Guest Speaker: Jeff Howe
Last week we had a chance to speak with a former Wired Magazine writer and current NU professor Jeff Howe. Howe discussed some of the finer points of crowdsourcing, an emerging practice of using your internet audience to augment your own efforts in journalism, business or art.
Howe discusse the three major functions of crowdsourcing in journalism, as a means to find stories, validate findings and theories or perform research that would otherwise be too time consuming for the smaller team found in a physical newsroom.
The conversation turned towards former U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales’s scandal and resignation in 2007, a story built largely by the crowdsourcing efforts of talkingpointsmemo.com blogger Joshua Micah Marshall.
While I do like the idea of tackling bigger stories with the aid of interested readers contributing to the sometimes messy business of tracking down sources, getting on-the-ground confirmation of facts and actually digesting the piles of data a good story may create, I can’t help but think of one important drawback: the loss of surprise.
During my brief time as a reporter, I’ve found that showing your hand while composing a hard-hitting article can give subjects a clear picture of what questions you are asking, how you are asking them and what you have found. While this may not be a major disadvantage when writing about the larger, slower moving elements of the federal government, a reporter covering municipal issues who likely has a spot near the top of City Hall’s RSS feed could see the rug pulled out from under them as they try to gather information.
Conversely, having a group of readers actively working on a case may signal to a public official that as Howe said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” but for that kind of influence to sink in you will need a story harder hitting than an overspent streetlight budget .
I guess a compromise solution on the local level would be to reach a smaller group of interested readers and work under some sort of confidentiality agreement, but at that point you are really blurring the line between reader and writer in a way that seems less than ideally transparent and could cause your core readers to start demanding a cut of your paycheck.
I have no doubt the power of the online masses will play a role in some of the biggest stories we will read in the coming years, watching the grapgic design and stock photo industries adapt new business models is encouraging, but as a local reporter I really have to wonder how the crowd will fit into my byline.