It’s a “put up or shut up” moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like… distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting… and put them to work to break news?
The answer is absolutely. Read the posting and comment thread for some good discussion. Here’s what I posted:
Generally speaking, what we’re discussing here are projects that can be broken down into little pieces where lots and lots of people can ask one question, or look at one document, or solve on piece of a big puzzle. Then the results are aggregated, parsed and reassembled into a coherent whole. It’ll almost always require some folks at the center. We used to call them editors.
Reading all the laws is a great project, but I think it’s too big to chew on except as a long-term goal. I’d suggest paring it down to something smaller and much more essential:
The next time Congress gets ready to pass an appropriations bill of any sort, we need an army of lawyers and others who understand legislative language to parse it *before* it’s passed.
This may not be possible, of course, given the leadership’s increasing tendency to force members to vote on bills they haven’t had time to read, and after injecting last-second stuff that no one except a few staffers and lawmakers knows about.
The way to experiment with this is to take it down a level, to the state legislature. Pick a state that’s relatively uncorrupt and do roughly the same thing. The project will be more manageable, though you’ll probably find less, if much at all, of the material that turns into headlines.
Last fall, I proposed that major media organizations bring in the citizens for a project on the Katrina reconstruction. No takers, unfortunately, but I still think it was a good idea. (One organization is still thinking about doing this but hasn’t acted.)
I also, more recently, suggested that the Wall Street Journal expand its brilliant coverage of the stock-options scandal and do a thorough, citizen-driven database of how widely (or not) this sleaze has spread. Stay tuned on this one.
As to the question of whether it’s a good idea to tell your competition what you’re working on, this depends on what you want to accomplish and whether it matters if the thing is done in full view in the first place. Is the goal to do good journalism, to serve the public? Or is it a professional scoop? Wouldn’t someone “stealing” the idea be seen as a thief, if he/she used the material gathered under your wing without credit? And aren’t there many kinds of investigations where it’s just fine to let the targets know they’re being investigated?
I don’t expect Seymour Hersh to tell us ahead of time precisely what he’s working on. But many, many kinds of investigations are better done in the sunlight. Some — like the ones we’re talking about here, where there’s no way to do them without massive help from the community — should be done that way.