The Faster Times, an online newspaper launched in July 2009 (tagline: “A new type of newspaper for a new type of world”), has introduced a new kind of investigative model for that new world. The initiative allows readers to vote on one of three topics they want to see taken up by a staff reporter, and then help shape the investigation itself.
The reader investigation/collaboration is a first for The Faster Times, which was founded a little less than a year ago to fight the waning tide of original reporting caused by the financial crisis facing American journalism.
Founder and publisher Sam Apple calls the project a new twist on what he sees as somewhat one-sided collaborations between citizen journalists and professional journalists that have been done in the past. The plan takes some familiar elements tested by other crowd-selected and crowd-powered reporting methods one step further by combining the two concepts.
“What’s a little more original about this is that it’s not just citizen journalism or professional journalism, but an in-between model,” Apple said. “We have an experienced reporter working with tipsters that I think is going to be a really interesting experiment to see.”
“On-demand journalism,” giving consumers the power to pick an investigation’s topic, has been tried elsewhere, perhaps most notably by Spot.Us, where readers vote with their wallets to fund freelance story pitches. The Faster Times experiment differs in that there is no money changing hands, and in that the voters are asked to stick around help the journalist carry the investigation across the finish line.
After the readers select the topic, Apple aims for an open-source investigation unfettered by newsroom walls that, while it will not necessarily compel contributors to post their findings publicly if they’d rather e-mail the tips in privately, the fact that the investigation itself is ongoing will obviously not be top-secret. By making their reporting visible along the way, they hope to attract more reader-contributors.
Inspired by Talking Points Memo’s frequent solicitations for reader tips in covering political events across the country, Apple, with the help of news and politics editor Nathan Hegedus, and environmental science reporter Amy Westervelt, envisions an ongoing blog-format conversation. They’ll ask readers to comb through databases and documents, emailing their tips, findings, original research, leaks and personal expertise to Westervelt, who will report them out. Her posts will be the basis for further reader participation and reporting in the comments section, pushing the investigation forward in an ongoing game of ping-pong between the professionals and the amateurs.
“The skill of being a talented writer is somewhat different than being a good researcher or investigator,” Apple said in describing the back-and-forth partnership. “And we’re hoping to find that kind of researcher talent out there, that is suited to working with a journalist,” he said. “I think the key to the success of this is to get the word out. That will, in a sense, be our biggest challenge.”
Apple’s hopes are that the project will be truly collaborative; dependent on readers’ research and insider expertise, thereby allowing them to continually push the story where they want to see it go — more of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure than some of the Color-By-Numbers type collaborations of the past.
Of course, it is also a way for a cash-strapped start-up to capitalize on not just the wisdom of the crowd, but its numbers, too. The Faster Times’ 100-plus writers, scattered across the globe, get 75 percent of the ad revenue earned by their articles. Alas, Apple admits, that’s not very much.
“We’re a start-up, a collective of journalists, and we don’t have a ton of resources to do big investigations, which are expensive,” Apple says. “This is a way for us to do an investigation economically.”
The Faster Times has set no deadline for completion of its investigation and there will be no formal 2,000 word magazine-style wrap-up.
“When TPM is on a big story, what’s exciting is that you get the news piecemeal,” Apple said. “The fun of it is being along for the ride and finding little tidbits along the way. There should be a summary document at the end, but it would be stilted for it to show up in a normal article. And of course, the ideal situation is not to generate a report but to get some results.”