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Kim Carney / msnbc.com
Is old-style journalism going the way of the dinosaur? Or can audience participation infuse new life into the newsroom?
By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 7/25/2007 2:37:10 PM ET 2007-07-25T18:37:10

St. Paul, Minn.'s best-known contribution to modern media may be Prairie Home Companion — but its Minnesota Public Radio group is now working on a project with even bigger potential.  And this time the star isn’t Garrison Keillor, but the audience itself. 

MPR's Public Insight Journalism initiative is perhaps the most advanced effort thus far in involving the audience in the news-gathering process. The Minnesota work — along with similar attempts around the world — may well be a model for the future of journalism itself. 

The Internet, of course, has made the involvement of the public in news-gathering inevitable.  Already, often the best photography and video from disaster scenes comes directly from eyewitness cameras and cellphones. And readers are now accustomed to logging onto sites to discuss the news via forums and discussion boards.

Reader opinion, however, has produced mixed results, most famously when the Los Angeles Times briefly permitted readers to offer edits to its editorial pages. The “wikitorial” was shut down after only three days, after a barrage of obscene and racist contributions. 

Despite some false starts, audience involvement in newsgathering is taking hold around the world. The Gannett newspapers, for example, are restructuring their local newsrooms to actively solicit reader input. The process is sometimes called “crowdsourcing,” and one good example was at Gannett’s Fort Myers, Fla., newspaper. The city planned a controversial new sewer project, and the newspaper asked readers for help in covering the story. The paper was initially overwhelmed by the number of responses but within days they ended up with volunteers ranging from accountants and engineers, who helped review the plans, to an actual whistle-blower within the public works department.

Another recent experiment in audience involvement is NewAssignment.net, launched by influential New York journalism professor Jay Rosen. NewAssignment.net asks the audience both to research and to write the stories; their first effort, published last month on Wired.com, was about so-called “open source” journalism itself.  Rosen and colleagues considered it a mixed success, particularly in terms of the complexity of getting so many contributors to work together.  They will continue to use the same techniques for the presidential campaign in a new effort called OffTheBus.

The BBC, another leader in citizen outreach, now has over 30 employees who do nothing but deal with public input, which includes everything from approving comments for display on the Web site to sorting through news tips and sending them on to the right reporters.  The role has in fact become the latest entry-level job for BBC journalists. The BBC, however, is blessed with substantial government funding; more cash-strapped journalism organizations can’t quite so easily staff up to meet the new challenge.

All three of the examples above reflect one fundamental problem of audience involvement: There are far more readers to send information than there are journalists to receive it.  Reporters are used to dealing with a handful — perhaps a dozen — sources on a given story.  How do you handle the volume of information — both useless and priceless — that comes in when you open the door to the public?  

Minnesota Public Radio has an interesting answer. Their “Public Information Network” is a database of volunteer sources — now up to nearly 20,000 — that includes the topics they’re knowledgeable about as well as information about their demographics.

MPR finds volunteers in various ways — for specific stories, they’ll make requests on-air as well as through the Web site. And there is a standing Web page where new volunteers can fill out a brief questionnaire that asks about areas of expertise, occupation, political activity, “passionate” interests and personal data.  All of the information is treated with the same confidentiality as other newsroom sources.   

Despite the Minnesota tag, the project is national; MPR is part of the American Public Media Group, which includes stations around the Midwest as well as Southern California. MPR also produces such well-known national programs as Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace.  Thus the database ranges from Muslims who live in Minnesota and experts on K-12 education to small-business owners and newly returned Iraq veterans. And American Public Media has now set up a Center for Innovation in Journalism that is teaching the technique to other public radio stations around the country.  

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“No matter how hard newsrooms try with their hiring,” says Michael Skoler, the executive director of the center, “they still have a hard time creating the kind of diversity that exists in the communities they cover.” Often, when a reporter is looking for comments and reactions on a topic, they reach out to their own social network and to friends of friends — a segment that tends to be fairly homogenous.  With the database, says Skoler, “we shake not just our personal tree, but other trees as well.” 

MPR’s software also lets their “analysts” — the audience specialists — easily select a subset of volunteers for specific queries. Thus they don’t end up looking at thousands of random responses to a request for help — the queries are targeted to a reasonable number, usually in the low hundreds, so it’s possible to promise that every single response is read and considered.

The approach produces sources that conventional reporting might never uncover: When doing a story on a high school student in trouble for writing a violent short story, the database turned up a woman who had once been in trouble for the same offense — but was now herself a high school creative writing teacher.

Perhaps most intriguingly, MPR also uses its database to gather small groups of interested citizens simply to discuss current issues, in the company of a facilitator and several reporters.  The idea is to listen for new story ideas that haven’t even yet appeared on the reporters’ radar screens.

Going forward, involving the audience has two other potential benefits. The first is that reader participation may help restore confidence in the media — an institution that has taken some hits in public esteem over recent decades. The second is more practical: In an era of newsroom cutbacks, this is an inexpensive way to put more “feet on the street.”  Particularly at the local level, there are never enough reporters to cover every school board meeting or Little League game. Some observers even suggest that volunteering to help with community journalism might someday be seen as something akin to donating time to the volunteer fire department. 

That second benefit concerns some traditional journalists and photographers, who fear that volunteer labor and big databases may end up reducing the need for professionals. 

But, in the end, audience participation isn’t a replacement for existing journalists. It is instead a natural extension of what journalists already do: find the best sources to help understand and explain the story. 

When journalism first met the Internet in the ’90s, it produced a new job description: the multimedia editor. It’s now clear that the two-way connectivity of the Web has created another new job that doesn’t yet have a formal name: Call it, for now, the audience editor. Over time that role will almost certainly grow to be as important as any other editor in the organization.

Or as Skoler at Minnesota Public Radio puts it: “We don’t see it so much as a tool,” he says, “as simply, our future.” 

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