There are several interesting issues raised by Gannett's reorganization, but the one I'm personally most fascinated with is how they will approach investigative, or "watchdog" functions. This hasn't received nearly as much attention as it deserves. Below I'm posting a story about how the Ft. Myers News-Press employed a crowdsourcing model to an investigation into a suspect sewer utility. While I was able to write up a compressed version of the anecdote in my WiredNews piece, that hardly reflects the time I spent with Gannett reporters and executives discussing the News-Press case in particular, and crowdsourced investigations in general. I'll be revisiting this subject over the next few days, but to get us started, here's Gannett's more in-depth coverage of how the News-Press put the crowd to work to great effect:
News-Press Sparks Huge Response with "Crowd-Sourcing" Approach
Journalists at the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla are expanding First Amendment and watchdog coverage by engaging readers online.
Using a method called “crowd sourcing” — one of the innovative approaches under Gannett’s strategic plan to news gathering being developed by the Newspaper Division — the News-Press was able to enlist the community in a major investigation into local public utilities.
It began like all good newspaper investigations — complaints about the way the local government was working. Some Cape Coral residents were being asked to pay as much as $28,000 when public utility (water, sewer, irrigation) lines were installed in front of their houses.
But this time, says Mackenzie Warren, deputy to the publisher/special projects at The News-Press, “instead of doing months of investigation and then delivering ‘final’ answers, we told readers: ‘Here’s what we are looking at. You look too and report back to the community over our site.’”
“Obviously, people were unhappy. We wanted to understand why this was happening. Was there mismanagement? Was there shady dealing? So we asked our readers in print and online, ‘Help us find out why Cape Coral’s utility expansion project was costing residents so much,’” Warren says.
Reader response stunned newspaper editors. “Phones rang off the hook. We learned that if you are going to ask people to ‘come join us,’ you better be prepared to receive them. We had no idea of the level of angst waiting to be unleashed,” says Warren.
Readers undertook their own investigations and reported their findings in the newspaper’s online forum. Readers — not just from Fort Myers but from around the globe — e-mailed, called in tips and tracked down and posted public documents.
“Retired engineers were analyzing blueprints, accountants were looking a balance sheets. Someone from thousands of miles outside the market leaked us some crucial evidence,” Warren says.
Over six weeks of reporting, related stories online generated more than 100,000 page views. The online forum — where the crowd sourcing was happening — prompted 200,000 page views on more than 6,000 submissions.
“In the forums, someone would suggest something and people would discuss it back and forth. Sometimes people would start their own discussion string. More than 400 people did that,” explains Warren. “We found some valuable leads in the forums.” As a spin-off of the crowd-sourcing, the newspaper also hosted a town hall meeting, connecting homeowners and city officials.
As a result of the coverage, the city cut the assessment fees by almost 30 percent and began renegotiating terms of the current project. One official resigned from the city and the fees are the main issue in a special city council special election.
“The process has shown us the power of inviting people to the table and the importance of being at the center of the discussion,” Warren says. “Not only did … ‘crowd-sourcing’ unleash the power of people to speak out, it unleashed the power of people anywhere to respond.”