He wrote another series of posts about Minnesota’s underfunded justice system; for those, he invited readers to share their experiences within the courts. “What you share will not be published, it will be confidential and will help to inform and guide our reporting,” he wrote. Guntzel says he was overwhelmed with responses about that, from people in all corners of the system: public defenders, judges, prosecutors, defenders, and court reporters. And those responses gave him a valuable overview of the important issues at play, shaping the focus of his reporting. He says it proved a far better method than the simple Google search that often kicks off a new story.
“When I’m reporting, I really like to just make a million phone calls, talk to as many people as possible,” Guntzel says. “And this is just such an efficient way to figure out the best people to talk to.” He adds the caveat that it’s no shortcut: “It’s an efficient way to get started, but I wouldn’t say it necessarily saves a lot of time, because I end up following up with everyone quite a bit anyhow.”
Each new project attracts a different subset of readers, so in a sense he’s starting from scratch each time. Readers who tell him about their experiences in the court system won’t necessarily be the same readers interested in combing through stimulus data. But each new project also expands his readership: justice department employees share the link with their colleagues at work, for instance.
Though the free technology that enables Guntzel to collect this information so easily may be revolutionary, the basic idea at play here—that readers can fill in the gaps of a story and contribute to a larger conversation with their feedback—is not.
“When I’m doing it, it just feels exactly like what I’ve always done as a reporter, which is listening to people, building relationships, and leveraging those relationships,” Guntzel says. “It doesn’t really feel any different from what I’ve done in the past.”
After our conversation, Guntzel followed up in an e-mail about “crowdsourcing,” the buzzwordiest of buzzwords, which he sees as just a 21st-century expression for a process that’s as old as publishing. He wrote:
I started reading this book “The American Language” by the delightfully disgruntled reporter/writer/editor H.L. Mencken. It’s the fourth edition. The first edition came out in 1919 and was 374 pages. The fourth edition came out in 1936, was completely rewritten, and was 769 pages.
What happened? He had read hundreds of letters from readers (one of them 10,000 words long) who offered corrections, critiques, and additions—and he listened. Those letters (and his own new discoveries) convinced him he needed to take another stab at it and guided him through the process. It was crowdsourcing.