*Update – my NewsTrust member page can be found here.*
In the past week I spent some time evaluating articles on NewsTrust.net, a website meant to aid online news consumers in the quest for good journalism by posting and critiquing stories.
Overall, I like what I saw on NewsTrust and think that if the project can expand its membership beyond hardcore newsies, the site could be a definitive voice in online news coverage.
Like most crowdsourcing projects, NewsTrust relies on a large community to sift through information and pass judgment on articles and their authors before the information becomes irrelevant. Because these articles are so time-sensitive, a larger, more active group of reviewers could go a long way to ensure journalistic gems from smaller media outlets are not overlooked.
As it stands, the 20,000-plus reviewing community largely gravitates towards mainstream news like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, rather than smaller local publications where readers could most benefit from an uninvolved third party reviewer.
Additionally, people tend to review websites they agree with and often pass over reviewed articles from news sites they would not normally read, creating some minor bias issues since unpopular news platforms face less reader scrutiny. As an experiment, I posted a review for a profile from MSNBC and an AP report posted on FoxNews. Not surprisingly, my MSNBC article had a lot more follow up reviews compared to the Fox report.
While the uneven focus of reviews is an issue for the site in its current state, I feel like this problem will decline as the number of users making regular reviews grows and the community becomes more active and diverse.
As a journalist, I see NewsTrust as becoming a handy source for both reviewing my own work as well as helping me find reliable information of past events which I may be pushed into the middle of and asked to cover. For example, if I were to cover the school board in a city I have just transferred to, I would want to not only read up on past events, but do so with the comfort that what I am reading has been established as fair, unbiased coverage before I start forming my own questions.
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.