Sourced with compliments from http://www.wired.com/software/webservices/news/2006/11/72067
According to internal documents provided to Wired News and interviews with key executives, Gannett, the publisher of USA Today as well as 90 other American daily newspapers, will begin crowdsourcing many of its newsgathering functions. Starting Friday, Gannett newsrooms were rechristened “information centers,” and instead of being organized into separate metro, state or sports departments, staff will now work within one of seven desks with names like “data,” “digital” and “community conversation.”
The initiative emphasizes four goals: Prioritize local news over national news; publish more user-generated content; become 24-7 news operations, in which the newspapers do less and the websites do much more; and finally, use crowdsourcing methods to put readers to work as watchdogs, whistle-blowers and researchers in large, investigative features.
“This is a huge restructuring for us,” said Michael Maness, the VP for strategic planning of news and one of the chief architects of the project. According to an e-mail sent Thursday to Gannett news staff by CEO Craig Dubow, the restructuring has been tested in 11 locations throughout the United States, but will be in place throughout all of Gannett’s newspapers by May. “Implementing the (Information) Center quickly is essential. Our industry is changing in ways that create great opportunity for Gannett.”
And great challenges: Like other newspaper publishing companies, Gannett has watched its share price slide steadily southward, losing 30 percent of its value since January 2004. Although newspapers still post healthy profits, circulation has declined precipitously as more and more readers migrate to the internet, non-journalistic news sources like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and on-the-scene videos posted to Youtube.com. Readership figures in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic have been especially dispiriting, and Wall Street has aggressively demanded that papers cut costs and adapt to rapid changes in technology.
Other large publishers are already experimenting with bringing readers into a more participatory role, and a host of citizen-journalism projects like NowPublic and NewAssignment.Net have sprung up in the last few years. But because of its reach, Gannett’s move could bring these issues into the mainstream.
Of all the pilot projects the company has conducted over the last few months, the most promising would seem to be the crowdsourcing of in-depth investigations into government malfeasance. Crowdsourcing involves taking functions traditionally performed by employees and using the internet to outsource them to an undefined, generally large group of people. The compensation is usually far less than what an employee might make for performing the same service. Well-known examples include Wikipedia and iStockphoto.
“We’ve already had some really amazing results with the crowdsourcing element of this,” said Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s VP for new media content. “Most of us got into this business because we were passionate about watchdog journalism and public service, and we’ve just watched those erode. We’ve learned that no one wants to read a 400-column-inch investigative feature online. But when you make them a part of the process they get incredibly engaged.”
The most prominent example, Carroll said, occurred this summer with The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida. In May, readers from the nearby community of Cape Coral began calling the paper, complaining about the high prices — as much as $28,000 in some cases — being charged to connect newly constructed homes to water and sewer lines.
Maness asked the News-Press to employ a new method of looking into the complaints. “Rather than start a long investigation and come out months later in the paper with our findings we asked our readers to help us find out why the cost was so exorbitant,” said Kate Marymont, the News-Press‘ editor in chief.
The response overwhelmed the paper, which has a circulation of about 100,000. “We weren’t prepared for the volume, and we had to throw a lot more firepower just to handle the phone calls and e-mails,” Marymont said.
Readers spontaneously organized their own investigations: Retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.
“We had people from all over the world helping us,” said Marymont. For six weeks the News-Press generated more traffic to its website than “ever before, excepting hurricanes.” In the end, the city cut the utility fees by more than 30 percent, one official resigned, and the fees have become the driving issue in an upcoming city council special election.
Maness said the experience was so encouraging that Gannett will roll out the new approach in all of its newsrooms. “We’re going to restructure everything in how we gather news and information. We’ll shift our eyes and ears on the ground from reporters to the crowd.”
Sources at several papers, from The Indianapolis Star to The Cincinnati Enquirer to the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, said Gannett corporate headquarters had directed them to adopt the new approach.
Naturally, the newsrooms are wary of the changes, despite the results achieved in Fort Myers. “We’ve broken into task forces to figure out how to implement this, but some of this stuff, I’ll be honest, gives us great pause,” said one midlevel editor at a Gannett newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The editor of the Indianapolis Star sparked a minor controversy when he launched that paper’s crowdsourcing efforts in the editor’s page a few weeks ago. Several staffers publicly expressed the concern that Gannett was turning to the crowd as a cost-saving measure, and worried that the changes would result in more job cuts.
“Look, we’ve got some hurdles to get over, as an industry and as a company. Cultural hurdles and technological hurdles,” said Gregory Korte, an investigative journalist with the Cincinnati Enquirer who has been working to implement some of these ideas at the paper. At some point, he says, it’s going to get painful. “The newspaper of the future is going to need more programmers than copy editors, and we’re going to have to figure out how to make that transition.”
Carroll and Maness have promised that no layoffs will occur as a result of the reorganization. “We’re retraining our people, and many will take on new duties,” said Maness, noting that photographers are being trained to take videos, and that library staffers may be called upon to man the “data desk,” which manages the influx of information Gannett hopes readers will be submitting. “But no one’s going to lose their job because of this.”
Above and beyond pink-slip considerations, crowdsourcing journalism raises many other thorny issues, said Korte. The paper recently asked the crowd to weigh in on the grisly murder of a 3-year-old foster child.
“All that water-cooler speculation moved online,” said Korte. The readers were convicting the foster parents before charges were even filed. “We wound up having to close down the message boards until an indictment came down. It’s very hard to separate fact from fiction online, and some people expect that whatever’s on our site undergoes the same degree of scrutiny as what appears in the paper.”
Korte said he feels that crowdsourcing holds a great deal of promise for certain “pocketbook” issues, like the sewage scandal in Fort Myers, but that it will take a lot of thought and experimentation before discovering how best to utilize the approach.
“We’re serious about this,” he said. “Do we have it licked? No. But we’re ahead of the curve. By maybe half a step.”