You Pick It, You Report It

The Faster Times plots a new pro-am collaboration

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.”

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.”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.