Sarah Palin’s emails and a call for collaborative journalism

If you were committing an act of news on Friday, June 10, chances are every national news organization missed it.

Why? We all had boxes and boxes of printed emails of an ex-political official to go through. From the New York Times to Mother Jones/MSNBC/ProPublica, the Washington Post and my own employer – many national news sources spent enormous amounts of human capital to scan, upload, display, read, analyze and crowdsource Sarah Palin’s emails.

While I won’t delve into the newsworthiness of this effort (that’s a whole other Pandora’s box), I wonder why it had to take a village to carry it out. In the hours and hours everyone invested into this effort — what was missed?

Credit: RambergMediaImages

Credit: RambergMediaImages

Consider this… This information, in and of itself, was not exclusive. The FOIAed information was being released to all media that wanted it at the same time – so why did the media compete over the actual obtainment and presentation of the information?

Why couldn’t the nation’s largest news sources put aside their shared need to own information and just combine their efforts to quickly get these documents online in searchable form? Hey, stop laughing. I’m serious.

Think about it. When the documents dropped, one effort could have been taken to scan and text-translate these emails. There would have been one upload to a site like DocumentCloud, thus preventing the major backlog on that site Friday as we all tried uploading to the same place.

Instead of driving readers to several similar-but-different document displays, the heavy-hitters could have built a single site (off all our brand servers). This hypothetical .org could have an embeddable search functionality and open API that could be displayed on all news sites, from the Austin American Statesman to the Zanesville Times Recorder – and on several platforms.

It wouldn’t eliminate competition – it would just drive news organizations to compete smarter in a way that uses less resources. We could compete over crowdsourcing efforts, i.e. who built the best app on top of the API for readers to submit findings; who built the best contributor network; who had the best resources on the back end taking in the tips, etc.  We would also be competing on how quickly and intelligently we analyzed these found facts – and how we displayed them on our sites.

Think of the time that could have been saved had we split up the labor. Think of how much faster we coud have gotten to the actual journalism – and then moved on to the next story.

In an age where we’re all doing more with less, why can’t we come together over the simplest of agreements to aid the effort of newsgathering as a whole?  Why couldn’t it work?

Note: I’d be happy to start the beer summit for the top editors of news orgs to hash this out for future efforts. Seriously.

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  • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

    Thank you thank you THANK YOU for making this point. We need to think smarter.

  • http://www.spot.us digidave

    I was thinking the same thing. There is an irony that collaboration has become redundant. Here’s my Tweet: http://twitter.com/#!/Digidave/status/79265770730823680

  • http://twitter.com/jenmacmillan jenmacmillan

    Great point, Mandy. It’s one of those things where newsroom culture (the idea of “our people” getting the story) is a bigger obstacle than the technology. And I know it’s often in the interest of government to make FOIAed documents as difficult to sort as possible. But IMAGINE if governments actually wanted to be transparent and accessible and made digital versions of docs available publicly.

    Now I’m really dreaming.

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