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News orgs seek help with Palin emails

Sarah Palin emailsLater today, a document dump will make public 24,000 emails from Sarah Palin’s brief tenure as Alaska governor. That’s a lot of material to read. Several news organizations are asking readers to help them “research” these emails (which basically means: find embarrassing things). Is this wise?

Think about this request from the point of view of a writer (or whatever you do for a living). Would you ask Joe and Jane Public for help doing your job? You’d risk looking desperate, incapable and lacking in expertise. Now think about it another way. If a hundred bloodthirsty Joe and Jane Publics are willing to do the most tedious part of your job for you, why not press them into service and share credit for the results? Here, the crowd will split up the time-consuming task of sorting through raw information, and professional journalists will still provide context, analysis and packaging. Crowdsourcing can work when there’s something in it for everyone.

The Washington Post initially asked for 100 volunteers to “work collaboratively in small teams” to help review the documents. The response was so overwhelming that the Post widened its request to include everybody.

Journalists at The New York Times frame their request this way:

“We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy e-mails, people and events that we may want to highlight. Interested users can fill out a simple form to describe the nature of the e-mail, and provide a name and e-mail address so we’ll know who should get the credit.”

AOL/Huffington Post has a simple e-mail form for readers to fill out if they want to have a crack at reviewing the Palin documents for that site.

Overall, this crowdsourcing approach will probably work, despite some predictable backlash. (One commenter on the Post says, “Rake your own muck. Disgusting that you call on readers to join in your festivities,” while another sarcastically asks for a $370/hour consulting fee.) The one big downside that I can see is a bias toward the bloodthirsty. A lot of people will happily dig through Sarah Palin’s laundry for free because her entire career has been a pathetic soap opera. But few people would volunteer to review documents from some dull, moderately competent governor who’s never in the news—but who might be more corrupt, and more worthy of our time and attention.

The process will be beside the point if the emails show anything revealing about Palin. That’s hardly a sure thing. By the end of the weekend we should all know if there’s anything juicy in these emails, or just some fun new Palinistic catch-phrases.

Image via Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Politics

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