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Is journalism’s future in crowdsourcing?

Mark Glaser’s roundup of Top 10 Mediashifting stories of the year focuses on news about how media consumers are getting information in new ways, and from new sources. For some media junkies, 2008 was the year Twitter went mainstream, via reporting from the Mumbai attacks and live plane-crash tweets. For traditional journalists, the biggest story of the year has to be the speed with which the print newspaper industry is collapsing. In an earlier post, MediaShift’s Glaser looked at possible new models for funding the production and delivery of news, while a  Dec. 24 story by Douglas MacMillan in BusinessWeek examines one possible model — community funding. MacMillan explores two possible models for community funding: sponsoring stories and sponsoring reporters.

Each method has obvious flaws. Community funding will attract funders with an interest in stories that affect their daily lives — environmental and health stories seem like obvious candidates. But news investigations can be long, arduous undertakings:  They don’t always lead the reporter where he or she expects, and sometimes they turn into wild goose chases. Asking people to fund a project without a defined outcome seems a bit Web 1.0.

Sponsoring reporters has pitfalls as well. The most obvious one is that a reporter sponsored by the community may be answerable to the agendas of those individuals who are footing the bill. The larger issue is that a lone reporter without institutional cover and backup may find him or herself out in the cold when looking for sources. Newspapers are aggregators of credibility — and public figures ignore them at their peril. For all the talk about the super-empowerment of individuals who leverage new media, the fact is that many reporters who go it alone tend to fall off the map. Indeed, a more noticable media trend this year is the way commentators, minor celebrities and ex-politicians are joining online newspapers and blog networks to get heard amid the clutter of online information.

Crowdsourcing may be a workable model for indie rock or horror movies, but it works best when donors already have an idea of what they like and how they like it. Breaking the news is expensive, and the results are unpredictable.  This isn’t just a problem for out-of-work journalists — it’s an issue of sustainability for every blogger who uses a news peg as a touching-off point for a commentary or analysis.