Crowdsourcing? I don’t think so

Roberto Rocha’s “interactive series” on customer service has come to an end, a full two articles after it began, with a feature story in today’s Gazette. It quotes readers who have been screwed over by customer service, as well as a few industry experts.

The Gazette claims the series is a breakthrough an innovative, paradigm-breaking exercise in “participatory journalism” and “crowdsourcing”, because it asks for readers to provide their stories, and the reporter blogs about his interviews before writing his articles.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen no evidence of either participatory journalism or crowdsourcing here. Instead, my earlier criticisms seem perfectly justified. There’s nothing new here. Asking readers for their stories has been done since the dawn of time. In fact, columnist Jim Mennie has used the tactic successfully many times. And while blogging about interviews is a good idea, the first anyone saw of the finished product was when it appeared in the paper this morning. No drafts were published online to get the “crowdsourcers” to comment, correct, improve or update it.

The story comes with a navel-gazing meta-sidebar about how the series worked and how (real) participatory journalism can change the way businesses operate. There’s also a version published on Roberto’s blog. The two contain an important difference: The blog version talks about where the series failed and what areas need improvement. One was unavoidable: Roberto left for a week to cover the Governor-General’s visit to Brazil. The other is a problem with the Gazette in general: It wasn’t publicized enough and too few people got involved (more on that below). A conspiracy theorist might question why these important paragraphs were removed from the paper version, but I’m sure it was just edited out for space.

The story is also supplemented with an online video (like all CanWest videos, there’s no built-in way to easily link to them, so I have to use my computer-science skillz to hack a link together). The video is another example of newspapers misunderstanding the Internet. It’s nothing more than a talking head (Roberto) supplemented with B-roll of him walking down a hallway and using his computer. There’s nothing here (besides knowing what Roberto’s voice sounds like) that needs video and couldn’t be simply read in text form.

Roberto’s claim that the project wasn’t publicized enough was, I think, misguided. Sure, there was only the single article written about it, but it’s been hyped on the website and on Page A2 of the paper almost every day since. The problem is with the Gazette’s website in general.

  • I put the Gazette’s homepage through an analyzer. It contains an astonishing 188 objects, including 171 images and 8 CSS files, accounting for about 690KB. With the Flash-based ads now popular, it’s gotten to be such a memory hog that I have to be careful how many web pages I have open at (To contrast, this blog’s homepage has only four objects totalling 140KB, and most of that is one complex image I used to illustrate a post.)
  • Besides being a pain for the browser, the page is also far too busy visually. To see the top story in the paper that morning (which, one would think, would be a common activity for people going to a newspaper’s website) requires hitting PageDown three times (meaning it’s on the fourth page down) on my 1024×768 screen. This isn’t just the Gazette’s problem. It’s a rampant issue across media websites who think people would rather spend 20 minutes reading everything on a “portal” homepage to maybe find what they want instead of clicking on category links to refine their search.
  • The blog’s homepage is at Nobody actually types that into their address bar. Individual post URLs are too long to even fit on my screen. Compare that with the Gazette’s crazy-successful Habs Inside/Out blog at A banner ad, small Gazette logo and a few links at the top. The rest is simple, unbusy and uncomplicated, and doesn’t include links to every single other CanWest property at the bottom.
  • The blog itself has layout issues. Paragraph spacing is inconsistent, the text is in a sans-serif font instead of the easier-to-read serif you see here, text (and especially meta-text) is too small to read (some parts — including the link to post comments — go as low as 8pt!)

As for my opinion on the state of customer service, I think it’s horrible, and it’s not going to get better. Roberto and the companies talk a great talk about how they’ve “owned up” to the problems and are “correcting” their mistakes. But talk is cheap. It costs nothing to apologize.

The reality is that large companies couldn’t care less about you. If you have an unusual situation that requires more than a few minutes of their time, you’re costing them money. The old threats of “I’ll never do business with you again” and “I’ll go to the press” are meaningless now. They don’t care if a few bad apples (who would otherwise bother their expensive customer service centres) end their service and go to a competitor. There’s plenty of other fish in the sea. And going to the media, which is a horrible nightmare for small businesses, doesn’t bother the big companies because they know their competitors have reputations that are just as bad.

Besides, nobody checks out customer service before signing up. They check prices. That’s why the small fries, who have great customer service but slightly higher prices, soon find themselves going out of business.

From a strict cost-benefit analysis, it’s better to provide crappy customer service (but have your PR guys talk about how you’re improving to the media) and lower prices than to raise prices and have qualified, local people answer the phone.

And that’s not going to change until more people start demanding better.

7 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing? I don’t think so

  1. Roberto Rocha

    Oh Steve. You honour us with all the attention you give us.

    But if I may rectify a few points you made: at no point did the Gazette claim this was a “breakthrough” or a “revolution” in participatory journalism as you ascribed. The exact words we used, I believe, were “exercise” and “our shot at.” We don’t pretend to rival devoted projects to outsourced reporting like, because we simply don’t have the time, staff or resources to oversee something so demanding.

    Rather, this was a new way of conducting an investigation, by publishing every bit of research on a blog and letting readers and other interesting parties participate in it.

    As much as members of the “new media” love taking potshots at the cluelessness of traditional media, there is just as strong a lack of understanding on the other side. “Hey, those newspaper people aren’t doing exactly what we’re doing! They’re so silly!”

    Web people know what good web work is. Of course they’ll be critical of us. But understand that our print readers aren’t (for the most part) bloggers, nor do they spend their days reading them. That is why, my dear curmudgeon, we have received several congratulatory emails for this series from our readers.

    Readers usually write in when they’re mad at us. I think that says something.

  2. Fagstein Post author

    Once again, don’t get me wrong. I like the series. I think it’s a good idea and should continue. There’s been a serious lack of consumer rights reporting in the recent past and the problem is just getting worse as corporations get bigger and start caring less about the one little guy. Don’t mistake my inside-politics criticism of its hype for a general denouncement of the series.

    It is indeed a step forward, and I’d like to see it go a few steps further.

    As far as the shortcut to the blog mentioned above, that’s great if people know about it. It’s a redirect, which means it gets replaced by the longer URL as soon as it gets entered.

  3. zara

    I put the Gazetteā€™s homepage through a couple of analysers too. 586 HTML validation errors, and numerous accessibility errors (varies depending on which tool you use but suffice it to say, it is far from a shining example of user-friendliness for people with disabilities).

  4. Fagstein Post author

    Many media websites aren’t shining examples of user-friendliness for people without disabilities.

    I just checked by the way: I had 6 XHTML validation errors, all of which are now fixed. I’m valid!

  5. Pingback: Fagstein » Editorialist, criticize thyself

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