Collaborating to tell an important story is never an automatic process. Although web tools are an essential part of crowd-reporting a story, with their inherent ease-of-use quality, they can tempt both editors and contributors to think crowd-reporting is as easy as jotting down text and hitting “submit”. In fact, the difference between a comments page and a crowd-reported story page is the editorial process.
When The Brian Lehrer Show decided that we wanted to tell uncommon economic stories, it was obvious that we couldn’t find them all ourselves. We decided to go to our crowd, and gave them multiple ways to share what they spotted, no matter where they were located. Their options: text, phone, video and photo. By creating a set of web tools* for them to use spontaneously, we were ready for just about any unique stuff they could find. What makes crowdsourcing fun is that you can’t anticipate the ideas of your contributors. They may have a very complex way to dig into an issue, or they may just want to send you a photo of something they bumped into. Having a variety of ways to engage your reporting partners is what brings a wealth of information to your story.
Set the Tone
A blank form can be daunting to even the most motivated and interested listener. It’s helpful for them to see what you think is a good element for your story, so add your own reporting right away. To launch Your Uncommon Economic Indicators, we invited two community newspaper reporters on air to discuss how their stories helped bring economic facts to life. One of them described the absence of holiday lights down entire neighborhood streets in Queens. Here is the segment: Uncommon Economic Indicators.
This vivid observation set an example for listeners to imitate and made the assignment clear: to cover the economic crisis from where they can best capture the impact, in their own yards. Throughout the project, other submissions read and discussed on air suggest the types of stories we think make the project really work, and listeners quickly pick up on what kinds of entries make the cut.
Some of the more regular listeners to Brian’s show are known for adding comments to daily stories. We had to break a few of them out of their impulse to post a comment as an Uncommon Economic Indicator. To clarify or expand some posts, the editor emails contributors, expresses interest in their topic, calls them and edits their post accordingly. Sometimes they send re-writes themselves.
Don’t Allow Erroneous Information to Linger
Even the best intentioned contributor may include a wild claim. When producers spot something unusual, we take responsibility for reporting it out. We also add to the original post any corrections offered by other contributors. (The crowd can be great for self-correcting.) At the same time, we maintain a healthy understanding that this is an anecdotal project, and we point that out on the web page. We made that choice so that content could appear right away in our display. We trust that our audience is sophisticated enough to recognize that some of the user-generated posts may not meet the highest journalistic standards.
The worst kind of post is the obvious business promotion. WNYC’s editor often removes irrelevant photos or ads pasted into the site. If we do leave up part of a post with edits, we add an “Editor’s Note” with a brief reminder of the YUEI project’s goals. Occasionally we will see an offensive post. Trolls are real. That is why an editor must be assigned responsibility for an online story, rather than let it live on automatically. If your project runs online unchecked, you’ll encounter many weeds when you revisit.
Rewards & Thanks
Whenever The Brian Lehrer Show has a segment built around a contributed idea, Brian always reads actual contributions, or we play clips from calls/videos on air. This is a huge reward for many contributors, who always express thanks for mentioning their name, and more importantly, for taking their idea seriously. We also send out regular emails to the entire group of contributors and highlight stories or photos that inspired radio segments. Remember that the ultimate goal is to make great content, and contributors will only feel that their contribution is worth the effort if it enhances every part of the station’s programming.
We sent an email to one woman who posted that there were fewer lawn care companies and more do-it-yourself mowers in her suburban neighborhood, letting her know we had included it in the a discussion with someone from the New York Botanical Gardens, who offered tips for the lawn care novice. She replied saying she was delighted to have heard Brian read her post while she was driving. We believe those little exchanges build trust and encourage both producers and audience members to keep working together with new media to report stories.
*See a list of web tools in our case study on gathering data