Tag Archives: Guardian

How to stand out from the crowd-sourcing

Alan Rusbridger made some interesting comments on crowd-sourcing during the recent Hugh Cudlipp lecture. The Guardian has been at the forefront of harnessing the potential power of its readers, not just to read the news but also to help make the news. He said:

The last year has seen us crowd-source tax-avoidance – the internal Barclays documents that can (after a legal fight) be found on Wikileaks and whose publication undoubtedly led to changes in legislation and attitudes to corporate tax avoidance.

It began with a traditional piece of investigation by David Leigh, followed by participation and analysis by people who really understood this world. It was classically an example of “our readers know more than we do”.

The Guardian has made the most of its readers’ knowledge and resources, in stories like the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, examining Tony Blair’s complex tax affairs, and trawling through MPs’ expenses forms for further revelations.

Of course, the Guardian has also benefited from audience participation in other ways, such as the Trafigura affair, but their moves towards active crowd-sourcing are really promising. Rusbridger added:

These examples show how – so long as it is open to the rest of the web – a mainstream news organisation can harness something of the web’s power. It is not about replacing the skills and knowledge of journalists with (that ugly phrase) user generated content. It is about experimenting with the balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do.

When the MPs’ expenses records were finally released under the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian built a tool to allow readers to help sift through the huge amount of data, which led to stories like this. It was a big step, taking this kind of work out of the hands of reporters and putting it into the public domain, and one that other media organisations were struggling with too. But this actually just ties in with other trends towards collaboration in sites like Help Me Investigate. As Paul Bradshaw commented on his Online Journalism Blog:

This isn’t ‘citizen journalism’: it’s micro-volunteering. And when you volunteer, you tend to engage.

It wasn’t without hiccups. There was a huge amount of information to work through and, as with all projects, enthusiasm dipped after a while. This was the state of play on the site today:

But in many ways, the more important story was the second MPs’ expenses project. It was launched to much less fanfare but, with lessons learnt from the first attempt, has been a better example of how crowd-sourcing can actually work. One of the development team, Simon Willison, explained how they tried to improve the second project:

The reviewing experience the first time round was actually quite lonely. We deliberately avoided showing people how others had marked each page because we didn’t want to bias the results. Unfortunately this meant the site felt like a bit of a ghost town, even when hundreds of other people were actively reviewing things at the same time.

For the new version, we tried to provide a much better feeling of activity around the site…

Most importantly, we added a concept of discoveries—editorially highlighted pages that were shown on the homepage and credited to the user that had first highlighted them.

Clearly, these are works in progress. As with any new tool, it takes a bit of experimentation to see how they will work in practice. But that is why the second Guardian project is, in many ways, more promising than the first. It shows that given a relatively manageable amount of information, some clear goals, and with a layer of editorial control to manage the project, a group of engaged readers can make for a much better news story.

The Guardian, the gag and Guido: a case study in collaboration

Last week’s media storm over the super-injunction which prevented the Guardian from reporting an MP’s question in Parliament is a superb case study in the potential for interaction between traditional and social media.

In case you were stuck on a desert island somewhere and missed the wall-to-wall coverage (in which case you probably just checked Twitter on your phone anyway), the Guardian was prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question and a leaked report regarding the multinational oil company Trafigura and allegations of toxic waste leakage in the Ivory Coast.

Trafigura engaged specialist libel lawyers Carter-Ruck, who managed to get a super-injunction which not only prevented the Guardian from revealing the contents of the report (the Minton report, now available on Wikileaks), but also stopped them from reporting the fact that they had been stopped from reporting it.

Confused? Don’t be. There’s a pretty good summary of events on the Guardian’s website, along with a breakdown of the super-injunction (follow the link to the annotated copy of it if you want to get technical).

One of the most interesting aspects of the case is the way Twitter users and bloggers seized on the information they gleaned from the story published on the Guardian website at 8.31pm on Monday 12th October, and from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s tweet at 4.05pm that day:

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It didn’t take long for Twitter users and political blogger Guido Fawkes to identify the question, by Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Paul Farrelly, and the company to which it referred.

In the pre-Twitter world (yes, it did exist), this might still have come out, but it would have taken a lot longer and the whole process would have been shrouded in mystery. This was a perfect example of interested people taking little nuggets of information freely available and piecing them together to report what the Guardian couldn’t. Quite a feat.

Clearly social media has a fantastic amount of power – just see the reaction to Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately if you still need convincing. But what struck me about the Trafigura affair was the way old and new media collaborated to produce a fantastic story.

Even better than that, it’s been pretty widely recognised that collaboration was the key to the story’s success. The Guardian couldn’t have reported what bloggers did for fear of being hauled before the High Court. But at the same time, bloggers and the Twitterati didn’t have access to the leaked Minton report and, to my knowledge, wouldn’t have known there was anything to tell had it not been for the Guardian’s article. Throw Newsnight and Private Eye into the equation, which were both involved in different aspects of the coverage, and I think that’s a pretty fantastic example of collaboration.

For good journalism to survive, we need all types of media to work together instead of being antagonistic. There’s no going back to journalists acting as gatekeepers controlling the flow of information (and why would you want to go back to that anyway?). But I think this case also shows the value of established news organisations with a strong reputation and big enough resources to pursue this kind of story.

There are plenty of cynics predicting the demise of newspapers and extolling the virtues of social media and crowdsourcing. But given what we’ve seen over the past week, wouldn’t it be better for quality journalism if both types were to co-exist and, dare I say it, continue to collaborate?