News publisher Gannett embraces crowdsourcing

November 4th, 2006

crowdJeff Howe of has written a WiredNews article, Gannett to Crowdsource News , describing changes and reorganizations in the Gannett Company, publisher of USA Today and more than 90 other US dailies.

The initiative emphasizes four goals: Prioritize local news over national news; publish more user-generated content; become 24-7 news operations, in which the newspapers do less and the websites do much more; and finally, use crowdsourcing methods to put readers to work as watchdogs, whistle-blowers and researchers in large, investigative features.

News publishers are in a panic, of course, due to declining circulation and ad revenue. Even though profits for the big companies remain very good, their stock prices have fallen due to fears that the circulation trends will continue downward.

Of all the pilot projects the company has conducted over the last few months, the most promising would seem to be the crowdsourcing of in-depth investigations into government malfeasance. Crowdsourcing involves taking functions traditionally performed by employees and using the internet to outsource them to an undefined, generally large group of people. The compensation is usually far less than what an employee might make for performing the same service. Well-known examples include Wikipedia and iStockphoto.

“We’ve already had some really amazing results with the crowdsourcing element of this,” said Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s VP for new media content. “Most of us got into this business because we were passionate about watchdog journalism and public service, and we’ve just watched those erode. We’ve learned that no one wants to read a 400-column-inch investigative feature online. But when you make them a part of the process they get incredibly engaged.”

I’m quite conflicted about this. Getting readers more involved with a local newspapers sounds like a winning idea and crowdsoourcing is one way to do it. But it is a terrible idea if publishers see this as a way to lower costs by reducing their need for beat reporters. Journalism is a longstanding, honorable profession with a strong concern for ethics and good practice. Being a reporter is a challenging job requiring many skills and it doesn’t pay all that well. Crowdsourcing can’t replace most of what reporters do.