From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism.

"We're not as far along as we should be. I'd give us a C-minus." My talk to the Personal Democracy Forum, June 7, 2011. You can watch it here.

7 Jun 2011 12:36 pm 22 Comments

I address you today in a mood of frustration. For in the development of pro-am journalism, we are not as far along as we should be. I’d give us a C-minus.

By “pro-am” I mean exactly that: a hybrid form in which pro journalists and their users work together in the production of high quality editorial goods.

My plan of attack: First, I am going to explain this miserable grade, the C-minus. Then I will identify the progress we have made. And I will close with what we need to do to move ahead.

It took me a while to understand this myself, but I want to isolate an important fact at the outset. Professional journalism has been optimized for low participation. Up until a few years ago, the “job” of the user was simply to receive the news and maybe send a letter to the editor. There was a logic to this. Journalists built their practices on top of a one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting system. Most of us understand that by now. What we haven’t quite appreciated is how the logic of the one way, one-to-many pipes sunk deeply, not only into professional practice, but into professional selves.

And so when I talk to journalists about the Internet I try to get them to picture something that they had long ago naturalized: the arrangement of the audience in space under conditions of mass media. At the deepest roots of their thinking they had accepted an image of the people “out there” as connected up to big media, but disconnected or atomized from one another, as well silent and inert, and powerless to make media.

Today of course all these things have changed: people are connected “across” to each other, as effectively as they are connected “up” to big media. This I call The Great Horizontal. People can talk back to the news system and make their own media. That’s a power shift. Most people in journalism are far enough along in confronting these changes to accept that social media is here to stay, that blogging is a normal and useful activity, that amateurs have a part to play in the news system.

But accepting these facts isn’t enough to make good on the editorial promise of pro-am. Look at CNN’s iReport: 750,000 contributors worldwide. When an earthquake and tsunami strikes Japan, iReport supplies the footage that professionals cannot. But this is exactly where we were in December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. The early coverage was provided by amateurs with cameras.

What we don’t see is the CNN newsroom working actively with its network of contributors to accomplish what neither could pull off on its own. (Despite this initial effort. ) We should, but we don’t have worldwide pro-am investigations into, say, human trafficking or climate change. That’s frustrating. And we haven’t built upon the crucial insight my friend Dan Gillmor had way back in 1999.

As one of the first newspaper journalists to combine a beat and a blog, Gillmor realized, as he put it, “my readers know more than I do.” That was always true. It was true in the 1950s. But when the media system ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, there was nowhere for that knowledge to go. Now there is. And yet, twelve years later, we aren’t making high quality editorial goods from the “more” that readers know.

Consder: There were enough readers of the financial press who knew from direct experience about the mortgage mess to put that story together a year or two before the crash of 2008. Real estate agents. Home buyers. Loan officers. Mortgage bloggers. Drones on Wall Street. They knew something was rotten. Collectively, they knew way more than the financial press did. The story wasn’t hidden. It lay uncollected. That knowledge could have alerted the nation well before the crash of 2008.

It was a pro-am moment. But are we nowhere near making it happen. And this is why I come to you a frustrated man. Still, I have to admit: we have made progress. Here are some of the grades I would give us. (In most cases, these grades are the overall performance of the news system itself, as against what outstanding individuals have been able to do.)

Andy Carvin: Twitter anchor and distributed verification wiz: A+
Witnesses record the emergency when journalists are missing or banned: A+
Rise of a pro-am distribution and curation system: A
User generated content: spot news photography: A
User generated content: on-the-scene video: A-

Social media helps the newsroom locate good sources: B+
“The journalism of the in-box:” B
Wikileaks partners with powerful newspapers: B
Citizens ask the questions of public figures: B
Users help sift through documents and find gems: B-
News organizations run local and expert blog networks: B-
Community-assisted reporting at hyperlocal sites: B-

Public Insight Network: C
Pro-am accountability and monitoring systems: C
Comment threads supply knowledge that improves reporting: C-
Pro-am election coverage: C-

Crowd-funded reporting projects: D
“My readers know more than I do” beat reporting: D

Domain knowledge experts who blog work together with beat reporters: F
Integrating amateur systems like iReport with pro newsrooms: F
Pro-am editorial agenda-setting: F
Pro-am fact checking networks: F
Pro-am investigative journalism: F
Globally distributed pro-am reporting on global problems: F
Pro-am traffic reports: F
Pro-am ski conditions: F

What explains those grades of C, D and F? Why haven’t we made more progress?

Part of the answer involves what is sometimes called the one percent rule in online life. It says that if you attract 1000 people to your site, 900 of them will only consume the product. About 100 of the one thousand will contribute anything at all, maybe a comment at a blog post. And 10 of those 100 will become regular contributors, people you can count on. But when we design pro-am projects, we often create them for the one percent; then we’re disappointed that only a tiny portion of the users take up our invitation. Our expectations haven’t caught up to what is known. We aren’t being realistic.

A second problem involves what I earlier referred to as the give-get bargain. What do contributors give, what do they get? We simply don’t know enough about what motivates people to get involved in pro-am or open source projects in journalism. Our ideas lack nuance; we haven’t tested them enough. Lots of people complain that amateurs aren’t being paid. (Understandable.) Lots of people are eager to exploit unpaid labor. (Understandable!) Not enough attention on the full range of reasons people might get involved, and the full range of rewards that might encourage them to contribute.

A third problem is that we simply haven’t made it easy enough for people to join in. The ergonomics of participation in pro-am journalism are poorly understood. We don’t have enough experts in it.

Fourth: There are exceptions like Brian Stelter, but in general, pro journalists don’t have the time, the patience, the understanding of online life, or the motivation to get granular with us on these problems. They prefer the iReport solution: where the amateurs do their thing, the pros do theirs, and no one undertakes the hard slog of bringing the two together.

Moving against this pattern, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, laid down an important marker when he called for “the mutualisation of journalism.” What he meant is the users have something to contribute that professional journalists cannot, and pro journalists can do things that the users cannot. That is the founding insight of pro-am. But Rusbridger is an outlier.

I’m coming in for a landing. Here are some things we need to do:

1. Remember the one percent rule. We need to figure out tasks for the 10 percent who are occasional contributors. And what can do the 90 percent do?

2. We have to move from “write us a post,” to “fill out this form,” which is more likely to engage the ten percent. Then we have to figure out how to structure those forms so they result in high quality editorial goods. Structured data is therefore a huge part of the future of pro-am. But we have hardly begun to experiment with it. Frustrating!

3. To engage people in a pro-am reporting project, it is critical that they see and feel the connection between the small part they are asked to contribute and the big story that will result.

4. We need to engage already organized communities, including activists, in journalistic tasks. It’s too hard to create these communities from scratch.

5. Frictionless and fun with ladders of achievement. Pro-am journalism needs to take a page from game design. And I don’t mean, “give ’em badges!”

6. In situations where the users know more than the journalists, as with my example of the mortgage crisis, journalists need an advanced tool kit for tapping into that knowledge. Sadly, we haven’t given them that.

7. We need more beat reporters or niche bloggers to commit themselves to the networked approach, where the model is author plus hundreds or even thousands of followers who assist in daily production. A simple example would be the transportation reporter who covers the Long Island Railroad or the Washington Metro. Obviously that beat is best done with hundreds of commuter correspondents collaborating in real time with a full-time reporter. We have the tools. We need people committed to the practice.

8. We need the open source version of the online assignment systems that companies like Demand Media and AOL have been developing, which means right-sizing the work combined with brilliantly understandable instructions.

9. Learn from Al Jazeera.

Pro journalism has never been optimized for high participation. But participatory media hasn’t been optimized for quality journalism, either. That right there is the work we need to do.

I’ve been at this since 1989– 22 years. If it takes another 22, I will be… let’s see: 77 years old when the problem is solved. And I’m fine with that. Because I really believe the more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be. I’m not ready to give that idea up. Are you?


Jean Rognetta says:

Impressive speech this morning. Will you publish the slides?

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see the strides we’ll make at the Public Insight Network during the next six months. We’re in the midst of major updates to all of our technology.

We are slowly rolling out Source ( and have just scratched the surface in terms of the functionality that we’ll offer there for pro-am collaboration.

We’ll start chipping away at that to-do list.

Thanks, Drew. To be extra clear: My grade of “C” for the Public Insight Network is based on my observation that the potential value is far higher than the uses we have seen made of it. I think it’s a pretty amazing asset that hasn’t been deployed as well as it could be.

Back when the Pubic Insight Network was owned and operated by Minnesota Public Radio (it’s moved well beyond that now) the pros in the operation wanted to make sure that the ams stayed in the boxes they had always been in. The PIN was treated as as a source network for stories the newsroom had already defined as stories. That’s not Gillmor’s “my readers know more than I do.”

From what I understand, those attitudes are long gone. I look forward to seeing what happens with it.

B-? Anything we can do for extra credit?

West Seattle Blog is doing great, from what I have seen and heard via the editors. The practice as a whole needs to be strengthened, in part by learning from sites like WSB.

Jay, as you know I’ve had some time to get a close-up of problems with engaging with amateur journalists over the last year. I wanted to share a couple of thoughts. First, in my experience, that small percentage of willing “amateur” contributors who actually turn in copy aren’t amateurs at all. They’re aspiring professionals, or professionals who can’t find (enough) work. Real amateurs are even rarer.

Second, of course follow the money. Most of the items which get low grades are things people won’t do without payment (tsunamis are different). But I’d like to link that to time. Maybe people would do these tasks free if they could, but the reality is that paying the rent comes first and most people have only a sliver of time left over after doing that and getting some sleep.

Finally, I think the form will be a turn-off. Someone wants to write something out of passion, they’ll write it their way and just publish it themselves. There really are no barriers to that any more.

Hi Kim: when I say, “fill out this form,” I don’t mean that the form becomes a paint-by-numbers substitute for writing. Writing posts is its own thing; certainly part of the attraction is to be able to do it your way, as you said. Or, it could be pay.

What I meant by “fill out this form” is we have to experiment more with other ways of contributing to editorial goods. A tip form is a very simple example, commonly in use….

A user alerts the site to a story the site should be pursuing. A survey would be another example. These aren’t substitutes for writing posts. Rather, they attract a different kind of participation: “add your data to our data collection project.”

Suppose we wanted to know: where in the East Village is Verizon offering FIOS service, and where is it not offering FIOS service. One way to do that is to ask people to fill out a form detailing what happens when they ask about FIOS service at their address. Now if I live in the East Village I can contribute without having to write a post about the intricacies of FIOS coming to the East Village, which I do not have the time, knowledge or motivation to do.

My phrase, from “write us this post” to “fill out this form” is just another way of saying: we have to keep lowering the barriers to entry if we think participation strengthens journalism.

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify that.

Thanks, Jay. Not a subsitute for writing articles – that makes more sense.

Kim, thanks so much for acknowledging that reality. As we all know, its still exceedingly difficult to find steady work so there are hordes of us professional amateurs, so to speak 🙂 That said, it would be great if news organizations did a better job not only of engaging the true amateurs/hobbyists, but us as well. You can’t give us a FT job right now, fine. But give us SOMETHING to do. At a time when budgets and staffs are slashed, the amount of work and topics to cover obviously hasn’t diminished. Yet news organizations seem content to just not cover them rather than finding wither an amateur or a pro who would be more than willing.

Jay, do you have any thoughts on this or have you seen any news org do this effectively? The only examples that come to mind for me are small, independent news producers (you know, these types of folks: and they are often not able to pay. Larger news orgs with their more vast resources would of course be better equipped to do so. And yet they are locked only into the freelance model and don’t appear to want to get out of it.

Jay –
I was heartened by your excellent talk at PDF yesterday! Can you join me in our investor meetings? Because in outlining you “Top 9” list, you closed the deal for NewsiT – the mobile social network for creating and curating crowd-reported news of high quality I have just founded.

NewsiT engages and rewards people as “mobile news-gatherers”, all socially networked around topics of common interest and location. We focus multiple contributors on single assignments to create a network effect – and combine algorithms, gaming elements and professional journalists to ensure crowd-reported news of accuracy and impact.

Not everyone is a Pulitzer or Peabody contender, but everyone can contribute one piece of the puzzle:

What if everyone along the Gulf Coast last year used their iPhones/Droids to document (via video, photos) and geo-located precisely where the oil was on a given day. Ten people on one mile of beach, 10 more on the next, and on. A comprehensive and accurate report would emerge – and fast, and at low cost. (And you’re also right about traffic reporting, ski conditions, kids football games and much, much more…)

The professionals are used for what WE do best: advanced quality-control, presentation (good writing, or tracking for broadcast), accredited access to get answers from sources like politicians who may be inaccessible to the “crowd.”

To traditional journalists skeptical about this approach I ask them what they would do if they could put 1,000 people to work on an investigative story for them right now – and had an efficient way to collect, process, curate and edit that content so it was reliable?

NewsiT is being built to do just that. We put the 2-source rule on “steroids.” Algorithms establish user credibility over time – as they earn points and badges, rated by the community and professionals, see progression, and also to your point they see the IMPACT of their work (and why their contribution is part of a bigger whole). Their contributions are “weighted” and patterns are sought in the data. We also use plagiarism detection algorithms, and other such fact-checking systems proven in other industries. Stories that were not possible before due to time and/or cost become possible in 24 hours.

NewsiT is still in its infancy, as we bootstrap and iterate towards its full potential, and now close our first “friends and family” round to start building out our technology, improve user experience, launch our iPhone and Droid apps (these are natural news-gathering devices). But on fumes we are already showing citizens will come together to create meaningful – and accurate news content.

You mentioned the Washington Metro in your talk. NewsiT has just launched a 1.0 BETA system ( and folks in DC are exposing fire safety worries in DC metro stations given all those broken escalators and problems finding emergency exits. (Anyone reading this in DC? Sign up now at!)

We are really excited about the potential of NewsiT because we think our platform solves not only the cost-model problem in the news industry but also the trust / filter problem in the blogosphere, Twitter and social networks.

We look forward to working with you to make your vision – and our vision – a reality! Thank you,


Jay – echoing Melinda’s comments above, I thought your presentation was dead on and exactly in line with our thinking here at NewsiT. We’ve posted your presentation on our site:

[…] PressThink “I’d give us a C-,” writes Jay Rosen. “We should, but we don’t have worldwide pro-am investigations into, say, human trafficking or climate change. That’s frustrating.” Consider: There were enough readers of the financial press who knew from direct […]

I’m so glad I checked here after seeing you deliver this talk at PdF. A treasure trove of links really fleshes out the concepts, and provides lots of meaty new-to-me sites to visit. Thanks…

I’d take it another step and suggest that there are times when professional journalists should fill out a form, too.

I’ve done some pro-am projects and the potential is enormous. But using a structured way to make it easier for people without training to report accurately and easily is genius. Not limiting them to it, but offering it as an option? There are so many things we could do with that.

That’s the idea. I really think this is the key. Which is why I put the title on my post that you see here.

Structuring the inputs as forms might also create a second life for the content. If we can understand the relationship between two structured inputs within a set (say a zipcode) in a reliable fashion that alone could help map more meaningful horizontal relationships between ideas or opinions or locations. But “forms” can kill the energy of a narrative by forcing it into a linear flow. I would love to learn from a team that has designed/deployed a structured intake query/form that provides solid info capture and encourages freestyling.

[…] social media experts about how to verify information on social media, and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen took stock of where “pro-am journalism” is and where it’s headed. Posted today, 10 a.m. […]

[…] social media experts about how to verify information on social media, and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen took stock of where “pro-am journalism” is and where it’s […]

After 2008 & 2009, there are a lot of pros out there who are no longer working at newspapers and other traditional journalism outlets. I am now a communications director for a nonprofit organization — and I am treated with absolute disdain by the pros still working in traditional media; they view me as a “flak,” despite my 30 years experience as a reporter and editor. I don’t want to direct their coverage or spin the news to benefit my organization, but they are ignoring someone with good instincts who could be a significant resource. (It’s worth noting, too, that they’re ignoring someone who already has a paycheck so is not concerned about whether they can pay me or not.) And I’m afraid I am not an isolated example.

I don’t doubt it, Sarah. The disdain is one part of what I meant by “pro journalism has been optimized for low participation.” The good and the bad attempts to participate can be turned away without any effort at sorting.

Anna Greece says:

Journalists are sometimes Terrorists 🙂

[…] Crowd source content creation, Pro-am journalism… Some news organizations are already implementing this practice, but many others not. People […]