Questions blackboard
Credit: Thinkstock

In a media industry swept by rapid change, the role of the audience has evolved significantly – eyewitness media's increasing presence in the news now makes people active participants.

However, determining what is worth covering is still largely an editorial decision, but would some stories be better or different, and would they even make it into the news at all, if the audience had their say from the beginning?

WBEZ Chicago, the city's public radio station, developed a platform called Curious City to expand the way in which stories make it into the news cycle through a new concept, "public-powered storytelling".

"I fundamentally think the public has great questions and great story ideas," said Curious City founder Jennifer Brandel in a recent podcast, "and I wanted to create a system for harvesting them so that people can actually be represented in the news that they consume.

"You don't get a lot of regular community members on air, in print or whatever the final product is, unless they've done something remarkable, whether that's terrible or wonderful," she added.

Think of questions as the new comments

The Curious City website, which was partly funded by a Knight Foundation Prototype Fund back in 2013, started off as a mix of technological tools and newsgathering approaches for engaging the public throughout the storytelling process.

The people of Chicago would submit online questions they wanted WBEZ to investigate, before they are submitted to a vote, and they also play an active role in the reporting.

For example, when someone wanted to know where the bats of Chicago lived, Curious City brought them along to interview a researcher at the zoo and included their voice and ideas in the final story.

"So really, as journalists, instead of being all knowing, authoritative, wordy experts who are telling you what it is and how it is, we are instead more like conduits, connecting the public with the people in power and with information that they want to know", Brandel said.

She is interested in expanding the idea of "questions as the new comments" because she believes "every story kind of has a meta question that's contained within and people want to close the loop on a little mystery".

"The only opportunity we tend to give people from the audience to interact with us is in the comment section or in columns.

"Those tend to be spaces that are kind of designed for complaining or pointing out flaws, rather than places for a shared understanding and for advancing some sense of facts. So this is a new framework for working with community to uncover stories that wouldn't otherwise make it into the traditional set up of news," she added.

Be 'data-centric' – why should you tell a story?

The BBC has experimented with a similar approach, through its BBC Pop Up 'mobile bureau', which kicked off last year with a six month trip around the US.

There's such pressure on journalists and media organisations to come up with new ideas on how to report on various stories, but there's not as much effort placed on what stories to choose in the first placeMatt Danzico, BBC Pop Up
"We took this idea of creating a mobile bureau and turned it into a crowdsourcing unit," said Matt Danzico, the bureau's video journalist and reporter, "so we try to act as the vehicles through which these communities tell their stories to the world."

BBC Pop Up, which consists of two video journalists and a BBC editor who "steers the ship editorially from Washington", has recently returned from a month long trip to Nairobi.

Gathering a story list of 150 ideas suggested by the community through social media, but also in person at town meetings, the team reported on topics such as a 'killer brew' that had a negative impact on the community and Kenyans' reaction to Obama's stance on gay rights.

"I think these communities are just so excited to have the resources to tell the stories that they want to tell. We are, quite literally, placing the cameras in the hands of the townspeople sometimes," Danzico explained.

When choosing the stories, the bureau takes into consideration repeated suggestions from the public, as well as whether or not the story has a global angle that also resonates with the broader BBC audience.

"We try to be quite data-centric about the stories that we cover, because the point is to challenge these conventional ideas of how journalists can choose to feature stories.

"There's such pressure on journalists and media organisations to come up with new ideas on how to report on various stories, but there's not as much effort placed on what stories to choose in the first place."

Empower readers to shape the story

When Scotland's first investigative journalism platform The Ferret launched earlier this summer, people were invited to decide what its first story should be, by voting and later donating money to fund the reporting.

"We're trying to create a new model for journalism where it's not just journalists who decide what the issues are, it's also readers or potential readers too," said Rob Edwards, co-founder of The Ferret.

The team chose the three topics – fracking, NHS cuts and asylum seekers – based on their "knowledge and understand of issues of importance in Scotland", but The Ferret wants to "become a cooperative where readers are formally involved in the management structure and decide how the money is spent".

Readers have been invited to suggest things they'd like to know about fracking, said Edwards, and the aim is to do a series of investigations that will involve everything from articles, videos and podcasts to FOI requests and interviews with companies and experts.

"It's very important, in working out the new way in which journalism has to work in the digital age, to find ways of working that involve people more, rather than less.

"If people come to us with strong suggestions and real matters of public interest that need exposing, at their suggestion, we'll crack on with it," he said.

Check out the full podcast on crowdsourcing stories below.

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