Crowdsourcing is cool, but which crowd, exactly, are you sourcin?

Two notable crowdsourced initiatives to hold police forces accountable have been launched recently: the first is a joint effort from THE CITY, ProPublica, WNYC / Gothamist, and the Marshall Project that asks readers to share their experiences with the NYPD via an online form like this (ProPublica also is doing one for teen stories). The second is Discourse Blog straight up asking you to email them if you’ve dealt with police violence at protests (including if you were jailed without a face mask and experienced COVID symptoms afterward). 

Calls for reader-submitted material aren’t anything new, and I imagine it will take quite the journalistic muscle to go through and vet these stories, but I *am* curious how these outlets are getting the word out to, say, audiences that aren’t already on Twitter / Substack / their existing readers. 

The outlet with the best ground game, in my opinion, is likely to be THE CITY — starting last summer, they’ve been holding “open newsrooms” in oft-overlooked neighborhoods around New York. I went to one last year at the public library in Red Hook and was struck by how...participatory it was. (I’d been hoping to slink in late and sit in the back, unnoticed, but instead spent the afternoon in what felt like one big school group project sesh with the paper’s engagement director, Terry Parris Jr., and local residents there) (also the sandwiches they had were REALLY good fwiw). 

THE CITY’s since moved those open newsroom sessions online, but I’d bet the rapport they established with these communities all last year positions them well for a crowdsourced initiative like this NYPD one. Sure, the other outlets will have journalists who can tap into their own networks of sources, but Discourse Blog is still p. new, for example, and I’m not convinced some outlets have the same kind of ~brand recognition,~ if you’ll pardon my corporate-ese, out on the sidewalks as they do on media Twitter. 

Anyway, I did chat with Discourse Blog’s Samantha Grasso about what kind of outreach they’re planning around the police violence project, and she emphasized that the call for reader-submitted accounts is just the launchpad for the larger story, and that they’re planning to reach out to local activists and organizations who’ve been supporting protestors. “I want us to be as sensitive as possible about what we’re doing,” she added. “There’s a lot of trauma wrapped up in these events, and I don’t want to exploit people for their story or make them feel undue harm, and that commitment will guide my reporting as well.”

So this is not to knock extremely well-sourced outlets and journalists — just thinking in terms of how publications can reach audiences beyond the same circles of the internet, and the kind of rep they cultivate outside with people who aren’t as plugged into news as we think everyone is. In terms of reader relationships, I think local outlets have always had the leg up on shinier online outfits since they just have a more defined audience; it’ll be interesting to see whether scale and/or industry prestige can form the same kind of trust and recognition that comes from, well, eating sandwiches together with your neighbors in a library on a hot July day.


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