Pioneer Press reporter: ‘My scheme to become a high-tech, online, public affairs bookie’

Who says traditional-media reporters aren’t innovative?

The Knight News Challenge is willing to throw up to $5 million at digital-journalism ideas, and insurgents like The Uptake regularly participate. So it was a little startling to read an application titled: “The Pioneer Press Prediction Project.”

Reporter Richard Chin’s awesome lede: “I need the Knight Foundation to stake my scheme to become a high-tech, online, public affairs bookie.”

This apparently doesn’t involve Chin accepting slips of papers from cash-carrying runners and hiding from authorities. His idea: “A newspaper-sponsored, prediction market to forecast news events in the state of Minnesota.”

For $400,000, Knight would fund the Pioneer Press’s version of the University of Iowa’s Electronic Markets. IEM lets participants bet on questions such as “who will control Congress?” (It’s a business school research project.)

Chin hopes the wisdom of crowds (or at least, the part of the crowd willing to stake a bet) can better forecast events than “expensive and increasingly difficult to conduct” polls. In recent years, a cash-pressed Pioneer Press has gotten out of the survey business. As Chin bluntly notes,

We’re number two in a two newspaper town, so we have to come up with innovative ideas to distinguish ourselves. … 

There are few if any news organizations that I know of using prediction markets to forecast local events. There certainly haven’t been any that will use it to predict the number of people who will jump through a hole chopped through the ice of Lake Minnetonka on New Year’s Day morning or asssess the likelihood that the St. Paul Ford assembly plant will really close or project the potential that tonight’s blizzard will result in road and school closings tomorrow morning. That’s one of the questions that I’d like to answer. Can a prediction market quantify highly local water cooler wisdom?

Unfortunately, Chin didn’t tell his bosses he was applying; editor Thom Fladung didn’t return an email, and Chin didn’t want to discuss the application unless it advanced in the competition. Right now, that seems unlikely: the PiPress Prediction Market currently rates just 2.3 stars out of five — though you can sign up to rate it.

In his application, Chin notes that Google, Hollywood and the Department of Defense use or have considered prediction markets. These examples involve a controlled pool of high-information participants; would a wide-open market involving regular folks add insight, or merely reinforce conventional wisdom?

Though markets could give minute-by-minute reflections of public sentiment, pollsters don’t think of themselves in the prediction game — thus the constant references to a “snapshot in time.”

By the way, I don’t want to ignore The Uptake’s Knight entry. Their $350,000 concept is called “IBreakNews,” a mobile app that involves standardized crowdsourcing and Foursquare-like badges so citizens can more easily report and interact with news organizations.

Right now, IBreakNews is faring better than Chin, with 3.2 stars, but neither is among the most-viewed or highest-rated. Then again, the most viewed application is the Knight News Automatic Vote-Rigger.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jon Austin on 12/13/2010 - 10:13 am.

    Incredibly cool idea. Interesting to see how such a project would work on a local level. Kudos to Mr. Chin with coming up with something new on the journalism/public policy boundary.

  2. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 12/13/2010 - 10:50 am.

    Serious question from ignorant reader: How does this differ from the weather-futures trading that sank Enron?

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