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Nov. 14, 2008, 7:35 a.m.

Taking questions from the crowd: The Daily Kos model of journalism

This is what the future of journalism looks like. (Well, part of it, at least.)

Susan Gardner, an editor at Daily Kos — the liberal site that is equal parts news aggregator, activist hub, community builder, and advocacy journalism — was upset by recent reports that AIG was treating employees to lavish junkets while taxpayers were busy bailing them out. After she wrote a few posts on Daily Kos criticizing AIG, Peter Tulupman in AIG media relations noticed her and decided to respond:

Dear Susan: I hope this note finds you well. I know you and Daily Kos have been following AIG and I wanted to send you this note in case the news we issued a short time ago hasn’t already found its way to the vast readership of Daily Kos. Today, Edward M. Liddy, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of American International Group, issued the following statement.

[press release defending AIG against the allegations here]

I know your readers are following this story as it unfolds. We will continue to update you with more information in the days and weeks ahead. Thank you for allowing us to share this information with your readers.

Gardner posted the note, added some commentary of her own, and then wrote this:

Now given Mr. Tulupman’s apparent willingness to engage with Daily Kos readers, I’d like to suggest we ask him some questions in comments about AIG, the bailout and the company’s operating expenses.

She suggested four questions — each of them completely reasonable and journalistic, if asking for a bit more detail than AIG would be likely to provide. Then she added this:

I invite you, Daily Kos readers, to submit questions in comments which I will forward to Mr. Tulupman in the hopes that he has discovered the joys of interacting with the ordinary citizens who are now funding his paycheck. Be forewarned: I will not pass on swearing, hyperbolic blogging-from-the-basement-type questions.

Within a few hours, Daily Kos readers had left more than 300 comments. They were plenty that just expressed outrage at AIG’s alleged behavior; there were others that fulfilled old media’s stereotype of “crazy bloggers” ranting and raving. (“[C]an’t we burn at least PART of the management team at the stake?” asked one. I’d defend the place ranting and raving has in our democratic discourse, but that’s another post.)

There were also good, solid journalistic questions in the comments, albeit coming from a distinct political perspective. A few, from a user named Huntergeo:

Will cash alone allow AIG remove the liability of the incredibly leveraged instruments that got you into this awful mess, or will time and different general economic conditions be required to stabilize those instruments? Elaborate.

What actions can your company take to indicate that it is truly committed to transparency in this process?

Your professionals are probably best able to describe regulatory conditions that would prevent a repeat of this horror. Can AIG envision lobbying the government for regulations that would prevent this from happening again?

Gardner assembled some of the questions and sent them off to Tulupman. She got this response:

Susan: Given the volume of questions you submitted (there are about 50 in this note), and I believe that there are several hundred comments about this posting, would it be amenable for you, or the Daily Kos community as a whole, to select the ten questions that they would most like answered. By offering the community the opportunity to select the questions we will be able to remain fully transparent.

AIG is interested in starting a long-term conversation/relationship the Daily Kos readers, and that this will by no means be our last outreach.

Since Daily Kos doesn’t have an easy technological method for allowing this sort of selection of questions by the audience, Gardner is winnowing down the list of questions to 10 herself. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, soon enough, Daily Kos created some method to crowdsource the ranking — it’s not a particularly challenging tech puzzle.

Is this a perfect system? No. Would I want to live in a world where this was the only way news was generated? No. But this sort of interaction is going to be a growing part of the media ecosystem in the very near future. What lessons can we draw from it? Here are three:

Smart businesses are willing to engage with their audience in new ways.

Knowing they’re in a public-relations crisis, AIG was willing to go beyond their normal means of communicating with the public (press releases, traditional media) and find a new way to interact with the people whose opinions they care about. Whatever their actual motivations, AIG now looks to a disproportionately influential group of people to be interested in a conversation.

It’s the Cluetrain Manifesto: Markets are conversations. You have to talk to people, and appear human while doing it. However this story ends up, AIG will have done itself good by reaching out to Daily Kos readers; you can already see it in the comments on Gardner’s posts.

Are traditional news organizations adapting their communications style as well as AIG is? Or are they still lecturing their readers and fetishizing the distance they keep from them?

Where there’s an audience gathered, people in positions of power will talk to them.

Daily Kos gets about 1.6 million visitors a day. It topped 80 million pageviews in each of the past two months. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that by having this exchange on the front page of Daily Kos, AIG is reaching more individual readers than an interview with a New York Times reporter would have.

One of the longstanding concerns journalists have for the industry’s future is the idea that only professional journalists can get the kind of access to power (governments, corporations) that you need to do good work. And there’s some truth to that, in terms of both logistics and philosophy.

But as the crowds around web sites grow, smart people in power will realize the penalties for disengaging from the public can be severe — no matter whether it’s a daily newspaper or a blog that’s being pushed away. There are new institutions willing to serve the middleman role journalists always have.

The crowd can, under the right circumstances, do good journalism.

AIG hasn’t yet responded to whatever questions end up being asked. They may just respond with useless boilerplate. But AIG could do the same to a traditional journalist asking questions. And I suspect, if anything, AIG might be more forthcoming on some points with Daily Kos readers than it would be with a reporter. If AIG blows smoke back at Daily Kos readers, they’re going to complain, cause trouble, and quite possibly organize in some fashion. If AIG blows smoke back at a reporter, in a lot of cases, he’ll shrug his shoulders and just move ahead with their answers.

The tools for collective questioning aren’t perfect yet, and they probably never will be. But in at least some cases, the questions from the crowd can be at least as good as the questions from the newsroom.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Nov. 14, 2008, 7:35 a.m.
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