Is crowd-sourcing edging into mainstream journalism — or is it just an online survey?

How far did asking readers for their input help Jay Rayner with his Observer article on genetically modified foods, published last Sunday? He found it a mixed bag — and a lot more work, he says.

It involved digesting hundreds of emails and online comments, says Rayner, including 159 comments on the original request online — but:

In the end, although I didn’t set out to do it this way, almost every single research paper I consulted came via our call to arms, as did three of the four main interviewees (two from each side).

My impression is that this kind of crowd-sourcing has been edging more into mainstream journalism — but often in a different way from Rayner’s “exercise in open-source journalism” (as he calls it).

Take another current example: the BBC’s iPM asking for readers/listeners to flag up what element of their spending has been hit hardest by the ‘credit crunch’, which it’s plotting on a map. Similarly, the Times Online sought readers’ comments on its 2008 Budget Survey, plotting them on a Google mapAndy Dickinson helped out. This survey-style approach is automated, of course, and so can handle large numbers of responses — clearly essential when we’re talking about more than 22,000 responses, as with iPM.

There may be a trade-off. Go for as many responses as possible, with a narrow set of questions and possible responses (so it can be readily automated). A large response might make results more reliable and/or representative. But it’s still essentially a survey, even if it has the online equivalent of bells and whistles.

On the other hand, a Rayner-style invitation to contribute is more blog-like and open-ended — which means a human has to read and digest the responses. But a ‘click here’ survey wouldn’t get you research papers and interviewees.

In the end I suspect there’s a place for open-ended crowd-sourcing, surveys, and much in between. Including pointers that help to produce a scoop.

YouTube offers journalism fellowship for video journalists

An opportunity for aspiring video journalists:

In partnership with the Pulitzer Center, YouTube presents Project: Report, a journalism contest (made possible by Sony VAIO & Intel) intended for non-professional, aspiring journalists to tell stories that might not otherwise be told.

In each of the three rounds, reporters will be given an assignment to complete. Winners of each round will receive technology prizes from Sony VAIO & Intel, and the grand prize winner will be granted a $10,000 journalism fellowship with the Pulitzer Center to report on a story abroad.

The assignment for the first round is to profile someone “in your community with a story you think the world should know about”. Max three minutes, deadline 5 October.

The contest home page includes a few resources, including video shooting and editing tips.