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New Report: A Guide to Crowdsourcing

The Purpose of the Research

The term “crowdsourcing” has been around for a decade. Although Wired writer Jeff Howe coined it in 2006, the ways in which news organizations define and employ it today vary enormously.

This guide is organized around a specific journalism-related definition of crowdsourcing and provides a new typology designed to help practitioners and researchers understand the different ways crowdsourcing is being used both inside and outside newsrooms. This typology is explored via interviews and case studies.

During our research, we interviewed 51 people, analyzed 18 survey responses, engaged in online explorations of dozens of projects, and developed four in-depth case studies.

Definition and Typologies

Our definition: Journalism crowdsourcing is the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task—such as newsgathering, data collection, or analysis—through a targeted, open call for input; personal experiences; documents; or other contributions.

Using that definition, most crowdsourcing generally takes two forms:

  • An unstructured call-out, which is an open invitation to vote, email, call, or otherwise contact a journalist with information.
  • A structured call-out, which engages in targeted outreach to ask people to respond to a specific request. Responses can enter a newsroom via multiple channels, including email, SMS, a website, or Google form. Often, they are captured in a searchable database.

We argue that crowdsourcing requires a specific call-out. If a newsroom simply harvests information or content available on the social web, we don’t believe this constitutes crowdsourcing. For us, the people engaging in crowdsourcing need to feel they have agency in contributing to a news story.

We acknowledge that crowdsourcing efforts don’t fit neatly into discrete classification, but for the purpose of this report, we’ve organized our typologies into six different calls to action:

  • Voting—prioritizing which stories reporters should tackle.
  • Witnessing—sharing what you saw during a news event.
  • Sharing personal experiences—telling what you know about your life experience.
  • Tapping specialized expertise—contributing data or unique knowledge.
  • Completing a task—volunteering time or skills to help create a news story.
  • Engaging audiences—joining in call-outs that can range from informative to playful.

Principal Findings

  • The rise of crowdsourcing correlates with the rise of the Internet and web technologies that have made it easier for journalists to identify and cultivate communities; organize data; and follow real-time, breaking-news developments.
  • Crowdsourcing leaders, like The Guardian and ProPublica, believe in the practice and integrate it thoroughly.
  • Some stories involving specialized data or unique personal experiences can be told only via crowdsourcing.
  • Crowdsourcing allows newsrooms to build audience entry points at every stage of the journalistic process—from story assigning, to pre-data collection, to data mining, to sharing specialized expertise, to collecting personal experiences and continuing post-story conversations.
  • News organizations are taking different paths toward audience growth and engagement. Some are focusing on crowdsourcing; others are interested in mining non-solicited citizen contributions through social media.
  • Good crowdsourcing efforts are high-touch, labor-intensive efforts. Journalists must determine a type of call-out, the communities to target, the method for collecting responses, and the avenues for connecting and giving back to the community of contributors.
  • News organizations must demonstrate active engagement and reward the community during the crowdsourcing process, by actively participating in comments or updating contributors on a story’s progress, to encourage more contributions.
  • Some organizations have created additional venues, such as Facebook Groups, to continue the conversation.
  • Tension exists in some news organizations around whether crowdsourced contributions are trustworthy. Experienced practitioners say this is not a problem.
  • For digital-first startups, in particular, crowdsourcing provides a way to cultivate new audiences from scratch and produce unique journalism.
  • Some news organizations are situating crowdsourcing out of newsrooms and within communities.
  • Several crowdsourcing ventures are turning into bona fide businesses, offering B2B (business-to-business) crowdsourcing solutions to media companies.
  • News consumers clearly have stories to share, but they don’t necessarily want to write the news.
  • Ways of measuring the impact of engaging in crowdsourcing initiatives and analyzing its value to a newsroom are still in development. Such measures have not been institutionalized.

Conclusion

The research shows that crowdsourcing is credited with helping to create amazing acts of journalism. It has transformed newsgathering by introducing unprecedented opportunities for attracting sources with new voices and information, allowed news organizations to unlock stories that otherwise might not have surfaced, and created opportunities for news organizations to experiment with the possibilities of engagement just for the fun of it.

In short, it has done just what the pundits predicted a decade ago: helped turn journalism into more of a conversation, rather than a one-way megaphone.

Crowdsourcing also deserves credit for shaping journalism into more of an iterative process: as data or stories come in from contributors, reporters see new possibilities for their journalism—and news organizations see opportunities to incrementally publish those contributions in ways that tease out more.

Certainly, though, crowdsourcing can be high-touch and high-energy, and not all projects work the first time.

For all its potential, crowdsourcing’s promise is widespread and systemic at just a few big news organizations—ProPublica, WNYC, and The Guardian, for example. At other mainstream news organizations, like CNN Digital and The New York Times, only a handful of reporters and editors—and not the institutions themselves—are the standard bearers.

To be sure, crowdsourcing businesses are flourishing outside of journalism. But within the news industry, wider systemic adoption may depend on more than enthusiasm from experienced practitioners and accolades from sources thrilled by the outreach.

We would like to see more research and evidence exploring whether crowdsourcing can foster greater support for journalism. That support might take the form of audience engagement, such as attention, loyalty, time spent on a site, repeat visits, or contributing personal stories. Or it might mean financial support from members or donors, from advertisers who want to be associated with the practice, or from funders who want to support it.

Also to be explored is whether crowdsourced stories have more real-world impact, such as prompting legislative change, than other types of journalism do.

Until this data is available and a better suite of tools and practices is developed, some news organizations may be wary of joining the ranks of long-time practitioners and investing the time and resources needed to support crowdsourcing projects.