Sarah Palin and her e-mails are just too darn irresistible. The day began with an announcement on The Fix that The Post was looking for 100 readers to work in teams to sift through the former Alaska governor’s 24,000 emails, scheduled to be released Friday in Juneau.
The move was clearly an effort at crowd sourcing, the technique of enlisting the help of readers who may know more than journalists do about Alaska and Palin to make sense of the e-mails. And it was an “interactivity play”to get as many readers as possible to be engaged with The Post, particularly online, in a potentially major story.
But then the reality of Palin-mania set in. First of all, it didn’t take long for 100 people to sign up, and far more were waiting in line. The Post was trying to screen volunteers for knowledge, ability and political bias, but quickly got overwhelmed by the volume.
And then the New York Times on its political blog, The Caucus, about two and a half hours later put out its own crowd-sourcing call, more open-ended, saying anyone could sign up and comment on or analyze a particular Palin e-mail.
So The Post changed course later in the afternoon. Interactivity Editor Hal Straus said in an interview that upon reflection and in light of the huge interest, The Post would make its crowd call more open.
The updated call-out went up around 6 p.m. with this language: “We’ll share your comments with our reporters and may use facts or related material you suggest to annotate the documents displayed on The Post site. We may contact you for further details, by way of your registered e-mail with the Post, unless you specify otherwise in the comments.”
Said Straus: “The idea of using a closed group is not what we want to do. We would have to say ‘no’ to people. We don’t want there to be any perception that we’re limiting users from telling us what is going on. There is so much interest in this.”
Originally, Straus said, The Post was going to put the 100 volunteers in groups of 10, with each member reading the same segment of Palin e-mails. That way, it wouldn’t be just one person’s view, but potentially 10. The Post had also developed a script to ask the volunteers what they thought of Palin, whether they worked or had worked for any political campaign of any party and whether they had special knowledge of Alaska or the former governor. The goal was to screen out bias and screen in expertise.
But that proved unworkable with the waterfall of interest. And The Post went to Plan B.
Meanwhile, readers crowded The Post’s online comment system, and the ombudsman’s e-mail inbox, with denunciations of The Post for “ganging up” on Palin, who they pointed out, is not a presidential candidate and hasn’t been a public official since summer 2009. Most writers said this was proof of The Post’s liberal bias; why not request e-mails of President Obama or of other Democrats and sift through those, many asked. Their language was colorful, too: The Post was soliciting “100 vigilantes” to “drill-baby-drill” and “dumpster dive” into Palin’s e-mails.
This was a typical reader comment: “Sickening. Trying to recruit 100 Palin haters from the general public to sift through Palin’s personal emails looking for dirt — to generate more anti-Palin stories? Wow. She’s not a politician or candidate of anything yet the left-wing media is obsessed with her for some reason. I’ll never spend a dime on anything The Washington Post puts out. This is not journalism; this is political partisanship at its ugliest. These tactics are never used to uncover dirt on the left, it is always attempted to find dirt on the right.”
The ombudsman will have more to say on this later.