Debating the Merits

Not everyone at the paper, however, found crowdsourcing attractive. Investigative reporter Cull felt strongly that his primary requirement for covering the story reliably was an inside source, either at City Hall or within the firm Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH), which the city contracted to manage the sewers’ construction. Cull hoped for a source who had witnessed wrongdoing and was willing to come forward with documentary evidence. A public appeal for reader help, perhaps accompanied by the publication on of documents the News-Press had already obtained, risked alienating such sources. Metro Editor Wells recalls wondering: “If we post the stuff, and... Jeff [Cull] is three steps away from finding [a] source... is that going to shut down those people from talking?” Absent such an internal source, furthermore, it was unlikely that the paper’s general readership had access to the accounting records Cull sought. Crowdsourcing might be little help to Cull.

Executive Editor Marymont, too, was cautious. “The thing you have to think about first is credibility and veracity,” she notes. “If the goal is to engage readers in watchdog journalism, we have to make sure that journalism is credible.” If the News-Press took the risk of publishing its preliminary reporting on, and asking its readers to share what they knew in’s forums, that meant, in Marymont’s words, that the paper’s name would be on a story “that is building and unfolding in new ways that we don’t control.” How could the News-Press post possibly incriminating material on without seeming to endorse its conclusions? Whereas the reader forums were clearly identified as such, material such as documents published elsewhere on the website might seem to carry the imprimatur of the newspaper itself. Marymont realized, furthermore, that it would be difficult for her and other editors to relinquish editorial power over who received what information when. “We’ve always held those keys,” she explains. “We’ve always made those decisions.”

Balance. They had always made those decisions in such a way as to maximize, as best they could, the fairness and objectivity of the coverage. But as a story took shape online through raw documents and reader forums, the News-Press would not have the opportunity to impose a balanced structure on the narrative that emerged. McCurry-Ross explains:

When you do a story for print... you’ve talked to all your sources. And within that story, you weave together all of their perspectives and points of views, and the story rolls out in that way. In this way, you put up one fact... at a time.

Such a strategy, McCurry-Ross reasoned, need not mean abandoning balance altogether, but the balancing would have to take place over a period of time, rather than within a single story. For example, the paper might post on documents purporting to show fraud or waste without first seeking a response from City Council. But the Council would be welcome to use forums to detail their side of the story, or indeed offer the paper documents supporting their own position to be posted on McCurry-Ross recognized, however, that the story’s protagonists might not be receptive to the notion of long-term balance if they were not contacted for reaction before the News-Press published what it knew.

What to publish. Another question was whether, by embracing crowdsourcing, the paper imposed on itself the obligation to post on its website every relevant scrap of information it encountered. Cull had accumulated three boxes of data, all pertaining to the utility project, over years of sporadic coverage. Did it really serve the public interest to put all of it, no matter how mundane or technical, on the website? What criteria should the News-Press employ for the documents it published and those it held back? What aspects of the story should the News-Press address in more traditional, written articles?

Competition. Furthermore, if readers had access to the News-Press ’ ongoing reporting, so would the competition. Managing Editor McCurry-Ross notes: “We’re all very competitive people in terms of other media.” But she also reflected that the News-Press updated its website dozens of times a day, and that consequently, “any one of our media competitors knows what we’re working on all day long, because when we know it, we put it up there.”

Motivation. Another challenge would be motivating reporters to take on the experiment. Executive Editor Marymont notes:

It is natural for us to gravitate to [traditional, paper-based journalism], and it is not natural for a lot of us to be thinking about how to produce watchdog [journalism] appropriate for [cellphones].

Distraction. She also feared that too heavy an emphasis on innovation could distract the News-Press from its day-to-day mission.

If we invest too much time and energy in the new technology, we can lose our focus on the old-fashioned watchdog journalism and get more excited about playing with the toys than with delivering the news.

Appearances. Metro Editor Wells recalls: “I remember we talked a lot about the psychology of appearing needy... the whole notion that, well, we can’t do this. We give up. We’re your big bad newspaper, but we’re at a loss.” She also recognized that an appeal to readers might generate no response at all. “Are we going to look really stupid if this doesn’t work?” she wondered. “You’ve got to think about that.”

Reporting challenges. Assuming that readers did respond, however, editors would have to decide how most effectively to collect reader input. Don Ruane, another reporter in the Cape Coral bureau, points out that print newspapers had long solicited reader input in their pages, urging those affected by a particular ongoing issue to contact the paper. The News-Press itself had done so, both in print and on its forums. But while a printed solicitation reached a paper’s hard-copy readers, an online one could potentially reach readers around the world. That meant that the News-Press risked receiving a great deal of reader input that it could not use. “We have a very active readership, and they don’t mind sharing their opinions on things,” Ruane says. [31]

Ruane also worried about encouraging rumors, which would in turn waste reporters’ time. “So many things would be rumor-based that we would spend a lot of time checking out dead ends,” he says. Ruane feared that his day-to-day duties covering Cape Coral’s city government would leave him little time to mine forums for readers’ insights.

Listen to Ruane explain his reservations.
Length: 1 min 3 sec

Acknowledging reader input. But Publisher Carol Hudler advised the editors that, if they decided to use crowdsourcing, they should be scrupulous about acknowledging readers’ contributions. “If you’re going to ask for their input, you damned well better do something with it,” she says. “[Readers] get very angry if it’s apparent that you don’t. And so if you know that the volume is going to be huge, you’ve got to be clear up front what contributors can expect in return.”

That might mean that reporters and editors not only had to cover their beats, put out a paper, update the website scores times a day, and search for tips in the reader forums. They would also have to take the time to acknowledge those readers who contacted them. Reader input might not even prove useful. Much of the utility story involved analyzing blueprints and financial accounts, and Cull doubted that the average reader of the News-Press would be able to offer much insight in those areas. Cull himself, on the other hand, held an engineering degree from the US Naval Academy. Perhaps he was best left to continue pursuing the story on his own.

Given the pros and cons, the newspaper’s editors debated whether it made sense to apply crowdsourcing to journalism. Would coverage of the Cape Coral situation benefit or suffer from the approach? Could it help the paper serve readers better? Or might a majority of readers recoil from a new way of presenting news which broke so many of the old rules?

Meanwhile, the City of Cape Coral had hired the firm Kessler International to conduct an independent audit of the ongoing construction; auditor Michael Kessler would present his findings to the City Council in July, on a date to be determined. [32] Another critical City Council meeting would take place on July 17, when Council members would reexamine their contract with MWH and discuss whether and how to proceed with the construction. On July 13, nearly a month after the paper’s initial crowdsourcing discussion took place, Metro Editor Wells, Managing Editor McCurry-Ross, and Executive Editor Marymont congregated in the newsroom. Discussing their coverage of the Cape Coral utility expansion, they decided that if they were going to start crowdsourcing, it would have its maximum effect right before the July 17 City Council meeting.


[31] Author’s interview with Don Ruane, on August 16, 2007, in Fort Myers, Florida. All further quotes from Ruane, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[32] Don Ruane, “Justice reviews Cape utilities,” The News-Press , May 19, 2006.