I pledge allegiance, to the idea: The frustration of a workshop

The first thing I ever crowdsourced was in 2011. And I did it out of necessity. I was a Patch editor and I covered a city that shared a border with Detroit. It’s about four square miles, just over 20,000 people. In the early evening of a hot July day, chunks of the city’s power went out. A few hours later, nearly every resident and business didn’t have power. The outage would last three days. It also happened during the hottest stretch of days metro Detroit had seen in more than a decade. For the entirety of the blackout, the temperature would hover around 100 degrees.

It started with a comment on the site’s Facebook page asking if I knew something about a power outage. I didn’t. So I started reporting. At first I didn’t really ask the community for anything. But I quickly realized that the outage was big, that the community wanted to talk about it with me and with each other, and that I probably wouldn’t be able to report on everything all myself. So the crowdsourcing started small. Something like: “Is your power out?” Then: “What are the utility workers telling you?” Then: “What are your questions? Let me report that for you.” This didn’t happen in any structured way. I was mostly using social and aggregating the comments, stories, information into pages on the site. It was messy and it was amazing.

Through this messy experiment, I saw how a community could develop around an issue, and help me tell a story. It was powerful. It changed how I thought about journalism, the roles we play as both the community and the journalist, and how we interact with each other. This became that creative spark in my professional life. And I’ve tried to incorporate crowdsourcing in my work ever since.

So, for me, last Friday was important.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism officially kicked off its guide to crowdsourcing — authored by Jeanne Pinder, Jan Schaffer, and Mimi Onuha. It’s an excitingly thorough report on crowdsourcing, complete with a definition, a taxonomy, and some really great examples of how organizations are practicing crowdsourcing at the highest level (including ProPublica, where I work). It also showcases the breadth of the practice. The kickoff, held at the New York Times building, brought together a panel of some of the people working on these projects: CNN’s John D. Sutter, WNYC’s Jim Schachter, The New York Times’ Sona Patel, and, my boss, ProPublica’s Amanda Zamora. (A nice recap of takeaways is here.)

A workshop followed. We broke up into groups and had about 20 minutes to find answers to four pretty big questions: defining and measuring impact; moderation and verification; how to get more crowdsourcing projects up off the ground in newsrooms; and creating projects that the community actually needs and wants.

The conversations were solid. The event was a success. Business cards exchanged. We followed each other on Twitter.

But now what?

I left Friday feeling equal parts inspired and frustrated. Not with the event, not with the great work from the authors, not with anything that took place within those four hours. That was the inspired half. The frustrated half comes from not knowing how impactful this all will be in the newsrooms and the work of the attendees, or how the guide can help shape the idea of crowdsourcing, or how all the smart things everyone said will exist outside of that room. I want to make clear that this frustration isn’t anchored in a lack of hope. I think it’s a great time for crowdsourcing — newsrooms are starting to think about engagement beyond distribution, more tech is available to make the practice easier, and the guide itself is a huge step in the right direction. My frustration, I think, comes from my impatience and my love for the practice.

So I’m left with questions: What did everyone leave with and what does everyone plan on doing once they are at their desk? How do we know that the work we evangelize is making its way into the newsroom? How do we know that we’re making a difference or changing the mindset of the uninitiated editor, reporter, program director?

And the answer: I don’t think we really know right now. It’s a waiting game that boils down to who’s going to produce what? Who is going to take these ideas and create something?

And I want to make sure this happens in anyway that I can. Working alongside Amanda, ProPublica’s Crowd-Powered News Network brings together crowd-powered news nerds and novices to talk with each other, bounce ideas off one another, and dig into projects. It’s a small step toward turning this into a movement (dare I use that word?) that aligns with what I think is a growing social and collaborative world. And I believe it starts with gathering, supporting and showcasing this type of work.

But that still leaves the question: “Now what?” For you, I would say read the guide if you haven’t. Join CPNN if you haven’t. Get inspired and do something crowd-powered … if you haven’t.

I also think the answer, at least for me, is to stay impatient. Keep pushing. Keep helping. Keep asking: “Who’s going to produce what?” Here’s an idea to make sure that happens (not to get all Joseph McCarthy on you). Maybe the next workshop you attend ask everyone to make a pledge of allegiance to an idea. State your name, what you’ll do, and your contact info for the follow up.

Here’s my pledge: I’m Terry Parris Jr. And I pledge to highlight as much crowd-powered work as I can, and make myself available to anyone who needs help fleshing out or developing a crowd-powered idea. Oh, I also pledge to stay impatient. You can follow up with me on our CPNN board.


Terry Parris Jr. is ProPublica’s community editor. He’d crowdsource everything if you let him. Prior to joining ProPublica, he led digital production and engagement at WDET 101.9 FM, NPR’s affiliate in Detroit.