I consider that somewhat journalistic and a good thing. Then there are alleged blogs that have no journalistic value whatsoever. That is where it gets tricky, you have to have standards.

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    1. I agree, Brian — there has always been good journalism and bad journalism, and now we have more of both :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  3. It may be a matter of semantics, but I think what these additional people are doing is considered reporting, not journalism. All the information in the world is useless without the references with which to frame the information, and that’s not conveying the information, nor curating it. I can follow the acarvin Twitter stream, but if that’s the only news content I’m consuming, what does that tell me? Nothing. The news needs to have the analysis and historical framing and parallels drawn between that and similar events in order to make sense of anything. Otherwise, it is just noise without much meaning.

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    1. I agree in a way, Cyndy — I think what we have always thought of as “journalism” is being unbundled and distributed in its various component parts. So the on-the-ground reporting of things is now done by many, but it still takes someone to filter and verify and make sense of things (which Andy Carvin does, by the way). That someone can be a traditional journalist, or just about anyone else who has the skills and the brainpower and the knowledge.

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  4. I have noticed that the more I read from sites such as Gigaom, TechCrunch or even Huffington Post, the higher demand I put on the traditional media. I want the traditional media to give me the in depth coverage of any given topic, while I now go to specialized sites or media devices (flipboard anyone?) for the quick news.

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  5. Crowdsourcing can be both, good and bad. But for sure, we’ve noticed how “crowdsourcing is slowly changing the phase of journalism and other forms of writing”. Nowadays, crowdsourced articles are becoming better than those written by single authors, http://crowdsourcing.org/l/270. However, it doesn’t also mean that all crowdsourced articles are reliable.

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