Anyone who is a member of the site can start an investigation; an investigation is basically just a question. For instance, ‘What is happening with the Birmingham Council website?’ or ‘What is the worst street in Birmingham for parking fines?’ Then we give them advice, on two fronts: first of all, how they might begin to investigate it or find more information, and then how to build a community around that question. So there’s a social task and there’s an editorial task there, effectively. Then we’ll break down the main question into smaller tasks: they’re called ‘challenges.’ A challenge in investigating a business might be to find a particular year’s accounts of that business, or speak to a particular person in the company, or look at [public] reports. So the question is broken down that way. Anyone can join on to an investigation, and we can invite people with specific skills who we think might be able to help. And as the site builds up, more and more resources start to build up, and we build a bigger network of support.
Do you ever hand off a story that’s gotten really big to the mainstream news?
Yes, quite often if a story gets big, we might assign the challenge of writing up what we’ve found as a story, so that other people can get involved, and at that time we’d probably invite a journalist from a local paper, or anyone else who was interested. Our story on parking fines, for example, was reported on by the local newspaper in Birmingham. Or sometimes if there’s a national investigation [reported on in the mainstream media], we might take the story and do something local with it.
Do you see the Help Me Investigate model as replacing a traditional newsroom, or supplementing it? If you can imagine this model spreading to other towns and cities, what do you think that would look like on a larger scale?
I certainly see it as complementing mainstream journalism, and journalists who have the kind of community management skills to get involved in it could really benefit. I think the main thing that’s stopping us at this point is the cultural barriers, and the time available. I’ve had quite a few conversations with individual journalists, and there’s a will there to get involved with this sort of tool, but quite often there just isn’t the investment of time or the cultural understanding to be able to pull this off, I think. They’re quite happy to take the stories at the end, [laughs] but I think community management is a rare skill in print newsrooms, certainly.
But further down the line, I think this is going to become more and more common as the culture becomes more widespread, and I also think that we’ll learn better what works in time. It’s only a year into this project and I’m still learning what makes for a successful crowdsourcing project, how these communities work, what the dynamics are. That’s been my intention since the beginning: even if this project doesn’t work, we’ll learn a lot about how to do it better in the future.
What are the limitations of this kind of model? Are there certain stories that you just can’t do that might be more appropriate for a larger newsroom with a full-time staff?