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Crowdsourcing Watergate After the Death of Newspapers

March 4th, 2009

In a past post, I asked “Can you crowdsource Watergate?” Well, Yochai Benkler lays out the case in this provocative commentary that crowdsoucing can indeed speak truth to power. I agree with him on several points: newspapers are in rapid decline; non-profits, remaining newspapers and new players like bloggers can help fill the gap somewhat; that the NYT’s credibility was used by the Bush administration to bolster its Iraq war claims rather than used to speak truth to power by the Bush administration.

However, I think that Benkler is not entirely correct. These forces will surely mitigate the decline of newspapers, but something real will be lost. These new players, like the blogs, are increasingly fragmented. With the decline of newspapers, I think it will be harder to make related advocacy groups struggle with areas of conflict.

Here is a personal example of mine. We created a GOTV campaign in 2000 called “RegisterToVoteOrNot.com.” The NYT covered our campaign–on page A1. (As a side note, think about the relative prominence of an above-the-fold NYT article versus a story on the homepage of NYTimes.com.) The spin? “As Public Records Go Online, Some Say They’re Too Public.” Whereas we were advocating civic participation, they forced us to address privacy concerns. In a world where privacy advocates have their own blogs and newsletters and civic participation advocates have a different set of media, it would have been hard to come to the reasonable compromise that we ended up with.

And of course, there are many such conflicts including ones of much greater import than ours. I think that these tussles are of central importance to a functioning democracy, and they may be diminished as newspapers decline.

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