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

What makes a crowdsourcing solicitation fall flat on its face?



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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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal