The next project, again based on the creation of a map, was called “Are You Being Gouged,” and asked listeners to report the prices of typical food items (lettuce, milk, beer, etc.) at their local markets. Here, Lehrer said, they ran into “one of the problems with crowd sourcing.” When his team fact-checked some the outlier prices (i.e. excessively high or low), they all turned out to be wrong. Nevertheless, with 450 people participating, his program did get a lot of valuable mileage from this crowd-sourcing exercise. The show was able to frame a couple on-air segments around the map (people “talked about it for months”), and they were able to discern some pricing patterns and discuss issues like the difference between independent markets and supermarkets. After that, Lehrer asked listeners to help develop a quantitative and qualitative assessment of Bill Clinton’s monetary value to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Lehrer also asked his audience to help scour the records of her activities as First Lady. It was too much for his staff to handle, he said, and to improve efficiency he advised listeners to review only the week of their birthday. After that, Lehrer did a more whimsical piece where people contributed their workday “nap strategies.”

All these projects were “moderate successes, more interesting than revelatory,” Lehrer said. But they helped lay the groundwork for the show’s “30 Issues in 30 Days” series focused on the fall 2008 presidential election campaign. “No matter what “breaking news” was happening in the campaign on a given day, the idea, as Lehrer put it, was to create a “safe space” for the issues to be explored in depth. This was to make sure his program did
not get totally caught up in the more typical horserace coverage of the mainstream media leaving serious issues of consequence neglected. Listeners played an active and important role in creating the “30 Issues in 30 Days”
series. Lehrer encouraged listeners to send in their ideas of issues to be discussed, and experts to address particular issues. The show created online wikis for listeners to comment on six of the issues and suggest angles of exploration. The quantity of participation was very low, Lehrer said, but the quality of what listeners helped produce was very high. Yet for all that, Lehrer concluded, they’ve been “dabbling at the surface” of what’s possible. The trick is to find opportunities for audience collaboration that will be “journalistically meaningful.” One thing they’ve thought of, for example, would be crowd-sourced information about construction sites, accidents and safety.

Panel Discussion: Harnessing the Power of Your Audience

The last panel of the day, moderated by Marc Perton, executive editor of online media at Consumer Reports, was titled, “Harnessing the Power of Your Audience - Applying New Information and Tools to Your Journalism.” Perton began by following up on the preceding case studies by noting that, in some way, crowd sourcing is not new. After all, he said, radio call-ins and letters the editor at newspapers have been common practice for a very long time. “What’s really different today,” he said, “is that collaborators expect to be given tools to create content on their own terms.”

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