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Crowdsourcing the news with Screendoor

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism recently published “A How-To Guide to Crowdsourcing,” featuring a case study of ProPublica’s groundbreaking strategies for targeted outreach. The report describes how the news organization uses Screendoor to solicit personal stories that become the foundation for many of its investigations.

In the process of collecting and analyzing thousands of personal contributions, unexpected stories emerge. This was the case with ProPublica’s Reliving Agent Orange investigation:

In the first 12 weeks, more than 2,900 people responded. “This is an extraordinary response,” [Charles] Ornstein said. “People want to share their stories. They’ve been waiting for this opportunity.”

Screendoor captured their stories in its highly searchable database. Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica’s community editor, began to solicit documents to verify dates of service, wrangle photos, and record audio stories. “I’m on the frontlines of the community coming in,” he said. By mid-September, the crowdsourcing helped generate an early story on a subset of stakeholders: the Blue Water Vets, who were being denied benefits because they sailed not in the brown waters of Vietnam’s inland waterways but in the blue waters of the seas off Vietnam, where they likely drank Agent Orange-polluted water.

Parris Jr. shared what his team has learned gathering stories from over 3,000 veterans and their relatives. One thing that became clear early on in this project? The benefit of staying in touch with contributors. Based on feedback from early participants, he began to improve the design of his form to collect more responses:

Well, we were able to email many of those people [who started the survey] to ask how we could help them complete the survey. Circling back brought in more than 100 new submissions and generated great feedback about the form. (Again, always be looping!) Based on that, we decided to move the email address field to the very top of the form so that we could follow up with anyone else who might have trouble.

We’re thrilled to see reporters and engagement editors uncover new narratives with Screendoor. If you’re a journalist or editor looking to collect personal stories for your next project, we’d love to help you get started.

Click here to learn more about crowdsourcing with Screendoor and sign up for free.

Kari Mah is a product manager at CityBase.

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