WECAN Harnesses Wisdom of Crowds for Newspaper

    by Mark Tapscott
    October 4, 2006

    Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Mark Tapscott filling in as a guest blogger. Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, proprietor of Tapscott’s Copy Desk blog and the Distinguished Journalism Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Glaser will return here next Monday, Oct. 9.

    One of the biggest reasons I can’t wait to get to the newsroom most mornings is the WECAN project —- the Washington Examiner Community Action Network. This project is barely in its infancy but is worth watching because it combines elements of citizen media and open-source journalism, with a semi-traditional daily newspaper.

    The heart of WECAN is seen in a little book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” by New Yorker business writer James Surowiecki who focuses on a key principle underlying the immense power of the Internet: No one of us is as smart, experienced or skillful as all of us together. The Internet lets us focus collective talent and knowledge on a particular problem simultaneously.


    Here’s how a recent Examiner editorial announcing the posting of two new databases, employee compensation for Washington’s Metro system and the City of Alexandria, explained WECAN:

    “By putting databases and other resources on the Internet, WECAN makes it possible to focus hundreds or even thousands of pairs of eyes and brains on key government activities or services. Compensation of public employees is of fundamental importance to the accountability process, but it is only part of it. WECAN will also be posting databases and other resources having to do with budgets, expense accounts, audits, tax rolls, health and safety inspections and much else — all with the idea of partnering with you, our readers, in doing analyses independent of official spin.”

    Put otherwise, WECAN illustrates how the Internet encourages an innovative partnering of media with the region’s residents and civic groups in expanding the resources available for independent analyses of local and regional public services.


    Despite just being launched, already a WECAN posting of the Montgomery County Public Schools employee compensation database has resulted in promising leads unearthed by readers concerning a top-heavy education bureaucracy consuming resources that could be going to improve classroom instruction and about the maddening persistence of the achievement gap between white and Asian students on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other despite official pronouncements to the contrary.

    We’ve also received a number of eager responses by civic activists who see the potential of WECAN to help them invigorate citizen participation and knowledge about important local issues like transportation, growth management, education, crime and taxation.

    Besides posting databases and other useful resources to encourage independent, community-based analyses, WECAN will also feature continuous updates on official responses to information requests by the newspaper and by its readers, notices of particular skill sets needed by WECAN audit teams that are being formed and status reports on official efforts to remedy problems highlighted by WECAN analyses.

    I’m enough of an optimist to believe that out of all that might just come a powerful force for greater transparency and accountability in local affairs, something Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds might view as a platoon in An Army of Davids. The same principle could be applied at the state and federal levels, too.

    Additionally, WECAN illustrates the truth of the maxim grassroots journalism guru Dan Gillmor first promulgated — our readers know more than we journalists do about the beats and topics we cover. A smart newspaper will see the value of harnessing multiple “stringers” for the news-gathering process.

    One other thought here: Finding a way to make a newspaper a partner with civic groups throughout the community can’t help but be a good marketing tool. Of course, I’m just a reporter, so what do I know about marketing, right?

    Call me an ink-stained wretch or a hopeless policy wonk with a techno-geeky obsession, but if the possibilities of such a partnering of traditional media and Internet-age citizens doesn’t get your journalism juices flowing, I suggest a visit to your cardiologist.

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