[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Last summer, residents of Cape Coral, Florida, got some unwelcome news. The assessments for a new water and sewer system were rising from 12,000 dollars per home to, in some cases, 40,000 dollars. The local Fort Myers News-Press, of course, jumped on the story. But here's the twist. The paper didn't just deploy a few reporters. Online and in the print editions, it also asked readers to get involved. Within hours, says executive editor Kate Marymont, information came pouring in, from assessment letters to blueprint analysis, to you name it. KATE MARYMONT: Sixty-five hundred different individuals in the community contributed information. On the second day of this project, we got an email from someone several states away who saw it on our website and said, did you know that an audit had been done and not released? Would you like a copy? BOB GARFIELD: Why, yes, thank you. They posted the audit, whereupon all hell broke loose, immediately - and pretty much ever since. It's an ongoing investigative story, a collaboration between the professionals at the paper and citizen deputies documenting, so far, pending official investigations of malfeasance or worse, lack of oversight on a grand scale.
It was also a textbook example of journalistic crowd-sourcing to produce a story the News-Press could never have gathered alone. KATE MARYMONT: We would have gotten pieces of it. I don't think we would have gotten all of it. We can't be in every neighborhood. We can't have access to every document. BOB GARFIELD: With the rise of the Internet and the precipitous decline of the traditional newspaper business, variations of crowd-sourcing, standing alone or in symbiosis with traditional news outlets, are widely seen as the future of journalism. At a summit this week at the City University of New York, participants considered examples as ambitious as the Cape Coral project and as rudimentary as Topix.com, which aggregates local news stories for every individual zip code in the country and solicits comments from the locals.
Founder and CEO Chris Tolles typed in the zip for Natchitoches, Louisiana. CHRIS TOLLES: They're talking about a lot of stuff. There was a murder case that there's 2,000 comments on. There's a comment about the Natchitoches council introducing a sagging-pants law that's got 100 comments. There are comments about politicians.
So it's kind of interesting, but it looks like an active forum in a little town that evidently was not getting covered prior to us being around.
BOB GARFIELD: That's nice, but one worry is that active citizens don't necessarily act appropriately. Some of the commentary on topics, for instance, is a little on the libelous side. In Cape Coral, Kate Marymont had to rein in some overzealous citizen muckrakers who sometimes overplayed their tenuous connection to the News-Press.
And then there's just supply and demand. Robin Hamman, a senior producer for the BBC, says that when the call goes out, the ensuing flood of material not only overwhelms his staff but leaves contributors disappointed when their contributions don't lead the evening news. The BBC has now learned, he says, to be extremely specific. ROBIN HAMMAN: So that people don't have the expectation that by sending a photograph of a fluffy kitten playing with a ball of yarn when what we really want is a fuel depot exploding, they don't have that expectation that we're going to use the stuff that they send in. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it seems blindingly obvious. Yet that failure to finely calibrate expectations along the lines of "remove child before folding stroller" helped sink the highest-profile experiment in journalistic crowd-sourcing.
That was Assignment Zero, the much-heralded brainchild of NYU professor and blogger, Jay Rosen. The project began auspiciously with participants quickly conducting interviews with 70 sources. Then, quickly, everything unraveled. JAY ROSEN: What went wrong? Well, we kind of thought that if we divided our big trend story up into smaller sections and told people that they could contribute knowledge to those smaller stories, that they would kind of self-organize and figure out how to do it. But they didn't. And nothing happened. And our scheme fell apart. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Rosen also believes that the nature of the story, which happened also to be about crowd-sourcing, didn't lend itself to narrow divisions of labor. Compare that to the initiative by The Brian Lehrer Show on our very own WNYC Radio in New York. Here's Brian two weeks ago deputizing his listeners. BRIAN LEHRER: Price disparities of common food items in the New York area. The assignment is this. Go to your local grocery store, any local grocery store, and just check out the price of three goods - milk, lettuce and beer. We'll tell you exactly what kind in a minute. Once you have the prices, just go to our website and report your findings in our special comments page for that. Pretty simple, right? JEFF HOWE: That is, as far as I'm concerned, the future of crowd-sourced journalism. BOB GARFIELD: Wired Magazine writer Jeff Howe, who coined the term "crowd-sourcing." JEFF HOWE: They don't want to write a big feature on a change in a zoning law any more than they want to go back and rewrite the term paper they got a D on in college. But what they will do is they'll say, huh, man, I want to know if I'm paying too much for a head of iceberg lettuce. BOB GARFIELD: And they want to know if the White House has strong-armed the Justice Department into firing politically wayward U.S. attorneys. That's how Josh Marshall of the blog Talking Points Memo enticed his readers to sift through more than 20,000 emails in search of treachery. It was a breathtaking display of the crowd completing in days what even a team of staff reporters might not finish for months. It was also an extremely rare example of citizen journalism not tied to an existing traditional news organization.
At Wednesday's summit, the conspicuous focus was on the hybrid, or pro-am approach to crowd-sourced journalism, because everybody understood that standalone enterprises lack resources for hiring, organizing, editing, and lawyering even unpaid volunteers.
Mark Potts is a consultant and founder of the defunct hyperlocal network BackFence.com. MARK POTTS: The elephant in the room is there's not a business model. We're still sort of in the "let's put on a show" stage of user-generated, hyperlocal citizens' journalism. Hey, kids, let's put on a show! I've got Mickey! I've got Judy! We've got to find a way to make a business out of it if you're going to sustain it. Otherwise, it's a hobby. BOB GARFIELD: Potts' blunt assessment was a bit of a buzzkill Wednesday, but hardly news to the events organizer, City University journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, whose blog BuzzMachine.com is an ongoing brainstorming session on media economics.
Jarvis sees the elephant in the room, all right, but that's not all he sees. JEFF JARVIS: And I have no sense that we're anywhere near a solution, but we damn well better be experimenting. BOB GARFIELD: Because the mainstream media, on which we still depend for news and information and government watch-dogging, is not an elephant. It's looking more and more like a wooly mammoth, stumbling inexorably toward extinction.