Reinventing journalism

Have you ever dreamed of:

  1. Learning to blog?
  2. Writing for magazines?
  3. Serving as a lab rat in a Web-based experiment in open source journalism?
  4. Attempting to create in collaboration with people you don’t know?
  5. Filling two idle weeks looming on the calendar with no freelance projects scheduled?
  6. Losing five pounds without dieting?

Did these six thoughts occur to you simultaneously, converging as you drank your breakfast latte, read the New York Times on your laptop, and noticed a compelling description of the open source revolution taking place in journalism: an article by David Carr titled “All the world’s a story”? Did it happen in the month of March, in Ohio, with rain forecast for every single day of the two weeks that stretched before you into an uncertain and adrenaline-deprived future?

It happened to me. It occurred in a similarly menacing and delightful way to T.T. Thomas and Robert King. The three of us were accidental early adopters lured into the strange world of crowdsourced cyberjournalism at the precise moment when decisions were being made a bit too hastily by assignment editors in charge of a bizarre academic research project.

The experiment was seductively named…

Assignment Zero: Pro-Am Journalism Opens on the Web

T.T., Robert, and I were introduced to each other by our editor, Steve Fox, in rapidly dispatched email messages accompanied by his instructions not to wait for instructions. My half-baked Internet research revealed Fox had just concluded 10 years as an online editor at WashingtonPost.com. There was no time to discover why his employment with the prestigious national newspaper was terminated. His essay on leaving the position, which drew upon his memories of 9/11, later accrued disturbing connotations.

Three amateur journalists were in. We had an assignment. We were ahead of the curve. We were leading the way, learning as we went. The only thing we didn’t understand was what in the world we were supposed to be fomenting revolution to achieve. Ah, but this was an experiment. The objective was to see what we made of Assignment Zero as we struggled pathetically through the process. Perhaps we were founding another YouTube, eventually to be worth millions. We weren’t getting paid, but it was all for the common good.

Over the next two weeks, T.T., Robert, and I donated what amounted to hundreds of hours of labor to a project we saw almost immediately was doomed by poor web design. We were running the Iditarod in an airboat built for the Everglades.

Robert, a self-described slacker-philosopher, had the mysterious advantage of being a World of Warcraft devotee who, in another realm, referred to himself as a Blood Elf. T.T., a former journalist, and I, a retired police detective, were experienced writers but virgin bloggers. Our editor was missing in action, overrun by a swarm of more than 800 international volunteers who registered on the Assignment Zero website; hung out their avatars; and volunteered to write, interview, research, edit, or perform a variety of tasks during the first several weeks following Assignment Zero’s official launch.

Our three-person team’s struggle to stay together and accomplish real journalism within the overbroad scope of our assigned story topic, “crowdsourced crime fighting,” became—to us and to the few volunteers trapped nearby on the thin ice—a nightmarish odyssey by laptop among collaborators and competitors we couldn’t see.

Assignment Zero’s cumbersome site design shielded us from the actions of all but the most vocal subjects in the experiment—amateurs and professionals, both paid and unpaid. Artificial isolation exacerbated our helplessness. We began to sense that very few of us had slipped by the gatekeeper and begun working on stories, while hundreds of potential collaborators stood by waiting for permission to proceed and, more importantly, for coherent instructions.

Early on, a young member of the Assignment Zero staff was detailed to troubleshoot the web design SNAFU. David Cohn, a writer for Wired.com also named on Assignment Zero’s masthead, began modifying the website. He adopted the analogy of Assignment Zero as the Matrix.

Writing groups drew parallels with the television series Lost and Survivor or described themselves as chicks in an incubator. T.T. Thomas posted an irreverent essay that may have exemplified the feelings of many participants in what eventually became cheekily referred to in the blogosphere as AssZero. Her email humor launched dozens of naval metaphors among writers who could not make use of the Assignment Zero site to communicate efficiently.

Don’t take my word for it. The experiment continues. The drama unfolds. Enter at your own risk.

In two weeks, I learned things about myself—and all journalists—I wish I didn’t know. I communed with incredibly beautiful minds. I did lousy work. The story of Assignment Zero, however, is classic. It doesn’t star the typical technogeeks and action figures. AssZero’s heroes were intellectuals, academics, usability consultants, bloggers, professional journalists, amateur volunteers, and a few who (as T.T. put it) probably needed to return to the mother ship.

Assignment Zero’s triumphs—some of us hope—may someday help to defeat biased journalism, spin, and closed source environments. Information may want to be free, but certain curmudgeonly individuals who contributed to Assignment Zero perhaps understood only that words equaled a paycheck.

Ultimately, the story of Assignment Zero is that a bad user interface (literally and metaphorically) defeats all but the most valiant human efforts at collaboration—and desperate, alienated people can run roughshod over truth. In short, the journalistic process was laid bare.

6 Replies to “Reinventing journalism”

  1. Robin
    It’s all fair criticism. The user interface in the beginning was a muck. Agreed. But it’s much better now. You can see the entire story develop on one page. You can see who is working on a story, who is editing it, and you can communicate with them easily on that topic home page.

    This is an experiment — and we’ve already learned a lot. And you work is not lost to time — it’s still there.. and we are still trying to gather people together to complete the story. Citizendium is almost done, Crowdsourced Novels, progressing nicely, religion, taking off and is well organized.

    And there is a lot of work already done on CS law enforcement. There is an editor there — waiting to work with people. I know you left because you were busy.. but if the idea that networked media can change the future is still something that plays with your mind — maybe you should check out the new site and see if the glove fits.

    As of right now — Steve and Lauren have taken different roles on the project. Amanda, Jay, Tish and Myself are steering the ship, and I know the law enforcement topic could use your leadership.

    Either way — good luck to all future endeavors. I know NewAssignment.Net and Assignment Zero has been a real learning experience for me: the short falls of journalists, the pits of creating a website, and the glory of turning it around. The only thing left to learn for me: how to motivate people to find benefit for themselves in taking part in an open source media project.

    Here’s to trying.

    Best — and whether or not you come back to AZ — please keep in touch.

  2. David (Digidave):

    If Assignment Zero succeeds, it will be thanks to you and Amanda Michel, as well as Jay Rosen, of course, for recognizing your capabilities. I came away from the experiment having learned more about journalism in two weeks than I would have learned during six months of work in a print medium.

    Watching the expansion of blogging this year will tell a story. Bloggers are consciously or subconsciously trying to maneuver around the traditional gatekeepers. News and blog aggregators are attempting to help readers find the best sources of information on the specific topics that interest them. There is tremendous potential for rapid and widespread adoption of new forms of journalism. I enjoy reading what Jeff Jarvis has to say about all this at BuzzMachine.com.

    There will be obstacles. According to one of the aphorisms from The Matrix, “You never truly know a man until you fight him.”

    I enjoyed working with you and Amanda.

  3. …and then in a flash of disturbingly over enthusiastic rapid eye movement trained to scan the entire world, at a glance, it dawned on me like the moon over Miami, which, on certain days, is actually visible at dawn, that in a curiously iconic moment of certainty, I am, in fact, the mother ship. Good help is so damn hard to find these days…::sigh:: an era, maties!

  4. One time you mentioned, in a non-specific way, a career in law enforcement. Another time you mentioned something about liking to overanalyze. While reading here, I come across: “a retired police detective.” It starts to come together a bit……. :)

  5. Dan,

    I’ve wondered whether it’s hypocritical of me, as a proponent of transparency, to mention my background only when it seems relevant to the topic. My brief résumé is available on my business website, but perhaps the information bears repeating on the About page for this blog. Can you suggest how to accomplish the full disclosure in a graceful way?

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