The central myth of citizen journalism is, in Burt Herman’s words: “The idea in the past that the crowd will replace journalists entirely and we will only have citizens out there creating all this content.” But also in Herman’s words: “That idea has essentially been debunked… It really is about collaboration now.”

Herman is CEO of Storify. Its software, currently in closed beta test, allows anyone — including proper journalists — to pull in all the photos, videos, tweets and what have you that are posted online and turn them into coherent stories. Collaboratively. Okay, he’s got a product to flog. And speaking from San Francisco to yesterday’s Future of Crowdsourcing Summit, Herman was preaching to the choir. But that choir includes plenty of mainstream media players.

While Herman put a bullet in the head of citizen journalism — and God love him for it — he did see a place for crowdsourcing in journalism. Everywhere you can’t be.

“Here in the US, where we have an election, well obviously no news organisation can possibly deploy reporters to every single polling place in the entire United States,” he said. “But everyone can report what they see now with smartphones and Twitter, Flickr and YouTube, all these social networks that make it so easy to be part of the conversation.”

Herman’s comments echoed those of Todd Forest, director of “content and audience experience” for Ninemsn. “I use crowdsourcing where it complements or supplements what the effort is for our own content,” Forest said.

Forest uses crowdsourcing when he needs breadth and speed of coverage. “In this past year, of the ten biggest slideshows that we ran across our network, four of the top ten were event-based and generated by the crowd,” he said. They included coverage of the Victorian bushfires, floods, and the dust storms.

Crowdsourcing also delivers diversity of content for magazines like Cleo and Zoo Weekly. Reader-contributed material accounts for four or five pages in each edition. And viewer reaction has become a regular part of A Current Affair, summarised and fed back to presenter Tracy Grimshaw as the program airs. “It’s very different [from] the 60 Minutes model where like one week later, after the show has aired, we get the letters which are coming in, which is not really relevant.”

But crowdsourcing also represents a cultural challenge for traditional mainstream media organisations. “We’ve been running nearly 80 years, and our whole pretext has been based around our authority, that we are the experts and you come to us and interpret the story for you,” said ABC managing director Mark Scott.

Journalism is often “a group of people often based within a newsroom trying to work out what on earth is happening outside”. “Even with investigative journalism,” Scott said, “it’s all about trying to find the people who know — who were in the room or saw the documents or were part of a meeting, who understood the context.

“Journalists should really view this [crowdsourcing] as an extraordinary liberation, to make it easier and simpler to find the people to get to the nub of the story. I see tremendous opportunities, particularly in investigative journalism, to really be quite open and transparent around the stories that you are trying to uncover, the information that you are seeking, the insights that you are trying to gain.”

There have certainly been successful crowdsourced media projects. Try BBC London’s coverage of this week’s Tube strike, Al Jazeera’s War on Gaza project, or the ABC’s Storify-based coverage of the Melbourne Cup, the Afghanistan war debate and the zombie apocalypse. But what about a little further in the future?

As other discussions at the Summit pointed out, there’s a world of information workers out there willing to work for a fraction of Western wages.

“If you look at the average wage in the US and India, there’s 55-to-one arbitrage in labour between those two countries,” said Matt Barrie, CEO of Offer them a tenth of what you’d pay in Australia and you’re still giving them five times the money they’d get locally.

Only today, Nieman Journalism Lab reports on a new plug-in for Microsoft Word, bravely named Soylent after a certain movie, sends your text off to … somebody, somewhere cheap … who’ll proofread it, edit for length, or give it a batch treatment such as “change all words to past tense”.

Could the ABC, say, produce a photo gallery of a Brisbane storm more cheaply by having the grunt work done elsewhere? Or does this wipe out a whole swathe of the ABC’s activities entirely, because any journalist, anywhere, can compile the story and tag it for us to find?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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