Talking back to the news with NewsTrust

Who doesn’t like to talk back to the news? That, in its essence, is the idea behind NewsTrust, a site I’ve been involved with almost from its inception in 2005. The basic idea is to rate news stories on journalistic criteria such as sourcing, fairness and depth. You can rate news organizations, and other reviewers get to rate you as well.

Last week Mike LaBonte, a volunteer editor for NewsTrust who lives in Greater Boston, visited my Reinventing the News class to lead a hands-on demonstration. Dividing the class into four groups, we reviewed a story in the Washington Post on a day in the life of an Iowa tea-party protester.

It was a difficult story to rate, and my students were of two minds. On the one hand, the story was woefully incomplete, and the reporter allowed the protester to make all kinds of ridiculous assertions about President Obama and health-care reform. On the other hand, the story had value if viewed not in isolation but, rather, as part of the Post’s ongoing coverage. As a result, student reviews ranged from a high of 3.5 (out of 5) all the way down to a 1.7.

We followed that up with a class assignment: each student was asked to find, post and rate at least three stories, and to write about the experience, as well as the positives and negatives of NewsTrust, on her or his blog. Here is our class wiki, which links to everything.

Unlike previous semesters, we did not participate in a news hunt on any particular topic. Thus you’ll find stories ranging from the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the pending retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to lighter fare such as why yoga appeals mainly to women.

Students have differing views about the value of NewsTrust as well. One positive aspect, it would seem, is that perusing NewsTrust restores some of the serendipity that existed back when everyone read a print newspaper every day.

Yet Mark DiSalvo observes that Google News and the people he follows on Twitter already put news stories in front of him that he might not otherwise know about, and with less technological hassle. “Google News has better customization tools, and the people I follow on Twitter are already people whose taste I trust,” he writes.

Hannah Martin writes that NewsTrust makes her think about the news in a more critical and discerning way. “What I liked about the reviewing experience was it forced me to really analyze my news on its journalistic value, which, as bad as it sounds, is often something that slips my mind,” she says. “I browse the headlines of nyt.com, read what looks important, and accept it as fact, rarely stopping to count sources or assess context. The process of reviewing though, forced me to think through all the elements of each piece, and consider what, as a journalist, should ultimately be there.”

My own view is that NewsTrust is potentially valuable as a crowdsourced front page — an alternative to letting the New York Times or the Washington Post tell us what the most important news of the day is. The problem is that the software is time-consuming and not particularly intuitive, even though it has been improved over the past year.

And though NewsTrust claimed more than 15,000 registered users by the end of 2009, most of the stories you’ll find seem to have been posted and rated by just a small handful of regulars. This is not surprising. Studies have shown that two much-bigger crowdsourced sites, Wikipedia and Digg, are the handiwork of small numbers of unusually active users.

I hope NewsTrust will continue to grow, because the idea is sound. The challenge is that crowdsourcing only works when there is a crowd.

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