“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.”
The three topics that readers can vote on for this first investigation - genetically modified organisms, health concerns posed by nano-particles and the shadowy generic and store brand food industry (currently the front-runner; voting closes at the end of the day Sunday) - all public health topics that lend themselves to investigations, were all handpicked for their potential for wide feedback; they’re broad enough that anyone could help investigate them, but not so broad that the dig is undefined. And though the editor and reporter will point their reader-collaborators towards appropriate sources of information along the way, Apple says they don’t have a predetermined conclusion in mind.
“We’re starting out so broadly we don’t know where it will go,” Apple said.
This certainly isn’t the first time that professional journalists have asked amateurs for an assist. But, Apple said, it is different from previous citizen journalism and crowd sourcing efforts because it will offer far more interaction between the paid reporter and the voter-readers. In comparison, CNN’s user-generated i-Report initiative “has no interplay as far as I can tell,” he said.
For another contrasting example, Apple considers WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer’s 2007 project, “Are You Being Gouged?” Listeners were given a very specific request - go out to your local grocery store or bodega, and find out the price of three common products: milk, lettuce and beer - to research whether residents of certain New York neighborhoods were victims of price gouging. Participants went online and left their answers in a comments section, which were later entered into graphs and plotted on an interactive map according to price range. After you were finished dumping your info, your job as a reader was done. Apple hopes to engage and rely on his readers beyond this sort of one-off rote data collection.
If anything, it resembles “Assignment Zero,” Jay Rosen’s 2007 experiment with Wired magazine that attempted to set up a newsroom overseen by experienced journalists and powered by citizen journalists, who could pick up posted “assignments” that interested them and report them out.
Apple sees the combination of these older concepts; letting readers in on the news judgment decisions behind choosing what story to cover and taking advantage of readers’ strength and smarts to actually report the story, as the way of the future for pro/am journalism partnerships.
“I think this direction, and our take on this broader trend, is the way things are going - moving away from a top-down journalism model to respond to the interests of readers while also leveraging the readership – because they’re smart and useful and can really help you out.”