I’m about to tell you something that will shock you. Please sit down and grip anything firmly. Ready? This is what we discovered: a seasoned journalist with an extensive background in the New York Times and who charges hundreds of dollars per article can produce better work than freelancers who charge $0.1 to $14 per assignment.
Adam Penenberg, a well-known reporter, is the brains behind this “newsflash.” Here’s the scoop. Last year, microwork startup Serv.io reached out to Penenberg hoping for some free publicity (they got that right away). Instead of writing a standard blog post, Penenberg decided to put Serv.io’s microworkers to the test by “crowdsourcing the writing of a profile about the firm” with only “the Servio 120,000-member crowd.”
Crowd on crowd reporting
To get things moving, Penenberg prepared 20 questions for the Serv.io employees to study and respond to. The employees accepted the challenge and completed a 1000-word crowdsource corporate profile. The problem began when the project manager realized there would be no winner. As Penenberg emphasizes, the crowdsourced piece is seriously inadequate. It’s far too long, badly edited, and highly slanted towards Serv.io (scroll down to the part about CEO Alex Edelstein’s “Project Runway” good looks).
Adam Penenberg is an excellent writer who does a fantastic job of tearing apart the microworkers’ piece. But, what exactly is his argument? He clearly wanted the Serv.io staff to fail. It appears like a set-up to me. Few “real” journalists would be comfortable doing so (how many News Corps reporters are brave enough to criticize Rupert Murdoch?). The writers responded by demanding 20 yes/no answers to 20 questions in a 400-word essay – hardly surprising when you consider the limit.
According to the lawsuit, Penenberg is worried that online content generators are a major threat to journalism: an evil cyber army out to undermine hard-working hacks. But have a look at Serv.io’s website to see if they make any such claims. The firm never says it employs or competes against journalists. Instead, Serv.io provides a fairly typical mix of crowdsourcing services: SEO content, product descriptions for businesses, and proofreading. Is Adam Penenberg interested in those tasks? I doubt it.
It’s high time that journalists viewed crowdsourcing as a resource rather than an adversary. It’s important to note that crowdsourced material isn’t intended to compete with the New York Times. It’s a high-volume, low-cost writing strategy: a rapidly expanding firm with thousands of employees. Instead of making fun of microworkers, reporters should look into the true issues: employee salaries, spam requestors, and cutting-edge technologies. Instead of cheap gimmicks, how about innovative approaches that push the envelope and test the internet fairly? Both crowdsourcing and journalism are here to stay. Let’s not quarrel and get to the real issue.