by Michael Rogers, Columnist - MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19920625/
In a July 25, 2007 article on msnbc.com, columnist Michael Rogers discusses Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Journalism initiative, which has spawned the generation of a 20,000-person database of volunteer story sources. MPR's initiative may be a model on which other news organizations can build.
St. Paul, Minn.'s best-known contribution to modern media may be Prairie Home Companion — but its Minnesota Public Radio group is now working on a project with even bigger potential. And this time the star isn’t Garrison Keillor, but the audience itself.
MPR's Public Insight Journalism initiative is perhaps the most advanced effort thus far in involving the audience in the news-gathering process. The Minnesota work — along with similar attempts around the world — may well be a model for the future of journalism itself.
The Internet, of course, has made the involvement of the public in news-gathering inevitable. Already, often the best photography and video from disaster scenes comes directly from eyewitness cameras and cellphones. And readers are now accustomed to logging onto sites to discuss the news via forums and discussion boards...
...Despite some false starts, audience involvement in newsgathering is taking hold around the world. The Gannett newspapers, for example, are restructuring their local newsrooms to actively solicit reader input. The process is sometimes called “crowdsourcing,” and one good example was at Gannett’s Fort Myers, Fla., newspaper. The city planned a controversial new sewer project, and the newspaper asked readers for help in covering the story. The paper was initially overwhelmed by the number of responses but within days they ended up with volunteers ranging from accountants and engineers, who helped review the plans, to an actual whistle-blower within the public works department...
...Reporters are used to dealing with a handful — perhaps a dozen — sources on a given story. How do you handle the volume of information — both useless and priceless — that comes in when you open the door to the public?
Minnesota Public Radio has an interesting answer. Their “Public Information Network” is a database of volunteer sources — now up to nearly 20,000 — that includes the topics they’re knowledgeable about as well as information about their demographics.
MPR finds volunteers in various ways — for specific stories, they’ll make requests on-air as well as through the Web site. And there is a standing Web page where new volunteers can fill out a brief questionnaire that asks about areas of expertise, occupation, political activity, “passionate” interests and personal data. All of the information is treated with the same confidentiality as other newsroom sources.
Despite the Minnesota tag, the project is national; MPR is part of the American Public Media Group, which includes stations around the Midwest as well as Southern California. MPR also produces such well-known national programs as Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace. Thus the database ranges from Muslims who live in Minnesota and experts on K-12 education to small-business owners and newly returned Iraq veterans. And American Public Media has now set up a Center for Innovation in Journalism that is teaching the technique to other public radio stations around the country.
“No matter how hard newsrooms try with their hiring,” says Michael Skoler, the executive director of the center, “they still have a hard time creating the kind of diversity that exists in the communities they cover.” Often, when a reporter is looking for comments and reactions on a topic, they reach out to their own social network and to friends of friends — a segment that tends to be fairly homogenous. With the database, says Skoler, “we shake not just our personal tree, but other trees as well...”