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?