Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Citizen news editors?

We've had it in mind for some time - they talk about citizen journalists but what about citizen news editors? The news feels instant these days but much of it takes time to prepare, especially if it's to have any depth and balance. A news editor's job involves selecting the stories worth working on .

Yesterday seemed the ideal chance to invite the e-world into our virtual newsroom - to help us to select the stories to write up.

There was a flurry of press releases during the morning, some for instant release, some with embargoes attached. There were all on different topics. Quite a few were government announcements - maybe we should just have planned a single story headed "government announcements". By mid-morning it was clear we were in a news fog and that choices would have to be made about the most significant news. What better solution than to ask potential readers?

We'd led in the early morning with some big stories on children getting the wrong drug doses, on maternity service problems and on a new meningitis vaccine - and also of course on Haiti. We were not behind with the news but we now found ourselves with many story proposals to sift.

So using the blog and using Twitter we rushed to implement the half-formed plan. The initial story-list had about 16 stories on it. We could not give details of embargoed stories but indicated the topics. What visitors did not know was that some topics included several possible stories - see today's big roll-up on pregnancy and diet.

We invited the world at large to be citizen news editors and help us to decide the most important stories, before we wrote them - even before we did any more work on them in some cases.

Here was how the day worked out, with regular updates on Twitter:

  • at 1pm we announced the poll and within minutes we'd added a 17th story to the story list;
  • several people retweeted the announcement (thanks for the RTs!);
  • by 3pm we reported there were enough votes for us to identify a couple of stories for extra work;
  • by 5pm we reported the exercise had prompted some people to send us extra material. We added one more topic on GP issues;
  • at 6pm we added two more topics on heart care and health-funding.
  • At midnight we closed and deleted the poll.
  • By 2am some of the selected stories we appearing on our newsfeeds.

The results? In fact, not a large number of votes after the initial flurry. Surprisingly a very small proportion of those who clicked through seem to have voted. I'd like to know if votes weren't being recorded and if there is a problem with the polling gadget on blogger.

Four topics came out level-pegging - medical training, alcohol policy, transplants and psychiatric drugs. We have written up the first three and they can be found on our news feeds. Given the nature of the news, we might not have done alcohol policy and transplants. But we have - and Britain's new alcohol policy is now today's lead item on Englemed and also at

The vote did not dictate everything we did

Why did visitors not vote? It would be interesting to know. There may have been too many topics and they may not have been specific enough.

An exercise which involved a smaller number of very specific stories might attract votes. It would also be a problem. One result would be to tip off our competitors about stories we are working on. It would also mean we could not highlight embargoed reports - and there were plenty of those. We're not ready for that yet.

Could this be done routinely? Probably not. But we'll certainly attempt it again sometime when circumstances seem right. Yesterday it was worth doing - it helped us to see through a great fog of news, much of it with potential and much of it half-formed.

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