Assignment Zero Has Birthing Pains with 800 Volunteers

    by Jay Rosen
    March 30, 2007

    Mark Glaser is traveling this week, but we’re happy to have Jay Rosen of PressThink filling in. He is the founder of the NewAssignment.Net experiment in pro-am journalism. Glaser will return to the blog next Monday.


    Jay Rosen

    Especially after David Carr’s column about Assignment Zero in the New York Times, people have been asking me how my new venture is going. Alright, I’ll tell you.


    “We’re trying to figure something out here,” I wrote on Wired.com. “Can large groups of widely scattered people, working together voluntarily on the Net, report on something happening in their world right now, and by dividing the work wisely tell the story more completely, while hitting high standards in truth, accuracy and free expression?”

    User-generated content (the industry’s term) is considered plentiful and cheap and has some gems; but it’s not high quality, not reliable. Assignment Zero is “user-generated,” but the raw stuff is filtered, by users acting as editors and editors working with users.

    The method we are live testing with Assignment Zero is also called “distributed” reporting. Duties are spread around because that is the condition in which the story itself lies: it’s distributed around a big social space. Why would hundreds of people collaborate on a single story? Because they want to see it told well and because they want to take part— participate in the production of a public good.


    Crowdsourcing the Crowdsourcing Story

    We decided to start with a giant trend story that lends itself well to this treatment. Wired and NewAssignment.Net would ask amateurs to collaborate with a few pros and investigate the whole emerging practice of crowdsourcing, collaboration and “peer production” online, which appeared to be taking hold in many places outside journalism. Assignment Zero is actually a part of this larger development (a dipsey-doodle that turns some people off).

    The open source movement began in software development, with geeks. But it has spread beyond them behind fundamentals not tied to software but built into the Web itself: the falling costs for widely-scattered people interested in the same stuff to meet up, share information, pool their knowledge and collaborate on a project, which could be a new web browser, distributed free (Firefox from Mozilla), a free online encyclopedia (Wikipedia), tee-shirt designs that get sold for money (threadless.com) or an investigation into a suspect sewer utility (Cape Utilities — help us investigate!).

    This a reasonably big trend, the precise significance of which is unclear. It’s an important development to Wired, which tracks and interprets such things, and to NewAssignment.Net, which is counting on those falling costs in this and future projects. Many people are needed to check the story out, because there are so many cases popping up in so many different sectors: science, technology, business, art and culture, government — and internationally.

    We launched Assignment Zero on March 13, and invited Wired.com readers and web users generally to join up if they wanted to participate.

    Riding the Large Wave of Helpers

    For this progress report, I asked the people who are working with me about different parts of the project.

    Amanda Michel, director of participation, reports that over 800 people have joined Assignment Zero. That’s more than three times what I expected. It means that much of what we are doing now is grappling with this unexpectedly large wave of interest. (Ten days ago we had 450.)

    She estimates that about 70 percent have uploaded photos or images we can use to identify them at the site. About 40 percent use real names; others have adjectives in front of their names or pseudonyms. Between 10 and 20 percent have filled out the entire profile, listing special interests and skills they have — a sign of seriousness, though not the only one. About one in seven participants posts a specific location. One-tenth of the participants live outside the U.S., with Japan, Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, and India the biggest contributors. About one-seventh of our initial wave of joiners identify themseves as journalists.

    Steve Fox, editor-at-large, formerly with washingtonpost.com, is working with contributors who have raised a hand and asked for reporting assignments. “I’ve been called overly optimistic about our project by some of my partners in crime but that’s due in part because many of the contributors I’ve spoken with have shown a genuine interest in covering a story,” Fox said. “With only a couple of exceptions, we’ve found few contributors with hidden agendas and there seems to be a real camaraderie developing. No doubt there are some bumps, but contributors want to learn and take part in journalism. Probably the biggest stumbling block for many, including some on our editorial team, is the lack of structure for the project. We’re very much making this up as we go, but that’s part of the excitement.”

    Lauren Sandler, the editor of Assignment Zero, has been busy lining up a team of pros who have volunteered to help with the editing and oversight. “Where we’re at right now seems to be what’s known as the ‘fourth trimester’ — that phase after a baby has been born when it’s living out in the world, but is still very much a fetus,” she said.. “We have been finding editors, refining the site, and learning how to breathe on our own since we launched. I expect our full-on life to begin next week when we get editors up to speed and many of the contributors’ concerns answered.”

    Lauren expresses a common feeling among participants: lots of set-up, not enough journalism yet. They’re right, of course. It will be okay if the ratio shifts…soon.

    Enthusiasm Outstrips Abilities

    Jeff Howe, the writer that Wired.com assigned to this project, is writing a book on crowdsourcing. I asked him how our version compared. “Well, it’s the first crowdsourced project that I’ve participated in as opposed to observing empirically, so my perspective is a little skewed,” he said. “What I will say is that as in any typical open source software project, a community seems to have quickly formed on the basis of affinity, then just as rapidly subdivided along lines of, well, subaffinity if you will. (All of our contributors have an interest in journalism, or the future thereof; those particularly interested in politics and governance seem to have formed a cluster). Also like most crowdsourcing projects I’ve convered, enthusiasm seems to be outstripping abilities.”

    That’s partly because there’s strong enthusiasm for what we are doing. But also the site as built doesn’t have all the “abilities” it should have. We’re scrambling to improve it and add a few critical features, including a key page I failed to realize was key. It’s the topic home page. (I explain more more here.) A weak link now, but we’re fixing it.

    When that is properly designed our contributors will be able to join a topic to work on it, find others who’ve joined, and find a rotating list of things to do that add value. They will also find page editors, volunteers who keep the page up-to-date and working right for the many contributors who might be adding on to, say, crowdsourced film. People can and should work independently of those editors, but also be able to reach them with a question. “Things to Do” that are right-sized and doable will be done if the set-up, payoff and contribution to the “big” story are clear.

    That’s a state of service we’re trying to get to. I cannot report passing grades yet.

    David Cohn, associate editor, is keeping track of what works and what doesn’t. I asked him if contributors were beginning to file reporting at the site.

    “The file-your-reporting feature is working,” he said. “It’s a space where anyone can put reporting, ideas, research that they’ve done on a particular assignment. Jeff Muckensturm went ahead and transcribed a radio interview with Cameron Sinclair as part of his reporting on Architecture for Humanity. But it doesn’t always have to be as involved as transcripts. Filed reporting can be as simple as posing questions for people who will be interviewed later. For example, a lot of people have suggested great questions to ask a Wikipedia Super Contributor.”

    The Reporters Notebook feature is in an elemental state, but we have the basic idea right. A place to file reporting so you know that: a) it was received right, and b) it’s available for others to consult, and link to as we build up our web of fact. David and I are listing this feature for early re-design, now that we have users to modify it for.

    A lot of our sytems are crude, and they need to be supple. Maybe that’s why Jeff Jarvis, who is rooting us on, warned, “I think they actually bit off a big bite for their first story, their Assignment Zero.” Trying to do a nuanced trend story with many dozens of parts might be an over-reach, he felt. “That“s not as easy an exercise in networked journalism as, say, comparing prices for drugs across the country.”

    Did I mention in-box overload and how it is necessary to recruit from volunteer participants the very people who can handle the work of having so many participants? That’s where we’re going next.

    I asked Tish Grier, deputy director of participation, what the pro-am chemistry was like. “The ams are very interested in learning how a piece of journalism develops vs., say, how an academic paper or thesis develops,” she said. “There are some big differences and some similarities (like documenting sources). The pros have some gaps in their understandings of life online. A few have asked some very pertinent questions — one I addressed was how to coax one contributor into communicating better. She had another contributor who was great at it, so I suggested introducing the two, so that they might help one another. This gets the two of them working together, and she’s part of the dialogue. Everyone’s involved, but there’s no top-down feeling. And it worked.”

    My own assessment: The biggest unknown—will we get participation?—has been answered. The ams and the pros have shown up. Now we have to make it crystal clear what they’re supposed to do, and easy for them to contribute, add value. If we can accomplish that, and reporting starts to flow in, that will create new problems we’ll have to solve (like verification.) And so it will go until we figure this thing out.

    I can’t tell if Assignment Zero is going to work yet. I’m worried that it won’t, intrigued that it might. In six months or a year I will probably be laughing at parts of the project that reflected my own naievete, or just the crude state of our knowledge. And I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the world someone will look in on Assignment Zero, decide we did it all wrong, and come up with a way better way.


    What do you think about Assignment Zero so far? Have you participated and what is your feedback? What other topics do you think NewAssignment.net should take on in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Tagged: assignment zero guests journalism

    4 responses to “Assignment Zero Has Birthing Pains with 800 Volunteers”

    1. Michael Ho says:

      I’m a fairly visible contributor in Assignment Zero (http://zero.newassignment.net/user/michael_ho).

      My standard answer to “will it work?” is that ultimately it’s a research project, an incubator in which all the chicks may die. David Cohn challenged this at an AZ meet-up and I’ve put a better spin on it now for public consumption, but I still start with my incubator-gone-awry analogy.

      And is it just my imagination, or was this story originally slugged “800 Participants! Lots of Problems::Assignment Zero Status Report”?

      The current slug of “Pro-Am Journalism Experiment::Assignment Zero Has Birthing Pains with 800 Volunteers” certainly is more stylebook-compliant (never start a sentence with a number, limit use of exclamation points) but it also has the faintest sniff of whitewash to it — the kind that sends a good journo reaching for the steno pad.

    2. Jay Rosen says:

      Mike: Mark as editor and lead author of the blog in question changed the headlines, added subheads, and asked me to add these paragraphs at the end:

      My own assessment: The biggest unknown–will we get participation?–has been answered. The ams and the pros have shown up….

      I can’t tell if Assignment Zero is going to work yet. I’m worried that it won’t, intrigued that it might….

      So the post was “finished” the next day.

      I think the two headlines say basically the same thing.

      My view is: this is Mark’s show; the post ought to conform to the requirements of his blog.

    3. Michael,
      Yes, I was the one who changed the headline, as I was on the road when Jay filed the blog post. I went back and forth on how to headline the post, and I can see why you would think I was trying to whitewash it.
      I don’t think that’s really the case. It’s way too early to say whether the chicks will really hatch, so that’s why I favored “birthing pains” over “problems.” I think it’s fairly typical for a project like this to have problems early on, but I wouldn’t want to sentence it to a still-born existence right from the start.

    4. Michael Ho says:

      Thank you, gentlemen — another excellent example of transparency at work. I know the project well and I know you wouldn’t have had the intention of a whitewash — just pointing out that this is exactly the sort of thing we’re trained to sniff around in. Oh, and that prepositions are words never to end sentences with. ;-)

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