December 8th, 2008

Crowdsourcing, citizen journalism, and the lesson of scrapbook news

by

I want to further explore the idea of “scrapbook news” as a way of reframing the crowdsourcing/citizen journalism discussion.

One reason mainstream news organizations haven’t embraced the concepts may be that the spirit (if not the letter) of the cit-j discussion tends to focus on the people involved rather than the news being covered. That is, the tonal takeaway is often something like “Who needs professional journalists? Throw the useless bums out of their tower!”

These ideas might get a better reception if the discussion instead focused on which kinds of news are best suited to coverage by people outside the newsroom.

Scrapbook news offers an interesting example. Matt Waite wrote a great comment about this kind of news on my previous post:

When I was a kid — the 80s — when I or a group I was part of did something scrapbook worthy, my mom would type up a little announcement about it and bring it to the local twice weekly. Next edition, there it was, almost unchanged. Scrapbooking would ensue. Far from an experiment in crowdsourcing, this is the way it’s done in small towns across the country. The only experiment is how to scale it from a community of 6,000 to 60,000 to 600,000.

In the past, my cynical response to news items like that would have been “What’s this doing here?!? It’s not news!!” But to many people, it is news. For most readers, seeing their name in the paper is worth more years of goodwill and subscriptions than any blockbuster investigative story.

A more appropriate response (for cynics and non-cynics alike) would be: “Why are we spending time on this when readers could do just as good a job, and in doing so become more engaged with the paper?”

The truth is, scrapbook news written by journalists is effectively the same as scrapbook news submitted by the would-be scrapbookers. If the story is “Megan won the 4-H award at the fair,” how much of a difference does it make to have a journalist write the story rather than Megan’s mom? (Though you’d probably still want some minimal level of editing so every item didn’t say “Goooo, Megan!” Or maybe that would be ok too.)

The key would be to acknowledge that while scrapbook news is news, certain kinds of news might not carry the same burden of expertise, professionalism, polish or “objectivity” (if you believe in that sort of thing) as city council coverage might.

Come to think of it, even some city council coverage could fall under this category. As more governing bodies stream their meetings online and provide downloadable transcripts and video, why couldn’t gadflies and other interested people cover some meetings, with full-time journalists focusing on follow-up reporting? (For a contrary view, see Daniel Victor’s excellent series of posts on crowdsourcing.)

Similarly — though on a subject of less civic importance — why couldn’t sports fans provide some game coverage? Are readers really that much better served by a journalist giving a play-by-play rundown of a game that anyone with the right satellite-TV package can see, topped off with a handful of clichéd quotes?

I’m not suggesting sports reporters never do serious reporting. But fans are so immersed and educated in sports minutiae that they could point out key plays and strategies just as well as a journalist can, which would free up sports reporters for more non-game reporting. And the world would be a much better place if there were fewer quotes about wanting it the most, winning it in the trenches, doing what we came to do which was to win, just taking it one day at a time.

Letting outsiders cover some of these topics doesn’t have to mean abandoning editorial standards. Newsrooms could require that any contributors attend a session about journalism and editorial standards. Once it’s contributors’ name on the story and readers start lobbing criticism at them, they’ll realize that adhering to those standards is the best defense.

So let’s review: Reader-contributors get as excited about seeing their names in the paper as li’l Matt Waite’s mom was back in the day. Strained newsrooms are relieved of some of their burden without stinting on certain coverage. Journalists stop hearing that Random Person #72 could do their job better, because the journos now have more time to focus on the reporting that no random person could do.

What newsroom would say no to that deal?

UPDATE: This is linked via trackback in the comments, but be sure to read John Zhu’s tour de force response post. He raises lots of good questions. I’ll try to respond once I’ve had a chance to process all of it.

Comments (14 Responses so far)

  1. The thought of scrapbook news is a great description. The weekly I freelance for has a community section that is exactly that. It serves a purpose, is edited by the paper but submitted (for the most part) by residents.

    Town meetings and sporting events wouldn’t work that way. Sure, a resident can report on what happened at a game or at a meeting, but you can’t convince me – or any journalist with decades of experience – that attending a session about journalism and editorial standards can replace a journalism degree, years of interpreting and reporting on public officials, or even the understanding that comes from spending time speaking with athletes, coaches and others between games.

    For a while I saw myself as a professional journalist with a foot in both pools, but that’s not accurate. While I keep many blogs and contribute my writing to publications in print, video, audio and online, I have built the skills that allow me to report in a way readers still value.

    It might be elitist to say that reporters are the only ones who should report on stuff, but at least it gives readers a known element. If you open the gates wider to encourage everyone to blurt their opinions (that’s the real danger – along with agendas) on the pages of our news vehicles, then the news loses value and the world turns into a cocktail party where everyone talks AT everyone else and nobody goes home any smarter or more informed.

  2. Fifty-six years ago I successfully submitted high school sports stories to our local paper. A year later they hired me as a full time reporter. Fifty-two years ago I published my own weekly newspaper. Many of my successful writing friends had similar starts in what became a life-long career. School never would have prepared us for those realities we experienced by regularly writing for a newspaper — of learning how to communicate with the masses. I have found that properly written material on valid subjects almost always gets published. Improperly prepared material invariably ends up in the “round” filing cabinet. No sub-editor has the time to rewrite well-intentioned but terrible material and he/she detests propaganda.

  3. It’s an interesting concept that leads the discussion forward (thankfully) to defining some of the hard details of how to run a newsroom in the future, what stories to cover, what not to cover.

    In this scenario — and assuming a healthy dose of link journalism is included, where the discussion might take place on another site — you’d want to really get a good handle on your site stats — what stories are generating comments, clicks and even email forwards. It might even require a specific hire who’s job it is to monitor these stats on a daily basis and deliver them in editorial meetings.

    Most writers and editors are going to hate this “feedback” at first, but think of it this way, not only is it saving your job, but editorial self-policing keeps the suits out of your hair.

    If you based your editorial decisions on site traffic and interactions, you’d finally have graphs and charts of your own to prove out your decisions.

    It’s about serving the interests of your audience, after all, and weirdly enough, you finally have the tools to do just that.

    And it doesn’t have to be about pandering, but it does mean learning how to tell stories in a way that engages today’s readers. That’s not so hard, and it’s going to make you a better journalist.

  4. Josh,

    ‘Scrapbooking’ is nice. I don’t think, however, it leverages the power of crowdsourcing.

    A great advantage of crowdsourcing are the perspectives from the crowd. For example, the Mumbai terror may be interpreted by an Indian member of the crowd as fanatical Pakistanis bent on diminishing India’s economy; a Pakistani member of the crowd may interpret the attacks as patriotic retribution to Indian aggression; or, the U.S. may interpret it as an Al Queda attempt to incite war between India and Pakistan, thus pulling the Pakistani military away from the Kashmir border relieving pressure on the Taliban.

    Whatever the truth may be, none of these is completely the sole reason, nor completely unfounded. Somewhere between them all, and countless other perspectives, lies the truth.

    Journalism should leverage the crowd to create a combined truth reached from all perspectives, rather than a single truth that found its way to the surface among other latent ones.

    That’s a model for crowdsourcing…and journalism.

    ~Rob
    http://web3solutions.blogspot.com

  5. Josh is right. Of course any editor of a community newspaper could tell you that “scrapbook” news is gold, especially with photos. People eat it up and always have.

    Problems: If a major metro starts accepting such submissions, how long before pranks become common or gang members start using it to send coded messages? And I wonder how many contributors would actually be willing to submit to a journalism-standards class.

    Also, I tend to doubt that an online mention would be cherished nearly as much as getting one’s name in a paper or magazine. That may be a good thing because it preserves the value of print.

    Of course there’s only one way to find out if any of these concerns are valid. Everything is worth a try.

  6. [...] Korr of Publishing 2.0 has written a thoughtful post in which he proposes a citizen journalism model for “scrapbook news” — you know, the tidbits about kids winning rec league titles and 4-H awards. I think this [...]

  7. Using citizens for “scrapbook” journalism makes lots of sense. (And, as a former reporter who, early in his career, had to write that stuff, I can tell you many in the biz would appreciate having someone else do it.)
    But I still think people who advocate using citizens to cover, say, a City Council meeting, don’t understand what reporters really do. I used to cover the Charlotte, NC, City Council. Most of it was tedious (once I sat on my butt for 10 hours at a meeting that produced no news). But sitting in the meetings was the least of it. It was my job to get to know everything I could about each of the council members. I wanted to be aware of possible conflicts of interest (council member Jones voting to construct a public park knowing it bordered land his company owned on which it planned to build a subdivision, for example). I needed to know about the aspirations of the council members (Democratic council member Smith’s oft-expressed desires for a State Senate seat meant her sudden decision to vote with the Republicans on a bill signaled that something was up behind the scenes). And I needed to know a lot about their personal lives (Council member White’s finding herself on the wrong end of an alienation of affection suit the day before an election — this really happened — wasn’t a surprise to me and I knew the context and was able to cover it).
    I can’t imagine citizens who don’t devote their full time to a beat being able to make much real sense of it, much less provide the context and background that makes the news the news.,

  8. @Rob — You’re right, and I think that’s what Matt Waite was getting at in his comment on my previous post. I first mentioned scrapbook news in the context of crowdsourcing, but it’s really more an example of citizen journalism.

    @Henry — You said “But sitting in the meetings was the least of it.” @Jeff — You note that journalists draw on “years of interpreting and reporting on public officials, or even the understanding that comes from spending time speaking with athletes, coaches and others between games.” (emphasis added)

    That’s exactly my point: The meetings and games are the least of it.

    The real news is what reporters find when they spend time learning about officials’ positions and personalities; digging into the stuff that gets announced at meetings; and “speaking with athletes, coaches and others between games.”

    I’m not suggesting journalists stop attending all meetings and games, or that these events take up the bulk of their time. And as John Zhu notes in the post linked in comment No. 6 above, “Covering a team’s games is a big part of how journalists build connections.” But in the aggregate, I think newsrooms spend too much time and resources on events simply because a common operating definition of news is “a live event that we saw in person.”

    But in many cases, the fact that a person spoke or that a live event happened is NOT news. (Or to the extent that it’s news, it’s information that anyone with a TV or computer can see instantly.)

    News organizations didn’t have to send 15,000 journalists to the party conventions last year. Daniel Victor’s editors didn’t have to send him to a faux campaign event. When I was a news editor for an innovative free tab at the St. Pete Times, my editor insisted — rightly — on not making a big deal out of political debates and even State of the Union addresses.

    Having reporters at any of these events or offering blowout coverage does not necessarily help readers better understand policies or how a convention/debate/etc. affects them. Having reporters spend that time interviewing policy experts and reading books and white papers, on the other hand, would help readers understand politics better.

    And if you still want to cover that live stuff, sometimes you could do just as well by having someone outside the newsroom do it. Just ask George “Macaca” Allen.

  9. I’m going to be a contrarian here.

    Getting excited about being featured in the local paper or on the TV news is a thing of the past.

    Going forward no one will care as that news now gets (or will get) out by other means.

    And there is no reason to believe that the new news sources will be local. The town’s champion knitter may prefer to be featured on Champion Knitting.com as opposed to in the Local Town Gazette.

    I just don’t see a big market for this type of “local news” in the Facebook, YouTube era.

  10. The foundation of the photo slideshow in newspapers today is based on the idea that people want to see themselves in the “paper”. It validates their existence and that they are important or that they “participated” or “accomplished” something.

    I am a freelance editorial photographer and I see it all the time and its not just from people of an age when if the newspapers didn’t report it, it didn’t happen.

    It used to be that assignments were to be 3 to 6 shots with the 1 and 2 shots being good enough for the cover if the story had legs. Then it went to 15 and then to 25 for the slideshow. The times of 3 to 6 shots were held off the web until just before print and now they want all 25 as fast as they can get them up. All the shots go on the web pell-mell with little regard to the quality of the shot. This is a big shift because it sells things for the advertizers.

    There is a reporter at the daily I shoot the most for that attended a “concert on the green” type of event. The paper had recently “encouraged” staff to push for more hits on their individual projects; they had issued a “per-month” hit count that the daily would like too see.

    This reporter decided that with his point and shoot he would try out a big slideshow and so shot 96 shots for the slideshow that had a standard batch caption after the first 15 shots. He got an enormous hit count that left the editors with big smiles. The amazing thing was that the slideshow hits were pushed through the entire 96 shots which says that most people went through the entire show to see if they were included.

    Its simply addictive content, which for a local news format, is always going to be the locals.

    @Ann B,

    I think that what will happen with championknit.com is that they will get their stories through local aggregates more than local news will get info on wider sites for their local content. News will funnel up.

  11. AnneB

    If it really comes down to it, I believe recognition for accomplishments in their own community is just as important, if not more so, than a “peer” recognition. It has been the “failure” of local media to cover honest local effort that has made the internet so popular. Small local media is so concerned with keeping the politicians and advertisers happy that it often, so very often, forgets that it has a responsibility to its readers. Too often the local “rag” or “broadcast” outlets have little, or no, space left to devote to the “less influential” members of their community. Local papers have got used to filling X-pages with “wire” copy that is of little interest to the “locals”, but fills their pages because, to the publication, its CHEAP.

  12. [...] about crowdsourcing, citizen journalism and scrapbook news, I came to think of a lesson from the virtual goods economy [...]

  13. [...] news, FUBU Jump to Comments In a post on Publish2.0, Josh Korr wrote about scrapbook news, and how it could be applied to online journalism. The truth is, scrapbook news written by [...]

  14. [...] news, now online! Jump to Comments In a post on Publish2.0, Josh Korr wrote about scrapbook news, and how it could be applied to online journalism. The truth is, scrapbook news written by [...]

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