Local Citizen Microreporting

A couple weeks ago I applied for a grant from the Knight News Challenge for creation of a microreporting infrastructure — an idea I’ve been batting around for about a year now but haven’t had time to implement (check out, for example, this ghost town).

Not sure if I’ll get the grant or not, but here’s hoping.

The idea is actually pretty simple. A corps of volunteer microreporters report news and gossip as it happens through text messaging or email. Those microreports of one or two sentences are posted in real-time to a common site where they can be community rated and commented on.

The idea is partially informed by a thing I’ve noticed at Blue Hampshire: occasionally posting a small skeleton story on a site filled with insiders generates a really full story via people volunteering information in the comments.

So in the world of microreporting, if you witnessed an accident (or more likely the aftermath) you might write

Motorcyclist down on West st. In front of T-bird mini mart. Ambulance and cops arriving. Looks like skidded out in turn? Not sure. Traffic routed thru tbird lot.

Which is on its own is worth something — if you were worried about someone who is late, for example you could check the site, and if you are going somewhere you could make sure you avoid West St.

But the real benefit would come with user comment and ranking. If it’s an important story, readers would push it to the top. If multiple reports come in, readers would be given a facility to group the reports. But most importantly, people could correct and expand on the stories. A reader listening to the police scanner could fill in details. If someone a day later heard something about the accident, they could add it. A person familiar with that intersection might also comment about whether there was a pattern of such things.

Assuming people did this non-anonymously, under their own names, a reporter or blogger could look at the original microreports plus comments and with a couple calls for verification very quickly put together a story.

Such a system would allow the reporter or blogger to focus on story selection, verification, and storytelling rather than the more mundane work of finding and assembling the smaller pieces from which such stories are composed.

I’m not saying this would always be the case — obviously there will always be a place for traditional source-building and investigative journalism. But for local stories in small towns, which are written on ever-shrinking budgets, the efficiency gained with such a system might make it possible to continue to provide the coverage which helps to hold small communities together. And that, to me, makes this an idea well worth trying.

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