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Posted on on July 16th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (



WORLD CONGRESS – 2010 VIENNA & BRATISLAVA – September 11-14, 2010.

A topic that will be part of a panel discussion:

“Professional Journalism Is Being Devalued Whether We Like It or Not.”

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Jeff Howe, Coiner of the Term ‘Crowdsourcing’, Tells IPI Why Journalists Need To Face up To Change.

Louise Hallman

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that things change. Ideas that were once innovative become commonplace, taken for granted and eventually obsolete.  Industries emerge, grow and are ultimately forced to adapt or collapse.

If we have seen such change in so many other industries – mining, car-making, banking –should we be surprised to see it happening in the news industry?

Harvard journalism fellow and writer Jeff Howe doesn’t think so – and yet is oft-criticised for his view: “The news industry, too, is subject to the forces of history, just as every other industry is.  Things change. Things fall apart…  Will we still be doing the same things in 50 years? No, because no other industry is going to be the same in 50 years either!  It’s not a radical proposition.”

Nonetheless, news organisations are still grappling with the change thrust upon them by the Internet. Many news outlets are finding themselves forced to make cut-backs to their professional staff.  According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual review of the America media landscape, 5,900 journalists lost their jobs in 2008 alone, more than double the number of 2,400 in 2007.

As news organisations struggle to maintain their position in the industry, executives have turned to much cheaper – or even free – means of creating content.  ‘Crowdsourcing’ – a term coined by Howe in an article for Wired magazine in 2006 – is just one of the latest buzzwords/innovations which media owners hope will provide them with some respite from what some see as an inevitable decline.

Crowdsourcing is, by Howe’s own definition, “the act of taking a job, generally performed by employees, and out-sourcing in the form of an open call to an undefined audience, generally using the Internet. And the crucial terms there are ‘open call’ and ‘undefined’, in that the essence of crowd-sourcing is a recognition that you don’t necessarily know who’s the best person to perform a task, or more to the point a whole collection of people might be able to perform a task.”

Howe’s term – which was invented to cover a whole host of businesses, and not just the news industry – has since taken on a life of its own, covering a multitude of free, collaborative efforts.

Speaking to the International Press Institute (IPI) ahead of his appearance on the panel “Found News? The New Platforms for Delivering Information” at the IPI World Congress in September, Howe stated that in journalism crowdsourcing has two different meanings: ‘reverse-publishing’ or ‘document-dumping’.

Reverse-publishing has been adopted across the media landscape at many different levels; from hyper-local projects such as Glasgow’s Evening Times mini-sites in Scotland, UK, where locals write their stories which if good enough are then published in the daily newspaper, to the likes of CNN’s iReport, where, once verified by a CNN editor, viewers’ own video footage and photographs can be broadcast on the international news channel.

Document-dumping, which is probably closer to Howe’s original notion, has become increasingly common as staff numbers have dwindled at news organisations.  For many newspapers, gone are the days when staff could be allocated enough time to pore over pages and pages of documents for an investigative report.  And in the era of the World Wide Web, why bother, when you can get a team of interested readers to do the work for you?

An example of document-dumping came last summer when, in the wake of the expenses scandal at the Houses of Parliament, the UK-based newspaper The Guardian uploaded 458,832 pages of documents to its website and invited its readers to “join us in digging through the documents of MPs’ expenses to identify individual claims, or documents that you think merit further investigation.”  The “best” individual discoveries were then collated online, enabling the Guardian’s own journalists to follow up and write thorough analyses for the newspaper and its website.  The project is so large that, although it was launched in June 2009, less than half of the documents have been reviewed online so far.

But are all these crowdsourcing efforts devaluing professional journalism?  Although he holds a positive outlook for the future of journalism, Howe agrees.

“Professional journalism is being devalued whether we like it or not,” he told IPI.  “In fact, it’s not as much being devalued as it is being ‘amatuerised’.

“There’s no point in newspapers sticking their heads in the sand and pretending that websites like Associated Content and aren’t out there paying people $1 per article or even using computer algorithms to create news articles … . So whether we like it or not the basic news article has become a commodity, and a really cheap commodity at that.”

However, despite the growing presumption that anyone can write a news story, Howe remains passionate about journalism, and believes there will still be a place for good, solid reporting.

“A good source network is as valuable as it’s ever been,” he said. “An algorithm can’t find a whistleblower within a Verizon or a big pharmaceutical company.”

{my God – how wrong he is, granted the algorithm will not find the whistleblower – neither will the classic newspaper – it is only the internet that can find the whistleblower – this because it is known that a classic newspaper, burdened with financial ties to institutions and businesses, will not publicize what that whistleblower tells them – so he will not tell it to the conventional press. See this at the UN – it is only the few bloggers left in the house of the UN that get the real scoops – not any kind of major Press does it!}

Among the most radical of Howe’s views is the belief that in the not so distant future, the term ‘journalist’ may have ceased to exist.

“To tell you the truth, and I know it’ll sound pretty radical to a bunch of journalists, but I think we do ourselves a disservice by calling ourselves ‘journalists’,” he said.

“People who can access information that other people can’t access, that other people are willing to pay for, and if they can compose it in a fashion that is entertaining, illuminating, compelling – those people are always going to find work.  We can call it journalism, but I don’t know for how much longer – maybe the next 40 years we’ll still have something call journalism…

“I just think we can love and admire what is at the heart of journalism without being beholden to the word, which is to say we’re beholden to a set of conventions… We really get lost in the name. We all decide that we’re going to adhere to the conventions instead of what is at the root of those conventions, which is the idea that truly being the Fourth Estate, serving the public interest, creating beautiful things like bits of prose and beautiful video and audio, educating people and making their lives more interesting and richer – that’s what we should be worried about!”

Perhaps he’s right.  If the root of the conventions stays the same, perhaps the term by which we refer to those who adhere to those conventions will change. After all, the term ‘journalism’ only dates back to the 1800s, but newspapers have existed in some format for over 1000 years, with the bulletins in Roman times and 7th century China. Even the term ‘newspaper’ only dates back to the 1600s. Who knows what we will be calling ourselves in 25, 50, 100 or 500 years?

But in the shorter term, as the editors, publishers and leading journalists of today gather in Vienna in September for the IPI World Congress, to debate whether we are losing the news, Howe is hoping for one thing: “Knowledge transfer. One thing alone, it would be great to get Americans to realize that newspapers are flourishing in countries like India!

“Are we losing the news? I don’t know, but hopefully people will come to a Congress like this and realize that the answer is very complex.”

Jeff Howe is a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, where he covers the media and entertainment industry, among other subjects. In 2006, he published “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” in Wired. He is also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and teaches a course entitled “The Independent Journalist in the Digital Age”.  Howe will appear on the “Found News? The New Platforms for Delivering Information” panel in September alongside Hannes Ametsreiter, CEO of Telekom Austria Group, Josh Cohen, Senior Business Product Manager at Google News and Rajesh Kalra, Chief Editor at Times Internet Ltd in India.  The panel will be moderated by Errol Barnett, presenter of CNN’s iReport.


That was then

Photo: Reuters / Reuters Newsroom (1950)

This is change if the old media likes it or not. In the end the computers win over the typewriters – we bet!

This is now

Photo: Reuters / Reuters newsroom in London (2007)

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