July 29, 2012
Crowdsourcing, outsourcing, and other sorts of distributed work have long since made inroads into professional journalism, but a recent scandal involving a few major metropolitan newspapers outsourcing their local reporting to a company named Journatic reveals the scope and extent of those inroads.
Since This American Life first broke the story a couple of weeks ago, the details of the Journatic story have made their way all over the Internet (See, e.g., coverage from Poynter, Romenesko, and Gigaom for some of the more thoughtful examples).
The basics are straightforward: Journatic is a company that specializes in generating content for a variety of purposes, among them local news stories (they also have a sister company called Blockshopper that provides a similar service for real estate listings). It seems that typically a client – say, a major U.S. newspaper like the Chicago Tribune, for example – contracts with Journatic, which then hires dozens of independent subcontractors (mainly in the Philippines and the U.S.) who construct and edit hyperlocal news items in a distributed, piecemeal fashion before passing the finished product back to the client for publication.
You can get a much better feel for the process by listening to the TAL interviews with Journatic editor Ryan Smith, or by reading Smith’s tendentious editorial about his experience (has has subsequently quit working for Journatic, although – interestingly – he was not fired or even reprimanded for his efforts to publicly criticize the company’s practices and products).
The stickiest part of the scandal seems to be that the Trib, along with several other major metropolitan dailies (the San Francisco and Houston Chronicles as well as the Chicago Sun Times) , had been printing these stories under false by-lines (such as Jake Barnes – the name of a famous Hemingway character), which violates the paper’s own ethical standards.
I find the story pretty engaging for several reasons:
The fact that Journatic figured out how to crowdsource journalism is actually pretty impressive. Some friends at CMU have been trying for a while now to generate magazine-style writing using workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Likewise, I’d like to develop and test methods for crowdsourcing peer review of academic papers. Apparently, the folks at Journatic have already solved many of the practical problems involved in performing a complex knowledge-based task like reporting using a globally distributed workforce of highly variable skill.
Second, despite the rhetoric surrounding the story, Journatic is neither the end of journalism as we know it nor its salvation. While I share the concerns voiced by Smith, TAL reporter Sarah Koenig, and others over the wages paid to Journatic’s Philippino contractors as well as the confusion about the Tribune’s apparent willingness to buck its own editorial policies about attribution in this case, these issues need to be distinguished from questions about whether crowdsourcing is “bad” or “good” for the future of media. I believe the emergence of companies specializing in crowdsourced journalism is merely another wrinkle in a complex organizational ecosystem where incumbent firms are struggling to retain some sort of comparative, competitive advantage in the face of declining revenues. When you consider Journatic in the context of other experiments in crowdsourced journalism, such as some of ProPublica’s distributed reporting project, CNN’s iReports, or even the political blogosphere, paying workers around the world to assemble stories sounds less like a violation of basic journalistic principles and more like the latest in a long line of process innovations that might or might not help to reinvent the field.
Last, but not least, many of us (myself included) may not like the fact that the cost of local news coverage has exceeded the demand in many places, but I think there’s got to be a more effective response than petitioning Sam Zell to stop outsourcing. Instead, I’d like to see a combined effort to improve Journatic’s models of content production in order to (1) address the ethical concerns raised in the Tribune scandal; (2) improve the quality of coverage in order to correct some of the terrible reporting practices documented by Smith in his op-ed; and (3) more effectively integrate teams of remote and on-site local reporters.
Ultimately, you can’t ignore the fact that Journatic smells bad. They paid off contractors not to talk to the media a few months ago, provide SEO and content farm services on the backs of cheap overseas labor, and when faced with complaints about the fact that their real estate listing service, BlockShopper, violated people’s privacy, they responded by issuing a Zuckerbergian declaration against expectations of privacy online and hiding the identities of their writers. Oh, and they also hide their company’s website from Google’s robots (go to http://journatic.com and use the “view source” option in your browser to see their robots.txt policy).
That said, the whole situation offers a chance to think about what a more responsible, ethical, and constructive version of crowdsourced journalism could look like. For that reason alone, I think Journatic deserves even more attention than it has already received.
This weekend, Andrés and I attended the CrowdCamp Workshop at CHI in Austin, Texas. The workshop was structured a lot like a hackathon, with the objective being to work in teams to produce projects, papers, or research.
The group I worked with coalesced around a proposal made by Niki Kittur, who suggested that we envision how crowdsourcing and distributed work contribute to solving grand challenges, such as economic inequality and the ongoing impact of the 2008 financial crisis.
We then spent the better part of the weekend outlining an ambitious set of scenarios and goals for the future of crowdwork.
While many moments of our conversation were energizing, the most compelling aspects derived from the group’s shared desire to imagine crowdwork and distributed online collaboration as potentially something more than the specter of alienated, de-humanized piece-work that it is frequently depicted to be.
To spur our efforts, we used a provocative thought experiment: what it would take for crowdwork to facilitate fulfilling, creative, and sustainable livelihoods for us or our (hypothetical or real) children?
Despite the limits of this framing, I think it opened up a discussion that goes beyond the established positions in debates about the ethics and efficiencies of paid crowdsourcing, distributed work, and voluntary labor online (all of which are, to some extent, encompassed under the concept of crowdwork in this case). It also hellped us start imagining howwe, as designers and researchers of crowdwork platforms and experiences, would go about constructing an ambitious research agenda on the scale of a massive project like the Hadron Collider.
If everything goes according to plan, this effort will result in at least a paper within the coming few weeks. Assuming that’s the case, our group will be sharing more details about the workshop and our vision of the future of crowdwork soon.
December 11, 2011
Academic peer review tends to be slow, imprecise, labor-intensive, and opaque.
A number of intriguing reform proposals and alternative models exist and hopefully, some of these ideas will lead to improvements. However, whether they do or not, I suspect that some form of peer review will continue to exist (at least for the duration of my career) and that many reviewers (myself included) will continue to find the process of doing the reviews to be time-consuming and something of a hassle.
The most radical solution is to shred the whole process T-Rex style.
This is sort of what has already happened in disciplines that use arXiv or similar open repositories where working papers can be posted and made available for immediate critique and citation. Such systems have their pros and cons too, but if nothing else they decrease the amount of time, money and labor that go into reviewing for journals and conferences, while increasing the transparency. As a result, they provide at least a useful complement to existing systems.
Over a conversation at CrowdConf in November, some colleagues and I came up with a related, but slightly less radical proposal: maybe you could keep some form of academic peer review, but do it without the academic peers?
Such a proposition calls into question one of the core assumptions underlying the whole process – that reviewers’ years of training and experience (and credentials!) have endowed them with special powers to distinguish intellectual wheat from chaff.
Presumably, nobody would claim that the experts make the right judgment 100% of the time, but everybody who believes in peer review agrees (at least implicitly) that they probably do better than non-experts would (at least most of the time).
And yet, I can’t think of anybody who’s ever tested this assumption in a direct way. Indeed, in all the proposals for reform I’ve ever heard, “the peers” have remained the one untouchable, un-removable piece of the equation.
That’s what got us thinking: what if you could reproduce academic peer review without any expertise, experience or credentials? What if all it took were a reasonably well-designed system for aggregating and parsing evaluations from non-experts?
The way to test the idea would be to try to replicate the outcomes of some existing review process using non-expert reviewers. In an ideal world, you would take a set of papers that had been submitted for review and had received a range of scores along some continuous scale (say, 1 to a protocol to distribute the review process across a pool of 5 – like papers reviewed for ACM Conferences). Then you would develop non-expert reviewers (say, using CrowdFlower or some similar crowdsourcing platform). Once you had review scores from the non-experts, you could aggregate them in some way and/or compare them directly against the ratings from the experts.
Would it work? That depends on what you would consider success. I’m not totally confident that distributed peer review would improve existing systems in terms of precision (selecting better papers), but it might not make the precision of existing peer review systems any worse and could potentially increase the speed. If it worked at all along any of these dimensions, implementing it would definitely reduce the burden on reviewers. In my mind, that possibility – together with the fact that it would be interesting to compare the judgments of us professional experts against a bunch of amateurs – more than justifies the experiment.