The Calgary Herald is creating a giant digital rolodex with its new Be a Source program. We asked digital engagement editor Tom Babin to tell us about the new program that turns its readers into sources and how it can help journalists.

The Calgary Herald is creating a giant Rolodex for its newsroom with its new Be a Source program. We asked digital engagement editor Tom Babin to tell us about the new program (launched last week) that turns its readers into sources and how it can help journalists.



J-Source: As the Calgary Herald’s digital engagement editor, you just launched a new program called Be a Source. What gave you the idea to do this?

Tom Babin: We are always looking to bring new voices into the paper, both as sources and as contributors. The original idea came from David Blackwell, the Herald's Director of Online Content, who has been following the success of American Public Media's Public Insight Network, which now has something like 130,000 sources across the U.S. We thought we would try something similar in Calgary, albeit on a smaller scale. It's a bit of an experiment, but we've had great response so far.  Now that we've launched it, we’re wondering why didn't we think of it before.

J-Source: Poynter has called it ‘metacrowdsourcing’ – that is, crowdsourcing sources. Is this accurate? Give us a brief overview of how Be a Source is going to work for those who wish to participate.

TB: I'm don't know what 'metacrowdsourcing' means, but that makes it sound pretty cool. We're actually a bit surprised Be a Source has gotten attention in the industry because it's pretty simple. Basically, we're asking Calgarians who are knowledgeable in a certain area to tell us about themselves so that we can call on them when we need sources. Readers who feel they have something to offer just fill out a form giving us their name, contact info and an overview of what they are knowledgeable in. Then, when we're working on stories that fall into their area of expertise, we'll give them a call. It's like a big, confidential, newsroom-wide Rolodex. We're stressing that people who register don't need to have Ph.Ds. They can be experts in things as simple as life in their neighbourhood, their experience with the health-care system, as victims of crime, or living with a disease. Really, we're just looking for new perspectives on the news, so it’s a pretty broad cross-section of people.


J-Source: And what about for the journalists? How will this help journalists produce higher quality work? What types of stories do you anticipate this not working for?

TB: The database will be confidential, open only to journalists in the newsroom. Whenever journalists are in need of a source, they can just dig in there and search around for someone. We hope this will broaden our base of sources, bring new voices and perspectives to the news, and give us some new story ideas, all of which should improve our journalism. It won't work for every story — some stories require those high-profile sources our reporters already have on speed-dial — but already we've been surprised by how often it's helped.

J-Source: How will the Herald verify the expertise of the participants in the Be a Source program to ensure they are accurately representing themselves?

TB: We'll treat sources in Be a Source the same way we treat all sources — we'll check their backgrounds, talk to them, ask around about them, and make sure they are who they say they are the old-fashioned way. 

J-Source: Is this the beginning of a more collaborative approach to newsgathering for the Calgary Herald? What other ways do you plan on engaging readers?

I wouldn't say it's the beginning because we've been trying new ways of gathering news for a while, but we are consciously exploring new ways of improving our journalism by engaging readers. We had great contributions from readers on a recent data-driven initiative examining Calgary’s neighbourhoods called Project Calgary, and we’re going to build on that. We're trying to get to the point where the back-and-forth conversation with our readers is just another tool in the way we present the news. Hopefully, Be a Source will help get there.