News Leadership 3.0

March 05, 2009

ProPublica joins the pro-am journalism movement

Citizen journalists cannot replace professionals. But professionals and amateurs can form powerful partnerships to create important journalism.

I often hear journalists refer to a widespread belief that citizens can replace professionals in producing journalism.

Here’s just one example from a column in the Vancouver Sun after the Rocky Mountain News closed: “Meanwhile, blogosphere chatter responds with gleefully patronizing pronouncements on how the ‘old media’ are toast, about to join the pterodactyl. The ‘new media’ leads the way to a promised land of free information and citizen journalism.”

As much as I sympathize with the angry or frightened journalists who say things like this, I’ve got to point out a couple of problems with such statements.

First, I have never seen anyone advocate that citizen journalists can replace professionals across the board. The notion does not ring true that any one feels glee at the decline of the newspaper business model that supports so much good journalism. (If you have examples, please share links in the comments.) I hear worry about this from citizens, techies and other new media folks as well.

Second, this either-or framing gets in the way of seeing the potential for professional-amateur partnerships that can produce good journalism. So I am going to make this Part 4 in my series on “Ideas that get in the way of saving journalism.”

A better idea is to figure out specific ways in which partnerships might work—how citizen journalists can enrich information in concert with professionals.

ProPublica takes a step in the right direction with the appointment of Amanda Michel as Editor of Distributed Reporting. “Michel will initially use crowd sourcing and collaborative journalism methods to report on the impact of the federal stimulus bill. She will also help integrate these newsgathering techniques into ProPublica’s other investigative efforts,” ProPublica says. (Link via Jay Rosen on Twitter. Rosen is a leader in developing pro-am models, including OffTheBus.)

Michel recently was director of OffTheBus, which organized citizen journalists to report on the presidential campaign for Huffington Post. CJR has Michel’s report on that effort. (I worked with Michel on Assignment Zero, which teamed amateur reporters and writers with professional editors to cover the trend of crowd sourcing two years ago.)

Find more examples of how newsrooms are using crowd sourcing to inform their coverage at BeatBlogging. The site offers many examples of topic blogs that are “extending the circle of reportage to include more users in ways that are practical and effective for production on the beat.” On these blogs, a professional reporter might discuss stories she is working on and invite interested users to comment, pose questions they would like a story to answer or report information.

Tapping into the crowd to produce journalism requires new ways of thinking and organizing. Michel notes in CJR that OffTheBus had 12,000 participants:

“It sounds impressive: twelve thousand people. But the challenge was not persuading them to sign up. It was figuring out what they were willing and able to do after that, and then cost-effectively coordinating their efforts so that they added up to real journalism. By Election Day, we had solved enough of that puzzle that I can now say to professional journalists: we found a viable pro-am model for advancing stories both around the globe and in your backyards, and you should take a serious look at it.”

The total price tag for the six-month effort is impressive too: $250,000.

Are you experimenting with the pro-am model? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments.





I was one of the 12,000 who contributed to Off-the-Bus, but what I wrote was certainly not journalism.  It was pure punditry.  Some of the reporting in there was decent, but the focus, it seemed to me, was more for massive content aggregation, and less for reliably-sourced, well-written journalism.

Thanks for the comment, Pablo. You raise a very significant point. I don’t think we should have any expectation that citizens en mass will produce reliably-sourced, well-written journalism. But large numbers of contributors can be eyes and ears in small ways in many places where professional journalists may not be present. They can contribute data. One example I have seen (forget where) has local people reporting on street repair needs in their neighborhoods. It gets mapped online and brings some transparency to what streets aren’t getting attention and what neighborhoods are in good shape.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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