The Questions Bureau

The Pitch

Hundreds of thousands of people are asking and answering fascinating questions on Quora, Ask Reddit and Ask MetaFilter. But complex, important questions sometimes languish without a satisfying answer. By dedicating journalists to these communities - giving them our full attention and access to our many journalistic resources - we’d accomplish two worthy goals: building an even more valuable community hub and generating a wellspring of fascinating story ideas for NPR. Because these story ideas would arise out of the community’s curiosity, they would come with a built-in audience, as well as a tremendous network to tap into for help with reporting.

What if you could ask NPR any question?

questions bureau wireframe
A design exploration of the Questions Bureau home page

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What's this all about?

The Questions Bureau is a submission in the first Knight News Challenge of 2012, which is a contest that "seeks projects that use the best of existing software and platforms ... to find new ways to convey news and information." If you like the idea, you can vote for it here. Also feel free to reblog it, tweet about it, and spread it around your networks.

How would it work?

Broadly, the Questions Bureau would involve two components: working with these question-and-answer communities to surface great questions that could benefit from reporting and tapping into many different resources - NPR's network of journalists, our users on NPR.org and elsewhere, our robust research library, primary sources, and the Q&A community itself - to find answers to those questions. Each answer produced by our journalists would likely appear both on the Q&A site where the question was posed and on NPR.org. And the most interesting answers might become segments in an NPR broadcast, helping to promote the endeavor and the commmunity.

Are Internet Q&A communities really a big deal?

On any given day, thousands of questions are posted to these sites, reflecting a vast range of needs and curiosities - heartfelt pleas for advice, philosophical questions, requests for dentist recommendations, and much, much more. And they've had real impact. In 2010, Ask MetaFilter intervened to prevent a pair of young women from being ensared into a sex trafficking operation. In 2011, a comment posted on Ask Reddit turned into a big-budget screenplay optioned by Warner Bros. Explore these communities for a while, and you'll find many more surprises like these.

How will you sustain this?

We’d pursue a diverse stream of both traditional revenue sources - including sponsorships and underwriting - and nontraditional ones, such as an annual book compiling the year’s best questions and answers. One unique feature of this project is that it is built around directly satisfying the expressed needs and interests of an existing community. If the community finds that valuable - as we suspect it will - we have many ideas in mind for spinning that value into support for the initiative.

How does this project differ from what exists?

The Wilmington, N.C., StarNews has hosted the site MyReporter.com for a few years. The way it worked was that users submitted questions directly to the newspaper and a reporter was assigned to answer them. When Daniel Victor was a reporter for the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News, he invited his online community to be his assignment editor, asking them to suggest and vote on stories. During the Great Wikipedia Blackout of 2012, NPR librarian JoElla Straley set up a Twitter account called NPRaltwiki, where users could send us questions to answer. In previous incarnations, Spot.us encouraged users to send tips, which could be questions they were interested in seeing reporting about.

There's plenty to learn from all of these efforts, but none has quite the same mission or structure. With the Questions Bureau, we intend to tap into existing communities, where folks are already asking and answering great questions, and aim dedicated journalists at those questions that could use some reporting. We think this could strengthen the communities themselves, make us a highly valued node in these communities, and result in terrific stories for on-air and online.

Help make this happen