A challenge from the Times

In a comment under my post about restructuring the Times Company below, someone calling him or herself Timesman says that indeed Bill Keller of the Times does want to work collaboratively with his readers, the question is how:

But what, specifically, should journalists at the Times ask its users to do? Let’s hear some very concrete next steps. We’re listening.

OK, friends, let’s take up that challenge. I’ll start the bidding. Please add your ideas of how the Times and its public can work together to perform concrete acts of journalism. (And spare us the kneejerk Times-bashing; those sentiments are stipulated.) Some suggestions:

* Put large amounts of data or documents online and ask the public to help find the stories there. The Dallas Morning News did this with the just-released JFK documents. The Ft. Myers News Press did it with a FOIA on a botched hurricane-relief effort. The Sunlight Foundation has us exposing earmarks in spending bills. Someone, I can’t recall who, did it with Alberto Gonzales’ testimony before Congress. Use your access to get such data and then ask us to help dig into it because we know what’s going on or simply because you want the help. I’d start with Congress and get help from Sunlight and bloggers to strategize that.

* Ask the public to help gather data points around a story. The quickly classical example of this was Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show asking listeners to find out the prices of milk, lettuce, and beer to find out who is being gouged where (which then enables the journalists to ask why — put their price maps against maps of income and race in New York and stories emerge). This should work particularly well on a local level: Ask people to tell you the price they pay for drugs and doctors and map that. Ask them to tell you just how late or dirty their trains are. And on and on. If you get enough data, you can pay attention to the center of the bell curve; the outliers are either mistakes are damned good stories.

* Get the public to help file no end of FOIAs to birddog government. Create a FOIA repository where you can help train them how to do it and record the responses (that bit’s a great idea from Tom Loosemore in the UK) and collect what’s learned.

* One of the great ideas that came out of my entrepreneurial journalism class — inspired by an idea from an intern I worked with at Burda last summer — is to have the public help assign reporters. Now that could get unwieldy quickly. But my CUNY student, Danny Massey, came up with a very smart structure for capturing what the public wants to know so news organizations can allocate at least some of their resource accordingly. I’ll introduce you.

* Establish communities of experts to help on stories, their reporting and checking and even their assignment. This could take the form of Jay Rosen’s beat-blogging idea or of the Ft. Myers panel of experts. Of course, every reporter has such panels in their Rolodexes. But Ft. Myers has learned that people want to be of service before the reporter happens to call. The Times’ crowd is very wise and filled with experts and so why not use the networking and linking power of the internet to help harness that to help with reporting? Imagine a social network around expertise.

* Hand out camera and recorders and ask citizens to capture meetings, lectures, events of all sorts and turn those into podcasts. Most of the time most of them will not get much audience, but the resource that went into each one is minor and the opportunity to spread a wider blanket of coverage on a community is great.

* Get the advertising side involved in supporting curated, quality blog networks: New York, political, business, and so on. The Washington Post has networks for travel and other topics, the Guardian for environment, Reuters for financial blogs. The Times could support the very best of these blogs and benefit from having a wider net of content and reporting at a low cost and risk. And this is the part they’ll like: They can set the definitions of quality. The Times also has an in-house advantage here because About.com knows how to manage and pay large, distributed networks of contributors based on ad and traffic performance.

These ideas work for most any news organization. As I’ll point out in a post I’m writing now: collaboration to create real value is the next generation of interactivity.

To get started, I’d hire a collaboration editor charged with getting such projects going all around the newsroom. But I’d make sure that job gets phased out as journalists collaborate on their own self-interested initiative.

So what other ideas do you have for how the Times — or any news organization — could work together to create journalism?

  • Walter Abbott

    The very first thing for them to do is to list the email addresses and direct dial phone numbers of all their staffers and reporters.

    Almost every other entity in the United States that is engaging in information sharing is doing this and has been for years.

  • Matthew

    Hand out camera and recorders and ask citizens to capture…events of all sorts and turn those into podcasts…

    Combine that with visitor-based strategies already in place at the Times online (most e-mailed, most popular, etc.) and see what floats to the top; the “best” content won’t always win, but it’s been democratized and some plurality has thus done editing — for free.

    * This same concept (but not limited to podcasts), takes care of the hyperlocal reporting previously discussed, and while each event may have 10, 15, or at most 100 readers/visitors, the Times would not only have hyper-local news, it would also have a package ready for hyper-targeted ads (“sponsor this page” for example). A single hyperlocal module is not likely to garner much attention, nor much ad revenue, but a continuous fleet of such modules could add up, and the content is created with minimal overhead (pay a few moderators to ensure the content is not out of bounds, consider giving the content producer a portion of any ad revenue a la King Google, etc.).

  • As you rightly pointed out give cameras and 3G mobile phones to all the reporters so that they can live blog press conferences and any other noteworthy event…

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  • Bill K.

    Jeff, you seem to be on a quest to denigrate scientific polling.

    How could anyone act on the “data” produced by crowdsourcing? This technique is easily corrupted, and has no safeguards that attempt to validate the results. It’s GIGO (garbage-in, garbage out) tool that’s way too unreliable, eg, WhoIsSick.org.

    The facile, unscientific, unsafeguarded tools you’re promoting do produce eye-catching stories in a hurry, but at what cost to accuracy? Now it seems like a novel idea because it’s still in the gimmick stage.

    Do you really want the NY Times to become a megaphone for whatever party with a speciall interest that can hack this apparently open system?

    Why not have the NY Times provide a phone number that you can call and have your voice transcribed into an article that is published instantly? You could call it the NY Twitter Times.

  • Bill K.

    Also, what happens when you get hit with a defamation lawsuit?

    “Um, these bunch of people said they were gouged by business X, so we published it, but you shouldn’t necessarily believe it because it was an unscientific survey.”

    Bill Keller’s “the story speaks for itself” concept rapidly falls apart as you need to add caveat upon caveat for everything you publish.

  • Bill, you’re going off on a tear for no reason, overcomplicating this.
    If people tell you want time the train came in, that’s not a poll. That’s information, information that can be gathered by a hundred people instead of one reporter.
    Sorry, but I think you’re off the track here.

  • And, Bill, why not try to answer the question and try to think of things that reporters and the public could do collaboratively? Or do you think all information must flow from the newsroom? I doubt that.

  • Bill K.

    No, Jeff, I gave you a specific example where this crowdsourcing concept was put into action with results that I think have questionable value. Go to the site and tell me what you think.

    Or, maybe you could point me to an instance where it was used convincingly, ie, it produced information without qualification. (BTW, you’re confusing data with information, IMHO.)

    In the Lehrer experiment, differing neighborhood pricing policies is not evidence that businesses are price gouging. By using this pejorative term in the study description, it appears the conclusion was reached before the data were collected.

    Why do the journalists need to depend upon me? I just want to load the Web site and read well-written, adequately researched stories where I don’t have to be skeptical of every assertion made.

    I think the reality is, the MSM are feeling the pain of having to produce content at an alarming rate, while trying to save costs by getting rid of editors, proofreaders, et al. User-generated content is supposed to be the panacea.

    Pretty soon Web 3.0 will be here with a whole new set of ideas supposed to be the next big thing.

  • Q

    Why are we all so concerned with “saving” the NYT in the first place? If current management can’t figure out how to grow the business, replace them. And if they kill the company, let it die. It’s pretty simple. The rest of the nostalgic blather about the iconic brand and its institutional importance is meaningless.

  • Anna Haynes (PhD)

    The NYT comments section could provide real value, that’s currently being squandered.
    For example, numerous commenters on this NYT blog post pointed out a (fatal. in my opinion) methodological flaw with the study being discussed, but the columnist never bothered to update his blog post to mention it.
    (my subsequent comment there, along the lines of “This is an embarrassment to the NY Times”, didn’t survive their censor)

    And beatblogging-type suggestions and offers to help seemingly go nowhere.

    I was a regular commenter there for a couple months, until the low ROI became apparent.

    I don’t think they want to change.

    I’d like to see a list of the offers and suggestions people *have* made, to the Times; it’d shed some much-needed light on what they’re *not* interested in doing.

    (sorry for the tone of this comment, but it’s been a disillusioning experience)

  • Bill,
    I don’t know why you want to be so pissy about this. If you don’t want to collaborate, then don’t collaborate. Nobody’s forcing you, certainly not me. There are plenty of people in plenty of communities who do what to help — just ask Ft. Myers. So don’t stop them. I’m looking for constructive suggestions here. I’ve spent too long around journalists who make their living trying to think of what could go wrong. Let’s look at what could be done differently and go right. And if you don’t want to do that, fine. But please step back and let’s see what positive ideas emerge.

  • Q,
    I am concerned with journalism.

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  • Anna Haynes

    Here’s one simple, cookie-cutter suggestion – solicit questions from readers, ala Slashdot.
    (I’ve suggested they do Q&As with a Times reporter who wrote a ‘green’ story, with John Tierney, with Greg Craven… so far, to no avail.)

  • Anna Haynes

    (and don’t just solicit the Qs, use them)

  • Anna Haynes

    Another ‘data points around a story” idea –

    Recently in Calif, a city was sued because they’d striped the edge of a street for pedestrians but it was wide enough that it looked to drivers like another lane – with unfortunate consequences for the pedestrian(s) using it.
    So give readers a Google map and let them mark it – perhaps with photos too – to show spots on their city’s streets that have the same flaw.

  • Matthew

    @Bill: You have some valid points, garbage in-garbage out is a potential problem, but there exists solutions to that problem, e.g., curating/moderating. No one is saying eat the children to solve the famine. So think about the any problems proposed here, but also think about ways we could solve those problems.

    But what, specifically, should journalists at the Times ask its users to do? Let’s hear some very concrete next steps.

    One thing to note here is that the journalists at the Times don’t necessarily have to ask anything of their users nor of their *readers*. But the Times itself could (this is what we’re trying to discuss) better itself by outsourcing some work to its users. I realize the distinction there is small, but it is worth noting clearly: the journalists can keep on keeping on. The investigators can keep on keeping on.

    * Think about a traditional tip line, now scale it up.

    Now it seems like a novel idea because it’s still in the gimmick stage.

    You clearly dislike the concept of Bill Keller’s “data” collection. What are your thoughts on CNN’s I-Reporters or entities like backfence.com?

    I do not believe it is helpful to think of this from the perspective of journalists vs. users or MSM vs. citizen journalism vs. blogs vs. social networks vs me vs. you.

    Newspapers in some form have always utilized their users/readers: Letters to the editor, witness accounts, tip lines, Zodiak code breaking, identifying the Unabomber, etc. So now we’re wondering if there are even more ways to put the user to work, if you don’t think this is possible, this discussion is not going to be fruitful for you.

  • Anna Haynes

    On those occasions where an NYTimes staffer (blogger, commenter, reporter…) *does* mention that a particular project is in the offing, said person should, reflexively, solicit ideas and suggestions from the community. At present we’re still just expected to wait for the product, then consume, then “have our say”.

    It comes across as patronizing.

    (and yes, it may be that most? all? the community-submitted ideas are crap – but if you haven’t tried the experiment, you don’t know.)

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  • Hi,

    I think making sure the public knows how and where to submit their video, story ideas and newsworthy events is a good starting place.

    Also, I’d like to have a website or blog I could go to that posts topics that the Times (or whoever) need more information or coverage for, as well as a place where people can suggest what they want covered, or what they have information on that may be newsworthy.

    Cinda Hocking
    Internal Energy Plus Consultant
    Advisor, Children’s International Obesity Foundation

  • K

    Recently, I contacted my local paper — Arizona Republic — about a story idea. My wee idea wasn’t remotely controversial and I had no stake in the outcome. I simply thought it was amazing that the state’s reservoirs were completely full after several years of drought. Those who boat, fish and hike would be interested in knowing rivers were flowing rapidly and lakes were overflowing. In short, the drought was over.

    No story was written. Perhaps reporters were not interested in the topic? Who knows. But a reporter or editor could have taken the time to acknowledge the detailed email I had sent. Instead, silence.

    If the MSM wants to succeed, it needs to stick to topics and perspectives that resonate with readers … as well as respect their readers. This is a simple concept. Ordinary small businesses go out of their way to make customers feel welcomed and served. Do newspapers serve? Do they welcome reader input? I think not.

    It’s hubris. If reporters honestly believed their readers had ideas to offer, they’d listen. But they don’t respect their readers opinions. They’d rather game them. Reporters must regard readers as sheeple — “poor, uneducated and easily led,” as a Wash Post reporter once characterized evangelicals.

    Until reporters desire the appreciation of their readers, they won’t be able to write for them. Until they “know their audience,” they can’t serve them. Until they respect them, they won’t be respected.

  • Cooler Heads

    I agree with Bill. If the prices for food at 20 supermarkets are different tomorrow, it means nothing. It’s not price gouging. It’s like gas. There are lots of reasons why gasoline is priced the way it is, and many have nothing to do with price gouging.

    If the NYT asked readers to report gas prices and then put that on a site saying here’s what readers report about prices at gas stations, fine. But if that information is used in a story about price gouging, that’s not fine.

    K has an interesting point: the way newspapers are currently conceived, the idea of reporting that the reservoirs are full will not get written unless it is a very slow news day. Because it’s not going to sell papers. In a collaborative world, there might be a place on the Arizona Republic site where readers can post pictures and measures of water depth at the reservoirs.

    The reservoir story is like global warming, or Y2K or the hole in the ozone layer, or other “end of the world” stories. It’s a story when the reservoir is dry, when the winter is warm, when the computers will crash. It’s not a story when there is water, or there is more snow cover in North America than there has been since 1966 (which there is now), or when the computers get fixed. Using readers as reporters, with cameras and the ability to collect and report data, might relieve that.

  • It’s interesting that the Times has been doing the quirky, featurey version of this for years: Metropolitan Diary. So it’s not such a strange concept. Turning to the readers for data and news would be the next level. The Times should consider setting up a photo upload service that you could use with the Eye-Fi card. And making sure that wi-fi is available all over Gotham.

  • HFAnalyst

    Pardon me for re-posting something I wrote on this subject over on Fred Wilson’s weblog a few days ago.

    Basically, while I’m skeptical on the notion that you’re going to be able to make great news content from random readers (I could be convinced, I guess, but it just seems really, really hard), but it seems like NYT, along with all of the other newspaper companies I cover, has to evolve into some kind of content platform for lots of different kinds of contributors. In other words, they need to ‘spin off’ their reporters, columnists and editors and make them into their own P&Ls. Something like About.com. But good.

    I’m not an expert, so full disclosure: But my guess is that the future of The New York Times — and any other content business where the individual content thingy can be made by an individual or very small team (ie., like writing an article or recording a song — but, not in the near-term, like creating a broadcast-quality television show or a big video game) — is to become a platform for independent experts, pundits and assorted content-makers.

    Again, I’m guessing, but this platform needs to provide distribution, publishing tools, revenue sharing, and some way of letting readers have an expectation for the quality of the contributor. There’s probably a bunch of other stuff the platform could provide also — as the comment about Friedman mentioned, the revenue streams should go way beyond advertising (and even include Fred’s worst enemy, premium content). But the platform should not employ any of these content people as employees and it should not try to control their brand or content.

    Now, I’ll admit that I don’t go there much. Okay, never. But from the other comments it sounds like the current About.com product is not a 100% perfect fit for this future platform — not so great brand; not so great content.

    But on the other hand it’s probably pretty useful if they want to get to the future faster: it seems to have a ton of distribution through Google and some kind of bloggy publishing tools. And an ad sales force. And, as Fred said, real revenue. And, most importantly, a framework for working with independent content people. So it’s a start.

    So, basically, I don’t think selling About.com makes a ton of sense, since my guess is that they would end up needing to build something a lot like it. Maybe they should change the About brand or fire the current writers. And they should definitely run the numbers on winding down the paper version, but I’m sure they are and it probably doesn’t make sense yet.

  • Consolidate all the departments into the Entertainment Department and eliminate everything except the Crosswords. Instruct the editor to never accept a puzzle with a Hollywood reference crossing with another Hollywood reference.

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  • Anna Haynes

    How about doing a crowdsourcing project like (or an extension of) today’s AP Probe Finds Drugs in Drinking Water?
    We far-flung correspondents could contact our water suppliers and report back what we were told, ideally with hard-copy corroboration…

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