Newspaper enlists readers for ‘networked’ investigation

A group of US newspapers has invited crowds of readers to help scrutinise weighty proposed government legislation in what has been called an early example of “networked journalism”.

America’s Congress is currently considering the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations measure, a public spending bill that contains some 1,867 purchase requests. But each request, or “earmark”, is made anonymously, so the Examiner metropolitan newspaper group has published the bill’s underlying database and is enlisting readers to do the intensive investigative legwork by cold calling hundreds of politicians.

“Check out the earmarks for your state and then call your congressman and ask if he or she sponsored any of your state’s earmarks,” the Examiner wrote. “If the answer is yes, ask why the congressman’s name isn’t on the earmark.

“Email us and tell us what you found out. You will be part of an army of citizen journalists determined to shine some much-needed light on spending decisions made behind closed doors by powerful members of Congress. To our knowledge, The Examiner is the first-ever daily newspaper to join with readers, citizen activists from across the political spectrum and bloggers in this manner to uncover the facts behind government spending.”

The project has been greeted with enthusiasm by new-age journalism strategists.

“This is networked journalism beginning to come of age,” wrote New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, referring to the term recently appropriated by new media consultant Jeff Jarvis and Guardian Unlimited assistant editor Neil McIntosh to replace ‘citizen journalism’. “It enlists net users across the country in the collecting and sharing of information of vital public importance.”

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark said: “This has significance beyond exposing a little corruption, it’s a next step in a process where professional and citizen journalists work together to expose bad guys.”

The notion that readers as foot soldiers can produce investigative journalism to a distributed pattern that has also been labelled “crowdsourcing” also surfaced last week when a number of weblogs interrogated news photographs from Lebanon, forcing Reuters to drop a freelance contributor believed to have doctored pictures.

Richard North, a British blogger at the centre of the continuing episode, told The Guardian this week: “It’s the classic 18th century scientific technique – thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”