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May 17, 2007

Interview Week at Assignment Zero: Anna Haynes is Questioning SusanG of Daily Kos

PressThink's readers know more than one contributor does. So what follow-up questions do you have for SusanG? Here she speaks of "the fellowship that comes with collaboration in a country where many feel isolated and cut off from the truth."

Over at Assignment Zero, the Q & A’s from our plan for Interview Week are starting to come in. As explained in a prior post:

Picking from our people-of-interest list, contributors volunteer to do one interview and post it as a clean, readable but otherwise raw Q and A — like this one by Len Witt .. My idea is to try to interview in a concentrated one-week period (May 8-14) as many of the key figures in our story as we can….. The “raw” Q & A’s can be material for multiple writers to develop into finished pieces during the following week. (See, for example, this one with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.) The best of those we will publish at NewAssignment.Net and submit to

One of the people on our list is Susan Gardner, aka SusanG of Daily Kos, who knows more than anyone about the investigations that site has undertaken. Longtime PressThink reader and Assignment Zero contributor Anna Haynes did the interview and wants some help completing it….

Hello, this is Anna from Assignment Zero, and I’m hoping you can lend me a hand: I’m interviewing Susan Gardner of Daily Kos about crowdsourced journalism, and she’s taken my questions and hit several of them out of the park. Now it’s time for follow-ups, and since PressThink’s readers know more than I do, yours would likely be better than mine. Please read what she has to say — it’s excellent — and share your questions in the comments.

Anna Haynes: What do you think the next phase of crowdsourcing will look like? Have we hit its true potential?

Susan Gardner: I think it hasn’t reached its potential yet. I think the real use of it will be in culling over document dumps quickly. What I’d really like to see is a requirement for all proposed legislation to be online in full at least 72 hours before being voted on by Congress. The Patriot Act showed us what happens when legislator’s don’t have time to review complex legislation, and this is really a place where the crowd effect could help. If 50 people divided it up, went through it, reported about their portion, and then one or two writers summed up the findings, citizens would be in a position to knowledgeably contact their legislators with their view of how they should vote. Right now, both the public and often the lawmakers themselves don’t have time or a place to harness a lot of eyes to analyzing the impact of specific proposed legislation.

And obviously, the stuff like the email dumps in the US Attorney cases can be sorted through much faster with many, many eyes.

Q: What do you think motivates contributors to DailyKos and ePluribus Media? Is it money or some other incentive?

A: Certainly not money. Part of it might be, in some cases, a desire to get a name for one’s self in a pretty small pond. But mostly, I think it’s a frustration with the media, which has served the country poorly during this administration. I know a lot of people feel a responsibility for getting to the truth of the matter. They no longer trust the media to do that. And I also think the fellowship that comes with collaboration in a country where many feel isolated and cut off from the truth is a motivation. There is something inherently ennobling about joining with others in a cause greater than just promoting the narrow interests of your life (and America is grounded in that tradition). I think its also a revival of the notion of participatory democracy. Those who are gifted with analysis, research and interpretive skills feel they’re giving something back to the country by exposing corruption. It’s grounded in idealism, I think, that people have been embarrassed for a long time to claim but is coming to the fore and put to a practical end — gathering information to make us all better citizens.

Q: Do you really think there’s wisdom in crowds? If so, what’s the clearest example you know of?

A: Depends on the crowd. That at a revival meeting? Not so much. If it’s a crowd that is large enough, and agrees that facts matter, it will be self-correcting (if it’s seeking an end that’s emotion- or faith-based, therefore unverifiable, no). The clearest example I can think of is exhibited daily in diaries at Daily Kos. If someone doesn’t have links to a direct quote, report or research, readers immediately call a writer out on assertions. It’s not even done in a spirit of meanness, the agreed-upon rules are so clear. People want verification so if they are trying to present evidence to others down the road, it’s not just a ranty diary at Daily Kos but is backed up by verifiable facts. People will enter a diary and say, “Can you give me the link for that statement so-and-so is making? I want to check it out.” That’s something that’s done in the spirit of knowing we don’t want to be made an ass of down the line with bad sources or pure speculation.

Also, as I’m sure you know as a writer, you NEED a second set of eyes to know if you made your point clearly (that’s what editors are for). Sometimes you get so used to the details of a complex subject you’re handling and presenting, you forget that someone new to it can’t make the leaps that you can. In the “wisdom of crowds” case, you are working with — and presenting to — many different levels of readers, i.e., some who may know as much or more than you (some may be lawyers, doctors or other experts on your subject, so they’re crucial critics), and you may be making the case to those completely unfamiliar to the subject and you need to hear, “Hey, you lost me on that one. Can you explain in another way? Do you mean such-and-such?”

Of course, there are drawbacks to this as well — sometimes the input stage goes on too long, sometimes too many cooks spoil the meal by wanting too many things addressed. This is where the crowd aspect can cut both ways — making it not streamlined enough, getting nitpicky or PC about wording, etc. But I think the trade-off is worth it if some reasonable sorting of responsibilities can be agreed upon.

Q: What has surprised you the most with Daily Kos?

A: The size surprises me now. That it’s stayed at least minimally functional with the amount of comments, diaries, page views it gets is astounding. The Scoop software has been customized and pushed to its llmit. Yet people still find new ways to use it. I was impressed when Senator Kennedy put up a diary on immigration in March, people asked him questions, and he came back an hour or so later with an audio-recording of answers to the specific questions. That was a really creative use of the space (and probably more efficient for him or his staff than typing it out, I would think).

Also at Daily Kos, despite the constant calls for the “Front Page” (or Markos) to do this or that, pay attention to this or that, a lot of people really “get it” in terms of self-organizing. A perfect example of that was during the Gonzales’ testimony a couple of weeks ago. A couple of days before, diarists organized a schedule to live blog it, what order each diarist would put their diaries up in (because it was known comments would hit the hundreds pretty fast and new diaires would be needed). Then when it was all done, they converted all the diaires, with comments, into a PDF and made it available. NONE of this was done with any admin or moderator help. It was simply people who saw a need, joined together, found a solution and got it done. Amazing stuff.

Q: What has surprised you the most with ePluribus Media?

A: EPluribus is a different kind of organization (and I haven’t been involved in it for over a year, so my observations are about what surprised me during its founding and first year). I think what most surprised me was how many professional people (lawyers, professors, experts in many fields) were willing to basically take on a second job for free and help with the research. And this for a sustained amount of time. This really pointed up to me how invested people are in these projects, how much they themselves get out of the organization in terms of feeling they’re giving back and getting personal fulfillment as well.

Drawing on your Daily Kos and ePluribus Media experience to shed light on the present, the pitfalls and the potential of crowdsourced journalism…

Q: …What features of a crowdsourced journalism project make it likely to succeed?

A: A good collaborative software program ups the chance of success, with good search capabilities. Having a big enough pool of researchers, but a smaller crowd of actual skilled writers (doesn’t necessarily have to be journalist types).

Q: …and what’s success?

A: Good question. There are several measures, I guess. One would be getting public officials to act on your findings (as epluribus was able to do by having Louise Slaughter officially begin asking the White House about Jeff Gannon on our behalf). Another would be getting mainstream media to cover what we’re covering, although this may be less important as more and more people flock to these citizen journalism sites as primary sources for news (as TPM’s coverage of the US Attorney scandal surely has done, at least for that issue). Another measure might be how well an organization is able to get its stories driven into the larger blogosphere itself. As we’re seeing the power of blogs grow, sometimes moving a story just that far is enough to get enough letters, calls, input to representatives asking for an investigation. And I guess a final measure of success is how informed the members themselves are, how gratifying they’re finding their involvement. Even if a story doesn’t break big, certainly there’s some measure in success in having a few hundred people feel the satisfaction of having gotten to the bottom of something.

Q: What advice would you offer to someone contemplating starting a crowdsourced journalism project?

A: Be very, very clear on who is responsible for what. One of the pitfalls can be the “commons” problem in which because there are so many people involved, you think someone else surely is already doing a task, making a phone call, etc. Things can drop through those commons cracks. Also, in my experience at ePluribus, there is a LOT of interest in the digging aspect. You end up with literally thousands of pieces of information, some of it going off on tangents that do indeed need to be looked into, but perhaps not right that moment. Yet research will simply keep going on and on and on — this person is on this board of directors, which also shares two members of boards at this OTHER company, which also has ties to THIS lobbyist …. and so on. There tends to be an inclination to continue researching until its developed an overwhelming sprawl, and with no intermittent narrative provided.

To avoid this, I’d recommend: stories as series, first of all, if it’s complicated. Secondly, there seems to need to be a slot somewhere between the research arm and the narrative-writing arm. You don’t run into this in traditional journalism, because usually the reporter IS the researcher (or at least is directing a single researcher). But when you end up spawning hundreds of pieces of information in a couple of hours on a subject, you need to have some sort of bridging person or persons between those two areas. Often the researchers are so excited about what they’re finding out, they’re reluctant to slow down and explain it in a way that helps a writer or writers make sense of it. If one or two people committed to doing brief summaries (however inelegant … they don’t have to be writers) with links to evidence of what they’re saying, it would be very, very helpful for those tasked with writing the end product.

EPluribus hadn’t solved that when I left. Perhaps they have now.

Q: What do you gain by having ePluribus Media separate from DailyKos? What do you lose?

A: Well, first you have to understand that they’re entirely different entities. Markos is the sole owner of Daily Kos, I was just a diarist there who stumbled across information that exploded into the Gannon story through joint research. He didn’t even notice it was going on until long after it had made news across the blogosphere and even made it into the MSM. Ironically, his first front page notice about it was a link to Atrios, which was commenting on it, but was linking back to his own site. I don’t think he even clicked the link Atrios was referencing, because it took him a while to notice it was about something breaking on his own site.

The limits of the Daily Kos set-up for research were apparent within a few days. People were loading scads of information into the comments of the diaries; diaries were spinning off from that (often because I asked people who found some information to look into it further). The search engine sucks and you couldn’t search comments (IIRC). This really became apparent as a problem once the whole thing was over. In reviewing the diaries and comments in a kind of after-report, we actually found his real name and address had been provided in a very early diary by one smart commenter. But it was lost amidst hundreds of other names and addresses provided by other commenters. The most active researchers, some of whom were techies, suggested another, more friendly platform be created, so we moved over there. Then we still would post stories at the research site and cross-post them at Daily Kos.

Daily Kos thus became an outlet, while the epluribus site (then called Propagannon) was the research hive.

Legally, epluribus was set up by Brian Keeler and me as a 501c4. This had nothing to do with Daily Kos; markos didn’t have any role at all in it.

The obvious advantage to cross-posting at Daily Kos is that it’s the biggest political blog in the world. But it simply isn’t able to handle a massive collaborative research project as well. Perhaps smaller ones, very tightly focused, it can handle in a diary series with fewer pieces of information and researchers. But the scale we were thinking of for epluribus — basically investigating all aspects of the right-wing machine? Not a chance.

Q: On the double-edged sword of visibility - a high-profile crowdsourced investigative journalism project will attract more participants, but is likely to face the same “scrubbing of websites” problem that the Jeff Gannon investigation ran into. For this reason, EPM’s investigations aren’t done “in public” on a webpage anyone can view. Has taking the investigations private ameliorated the “scrubbing” problem, or is it still an issue?

A: With the caveat that I haven’t been involved with the group for the past year or so, I’d say at least during the first year, there was very little website scrubbing done once it went private. Also, we were very aware that it had happened in the past and made a concerted effort to save the pages we ran across that had information and we made screenshots as well before ever writing about what we’d found.

Q: On balance, has this working in private groups been a plus?

A: The plus is obvious — you’re not alerting those you’re looking into. Another plus: the writing end product has a chance to be a lot better, fact-checked and all, than when you’re slamming out two diaires a day in public from comments like I was early in the Gannon investigation. However, at least for me, there ended up being a real loss of … I don’t know … feverish excitement. Of course, having a story unfold as rapidly as Gannon did is unusual; that may have been a once-in-a-lifetime kind of shooting the rapids that you wouldn’t find in any medium. The other negative is that I think it makes it more difficult to recruit and incorporate new members when it’s being done in private. It begins to look or feel exclusionary, even if it’s not. That may be something that can be avoided in some sort of hybrid model? Or more reach-out? I don’t know the answer for sure. And it may have just been my own feelings too about the initial story, the excitement, the possibility, the success of it. Anything that comes after that can feel like some sort of a letdown.

Q: What other questions should I have asked?

A: Funding. You need to ask about funding. My own feeling is that the citizen journalism movement is probably going to move forward on a model of a couple or a few paid people devoted to keeping an organization of volunteers going full time. Maybe that can be supported through fellowships, maybe through advertising, maybe through fundraisers, maybe through subscribers, maybe through all these.

But there are also dollar needs beyond staff. Paying for servers, subscriptions to Lexis/Nexis, FOIA requests, sometimes professional expertise (a campaign finance lawyer, a forensic accountant) — and if one gets ambitious for on-the-ground reporting, airfare, hotel, etc. These are going to have to be taken into consideration as these organizations move into “more serious” territory. And remember, it’s going to be an uphill battle, with the traditional media guarding its turf ferociously every step of the way, so these groups need to make sure their products are pretty unassailable (a standard the traditional media has not felt compelled to live up to, sadly).

Anna Haynes is an Assignment Zero contributor from Nevada City, California.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 17, 2007 10:39 AM