“Crowdsourcing” is the new “Angry Mob with Pitchforks”

I decided to examine what Muthukumaraswamy (2010) referred to as the “wisdom of crowds in general-interest reporting by recruiting generalists and experts” (p. 54). I suppose we can just get this out of the way now and say that is one clunky subtitle. Recruiting generalists for general-interest reporting, eh? What a generally general gesture.

To be fair, I understand what he is trying to say, and it’s not incorrect. However, it doesn’t really tell us as much as it could. In the events of this example, we have the failings of a bureaucratic system, the outrage of citizens that are being forced to pay for it, and an extraordinary collaborative operation by the citizens and the press to set things right.

Now, I’m no expert titleologist, but even something like “Citizen collaboration, from amateur to expert, aids investigative journalism” would at least be descriptive of what transpired.

When I took a look at the News-Press site, I found it difficult to find much evidence of the work the citizens did. I found links to stories written by the journalists, and a navigation menu to the documents that were examined, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a concrete idea of what was actually crowdsourced and by whom.

Nevertheless, I did find some helpful links to provide more context to the story than was found in Muthukumaraswamy’s summary.

Wired had a story on the restructuring of Gannett to be more crowdsource-friendly. In the story, they mention the events that took place in Cape Coral and they laud it as a “prominent example” of engaging the audience by having them be a part of the story. Kate Marymount, editor-in-chief of News-Press, is quoted in the story as saying “rather than start a long investigation and come out months later in the paper with our findings we asked our readers to help us find out why the cost was so exorbitant” (para. 10).

I think that the fact that Marymount refers to the call for crowdsourcing as a tool for investigative journalism is something that Muthukumaraswamy missed out expanding on. He refers to this case as “general-interest reporting,” but I don’t think that quite fits with what actually occurred. This wasn’t “general-interest.” It was a very specific interest, for the citizens, and they were trying to determine why their rates were being raised. Muthukumaraswamy even states that “residents conducted their own investigations before reporting their findings on discussion forums and posting documents online” (p. 54).

Speaking of documents, I was able to locate highlights of the leaked audit report. Looking over it, I could immediately understand why people were angry. It lists out, in clear language, all the missteps that the city performed in contracting out the work for the new utilities system. It also highlights how Kessler, the auditing organization, was not given all the documents they requested.

To add further insult to injury, News Press also had the city’s response to the audit, and it… well, it’s not all that surprising. But it sure is infuriating! They pretty much don’t acknowledge any fault, with the one exception of “partially concurring” with the finding that the city was paying the some subcontractors as their own employees rather than as “temporary agency labor,” causing additional expense.

I also wanted to add that there were a few call-to-arms editorials such as this that no doubt contributed to the crowdsourcing effort. News Press also provides a crowdsourcing forum to help in organizing efforts.

Ultimately, I believe the Cape Coral case is a good example of what can be achieved when the media utilizes crowdsourcing as a resource. Muthukumaraswamy cites Jeff Howe as stating that “crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call” (pp. 48-49). This is exactly what News-Press did, as stated by Marymount. They knew there was an issue. They knew it would take a lot of time sifting through government documents and talking to officials to figure out what exactly was going on. So, instead of taking several months to get to the point that they’d have some answers, they enlisted the people who were directly affected by the issue to get the job done.

And by all accounts, they did. Muthukumaraswamy stated that “crowds are willing to offer their services so long as news organizations can come up with workable methods to ‘ask’ them. People can provide good eyes and ears, but the job of putting together a story is that of the journalist” (p. 58). News Press put the information online. They got the word out. The citizens responded, poured over the documents, and told News-Press, and each other, what they found. The end results was that their fees were cut and one city official resigned. (Too bad it was only one.)

I really like the idea of crowdsourcing. I think that there are a lot of journalists that are, for lack of a better phrase, freaking out over the idea that their jobs are being taken over by “that guy with the iPhone and the blog.” Muthukumaraswamy mentions how some reporters at News-Press took some time “to overcome the idea that their citizen counterparts were hostile competitors” (p. 54). But that’s a shortsighted way of looking at things. When both sides worked together, they were able to produce a result more powerful and more timely than either could have done separately.

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8 Responses to “Crowdsourcing” is the new “Angry Mob with Pitchforks”

  1. Crowdsourcing produced an amazing result in this case, but I don’t think it can be equated to average journalism. As you pointed out, this wasn’t exactly general interest. Everyone had an interest and was motivated take the time for some investigation. Their money was at stake, and crowdsourcing was an effective way for the News-Press to cut to the chase. But, how many times do cirumstances line up in just this way? How often is everything going to work out so well?

    I just might be that guy freaking out when some guy takes my job with an iPhone and blog. But, in my experience the people to take time to go to meetings or track down these public documents are people with an axe to grind, and hardly an impartial viewer.

  2. […] Andgry mob with pitchforks from → Uncategorized ← Changing culture remix LikeBe the first to like this post. No comments yet Click here to cancel reply. […]

  3. Sijia says:

    I don’t know, but I think there is just something wrong about those investigative websites that ask for people’s donation. You are right that most of the time, those topics can be specific interested rather than general interested. And even if it is general interested topic, then why journalits in those prestigious news media don’t cover it? I don’t think not covering a general-interested story is a smart way for any struggled newspaper to reduce cost.

  4. I agree with your point about crowdsourcing at the end of the post. By working with ‘citizens’ journalists can get stories they otherwise could not get. I mean, they can’t be everywhere at once, but regular people might be. That is a good thing for journalism, especially if, like you say, the journalists are the ones shaping what the final product looks like.

  5. morganyang says:

    I like the idea of crowsourcing,too. The concepts in the weekly reading article sre somehow too obscure to understand. As you said that the general interesting in the article may not be the general interesting but the specific interesting. In my opinion, the crowdsourcing can only function effectively while be used in the level as daily information. which should referred to the “gemeral interesting”.

  6. I agree with you entirely about the subtitle. It was not really a general interest topic that was getting investigated, it was quite specific. I think maybe the line should be drawn to highlight the difference between types of knowledge with low barriers of entry and high barriers of entry. In other words, topics that are open to people of all backgrounds and ones that require a pretty specific cognitive tool set to contribute to. Additionally, you’re right that journalists need to stop thinking of it as competition and start realizing the power that working together with their audience has.

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