Monday, October 29, 2007

Did Assignment Zero Fail? A Look Back, and Lessons Learned

Ambitions ran high when Wired joined forces in January with new media incubator to try a novel experiment in pro-am journalism.

Our goal: Have a crowd of volunteers write the definitive report on how crowds of volunteers are upending established businesses, from software to encyclopedias and beyond.

Citizen media initiatives are a hot topic in the media, and the new project, christened Assignment Zero, was widely reported. The New York Times gave it a lengthy, if skeptical, treatment. Would the crowd prove too tough to manage, the reporter asked?

Six months later, the jury is in, and the answer is mostly yes. Although Assignment Zero produced a strong body of work, consisting of seven original essays and some 80 Q&As, the real value of the exercise was discovery. We learned a lot about how crowds come together, and what's required to organize them well. But many of the lessons came too late to help Assignment Zero.

In the 12 weeks the project was open to the public, it suffered from haphazard planning, technological glitches and a general sense of confusion among participants. Crucial staff members were either forced out or resigned in mid-stream, and its ambitious goal — to produce "the most comprehensive knowledge base to date on the scope, limits and best practices of crowdsourcing" — had to be dramatically curtailed in order to yield some tangible results when Assignment Zero ended on June 5.

And yet for all this, it might best be considered a highly satisfying failure. It fell far short of the original aim of producing over 80 feature stories, but in over a dozen interviews conducted by phone and e-mail, contributors uniformly described a positive, “though frequently exasperating,” experience. But then, Assignment Zero was full of contradictions.

Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor who initiated the project, has written that only 28 percent of Assignment Zero worked. That’s a sobering assessment, but one that reflects the view expressed by other staffers and contributors. My own view is a little rosier: I found at least three-quarters of the Q&As to be equal to or exceeding the quality of thought and insight found in any national magazine. And if Assignment Zero failed to clear the especially high bar it set for itself, the fact it produced so large a body of work still speaks to the considerable potential of crowdsourced journalism.

“It’s like throwing a party. You program the iPod, mix the punch, dim the lights and at 8 o’clock people show up. And then who knows what is going to happen?”Lauren Sandler, Assignment Zero editor, to New York Times reporter David Carr

Rosen has been a champion of bringing non-professionals into the production of journalism for years. In 2006 Rosen began conceiving of a vast project that would entail a large number of both professional and amateur contributors. In November, Rosen flew to San Francisco to meet with Wired News editor Evan Hansen. Newly acquired by Conde Nast, the publisher of Wired magazine, was looking to experiment broadly and boldly.

So Hansen was looking for a platform to explore citizen journalism, and Rosen was looking for funds to create such a platform. The two decided on the rough scope of a project. It should be called, Rosen decided, Assignment Zero, a name indicative of the still-nascent character of citizen journalism. And the subject Rosen wanted to cover was the crowd itself — the ways in which communities were coming together to create great things. Having coined the word crowdsourcing in a Wired magazine article earlier that year, I was brought in as the Wired writer and representative assigned to the project.


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