Newspapers Use Readers To Break, Analyze News

When the U.S. government declassified a CIA inspector general's report on the treatment of terror suspects by the CIA, two leading newspapers didn't simply explain it to readers. They independently asked readers to tell them what it meant. Those giants of journalism took a page from their younger online rivals and used crowdsourcing.

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During the later years of his life, Senator Ted Kennedy spent much time questioning the Bush administration, and others continue that questioning this week. The U.S. government declassified an inspector general's report on the treatment of terror suspects by the CIA. And two leading newspapers didn't simply explain it to readers. They independently asked readers to tell them what it meant. NPR's David Folkenflik reports these giants of journalism are taking a page from their younger online rivals.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: In the Pantheon of Washington Post investigative heroes stand such heavyweights as Woodward and Bernstein, Dana Priest, Barton Gellman. Now comes lock 'em all up. You haven't heard of lock 'em all up? Well, me neither, until Monday afternoon, when the Post slapped 150 pages of the newly released report on its Web site and appealed to readers for help. Cameron Barr is the Post's national security editor.

Mr. CAMERON BARR (Washington Post): This can be sort of a public task. The administration releases a huge volume of material. You know, it's simply physically impossible for us to go through all of it instantaneously.

FOLKENFLIK: So an hour and a half later, in a comment on the Post's investigative blog, lock 'em all up tore the cover off what he or she called diaper-gate. Lock 'em all up wrote, CIA interrogators forced detainees to wear diapers and presumably to wallow in their own filth for up to 72 hours. It was one of the Post's early returns on what's called crowdsourcing, the effort by a news outlet to tap its audience to break and analyze the news more quickly during an ever-accelerating news cycle.

Mr. BARR: And a lot of what we do online is experimental in nature. This is a new medium. You know, we try to use it to the best of our ability.

FOLKENFLIK: The newspaper has been posting other documents online as it gets them. There's a lot at stake, including allegations of torture and the legacy of the Bush-Cheney years. The hope is that the Post's well-informed readership will offer insight, yet most of the early comments have involved partisan sniping. Barr acknowledges the payoff has been modest.

Mr. BARR: I don't think that any of the comments we have had so far have really opened our eyes to material that we weren't already aware of.

FOLKENFLIK: But Barr says he's waiting to see what happens once more people have had time to sift through the documents. And at the rival New York Times, journalists are seeking help the very same way. Jon Landman is a deputy managing editor who oversees online efforts. The Times, he says, has highly trained reporters…

Mr. JON LANDMAN (Deputy Managing Editor, New York Times): But it's a big world out there and we're not every place by a long shot. So if we can get our readers to be eyes and ears to contribute expertise that we don't have, what could be bad about that? It makes us smarter.

FOLKENFLIK: In a sense, mainstream news outlets have done this haphazardly for years, accepting eyewitness video of storms and crime scenes. More recently, news outlets have pursued sources on Facebook and Twitter, sought listener reports to compare gasoline prices, and secured video of unrest in Iran.

(Soundbite of chanting)

FOLKENFLIK: But the classic crowd source story broke two years ago. The liberal site Talking Points Memo argued the Bush White House was punishing federal prosecutors for insufficient political loyalty. But the site asked readers to help comb through thousands of emails to prove it. The response propelled the news site's obsessive coverage.

Ms. AMANDA MICHEL (ProPublica): A lot of people think of this technique as magic. It's like, oh, you just throw it out there and everything will come right back to you. It's a little bit like a boomerang, and it's - most of the time it's not the case.

FOLKENFLIK: Amanda Michel oversees crowd-source reporting projects for the investigative news outfit ProPublica. She says it's a promising technique, but not a way to make up for deep cuts in staff at depleted newsrooms around the country.

Ms. MICHEL: The question really is what will people find and to what extent will the Times and the Post harness the attention and energy of those readers, and we'll know that in a few days time.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times's Landman says that even when it works, relying on volunteer newshounds may well require a lot more editing. But the big dogs of journalism say they're up for new tricks. In fact, they say they're trying them all the time.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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