When I see the word “crowdsourcing” used in journalism it’s hard for me not to see it as condescending. Crowdsourcing isn’t bad, and at any level it does allow folks to participate in media, a far better thing than just consuming.

But it’s not enough. If the occasional crowdsourced web feature and comment thread are all a media outlet offers as a way to engage with content, people will find other networks and content producers to interact with in more meaningful ways.

I sympathize that it can be hard to figure out how best to involve sources more deeply. This is even more true if these sources are just regular people who happen to have a relevant life experience.

My suggestion is to tell sources what kind of content you’re looking for, the same way an editor talks to reporters, and see what comes in. These people — readers, listeners, or those who have never read your stuff or heard your voice on air — can step up and become storytellers for you. Even better in my mind, they’ll be collaborators who share in the work.

Going from Source to Storyteller

In my work at Michigan Radio, where my job is to connect with readers, listeners and communities participating in reporting, it’s easy to trust sources to collaborate well. I work with the Public Insight Network so I’m always filtering story ideas from sources to the rest of our newsroom. I also get a fair amount of these sources into stories that make it on air, or get special work-ups online.

I consistently feel bad, though, that I can’t get more sources on the air. So recently, I just started asking people with particularly good personal stories or story ideas if they would be willing to start working something up themselves, and I would act as their guide.
I’ve just started doing this, but so far it’s been amazing. I really encourage everyone to try this, so I’ll break down the process. I work in radio, but I see no reason why it won’t work with print.

First, a source comes to me with a personal experience or a story I know has potential. If I don’t know exactly what to do with it, or know it would be on the back-burner for a long time I pick up the phone and ask some questions. If the story idea is compelling I give the source some tasks, for example, asking him or her to find more people for whom this is an issue. Meanwhile, I get another reporter interested or do research myself.

If the source doesn’t follow through there’s no harm done. I have a story idea for the future. But in my experience most sources follow through. And thanks to SoundCloud, sources can record their own audio on their phone or computer and send it to me. I then fact check, edit, and produce. Because sources are acting more like reporters in this context I like to run clips by them before I take the story to my editor.

Advantages of Collaboration

There are a few reasons working this way makes sense to me.

It makes sense to participate in full spectrum storytelling as advocated by Sue Schardt. But I would also like to see us move beyond that, and begin cultivating storytellers.

The 24-hour news cycle has changed the way we consume news, sure — but it’s also changing the way all of us see and portray story lines. This creates bad habits in sources. Many of them are trying to “sell” a story instead of pitching it.

Or, they come to me trying to fit their experience into something they think fits with a familiar narrative on a theme. Really, we’re looking for authentic experiences that can illustrate big themes or important trends. We need to help people understand how to contextualize their experiences and connect them to themes we are covering in a way that is interesting and educational for our listeners or readers.

The other reason I love working this way is because it’s more intimate for the source, and that matters. My team reports on issues of opportunity and poverty, heavy subjects that require some thinking and can be hard to connect with personally. A source that can make a stranger connect and think is important.

I collaborate with sources on a list of questions I would like them to answer, on their own time, using their phone or computer as a microphone. This allows us to listen in on intimate moments that are so hard to get without a deep, long-term relationship. Some sources I’ve only spoken to once over the phone, but I’ve gotten audio so full of emotion you can hear it all the way through. Whether the emotion is pride, hesitation or concern I doubt I could have gotten it if the source had been trying to answer my questions and please me instead of really reflecting on questions central to their experience.

I know working this way isn’t for everyone and I certainly don’t think it’s the way to produce all content. What I would like to see is every news organization having at least one person willing to work this way. Authentic and interesting content comes from it. We have an opportunity to foster a connection people crave, and we should take it.

Sarah Alvarez is the Public Insight Journalist for the State of Opportunity Project at Michigan Radio. Sarah’s job is to get readers, listeners and communities participating in reporting. Using a tool called the Public Insight Network she helps turn questions, tips, stories, and insight from the State of Opportunity community and beyond into content online and on the air. She also files legal and policy stories. She was formerly the Public Insight Journalist on the Changing Gears project. Before her work at Michigan Radio, Sarah was a civil rights lawyer in New York and a consultant to social justice organizations in California. She graduated from the University of Michigan, Columbia Law School and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. She has a wonderful husband and three wonderful, busy kids and no time for anything else.

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