The fourth and last panelist was Joel Sucherman, the director of product innovation at USA Today, where he recently took the editorial lead in the re-design and re-launch of USAToday.com. Sucherman explained that one of the founding principles at the publication was “opening its doors” to readers, and there was an early realization that those readers were an untapped resource. “Reporters will never understand the intricacies of something” as well as people who live and deal with that thing every day, he said.

Networked journalism is an important editorial mission at USA Today, but it is incumbent upon the Web site to provide the tools and the space for readers to help produce quality content rather than hollow chatter. Since
USA Today’s site re-launched, for example, each headline includes a prominent comment and recommendation count, so that readers can see where the “buzz” is. They also created more space for user-generated content. They’ve had photo collections of opening day at Major League Baseball games around the country and impressive weather scenes. Getting published on the site is a “really big deal for people,” Sucherman said. The site also has reader blogs such as the NFL Blog Squad, where readers in major cities around the country have set up home team blogs. In an effort to have the Web “give back” to the print edition, the newspaper now runs “Page 3.0,” a user-generated sports page. Such trends in social media are altering roles in the newsroom, he added. In a variation on the “Long Tail” concept of business, Sucherman offered the “Fuzzy Tail” concept whereby staff employees now have to do “a little bit of everything,” from print, to Web, to multimedia, to community management.

This new organization allows for more engaging storytelling, Sucherman argued. For example, USA Today created a “candidate match game,” in which readers entered their political positions and were shown which candidates best matched their views. There was also a “presidential poll tracker” that aggregated all of the available election polls. Sucherman described the approach as “database reporting, a gift that keeps on giving” through constant updates and a live flow of data, and which stays active for long periods of time. The databases aggregate professional and public knowledge in all media, including blogs, videos, photos, and audio files. Once again demonstrating the changing roles in the newsroom, Sucherman added that reporters are now becoming more like “curators of information.” An example of this is Gene Sloan’s Cruise Log blog at USA Today, which aggregates professional and user information about cruises. Through a variety of comments, reviews, and ratings, the expertise behind that site in provided by the crowd.

The conversation then opened up among the panelists. Perton asked King about “damage control” for false iReports at CNN. King replied that they rely on community policing, which is very effective. In a few instances, however, inaccurate information has been picked up and disseminated by sites like Digg before it could be corrected. Sucherman jumped in to defend iReports and said that one bad incident should not destroy the system. Muller agreed that people spot and correct errors very quickly online.

Perton then asked how readers’ ability to rank and recommend favorite stories affects news prioritization. Sucherman said he originally worried that with such a system, the top headlines would always involve celebrities
like Britney Spears, but that hasn’t been the case. People want to talk about important things like the presidential election and be engaged, he said. And because of that, journalists have recognized the potential resources and talent their readers and audiences provide.

The conference closed by returning to a short discussion of business models for journalism and consumer reporting. All the panelists agreed that it is a difficult time to launch a publication or a career in journalism, especially
one that makes money. Nevertheless, there is a growing demand for reporters that have “grown up” with social media and are well versed in reporting, writing, and a host of multimedia skills from video and sound editing to Web
production. As Sucherman put it, if you don’t mind being in an unsettled and uncertain world, “there has never been a more exciting time to be in this field. Historians will write about this moment.”

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.