Tag Archives: yochai benkler

An online journalism reading list

It’s the start of a new academic year so I thought I’d compile a list of the latest reading I would recommend for any students looking at online journalism. (If you have suggestions for additions please let me know!):

Theoretical, historical and conceptual background

  • Digital Journalism by Jones & Lee (Sage, 2011) is very comprehensive and worth reading in full.
  • Gatewatching by Axel Bruns (Peter Lang, 2005) covers areas that tend to be overlooked by journalism books, such as new media methods and startups from outside traditional media. Read: Chapter 4: Making News Open Source
  • The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler (Yale University Press, 2007) provides a wider context and is available free online. Read: Chapter 4: The Economics of Social Production.
  • We The Media by Dan Gillmor (O’Reilly, 2006) is a seminal book on citizen journalism which is also available free online.

Practical online journalism – general

  • Clearly I’m going to say my own book, the Online Journalism Handbook (2017, Routledge), [UPDATE: now in its second edition], which covers blogging and web writing, data journalism, online audio and video, interactivity, community management and law. Continue reading

A case study in crowdsourcing investigative journalism part 7: Conclusions

In the final part of the research underpinning a new Help Me Investigate project I explore the qualities that successful crowdsourcing investigations shared. Previous parts are linked below:


Looking at the reasons that users of the site as a whole gave for not contributing to an investigation, the majority attributed this to ‘not having enough time’. Although at least one interviewee, in contrast, highlighted the simplicity and ease of contributing, it needs to be as easy and simple as possible for users to contribute (or appear to be) in order to lower the perception of effort and time needed.

Notably, the second biggest reason for not contributing was a ‘lack of personal connection with an investigation’, demonstrating the importance of the individual and social dimension of crowdsourcing. Likewise, a ‘personal interest in the issue’ was the single largest factor in someone contributing. A ‘Why should I contribute?’ feature on crowdsourcing projects may be worth considering.

Others mentioned the social dimension of crowdsourcing – the “sense of being involved in something together” – what Jenkins (2006, p244) would refer to as “consumption as a networked practice”, a motivation also identified by Yochai Benkler in his work on networks (2006). Looking at non-financial motivations behind people contributing their time to online projects, he refers to “socio-psychological reward”. He also identifies the importance of “hedonic personal gratification”. In other words, fun.

Although positive feedback formed part of the design of the site, no consideration was paid to negative feedback: users being made aware of when they were not succeeding. This element also appears to be absent from game mechanics in other crowdsourcing experiments such as The Guardian’s MPs’ expenses app.

While it is easy to talk about “Failure for free”, more could be done to identify and support failing investigations. A monthly update feature that would remind users of recent activity and – more importantly – the lack of activity might help here. The investigators in a group might be asked whether they wish to terminate the investigation in those cases, emphasising their responsibility for its progress and helping ‘clean up’ the investigations listed on the first page of the site.

However, there is also a danger in interfering too much in reducing failure. This is a natural instinct, and the establishment of a reasonable ‘success rate’ at the outset – based on the literature around crowdsourcing – helps to counter this. That was part of the design of Help Me Investigate: it was the 1-5% of questions that gained traction that would be the focus of the site. One analogy is a news conference where members throw out ideas – only a few are chosen for investment of time and energy, the rest ‘fail’.

It is the management of that tension between interfering to ensure everything succeeds (and so removing the incentive for users to be self-motivated) and not interfering at all (leaving users feeling unsupported and unmotivated) that is likely to be the key to a successful crowdsourcing project. More than a year into the project, this tension was still being negotiated.

In summing up the research into Help Me Investigate it is possible to identify five qualities which successful investigations shared: ‘Alpha users’ (highly active, who drove investigations forward); modularity (the ability to break down a large investigation into smaller discrete elements); public-ness (the ability for others to find out about an investigation); feedback (game mechanics and the pleasure of using the site); and diversity of users.

Relating these findings to other research into crowdsourcing more generally it is possible to make broader generalisations regarding how future projects might be best organised. Leadbeater (2008, p68), for example, identifies five key principles of successful collaborative projects, summed up as ‘Core’ (directly comparable to the need for alpha users identified in this research); ‘Contribute’ (large numbers, comparable to public-ness); ‘Connect’ (diversity); ‘Collaborate’ (self governance – relating indirectly to modularity); and ‘Create’ (creative pleasure – relating indirectly to feedback). Similar qualities are also identified by US investigative reporter and Knight fellow Wendy Norris in her experiments with crowdsourcing (Lavrusik, 2010).

The most notable connections here are the indirect ones. While the technology of Help Me Investigate allowed for modularity, for example, the community structure was rather flat. Leadbeater’s research (2008) and that of Lih (2009) into the development of Wikipedia and Tsui (2010, PDF) into Global Voices indicate that ‘modularity’ may be part of a wider need for ‘structure’. Conversely ‘feedback’ provides a specific, practical way for crowdsourcing projects to address users’ need for creative pleasure.

As Help Me Investigate reached its 18th month a number of changes were made to test these ideas: the code was released as open source, effectively crowdsourcing the technology itself, and a strategy was adopted to recruit niche community managers who could build expertise in particular fields, along with an advisory board that was similarly diverse. The Help Me Investigate design was replicated in a plugin which would allow anyone running a self-hosted WordPress blog to manage their own version of the site.

This separation of technology from community was a key learning outcome of the project. While the site had solved some of the technical challenges of crowdsourcing and identified the qualities of successful crowdsourced investigation, it was clear that the biggest challenge lay in connecting the increasingly networked communities that wanted to investigate public interest issues – and in a way that was both sustainable and scalable beyond the level of individual investigations.



  1. Arthur, Charles. Forecasting is a notoriously imprecise science – ask any meteorologist, January 29 2010, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jan/29/apple-ipad-crowdsource accessed 14/3/2011
  2. Beckett, Charlie (2008) SuperMedia, Oxford: Blackwell
  3. Belam, Martin. Whatever Paul Waugh thinks, The Guardian’s MPs Expenses crowd-sourcing experiment was no “total failure”, Currybetdotnet, March 10 2010 http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2010/03/whatever-paul-waugh-thinks-the.php accessed 14/3/2011
  4. Belam, Martin. Abort? Retry? Fail? – Judging the success of the Guardian’s MP’s expenses app, Currybetdotnet, March 7 2011, http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/03/guardian-mps-expenses-success.php accessed 14/3/2011
  5. Belam, Martin. The Guardian’s Paul Lewis on crowd-sourcing investigative journalism with Twitter, Currybetdotnet, March 10 2011, http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/03/paul-lewis-investigative-journalism-twitter.php accessed 14/3/2011
  6. Benkler, Yochai (2006) The Wealth of Networks, New Haven: Yale University Press
  7. Bonomolo, Alessandra. Repubblica.it’s experiment with “Investigative reporting on demand”, Online Journalism Blog, March 21 2011, https://onlinejournalismblog.com/2011/03/21/repubblica-its-experiment-with-investigative-reporting-on-demand/ accessed 23/3/2011
  8. Bradshaw, Paul. Wiki Journalism: Are wikis the new blogs? Paper presented to The Future of Journalism conference, Cardiff University, September 2007, https://onlinejournalismblog.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/wiki_journalism.pdf
  9. Bradshaw, Paul. The Guardian’s tool to crowdsource MPs’ expenses data: time to play, Online Journalism Blog, June 19 2009 https://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/06/19/the-guardian-build-a-platform-to-crowdsource-mps-expenses-data/ accessed 14/3/2011
  10. Brogan, C., & Smith, J. (2009). Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve
  11. Reputation, and Earn Trust (1 ed.), New Jersey: Wiley
  12. Bruns, Axel (2005) Gatewatching, New York: Peter Lang
  13. Bruns, Axel (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond, New York: Peter Lang
  14. De Burgh, Hugo (2008) Investigative Journalism, London: Routledge
  15. Dondlinger, Mary Jo. Educational Video Game Design: A Review of the Literature, Journal of Applied Educational Technology Volume 4, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2007, http://www.eduquery.com/jaet/JAET4-1_Dondlinger.pdf
  16. Ellis, Justin. A perpetual motion machine for investigative reporting: CPI and PRI partner on state corruption project, Nieman Journalism Lab, March 8 2011 http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/03/a-perpetual-motion-machine-for-investigative-reporting-cpi-and-pri-partner-on-state-corruption-project/ accessed 21/3/2011
  17. Graham, John. Feedback in Game Design, Wolfire Blog, April 21 2010 http://blog.wolfire.com/2010/04/Feedback-In-Game-Design accessed 14/3/2011
  18. Grey, Stephen (2006) Ghost Plane, London: C Hurst & Co
  19. Hickman, Jon. Help Me Investigate: the social practices of investigative journalism, Paper presented to the Media Production Analysis Working Group, IAMCR, Braga, 2010, http://theplan.co.uk/help-me-investigate-the-social-practices-of-i
  20. Howe, Jeff. Gannett to Crowdsource News, Wired, November 3 2006, http://www.wired.com/software/webservices/news/2006/11/72067 accessed 14/3/2011
  21. Jenkins, Henry (2006) Convergence Culture, New York: New York University Press
  22. Lavrusik, Vadim. How Investigative Journalism Is Prospering in the Age of Social Media, Mashable, November 24 2010, http://mashable.com/2010/11/24/investigative-journalism-social-web/ accessed 14/3/2011
  23. Leadbeater (2008) We-Think, London: Profile Books
  24. Leigh, David. Help us solve the mystery of Blair’s money, The Guardian, December 1 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/dec/01/help-us-solve-blair-mystery accessed 14/3/2011
  25. Lih, Andrew (2009) The Wikipedia Revolution, London: Aurum Press
  26. Marshall, Sarah. Snow map developer creates ‘Cutsmap’ for Channel 4’s budget coverage, Journalism.co.uk, 22 March 2011, http://www.journalism.co.uk/news/snow-map-developer-creates-cutsmap-for-channel-4-s-budget-coverage/s2/a543335/ accessed 22/3/2011
  27. Morozov, Evgeny (2011) The Net Delusion, London: Allen Lane
  28. Nielsen, Jakob. Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute, Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, October 9, 2006, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html accessed 14/3/2011
  29. Paterson and Domingo (2008) Making Online News: The Ethnography of New Media Production, New York: Peter Lang
  30. Porter, Joshua (2008) Designing for the Social Web, Berkeley: New Riders
  31. Raymond, Eric S. (1999) The Cathedral and the Bazaar, New York: O’Reilly
  32. Scotney, Tom. Help Me Investigate: How working collaboratively can benefit journalists, Journalism.co.uk, August 14 2009, http://www.journalism.co.uk/news-features/help-me-investigate-how-working-collaboratively-can-benefit-journalists/s5/a535469/ accessed 21/3/2011
  33. Shirky, Clay (2008) Here Comes Everybody, London: Allen Lane
  34. Snyder, Chris. Spot.Us Launches Crowd-Funded Journalism Project, Wired, November 10, 2008, http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2008/11/spotus-launches/ accessed 21/3/2011
  35. Surowiecki, James (2005) The Wisdom of Crowds, London: Abacus
  36. Tapscott, Don & Williams, Anthony (2006) Wikinomics, London: Atlantic Books
  37. Tsui, Lokman. A Journalism of Hospitality, unpublished thesis, Presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania, 2010 http://dl.dropbox.com/u/22048/Tsui-Dissertation-Deposit-Final.pdf accessed 14/3/2011
  38. Weinberger, David (2002) Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, New York: Basic Books

7 books that journalists working online should read?

Image by B_Zedan

While it’s one thing to understand interactive storytelling, community management, or the history of online journalism, the changes that are affecting journalism are wider than the industry itself. So although I’ve written previously on essential books about online journalism, I wanted to also compile a list of books which I think are essential for those wanting to gain an understanding of wider dynamics affecting the media industries and, by extension, journalism.

These are books that provide historical context to the hysteria surrounding technologies; that give an insight into the cultural movements changing society; that explore key philosophical issues such as privacy; or that explore the commercial dynamics driving change.

But they’re just my choices – please add your own.

Continue reading

In defence of the “user”

Matt Kelly doesn’t like the term ‘users’. In a speech to the World Newspaper Congress keynote in Hyderabad he bemoaned the sterility of the word:

“What a word! “Users.” Not readers, or viewers. Certainly not customers – not unless we are being deeply ironic. For the fact is the word “user” is, for the vast majority of people consuming our products online, entirely accurate.

“We’d never choose such a sterile word to describe the people who buy our newspapers. But online, “users” is about right. They find our content in a search engine, they devour it, then they move back to Google, or wherever, and go looking for more. Often, they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. This was the audience we’ve been chasing all that time. A swarm of locusts.”

He’s not alone. Many others have expressed – if not in such forthright terms, and often on very different bases – similar objections to the term.

But I like it. Continue reading