Crowdsourcing Palin's Email Yields Many Lessons, Few Scoops
Journalists returning from Juneau ask, "Was it worth it?"
Journalists returning from Juneau hadn't even recovered from their jetlag before a slew of "Was it worth it?" reports about the Palin email circus started hitting the web. On Friday news organizations stationed folks in Alaska armed with scanners, coffee money and liveblogging software in a race we cataloged in detail. "We had a pair of scanners going continuous for 14 hours," said Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times. "Or was it 15 or 16? I'm sure it all melded together for poor Jeremy." (That would be Jeremy Ashkenas, the reporter who ran the scanners from Juneau.)
The first in the hunt for Palin's emails was a coalition of news organizations that included Mother Jones, msnbc.com and ProPublica--we'll call them the Coalition of the Self-Fulfilling since they were the first to request the documents in 2008. When Sarah Palin emerged as a candidate in the presidential race, Mother Jones's David Corn and msnbc.com's Bill Dedman requested Palin's entire stock of public emails while in office. In the 997 days while their request for the public documents was pending, other organizations followed suit, including The Times.
It dawned on many that any victory to discover any news nugget would last for about three minutes before another outlet picked up their scoop. So a different kind of race was born. "Despite the competitive sense of journalism in which people are vying with each other to get the scoop, we had an instance here to recognize that there was enough scoopish material to get around," said Corn. "The first to get the documents up and make it accessible to the public, that was a scoop of a different kind."
According to Dedman's estimates, the Coalition of the Self-Fulfilling did in fact beat the other news organizations in posting the entire archive. "We were able to do that in 12 hours," he wrote in an email. In addition to the six staffers at Crivella West, a research company that worked with the Coalition to help with the scanning (and whose Twitter was hacked by apparent Palin supporters as a result), msnbc.com sent along two staffers (Dedman and Sylvia Wood) and Mother Jones sent one (Adam Weinstein). Rather than relying on readers across the country to send them scoops, Dedman's team in Juneau recruited locals who would have a better understanding of the people and places mentioned in the emails. As the emails hit msnbc.com's servers, David Corn and eight others scoured the emails in Washington and knew that the years of planning would be an operational advantage in order to "win the afternoon."
As a point of contrast, Pilhofer and his team at The Times built a dashboard and workflow in about one day. Their tools enabled readers to browse the documents and submit annotations for reporters to review and publish if useful. Working from Juneau, Ashkenoff scanned the emails and uploaded them to DocumentCloud, an open-source hosting platform created by Pilhofer and ProPublica's Eric Umansky and Scott Klein. Because other news organizations like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times uploaded identical documents onto the servers, Pilhofer says there were unnecessary redundancies in the scanning process that may have slowed the reporting down. Furthermore, readers did not find many scoops. Out of an estimated 2,800 annotations submitted by readers, The Times ended up publishing only eight.
"There was some good stuff," Pilhofer said. "But it wasn't exactly revelatory; like all of these experiments it really depends on what's in there … I think in the future we'd like to be a little more systematic and provide a better interface for readers."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the cache of emails produced little hard news. As Dedman was careful to note, the final release included only half of Palin's total emails while in office. And as ProPublica's Eric Umansky noted, "The state of Alaska was redacting a lot of information."
Even if there were not bombshells, the experience may have provided a template for future efforts. "The 13,000 Sarah Palin e-mails released Friday provided little new insight about her time as Alaska’s governor," wrote Sandhya Somashekhar at The Washington Post. "But the frantic effort to obtain the messages, dissect them and post them online served as a watershed moment for the news media, whose zealous approach will no doubt be replicated on future stories."
Umansky did not necessarily agree with the "watershed moment" terminology, arguing nobody's found the right formula yet. "We've tried to be aggressive about that stuff, and I'll say quite honestly it's not easy," he told The Atlantic Wire. "It sounds great in principle… but to get readers who frankly have the interest and the knowledge base to really kind of become partners in it, takes a lot of work."