The wisdom of crowds

Why I’m interested in First Look’s new social-journalism project

As I reported earlier today, First Look Media editor Andy Carvin — formerly of National Public Radio — has just launched a new project called Reportedly, which will see a staff of half a dozen reporters focus on using social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit for journalistic purposes. There are a number of things that interest me about this idea, not the least of which is the fact that Carvin says he prefers to think of the Reportedly team as being “anchor/producers” for the communities on those social platforms, rather than traditional reporters.

Whatever you think of the term “anchor/producers” — or the term “news DJ,” which is the one that Carvin (who is a friend) often used to describe what he did on Twitter during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt — I like the fact that this First Look Media team are trying to think about their jobs in a different way, because that means they have a chance of shaking off some of the preconceived notions about what journalists should and shouldn’t do in such situations.

As Carvin mentioned in his interview with me, too many media outlets approach platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Reddit either as sources to be plundered — meaning they take content from those platforms and repurpose it on their own platform or website, in many cases without attribution — or simply as distribution outlets: places where you post your links and then hope that enough people share them that they “go viral.”

Not just for clickbait

Reportedly explicitly doesn’t want to take that approach to these online communities. Instead, Carvin says, it wants to treat those platforms as destinations in their own right — and their users not just as passive sources of content or viral link-clickers, but potential partners in committing acts of real-time journalism. As his introductory message puts it:

“We don’t try to send people away from their favorite online communities just to rack up pageviews. We want to tell stories from around the world, serving these online communities as our primary platforms for reporting?—?not secondary to some website or app. Forget native advertising?—?we want to produce native journalism for social media communities, in conjunction with members of those communities.”

This is a dramatically different approach than many reporters take to such platforms, particularly Reddit, which is often seen as a backwater filled with mouth-breathing reprobates. But as groups like the Syrian Civil War sub-Reddit have shown, the platform can serve a real purpose when it comes to real-time reporting. And this isn’t reporting that is designed to live somewhere else — it is created and consumed on Reddit.

Crowdsourcing

BuzzFeed is doing something roughly equivalent with a project it is calling BuzzFeed Distributed, which has a team of writers and editors creating content of various kinds that is designed to live within the various social platforms, whether it’s Twitter and Facebook or Snapchat and Instagram. They aren’t designed to push users to the BuzzFeed site, but to raise awareness of the BuzzFeed brand and meet potential future readers on their home turf, in a sense (and likely also to show potential advertisers that it understands such communities and how they function).

News as a process

The other main thing that interests me about Carvin’s project is that it is explicitly taking a “news as a process” approach to real-time journalism — in other words, it sees truth in the journalistic sense as something that evolves over time, with multiple inputs from multiple different sources, some professional and some not, and fact-checking that is done in real time and in full public view. To quote from Reportedly’s statement of core values:

“There will be many occasions where we will share information that hasn’t been confirmed yet. We do so in the spirit of providing context to our newsgathering process, as well as inviting the public to help us confirm or debunk aspects of a particular news story. We will always be clear about what has not been confirmed. What we discuss on social media shouldn’t be seen as the conclusions of our reporting; instead, it’s the opening gambit of a public conversation that we hope will help us sort fact from fiction.”

This is the same process that Carvin used when he was reporting during the Arab Spring, using his Twitter followers as a kind of crowdsourced newsroom (as he described it to me in a previous interview). There were plenty of media types who criticized this approach, arguing that journalists shouldn’t make statements if they can’t prove they are true, but I think there is a clear social value in having that process occur in public — not the least of which is the old open-source software adage that “more eyes mean fewer bugs.”

If there’s one overwhelming aspect of Reportedly’s approach, it’s this collaborative element: the idea that Twitter users or Reddit posters aren’t just passive consumers of content, but have the potential to become active, engaged contributors to the practice of journalism, broadly defined. It’s an ambitious effort and it isn’t guaranteed to succeed, but I think it’s a worthwhile gamble, and I’m glad First Look is doing it. Other outlets should pay attention — and they should read Reportedly’s statement of core values too.

3 Responses to “Why I’m interested in First Look’s new social-journalism project”

  1. So this is an idea formed from a base of existing possibilities coalesced into a newsroom that uses us a its street level reporters while it builds a story. Interactive within each platform and so designed to appeal to those who already use the platform.