Crowdsourcing, citizen journalism, and the lesson of scrapbook news
3 min read

Crowdsourcing, citizen journalism, and the lesson of scrapbook news

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.