Sat December 10, 2011
Ever Wanted To Help Cover The News? Here's How You Can — In The UK, Anyway
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*THIS NOTE IS STRICTLY FOR PLANNING PURPOSES ONLY: INFORMATION IS NOT FOR PUBLICATION, BROADCAST OR SHARING WITH THIRD PARTIES*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."