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.