Sarah Palin's Emails And The New York Times's Adventures In Crowdsourcing

What makes a crowdsourcing solicitation fall flat on its face?

Palins

This afternoon the State of Alaska will release some 24,000 of Sarah Palin's emails, covering a good deal of her gubernatorial reign. Though the New York Times, along with pretty much every other publication in the free world, has sent reporters (an unspecified number, but likely fewer than 24,000) to Juneau, it recognizes that the trove it's facing down is a mighty one. So it posted on its politics blog, The Caucus, yesterday, asking if readers might "help us idenfity interesting and newsworthy e-mails, people and events that we may want to highlight."

Crowdsourcing! Citizen journalism! You've heard of it, right? It's the wave of the future. (Or is it?) The New York Times, that bastion of journalistic traditionalism, surely thought it was dipping a toe into the zeitgeist, and that its readers would be delighted. It thought wrong. And so did others, including The Washington Post. (Update 2:40 PM: After "a strong response to our crowdsourcing call-out on the Palin e-mails," the Post wrote it had "reconsidered our approach and now would like to invite comments and annotations from any interested readers")

Commenter ire began to snowball in the comments section. "Don't you folks get paid to do this work yourself?" And: "I'd help out but I need to get a root canal." And: "Awesome! The NYT wants non-journalists to do their homework for them!" Oh, and: "I don't recall you soliciting help from people to review the 2,000 page healthcare bill..." "I would rather watch paint dry." It goes on.

Rarely have crowdsourcing requests gone so wrong. What happened? Here's a few things you need to consider before issuing a crowdsourcing plea of your own.

1. Know your audience

This is a tricky one, in the Times's case, since its audience is so broad. But there are several reasons why the different segments of the NYT's audience wouldn't take kindly to such a request. First, there are a sliver of readers who firmly believe that all coverage of Palin is a sideshow undeserving of media attention. "Palin is only as powerful as the press she receives," complains one commenter on the site. Second, there is the well-known subgroup of the RCNYTHWNRTNYT's (rabidly conservative New York Times-haters who nonetheless read the New York Times...OK, maybe they're not that well-known). These have flocked to the bridge under The Caucus's post, where, troll-like, they've begun beating their chest about the Times's liberal bias.

2. Know your brand

The New York Times is not categorically opposed to innovation in journalism, or new models of journalism. In 2009, Bill Keller defended himself in the pages of the New York Review of Books, saying that he had "argued at times with some of the Web’s more utopian proselytizers about whether 'citizen journalists' are a substitute for professional journalists or, as I believe, a supplement." Even the man held up as the stodgiest of old media types has said there's a place for citizen journalism.

But it almost doesn't matter. Even if a Times higher-up says he believes in citizen journalism, the Times brand communicates something different. It communicates utter self-sufficiency, expansive reporting resources, and the clout to negotiate lead time on stories involving troves of documents (cf. WikiLeaks). The Caucus blog post reads too much like a desperate plea from a flailing ship. (Or like something other publications, more prone to aggregating, might try.) Which brings us to our third point.

3. Crowdsource organically

There's a difference between asking for a favor, and creating the conditions under which you'll receive a favor. We wager that the Times would have had more success in this crowdsourcing endeavor if it had done something very simple: not announced it as a crowdsourcing endeavor. What the Times should have done is simply report on the Palin cache as it navigated it, posting emails along the way, and admitting that it had not yet combed through them all. Without being asked, Times readers undoubtedly would have stepped up to the plate, acting as a back-up reporting team. It would have seemed like an opportunity, a rare behind-the-scenes look at how a news organization operates. Instead, anyone who helps out the Times will be doing so semi-reluctantly, because their favorite paper called in a favor. On the Internet, context is king.

Despite these suggestsion for how the Times (or Post) might temper its next crowdsourcing solicitation, the experiment itself may pan out. The Guardian embarked on a massive crowdsourcing experiment back in 2009, which Nieman Journalism Lab dubbed "spectacular," distilling a few lessons (among them: make it fun, launch swiftly, and make sure you have the necessary servers in place).

Meanwhile, we've reached out to the New York Times to ask them what planning went in to the crowdsourcing plea, and whether they've been surprised by the backlash. We've also put in a request to folks more expert than we are in crowdsourcing to hear their take.

Update, 2:57 PM: New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy writes in... 

"As for the negative reactions you mention--we think a lot of them are based on a misunderstanding of what we are doing. As we said yesterday, crowd sourcing is something we have been interested in doing to bring extra eyes to large caches of public information for quite some time. This is not the first time we have done it either...The Times invited readers to review and comment on Geithner’s schedule...and help complete Michelle Obama’s genealogical chart. What some people don't seem to understand is that we're not doing this in place of our own reporting, we're doing it in addition to our own reporting. We sent two reporters to Alaska to go through the documents and we have other reporters in New York dedicated to reviewing the documents as well. Since it is our intention to post the emails online, we thought it would be interesting to invite our readers to do their own search. if they find something interesting, we'll check it out ourselves."

[Image: Flickr users DonkeyHotey, shankbone]

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4 Comments

  • Bobby Morales

    you  base  all  of  your  argument off  a few cherry picked comments?  i  considered leaving a comment  there  too   asking  how  i  could  help.  i  cant  wait  to  sit  down with a strong cup of coffee and begin to  go  through  them

  • Toby Nicholas

    In fairness, the comments on the NYT item do look highly orchestrated. Probably worth letting this one play out before reaching judgement.

  • Osvaldo Padilla

    Here, you have written a story purporting to analyze journalism. However, isn't writing a story calling a media experiment an epic fail BEFORE that experiment has taken place an epic fail in and of itself? 
    You say: "Rarely have crowdsourcing requests gone so wrong. What happened?" Nothing has happened. I'm writing this at 1:20 p.m. Friday.  The NYT hasn't posted the e-mails yet. I suppose that's one way to beat other news outlets to the story, write the story before it happens. Here's another headline for you: 
    Fast Company's Out of Business: Critics point to poor ethics, sensationalism as cause of demise

  • David Zax

    You're right, Osvaldo, that it'd be wrong to deem the experiment in crowdsourcing itself a failure before it had begun. I see now I ought to have emphasized that crowdsourcing itself isn't the problem here--it was really the manner of the solicitation that seems to have struck a nerve with readers, and might have been better thought out. My post is meant to explore a few reasons why the NYT solicitation struck that nerve--and some of the circumstances are of course beyond the NYT's control (those Palinist trolls swarming the site, for instance).