It makes perfect sense to have readers help out—with the stimulus package, in particular, whose content is as significant as it is dense. “People want to see these things come to light,” says Matt Palevsky, who coordinates distributed reporting for the HuffPost, and worked on the stimulus project. “It’s a feeling of interest,” he says—the content of the package will affect all of us both profoundly and directly—“and also one of responsibility.” There’s also that fact that “playing the investigator is fun for a lot of people—it certainly is for me.”
Soliciting and taking advantage of that help is nothing new, either—and not just for the HuffPost (the stimulus project is a direct outgrowth of OffTheBus, the outlet’s popular—and, by most accounts, highly successful—citizen journalism project), but also for journalism in general. Crowdsourcing in this respect “is just an extension of what’s always been done in the media world,” Grim says. “People have always called into newspapers or network news shows with tips—and that’s all this is.”
While the Web may allow easy access to the text of the bill, beyond that bit of technological facilitation, the work the HuffPost’s readers have been doing is a species of the kind of reader participation that has been a mainstay of hometown newspapers since the advent of contemporary journalism. It’s now simply happening en masse, and at warp speed.
And in a way that turns the traditional structure of journalism—top-down—on its side, and that shifts the reporter/reader relationship from a vertical orientation to a horizontal one. “It’s a two-way street,” Arianna Huffington says. “We provide assignments—but we also listen to our community and see what they would like to report on, and follow up on what they send us.”
And, though the stimulus bill is a logical choice for reader participation, the HuffPost’s efforts at crowdsourcing aren’t limited to legislative analysis. “We are doing it across all the verticals,” Huffington says. “And we are finding that every day, there are more and more opportunities to use the wisdom of the crowd, to use our community—which is so large and active at the moment—to report stories.”
Still, combing through nearly 1,400 pages of dense text is a long and often thankless task—which is why professional journalists get paid to do it. Volunteer reporters, for all their eagerness and their admirable sense of civic responsibility, lack the accountability that comes with a paycheck. “It’s a running experiment,” Grim says of the project—and one of the more interesting factors being tested in that experiment is the extent that intellectual interest, emotional investment, a sense of community, or some combination thereof, will yield valuable journalism.
Compare the HuffPost’s crowdsourcing approach to The New York Times’s combing of the stimulus package. Reading through the bill “is my job,” says David Herszenhorn, the Times’s Congressional correspondent. “I’m supposed to do that for the readers, not the other way around.” While Herszenhorn shares Grim’s respect for readers—”often our readers are smarter than we are about a given subject,” he says, “so we’re certainly paying attention” when a reader writes in with a comment or a tip—at the same time, “we’re not going to count on them to do the scrutiny of the bill.”
Instead, Herszenhorn and his fellow Times reporters are engaging in what he calls “a loosely coordinated, newspaper-wide effort” when it comes to parsing the stimulus package—”with some of us responsible for the whole thing from top to bottom, but then lots of different parts of the paper having particular interests in different aspects of it”: Robert Pear is focusing on the health care provisions in the package, Sam Dillon is focusing on education, etc. They share tips among each other, and also use external resources—floor debates, press releases from lawmakers and interest groups—to help navigate through the most significant (which often means the most controversial) aspects of the package.