More and more print journalists are posting their email addresses in the work they publish. They are acknowledging their role in a broadening, emergent media ecosystem, recognizing that news is becoming a conversation instead of a lecture. (Broadcast reporters, for the most part, aren’t nearly so willing to join conversations; their loss.)
Mainstream journalists are congenitally thin-skinned; insecurity seems almost a precondition to employment in traditional newsrooms. This has always been a notable irony, given that the journalism business routinely shoots people off their pedestals, often after helping install them there in the first place. So when you contact a journalist, you’re likely to get him or her to listen if you’re polite; attack mode is almost always the wrong approach.
The best journalists do want to listen, and sometimes they even want your help. In Ft. Myers, Florida, the local newspaper asked its readers for help on a local story involving the water and sewer system. The readers responded, and the newspaper was able to do much better journalism as a result.
Joshua Micah Marshall, creator of the Talking Points Memo collection of political and policy blogs, has done much of the best work in this arena. He regularly asks his readers for help poring through documents or asking questions of public officials. (In a later chapter I’ll describe how journalists could do this as a matter of routine, and the kinds of results we might get.)
The ProPublica.org investigative site, meanwhile, has asked its users to add their expertise in a variety of ways. Its 2009 “Stimulus Spot Check”—a deeper look at whether and how states were using road and bridge construction money from the federal economic stimulus package enacted earlier in the year—was assisted by dozens of volunteers from the site’s ProPublica Reporting Network. The professional journalists obtained a random sample of the approved projects and asked the volunteers to help assess what had happened.
If you live in a community with particularly smart media organizations, you may be able to join them in a more formal way. American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, best known for its work in Minnesota and the upper Midwest, has signed up some 70,000 people who’ve agreed to be sounding boards and sources for the journalism created by professionals (and ultimately, one hopes, the citizens themselves).