Crowdsourcing, Paywalls, and the Future of News: Event Recap as part of the Innovation in the Digital Age Series

The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation hosted a panel discussion on January 7 titled “Crowdsourcing, Paywalls, and The Future of News.” Journalists, web developers, policy experts, students, and professors attended this fourth event of the Public Policy for Innovation in the Digital Age series which featured speakers from Slate and The New America Foundation, the Los Angeles Times, Allvoices, and the Southern California Public Radio (KPCC). Panelists discussed the policy issues that accompany an increase in informal news reporting, reactions to the use of paywalls, and social media’s impact on the changing landscape of news reporting.

Slate’s Future Tense Editor, Torie Bosch, described paywalls as a fine balance between finding new revenue streams and continuing to make content available for a majority of the news audience. Paywalls don’t always work, she explained, and news companies have to adapt different models. For example, in 2014 Slate will be rolling out a new membership plan with a small monthly fee that offers perks (such as ad-free podcasts) without eliminating the available content for other users.

Russ Stanton, Vice President of Content at KPCC, believes that in an ecosystem in which the news is no longer free, technology will keep people in the loop. Most people have access to Google, which with a quick search, demonstrates how to get around a paywall or offers an alternate source for an article.

“Information wants to be free — it doesn’t mean it should be, but it wants to be,” said Dean Schaffer, producer at Allvoices. He believes that the most critical information will inevitably reach wide audiences, which is a good thing for information sharing, and a problem for companies instituting paywalls. Los Angeles Times political writer James Rainey agrees. Access to content should not be a problem in the future. Rainey comments that even articles published behind the Times’ paywall get picked up from other sources and re-published.

The panelists also addressed the growing phenomenon of crowdsourcing news and discussed its benefits and drawbacks. Rainey described foreign correspondents’ often-limited access during violent events, and stressed the importance of social media for witnesses to provide on the ground reporting. But, he commented, news should not become solely dependent on eyewitness accounts.

Schaffer also talked about the need for professional oversight. He stated that there should be a differentiation between everyday people gathering information and data, and the creation of high quality content that requires skilled reporting and analyses. There should be an educational partnership between journalists and non-professional contributors to teach best practices, Schaffer said, to avoid reporting false information.

Additionally, as far more “common people” take on reporter roles, they take the same risks as professional journalists, but lack the same legal protections. Rainey described accounts of protest participants that film events claiming to be the press, but facing legal action, are unable to protect their footage and face serious consequences. The panelists agreed that this lack of legal protections has become a big issue, but were unable to conclude how this policy gap should be addressed.

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