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?
I think that’s actually the smallest problem. The major problem is legal. There are certain investigations that are just too legally risky to do in public. One of the things I’d like to do is to make it open source, to allow people to do it in a distributive fashion and distribute the risk that way, so maybe people would be braver about taking on those risks. Having all the information there on one site, it’s easy for us to be silenced—just from the financial risk, rather than the actual truth of the investigation or anything like that. So the legal thing is probably the main thing. And then there are many types of investigations that are difficult to do in public: anything to do with the Secret Service, anything where the only way to investigate the issue is to have personal contacts inside an organization, and very close relationships of trust. That’s unlikely to take place on a semi-public website. But what does suit it is, if you’ve got investigations that need a diverse range of expertise, and perhaps have a lot of small tasks that can be completed by different people, those sorts of things suit this model very well.
Update: Paul Bradshaw’s bio above did not include his position at London’s City University in London when this post was first published; the omission has been corrected.