Friday, July 3, 2009...8:00 am

Does journalism need a new crowdsourcing tool?

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It strikes me there’s a kind of assumption around journalism that it somehow needs bespoke tools to do its job in the new digital media world. But actually I think it should stick to its existing strengths.
WritingcloudIn the spirit of research, I’ve just visited the Royal College of Art summer graduation show to check out the cutting edge communications work.
I was quite excited (in a geeky way) to see Guillaume Drapier’s WritingCloud project there. It was pitched as a way of bringing the world of professional journalism together with the blogosphere.
The result would be to enrich the research process and build engagement with bloggers – in place of the sometimes antagonistic relationship the two seem to have nowadays.
WritingCloud is a free web-based platform that allows writers to ask questions and direct them to readers with an interest or expertise in the subject. Readers – or “helpers”, as they are called on the site – receive a stream of questions in their particular field and can then submit answers or other research material. Material can be text, photos or video. Helpers get a credit with a link back to their blog for their trouble.
writingcloudFor his MA project, Drapier created a four-page tabloid newspaper using his collaborative platform. You can see the workings behind it on the WritingCloud blog here. He also used social media, such as a Facebook group.
At first glance, I thought it sounded just the ticket – journalism has to break out of its traditional top-down hierarchy in order to function in the not-so new-media digital world.
But on closer inspection, there are a number of flaws.

  • It has to build its network from scratch. This is yet another platform for users to have to get excited about, register on and start to use. But life is short – I think this will be an uphill struggle.
  • What’s the compelling USP? The idea of putting journos and bloggers in touch is good on the face of it. But why would the helpers register? Is the promise of a possible link on a news story that compelling? Seems a little like hard work. Does it make you want to register and monitor all the journo questions? I don’t think so.
  • It’s too standalone. Related to the above. I registered on WritingCloud to see how it worked. It seems you need to monitor questions and answers via the site. Now, I know this is a student project and so is pretty embryonic. But there’s no provision for email alerts or SMS synching or anything that might mesh this with the wider online world.

That’s the real problem with this idea. Even though its premise is that it’s really cutting edge, it something of the flavour of yesteryear – when the web was much more insular; when you had to download proprietary bits and pieces to make some standalone service work.
And it’s interesting that Guillaume didn’t actually use the WritingCloud site to generate the material for his graduation newspaper. Instead, according to his blog, he asked questions on existing internet forums:, and
That’s logical for a limited timeframe student project. But it also indicates the structural flaw in this exercise – it’s much better to go to where people are networking already, rather than try to build one yourself.
Also, people will be networking there for a reason – so you can piggyback off that, rather than trying to be all compelling yourself with your new web platform.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to rubbish this project. I admire its mission to bring the audience for journalism into its production. But I think what it’s trying to do is now, kind of by definition, not what the web is about.
I really like the idea of a “writing cloud” – a kind of soup of ideas, opinions, facts and research that can coalesce into, effectively, journalism. But you know what? We have that already. It’s called Twitter, and YouTube and Flickr and (maybe, if we can figure out how to map it on to journalism) Facebook. And journalists and others are already using Twitter, and other social media, as an effective crowdsourcing tool.
At its root, journalism is basically hanging around gossiping with people. And that’s what journalists, bloggers et al are still doing – except that the hanging around is now being done at forums like Twitter, rather than in a dingy Soho bar.
I suspect the key to success in the online world is not to create brand new tools, but to make better use of the existing ones.

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