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In late October 2002, I was working as a journalist at The Australian newspaper. In addition to covering the High Court, I was also the paper’s self-appointed bushfire correspondent. A life-long obsession with all things meteorological had taken me to a then fledgling on-line forum on weatherzone.com.au where other weather nerds waxed lyrical about super cells and upper-level cold pools.

The forum was also a superb source for bushfire information, with posters relaying real-time information about blazes.

This information was gold, often allowing The Australian to get ahead of the media pack and to fires before other journalists, who relied on information supplied through official channels. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that I was engaged in the very earliest example of crowdsourced journalism, a phenomenon that has radically changed the media landscape in the last few years.

In 2002 there was no Twitter, no smart phones, and no YouTube. The weatherzone.com.au forum was a primitive form of social media and because the community was so small, you learned quickly which contributors were trustworthy sources - a crucial feature for a journalist. As advertising margins are squeezed and newsrooms shrink, newspapers and other media outlets are turning their attention to other sources of copy and information.

This has huge ramifications for the practise of issues management. Recently the Sydney Morning Herald used crowdsourcing to uncover examples of Federal MPs and Senators who had made questionable claims on their parliamentary expenses. On 9 October, the Herald invited readers on-line to “review thousands of pages of MPs' travel records and expense claims available on the internet”.
Readers were asked to cross-reference a travel claim (using the date and location) against media reports of that day. The paper used the example of a claim made by then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for travel to Port Macquarie, which coincided with a media report about him attending an iron-man event.

The Herald’s readers helped reveal that West Australian MP Don Randall had flown across the country to Cairns to visit an investment property, claiming $5,259 in travel entitlements. The paper was adopting a technique used successfully by the UK’s Guardian newspaper, which in 2009 uploaded all Britain MPs’ expenses claims – over 450,000 documents – onto its website and asked readers to review them. In the first 80 hours around 170,000 documents were reviewed.

Interestingly, the Guardian was responding to a series of articles run by its rival the Daily Telegraph, whose reporters had spent months uncovering expense rorts.  Not only was the Guardian’s approach faster and less expensive, it helped build a strong readership community, strengthening brand loyalty.
However, the paper’s innovative approach also highlighted a major risk of crowdsourcing: failure to verify.

The Guardian wrote a story about an MP claiming an expense for attending a tanning salon. The problem was the reader had misread a form, which actually said ‘training’ not ‘tanning’. The same year, the newspaper’s special projects editor, Paul Lewis, used Twitter to reveal police had covered up the real cause of death of Ian Tomlinson, who was walking home from work during a G20 demonstration in London.

Lewis had attended the protest as a working journalist and was tweeting throughout. Police had claimed Tomlinson died from a heart attack. Lewis used Twitter to find 19 reliable witnesses, who could be placed on a map to show where Tomlinson fell. Lewis argues the fact he was tweeting during the protest, garnering 400 new followers in the process, helped him develop trust with his witnesses. He received a number of photographs from the protest showing Tomlinson had collapsed in two places about 100 metres apart.

Incredibly, the crucial piece of information came in the form of a video clip sent by a man in New York who had been in London on business and attended (and videoed) the rally out of curiosity. The man had been later following the newspaper’s coverage of the controversy from New York. Lewis described putting together the various photographs, witness accounts and the video as like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The Guardian was able to establish Tomlinson died after being pushed to the ground by a police officer. Lewis stresses though that crowdsourced sources are not always trustworthy. As he told Johanna Vehkoo from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, it’s essential to verify all your facts.

“Rules of traditional journalism apply now even more than before,” Lewis said. You can read more about Lewis’s approach in Vehkoo’s excellent report: Crowdsourcing in Investigative Journalism. US media giant Forbes has developed a form of crowdsourced journalism, which it describes as a "technology-led, data-driven newsroom".

This approach allows authorised individuals to publish straight to the Forbes website. Stories are selected for upload by Forbes’ editors and they are then ranked algorithmically on the website based on social media shares (Tweets, Facebook shares etc) and reader comments. Writers receive feedback directly from Forbes on the impact of their articles, including readership numbers and social sharing statistics. Contributors make a minimum commitment to produce a certain amount of content and are paid according to the popularity of their content.

Forbes now has 1,200 qualified contributors, including more than 150 freelance journalists. Around 15 per cent of the contributors are journalists, the balance features authors, academics, topic experts, business leaders and entrepreneurs. The results speak for themselves. Forbes’ audience has hit a record 55 million unique users, up from 15 million three years ago.

The Huffington Post and Mashable employ similar publishing models. The increasing use of crowdsourcing by media outlets creates interesting challenges for public relations professionals.
As the death of Ian Tomlinson demonstrates, any attempts at fudging the truth potentially carries greater risks then the pre-social media world.

There are few places to hide when the world is awash with personal high-definition cameras that can Tweet or post an image of video to YouTube in a matter of seconds. Journalists numbers may be decreasing but those still practising the craft have at their disposal a militia of citizen journalists who feel  strong sense of connection to the media outlet and who enjoy the thrill of the chase and getting of the yarn as much as any journalist.

More than ever, companies and organisations need to monitor social media to learn what people are saying about them, their products, services and people. Social Media managers need to anticipate controversies and be ready to respond with positive messages that put their side of the story.

If a competitor is in trouble, engage with the journalist and his or her ‘’team” of citizen journalists through social media to provide another side of the story; to stress your company or organisation is not affected by the brouhaha or to help instil confidence in the broader industry to which it belongs. 

Learn who the experts are contributing to media outlets that rely heavily on crowdsourced material relevant to your industry and establish relationships with them, providing insights and information they will find useful.  

10 Crowdsourcing examples
from Alexandra Mayhew

1. Content
Think Wikipedia
2. Service marketplaces  (services) 
Think Freelancer.com
3. Competition markets (services) 
Think 99 Designs
4. Start-up investments (crowd funding)
Think Kickstarter
5. Cause fundraising
Think Causes.com
6. Funding of ideas
Think Indiegogo
7. Weapon design
Think US army co-designing with troops
8. Micro tasks
Think ClickWorker
9. Innovation
Think Innocentive
10. Knowledge sharing
Think Quora