How Journalists Can Use Crowdsourcing to Enhance Their Reporting

By Chris Adams

There’s power in the crowd – and journalists are only beginning to harness it.

The idea of “crowdsourcing” news content has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years. But a study from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University found that despite its potential, only a few big organizations regularly employ it.

“You can create amazing journalism with crowdsourcing,” says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, an organization that studies and develops new ways to deliver news. “But as important, you can create amazing relationships with a very loyal audience that you can monetize better than you can an itinerant audience with advertising.”

But there are uncertainties and challenges with crowdsourcing as well. And beyond that, plenty of journalists remain unclear what the term even means. Even if they do know, some aren’t sure it’s such a good idea.

The Guide to Crowdsourcing details the history of the term and what it means to different people. The report zeroes in on two main types of crowdsourcing: an “unstructured call-out” for information, such as asking readers to contact a journalist with information, or a “structured call-out,” which requires a more deliberate attempt to collect information in an organized fashion – on a Google form, perhaps.

Schaffer believes crowdsourcing requires a specific call-out – not just gathering information already on the Web or social media. As the report concludes: “For us, the people engaging in crowdsourcing need to feel they have agency in contributing to a news story.”

As Schaffer adds: “You can’t causally harvest stuff from the social media stream.”

The report specifies six different types of crowdsourcing that require a call to action among readers and viewers:

  • voting on which stories reporters should tackle;
  • witnessing, or sharing information about an event;
  • sharing personal experiences;
  • tapping specialized expertise;
  • completing a task that will help develop a news story;
  • engaging audiences, whether for serious or playful stories.