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Maine | Tech and Journalism | Thursday, July 22nd, 2010, 10:41 am

Newspapers need more Lawrences

Lawrence Whittemore | Flickr
This photo, posted to Lawrence Whittemore's Flickr account, supplemented the Bangor Daily News's coverage of an accident at a downtown comic shop.

Just after 9 a.m. Thursday, the Bangor Daily News posted this story, a breaker about someone backing a car into the a comic shop in downtown Bangor, destroying the shop’s street-facing facade in the process.

The BDN had up one photo, and a brief on the accident. A commenter, Lawrence Whittemore, left this nugget:

“Photos of the accident can be found here. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawrence_evil/sets…

The link brings you to Whittemore’s Flickr album, “Downtown Excitement!” In it, you can find dozens of photos taken at the scene of the accident, presumably snapped by Whittemore himself. You can see the blue sedan parked in the space where the Top Shelf comic shop’s wall should be. You can see a youthful, lone Bangor Police officer looking mildly confused. Later in the series, the viewer sees  a tow truck show up to pull the car out of the storefront.

At the time of this writing, the BDN hadn’t even updated to story to include the fact that the car had been towed. Anyone who has worked in the newspaper industry won’t find this odd. Chances are the reporter was still on the scene, talking to people on the ground, interviewing the shop owner and trying to piece together how the accident happened — not to mention constantly contemplating the best way she could tell the story in a compelling way for print readers in tomorrow’s paper. Reporters have a lot on their minds.

Savvy media outlets seek out the reader contributions and call it “crowdsourcing.” But in this case, no one asked Whittemore to take the photos and share them with the world. He just did it. I found Whittemore on Facebook and asked him to call me. He did.

“Someone I work with saw it, and said I should go take some pictures,” Whittemore said. “I noticed that no other photographer had shown up besides people with their phones. I figured I’d share them and that the best way would be to let  the BDN know I had them.”

This is the best possible response a newspaper can hope for in a time when many print news organizations are still trying to find their feet in the digital world. Commenters like Whittemore might be the best thing that can happen to a breaking story. Their contributions allow the reporter to do their job without the pressure of filing 30-second soundbite style updates to satisfy the Web’s appetite for News Now. As older media consumers (the lion’s share of newspaper readers are decidedly not young) plug in and discover the sheer magnitude of opportunities to share that every 16-year-old already knows about, we might see more voluntary additions to news from Joe-Sixpack-newspaper-readers.

Soon, there is an urge to share. Whittemore said he felt it: “I just thought I’d share,” he said. “I wanted someone to see my photos.”

Hopefully, that will be one of the most long-lasting side-effects of Web 2.0 and its influence on the plugged-in; the desire to share. This desire could make the effort needed to crowd-source unnecessary. People will just do it. Its more important in news media than anywhere else.

Now here’s the real question I pose to you, the reader: How should newspapers, or any other online news organization, create an environment where readers feel the urge to share with them as strongly as they feel the urge to share with Facebook, Twitter, etc.? I don’t mean simply sharing the news content with your friends a la Times People or Huffington Post Social, but sharing content produced by the reader as it relates to stories?

UPDATE: By the time I’d finished this piece, the BDN’s story had been updated. It didn’t include any more text. Just three more courtesy photos from people who whipped out their cameras to take pictures of the action from high above on the other side of the street. Awesome.

UPDATE II: Whittemore’s photos have been added to the updated BDN story. And another commenter left this pretty well-made YouTube video. I’d like to think this post had something to do with it. Of course, it was probably just our own William P. Davis being awesome.

Mario Carmine Moretto is editor of Politicator and a founding editor of the Observer.

2 Responses to “Newspapers need more Lawrences”

  1. A third update, The BDN also picked up one of my photos for the paper. It made the front of the “State” section.

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