March 31, 2007
Crowdsourcing, Elizabeth Edwards, and the Times Quoting Blog Comments

The Nation's Ari Melber had a great blog piece this week about crowdsourcing and how the phenomenon relates to the recent surge in online interest in the John Edwards campaign, based on the news that his wife Elizabeth has cancer.

The article, entitled "Crowdsourcing Elizabeth Edwards," focuses particularly on the outpouring of online debate about the Edwards' decision to move forward with his bid for president, even after her cancer diagnosis. Particularly, Melber's article focuses on how perhaps the most respected newspaper in the country, The New York Times, is covering the event.

In short, the New York Times blog The Caucus had a 22 March post about the news of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer, written by Kate Phillips, which received a total of 695 comments.

Times reporter Kirk Johnson then sought to write an article for the front page of the Times on 23 March (published 24 March) which focused on public reaction to the Edwards' decision. As Melber asks, though, "Besides cold-calling the phonebook, how do you learn what people really think of the news? How do you find people who have followed the story or care about it? And in a country with two million women who have been treated for breast cancer, how do you learn what survivors think?"

The article instead draws on comments from the Times blog, including quoting Janet A. Leff, a cancer treatment survivor doing international volunteer work in Bosnia who had posted a blog comment to the Times. The quote was particularly significant because it was only the second time the Times had quoted from one of its own blog, the first time in January in what Melber calls "a metro article on Internet theories about a 'mysterious stench' that had passed through Manhattan."

Melber draws a link between the Times use of quoting a blogger as the "person on the street" and Assignment Zero, launched by NYU's Jay Rosen and enlisting Wired to officially contribute.

Earlier this month, I wrote about Assignment Zero, which uses citizen journalists to cover, appropriately, the phenomenon of "crowdsourcing." As I wrote at the time:

The Wired team points out that most of what is called citizen journalism coming from official publications involves opening up newspapers for citizens to comment on stories after the fact, but their philosophy is that projects could be completed with much greater scope--still using the official authenticity and reputation of the magazine and its professionals while also utilizing the scope and breadth and depth of the active portion of the readership who wish to contribute further.

The Elizabeth Edwards online reaction shows how polling the people has been taken to a new level in understanding popular sentiment, at least the online crowd, now that "the crowd" may have a forum of their own. As Daniel Pearl with BBC has said, and as I wrote last July, "readers no longer have to contact the station to voice their opinion because sites that track the blogosphere--such as Technorati--can give journalists an immediate barometer of how a story has been received among viewers and some clue as to what directions to follow up, based on audience response."

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for passing the Nation post along.