Ever Wanted To Help Cover The News? Here's How You Can — In The UK, Anyway

Dec 10, 2011
Originally published on December 11, 2011 10:34 am

I get somewhere between four and six e-mails every day from NPR's news managers, each one an update on the network's coverage plans for the day — and each one bearing this stern all-caps warning:

*THIS NOTE IS STRICTLY FOR PLANNING PURPOSES ONLY: INFORMATION IS NOT FOR PUBLICATION, BROADCAST OR SHARING WITH THIRD PARTIES*

Like most news organizations, we keep our so-called "story budgets" close to the vest, not least out of competitiveness.

Not so at Britain's Guardian newspaper, though — at least not at the moment. As London-based national news editor Dan Roberts tells NPR's Audie Cornish, the 190-year-old outlet has taken to making its story list public, and inviting readers to help shape coverage.

"We've been experimenting for a while in trying to get readers to help us report things," Roberts says in an interview airing on Weekend Edition Sunday. (The audio will appear above after broadcast.)

"We realized that the only way to really take that to a bigger scale was to tell them what we're already doing — 'cause there's no point in just kind of giving them a blank sheet of paper and saying, 'What would you do?' You have to kind of engage them in the process."

It's a kind of crowdsourcing, to hear Roberts describe it:

"We did an investigation into the exploitation of interns, and rather than the normal process of doing the investigation and then opening the piece up for comments on the website and then seeing people's experiences, we flipped it and we said, 'Right, in advance we're going to tell people we want to investigate this. Can you give us examples of perhaps how you've been exploited as an unpaid intern?'

"And suggestions poured in. And then we did the reporting, we checked them out."

It made for a better story, Roberts argues. "We had some brilliant examples that really opened people's minds to just how bad the problem was."

But it also helped build an advance audience — one whose appetite for the story had been whetted.

"So it ended up being the best-read story of the week," Roberts says.

The experiment has also helped change the way the Guardian sets its broader news agenda, Roberts suggests. Editors and reporters sometimes think old news isn't still news, for instance — but their audiences don't always see it that way.

When a push to reform Britain's National Health Service got underway last summer, the Guardian "reported it extensively," Roberts says.

"But when the bill actually reached Parliament, we kind of switched off from it. And we got a lot of feedback from readers saying, 'No, no, we really want every spit and cough of the Parliamentary debate.'"

The Guardian's journalists responded: live coverage of the two days of debate, more reporting resources.

"And [the readers] were right," Roberts tells Audie. "The Parliamentary stage was much more important than we had acknowledged, and we got huge traffic on the stories — but also a lot of engagements on the comment threads under the stories."

Journalists and editors will always have to make tough decisions about what to cover and when. Editorial experience still counts for something when issues are polarized: "As professional journalists, we can be dispassionate about things," Roberts says.

But "we've got to recognize our strengths and weaknesses," Roberts continues. There are only so many of us in the morning news meeting — and "it's a big world, and there's an awful lot of things going on."

What the Guardian's experiment is designed to tap into is "that wisdom-of-crowds thing," Roberts says. "Good ideas bubble up that you're not going to get from a dozen people sitting in a room around a table chewing over that day's news."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Newspapers have been known to go to great lengths to hide their story budgets - that's the all-important list of what's coming up in the next day's paper. One British paper, however, has begun to do the opposite in the last few months. They're making their lists public so readers can weigh in on story decisions. Dan Roberts is the national news editor for the Guardian. He joins us from the offices of the paper in London. Dan, welcome.

DAN ROBERTS: Hi.

CORNISH: So, what on earth possessed you to publish your story list?

ROBERTS: We've been experimenting for a while in trying to get readers to help us report things. And we realize that the only way to really take that to a bigger scale was to tell them what we're already doing, 'cause there's no point in just kind of giving them a blank of sheet and saying, what would you do? You have to kind of engage them in the process as we go along. We got a lot of good feedback, so we decided to keep it going. But actually we want to relaunch probably in the new year. And I think we are actually giving people stories that we haven't written about when we think they can help. So, a good example: we did an investigation into the exploitation of interns. And rather than the normal process of doing the investigation and then opening the piece up for comments on the website and then seeing people's experiences, we flipped it. And we said right in advance we were going to tell people we want to investigate this. Can you give us examples of perhaps how you've been exploited as an unpaid intern. And suggestions poured in. And then we did the report and we checked them out. The advantage of that was that you get a much better story. We had some brilliant examples that really open people's minds to stamp out what the problem was. But also we had an audience that were already there waiting for us to tell them about it. So, it ended up being the best read story of the week.

CORNISH: So, talk more about how this experiment affected the way you made decisions about what to cover.

ROBERTS: We are finding sometimes the editors have a particular sort of shortsightedness about an issue that the readers are much more fired up about. We had a good example: we are covering reforms to the National Health Service. We'd reported it extensively over the summer but when the bill actually reached Parliament we kind of switched off from it. And we got a lot of feedback from readers saying, no, we really want every spit and cough of the parliamentary debate. And so we responded to that. We set up live coverage for the two-day debate and put some reporting resource into it. And they were right. The parliamentary stage was much more important than we had acknowledged. And we got huge traffic on the stories but also a lot of engagement in the commentaries under the stories.

CORNISH: What did this experiment teach you about your new judgment?

ROBERTS: Well, I think we've got to recognize our strengths and weaknesses. I mean, I think our strengths are that as professional journalists we can be dispassionate about things. And the positive side of it is that there's only a few of us. And there's a big world and there's an awful lot of things going on. And actually, it's that wisdom of crowds thing, that actually good ideas bubble up, that you're not going to get through a dozen sitting in a room around a table chewing over that day's news.

CORNISH: Dan Roberts. He's the national news editor for London's Guardian newspaper. Thank you so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.