Crowdsourcing can lead newspapers through buyout blues

(This is Part 1 of a three-part series on crowdsourcing. Read Part 2 for specific examples of ways the crowd can be responsibly deployed, and Part 3 for a defense of the underlying principles of it.)

Last week, my newspaper said goodbye to nine journalists, a combined 227 years of experience between them.

In the coming weeks, we’ll say goodbye to another load. By January 1, the reporters in the cubicles to the front, left and right of me will be gone.

As the entire newsroom gathered around the city desk to pay tribute to the departed, you couldn’t help but be struck by how much more real, how much more human it all seems when it hits your own newsroom. We’re fortunate that these nine were all bought out, not laid off, so for them it seemed an awkward mix of emotions that falls somewhere between sadness, exhaustion and relief.

Until now, those of us Left Behind just had to shoulder through the nagging pain of attrition, responsibilities piled upon responsibilities. Now, with an estimated 25 percent of the newsroom leaving, it’s become unavoidably clear that stacking can no longer be part of our newsroom model. Not when we’re losing this many people; no one can stack that high.

The only possibility is to drastically cut open and operate on every practice we know. Eliminate inefficiencies. Find new opportunities of strength. Sacrifice the sacred cows that don’t deserve to be sacred anymore. Refocus our priorities.

I’m annoyingly stubborn in believing that despite the devastating cuts, The Patriot-News can redefine itself and serve the community better than it ever has.

It’s a simple formula: As the number of reporters decreases, the importance of efficient sourcing increases.

And it just so happens there’s a wildly efficient pool of sources just waiting for us to tap into it: It’s time for a wider embrace of crowdsourcing in its many forms. All it would require is a sledgehammer to the institutional arrogance rooted deeply in the newspaper industry.

There’s an active base of readers, even in central Pennsylvania, who would be perfectly willing to chip in when it comes to reporting traffic or gas prices. Given easy access to reporters, they like to share news tips.

It requires a newsroom-wide commitment that sees the benefit of turning over tasks to the community when it will open up time for reporters to spend on significant stories.

It requires a Web operation that doesn’t just shovel our content to the masses, but actively curates the information out there and promotes useful Web activity in the area.

For the resistant reporter, it requires an acknowledgment that reading a forum posting from DerryDynamo isn’t any different than talking to her after the board meeting or answering a phone call, a willingness to sift through the crap for the wealth of valuable information out there, and the ability to develop an online presence in all forms necessary.

And let’s get this straight: The buyouts get us nowhere closer to these goals. There’s a misconception out there that buyouts tend to filter out those who “don’t get the Web,” but that simplistic logic just didn’t bear out here. Among our losses are two journalists on Twitter, our best computer-assisted reporter, and a reporter who’s been blogging since long before it was fashionable. All of the journalists leaving are big losses for the community.

I hold tight to this annoying optimism because we have no choice but to consider this a turning point of some sort, so we might as well make it as positive as possible. Here’s hoping a culture change is very much a part of it.

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  • One place “turning over tasks to the community” worked well was the obit page, where the stories of people’s lives as imagined by their families now have room to blossom.

    Digging, sifting, insight are keys for good reporters, as always — but the elephants in the room are the editors. Convincing them not to do unstories — Black Friday stories or Oh Shit An Inch Of Snow Is Coming stories — would really free up valuable front page real estate.

  • “There’s an active base of readers . . . who would be perfectly willing to chip in when it comes to reporting traffic or gas prices. Given easy access to reporters, they like to share news tips.”

    Sure, better sourcing is great, but I think the real dilemma comes in the precise way you turn your sources into stories.

    Like Pat suggested in the comment above, it’s really all about your editorial practices.

    A lot of talk about the ‘citizen-journalists’ of the future essentially turns readers into writers and writers into editors.

    Fine, but the danger is that the people most willing to help you do this are going to be your community’s worst blowhards, egoists, conspiracy theorists and axe-grinders (to quote a blog entry I just wrote on this very question: And what they choose to share often just isn’t worth anyone else’s time reading.

    That’s been the case in our neck of the woods, where the Palo Alto Weekly’s been having a hell of a time trying to keep its user-generated Town Square Forum something other than a sand-box for crazies.

    Hiring unpaid writers to do your work means keeping a much closer editorial eye on what they’re sending you — at least if you want your output to stay at the same quality level. In some cases you might win out, but I’m guessing that too often either you’ll be left with a degraded product or a shift in expenses, rather than any real savings.

  • @Pat — Great example on the obits.

    @Simon — I’m not necessarily a proponent of turning the keys over to the “citizen journalists,” just of giving them a seat on the bus. Even the blowhards and egotists and axe-grinders have valuable information to share…it just takes a skilled reporter to sift through what’s valuable and what can be discarded.

    But that’s assuming we’re talking about political stories. For now, there’s no reason that army can’t be deployed in more benign areas like traffic and gas prices. Instead of writing Man on the Street or Black Friday stories, we can allow readers to send their own anecdotes in.

    There’s a wide variety of ways our readers can be used, some more controversial than others. We might as well start with the easy ones.

  • Daniel — I think people, sadly, are much more interested in sharing opinion than news. That’s my take-away from reading our local weekly’s user forum for the last year. In our town, if you had threads on local traffic or gas prices they’d dissolve within seconds into back-and-forth attacks both local and national in scope.

    Perhaps some kind of value-ranking by readers would help bubble the good stuff to the top. But judging by the people who are attracted to weigh on at local news sites, there will be a far more people posting to further their partisan agendas (pro-growth or anti, say, or pro or anti the current city government) than interested in helping keep their fellow citizens informed.

    I think you and I agree, it’s filtering all the crap that’s tough. If you need more “skilled reporter[s] to sift through what’s valuable,” though, again, how much money have you saved?

    It used to be that virtually none of that filtering was necessary — back when all the feedback readers could offer were letters to the editor, published at the editor’s discretion.

    I’m not saying those were halcyon days. But seeing what you get when you offer a clean feedback loop to readers makes me appreciate an editor’s talents all the more. And I think there’s a real price we pay as communities if we allow a small minority of people to change the character of our local media — read the PA Weekly’s reader forum and you’d think that the town was populated entirely by cranky, contrarian, mostly right wing complainers. But they’re just the ones most motivated to have their say, while the rest of the community is keeping their heads-down earning a living.

    Local media needs to be careful not to cede their character too much — otherwise they’ll simply be visited less and less.

    On the obits — maybe. But our weekly lets people write their own long-form obits already, only it charges families for them. Publish only those and cut the fact-checked, staff-edited ones and you’ve made a saving but lost a source of revenue, too.

  • mernxil

    The issue is not whether or not the reporters will embrace new technology, etc.

    From where I sit, the issue will be if PN’s culture can change.

    Hey, @Pat. Am I right when I say that if a gourmet restaurant changes its wait staff, the experience has a new face but it probably still tastes the same. If the same restaurant changes a chef, it becomes a new restaurant.

    Reporters with decades of experience are not wait staff, but for this example, the analogy applies.

    PN has changed who serves the soup, instead of who creates the menu.

  • JPF

    One thing we don’t get with online sourcing : verification of the source. When you have a nickname and a maybe-fake email addy, how can you resist manipulation and ill will ? Are virtual witnesses as valuable as real ones ? How can we backup our stories with sources we can’t really identify ?
    If i take the “gas prices” case : what would prevent competitors to give you fake information about gas prices in one place, just to take customers out of that station ?
    I’m not saying that crowdsourcing as you describe it is a bad idea. I just have lots of questioning about ways to verify these sources. Any ideas ?

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  • Reggie Sheffield


    I can show you several examples of where what you’re suggesting works — to a point. What breaks it is the ole Too Many Chiefs Syndrome.

    One good example is the Brockton Enterprise in Massachusetts, which has for years employed townspeople to report their own news. The news was always timely, relevant and right to the point. They’ve worked this formula to good successful for years before the proliferation of The Internet.

    Why? Because the same people who would be dropping dimes for the newsroom would just as soon write up a quick column to achieve the same purpose. The reporting was usually restricted to meetings and other zoning and school board votes. Issues of balance, fairness and equal space seldom became an issue. Lots of people can write. You’ve got retired teachers out there, professionals with undergrad English degrees. You’d be surprised.

    The problem with that system is that inevitably someone inhouse gets the idea that “there’s more to the story.” At that point the story is taken away from the person who originally generated it, its given to a staffer and then is magically transformed into an in-house political football, i.e., You’re Right Back To Where You’ve Started — too few resources devoted to too little copy with too little time to work in. But such is life.

    You need staff to do things, whether they’re inhouse or out in the streets. In order to make it work you’d first have to develop a deep pool of dependable stringers before you could develop a workable outsourcing protocol, but all you’re really doing there is replacing the people you laid off or fired with people to whom you don’t have to pay a salary.

    And then there’s no guarantee they’ll stay. But, as Carole King once sang, does anybody really stay anywhere anymore?

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  • I love that you used examples like gas prices as content for crowdsourcing. Many times people try to make the concept a little overwhelming for a news site that currently isn’t reaching out to their audience.

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