Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Crowding the newsroom

On July 4th, The Mercury will declare independence from old ways of doing things as part of a brave experiment, The Ben Franklin Project.
The Ben Franklin Project involves all daily newspapers of The Journal Register Co. publishing the July 4th edition with free online tools from the Internet.
In addition to changing the tools we use to publish, we are also expanding our reporting methods, involving the audience in the reporting method known as crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing -- like tweeting and friending -- is a new verb in our world of reporting news.
It means involving the universe of readers, audience, community as a "crowd" of sources to provide information and help shape the stories we write. A crowd can change the direction a story is going or add information or even send us off on a different story.
Media expert Jay Rosen, who is an advisor to The Mercury parent company Journal Register Co., in writing about crowdsourcing points to an experiment that had people from various neighborhoods buy the same brand six-pack of beer at local establishments and then report the prices they paid. The effort used the crowd as feet on the street to report neighborhood differences in pricing, a story with strong consumer potential.
One of our sister papers in the JRC chain, The Lake County News-Herald outside Cleveland, Ohio, did a crowdsourcing project on dangerous intersections. The observations gathered differed from the trouble spots identified by state and county agencies, proving personal experience can be more insightful than statistics.
Another of our advisors, Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?", describes involving the readers in the reporting process as preferable to getting their feedback after the story has been printed.
We can paint a mural and wait for the graffiti artists to leave their mark after we are finished, or we can invite them to join us in the creation. Their talent and perspective becomes a part of the finished work of art.
It is this last analogy that I find most helpful in understanding crowdsourcing in a journalist's day's work.
Although the one-day Ben Franklin publishing project is more than three weeks away, we have already begun changing our ways to involve readers in the process of reporting at the start instead of reacting at the finish.

On Tuesday, we received about a half-dozen phone messages, e-mails or news tips left on our Web site about a Pottstown High School senior who was being denied the chance to walk with her classmates at graduation because of a school policy on commencement practice. The tips from family and friends of student Shawn Szydlowski represent the old-school crowdsourcing that The Mercury has been encouraging for decades.
Call 323-3000 and win $25 for news tips? ... Tell us what you're thinking in Sound-Off! ... Leave your news on our tipline. We've been soliciting reader involvement on a small scale for years.
But, here's what we did differently on Tuesday. After reporter Evan Brandt had interviewed Shawn about her predicament and Pottstown school officials about their decision to stick to their policy, we posted on Facebook a brief description of the story we were pursuing.
Within hours, more than 20 people wrote comments. As Evan followed up through the day with school officials, he told them what people were saying. And, as we posted a video of Shawn talking about her plight on our Web site, more people commented.
By the end of the day, our story had changed from the telling of a young woman's wish to walk with her students at graduation to the story of a community frustrated with their local school officials.
By the time the story was in print the next morning, school officials were already reversing the decision.
The difference in this particular reporting situation was that readers joined in the painting instead of drawing the graffiti afterward. Their anger became part of the story -- a part that was integral.
In the same edition of the paper and on the Web site, we asked readers to send us the issues they think are most important to be brought to a public meeting of First Suburbs Project, a regional coalition aimed at addressing issues faced by towns surrounding cities.
Again, we are asking people to help shape this story by telling us what they believe is important.
In the coming days and weeks as we head closer to "independence," watch for more examples of crowdsourcing in The Mercury.
Newspapers are said to be in a fight for their lives; we believe we're all on the same side.

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