What journalists learned about crowdsourcing from Join the Beat

Illustration by Leon Postma, De Correspondent

Good journalists have always reached out to readers and experts for help with reporting, but the internet and in particular the social web have made this kind of crowd-“sourcing” much easier. To be effective from a journalistic point of view, however, reporters and the media outlets they work for have to be very clear about what they want to get out of crowdsourcing, as well as how they structure it, which can take a lot of effort before the reporting even begins.

Those are just a few of the lessons journalists say they learned from Join the Beat, an offshoot of the Membership Puzzle, which New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen created last year as a way of researching what makes successful membership and subscription-based models work.

As part of the Join the Beat project, 11 journalists from different outlets experimented with different ways of involving the audience in their reporting. Will Carless and Aaron Sankin—two reporters who work for Reveal, the news arm of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and who specialize in writing about hate crimes—assembled a group of volunteers they called the Hate Sleuths. Ars Technica writer Eric Berger created a newsletter aimed at readers interested in space flight. And Maite Vermeulen, who writes for the Dutch crowdfunded news site De Correspondent, reached out for advice on moving to Nigeria.

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Join the Beat is an extension of Rosen’s belief that journalists should use digital tools to help readers contribute to their reporting. In the mid-2000s, when blogging was still a popular format, Rosen experimented with something he called “beat blogging,” which involved trying to get beat reporters to create groups of interested readers and experts who could help them with their journalism. That in turn led to experiments like Off the Bus, a joint effort with the Huffington Post in 2009 that relied on “citizen journalists.”

“I met Jay when I was a Nieman Fellow in 1993-94, and I was very interested even then in the whole public journalism effort he was involved in,” Melanie Sill, who helped run the Join the Beat project, says. “So when I heard about the Membership Puzzle project I was very interested—the idea of membership not as just a transaction but more of a relationship.” Sill and Rosen asked for applications from newsrooms, and eventually selected 11 in April of last year to be part of this experiment in “networked beat reporting.” In addition to Berger, Carless, Sankin, and Vermeulen, the project included reporters from The Toronto Star, The Durham Herald-Sun, the Canadian digital-only outlet Discourse Media, and the Baltimore tech site Technical.ly.

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Carless and Sankin, who started reporting on hate in 2017, were looking for a way to get help with certain time-intensive tasks involved in their feature reporting projects. The first step was putting a call out to readers via their newsletter, with a link to a Google Form with questions about the topic and about the background of potential volunteers. They followed up with a similar tool called Screendoor, and then asked prospective members to sign an ethical conduct guide and upload an ID to weed out trolls. Based on a suggestion from Rosen, they also asked one of the volunteers to be a kind of coordinator, to help with assigning and collecting the work submitted by volunteers. “That was such a smart idea,” says Carless. At the end of the process, the two wound up with about 50 hate sleuths on their team.

One of the assignments the volunteers helped with was a project devoted to an alt-right podcast, Fash the Nation. The two reporters had their volunteers sign up to listen to the 15 most recent episodes of the podcast and note who the guests were, what they talked about, and so on. From the submissions they received, they wound up getting a story about an anti-Semitic app that allowed racists to avoid kosher food. Carless said both he and Sankin make a point of thanking their team publicly for their work, as a way of rewarding them. “Every time we use the hate sleuths we say very specifically what they did and thank them,” Sankin says. “We want to keep them engaged, and one way to do that is to tell them what came out of what they did.”

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De Correspondent, Maite Vermeulen says, already sees its readers as partners and contributors rather than just an audience. The Dutch site relies exclusively on member subscribers for revenue, and Rosen’s interest in that model helped spark the idea for the Membership Puzzle project (he also helped advise De Correspondent on its global expansion). “Because we are member funded, being close to our readers is so important,” Vermeulen says. “We use people who pay for our journalism not only as funders but as sources, so in that sense we were already a couple of steps ahead of others who work for more traditional newsrooms.”

For Join the Beat, Vermeulen reached out to readers for advice about moving to Nigeria to report on immigration, and for suggestions about what to cover and how. Those discussions took place in the comments on the De Correspondent site (which only paying members can access). There was a lot of helpful content, Vermeulen says—more than 500 responses—but the exercise also taught her that some groundwork is required to make sense of that much reader interaction. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the curation of your discussion” she says. “That makes all the difference.”

Berger, the Ars Technica writer, used Join the Beat to launch a newsletter about space flight, something he thought would be the kind of passionate niche interest that would suit a personal approach. He had three goals: to find an additional revenue stream (advertising), to push himself to cover the industry in more detail, and to take advantage of his readers’ expertise. But while he made good progress on the first two, Berger says he mostly struck out on the third. “I’ve got 10,000 subscribers and an open rate of 50 percent, and I did no marketing at all,” he says. But when it comes to participation, Berger says he only came up with a handful of potential contributors, despite multiple callouts in the newsletter and elsewhere. “My theory is that the newsletter is sort of like a throwback to the newspapers of old,” he says. “You get it in your inbox and you can read it but you can’t leave a comment. So maybe a newsletter feels like a one-way conversation to people.”

More than anything else, Melanie Sill says the various experiments proved traditional journalism isn’t really built for extensive reader participation. “The traditions of we-report, you-comment don’t put beat networking at the front end,” she says, and newsrooms often don’t see the work done to prepare and organize such efforts as valuable because it doesn’t produce any immediate result in terms of stories or coverage. “The most successful Join the Beat efforts came in newsrooms where there was institutional support for figuring out these challenges.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.