Crowdsourcing is officially defined by Merriam Webster as "the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers." It sounds great in theory, but can it effectively be applied to, say, journalism?
We ask this question because we're about to make the argument that the nature of crowdsourcing is more attuned to certain kinds of solicitations than others. Take the simple example of getting your friends to pay for the recording of your 80s-inspired synth-pop band's album. If you're using Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, the architecture is already there. Everything is automated. Send out a few Facebook blasts. It's relatively simple stuff.
But what about journalism? If you're a news outlet that wants to use crowdsourcing, it's a far more complex process. How do you collect information from numerous online sources? How do you verify claims? How do you interact with so many sources? How do you decide what to publish? And so on.
There are multiple moving parts here, but by creating a user-friendly framework for crowdsourcing content, ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, is working to crack the code—and with solutions that other newsrooms can emulate.
ProPublica's main crowdsourcing platform is called "Get Involved." And rather than cast a wide net, the platform encourages readers to chime in on specific issues. For example, were you to visit the "Get Involved" page, you'd see a box with the words, "Are You a Vietnam Veteran? Help Us Investigate the Impact of Agent Orange," with a green "Share Your Story" button below. There are also "Join the Discussion" buttons pertaining to topics like the West's Water Crisis.
ProPublica's crowdsourcing efforts are designed with the long view in mind. For its Patient Safety investigation, for example, the organization has been collecting responses since 2012, asking people personal stories of medical harm.
And how does ProPublica manage reader responses and determine what content is publishable? The answer is Screendoor, an online form response management tool that "makes it easier for our team to make sense of what’s coming, to follow up with respondents, to share information within the newsroom and with partners and to track all those conversations in one place," writes Amanda Zamora, senior engagement editor. Zamora describes more of what ProPublica is up to here.
All of ProPublica's work is, as one could imagine, highly intriguing to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which, as loyal IP readers know, is bullish on things like "community platform collaboration" in the field of journalism. Knight is also pretty bullish on ProPublica. For example, it gave it a previous $1.9 million grant in 2012 to advance its work on data journalism. So it should come as no surprise that Knight recently gave ProPublica $2.2 million to improve its existing crowdsourcing platform, and also to engage and train journalists in crowdsourcing.
One effort that Knight money will pay for at ProPublica is its new Crowd-Powered News Network, a forum for "journalists and others proactively engaging communities in storytelling to share ideas, practical support and best practices."
A last point here: With staff cutbacks hitting newsrooms everywhere, getting crowdsourcing in journalism right is important. This kind of information flow can't replace the work of trained reporters, but it could definitely help news organizations penetrate deep into communities and big stories with leaner budgets.