March 23, 2007
Citizen Journalists and Professionals Collaborate in New Wired Project

Earlier this month, our research manager Joshua Green sent me the Wired story about their new in-depth investigative series surrounding the phenomenon of using the crowd itself as a source. The catch: the project, called Assignment Zero, will be conducted both by the journalists on staff at Wired and readers as well.

According to the description on the Assignment Zero site, the project will examine "how the Web makes it possible for the crowd to be the source of good ideas. But instead of one journalist reporting, we've created a site where many people can work on the story, with editors as guides."

The initial announcement claims that the magazine's "hope is that a team of professionals, working with scores of citizen journalists, is capable of completing an investigative project of far greater scope than a team of two or three professionals ever could."

The Wired team points out that most of what is called citizen journalism coming from official publications involves opening up newspapers for citizens to comment on stories after the fact, but their philosophy is that projects could be completed with much greater scope--still using the official authenticity and reputation of the magazine and its professionals while also utilizing the scope and breadth and depth of the active portion of the readership who wish to contribute further.

Could it provide the best of both worlds?

Obviously, Wired hopes so, if we are to infer that this initial project's success could mean more "open source" news reporting in the future, with citizen journalists involved in the process of other major investigative projects of this sort.

In this case, the work of citizen journalists is not pitted against the professionals, with Wired reporters looking to lose their meal ticket to untrained reporters willing to do the work for free, even if the quality is lessened. This is what angered people about the situation with KFTY that I wrote about last month.

Instead, the idea is that the professionalism of the Wired staff will help temper citizen newsgathering, while the work of the readership will lead to much more professional coverage.

We've seen this drive for citizen journalism content from several sources, such as the inclusion of teen reporting by Channel One and user-generated news with CNN Exchange.

This is at the heart of the debate between Dan Gillmor and Ellen Foley that I wrote about back in October.

The reaction to Assignment Zero has been largely positive. Parmit Singh from India focuses on the results of one of the AssignmentZero stories, a look at "a new open source political party in Boston, based on the principles behind Social Media--such as Digg type voting."

Of course, there are cynics as well. Over at Spin Thicket, folks are questioning whether the first assignment for a collective intelligence journalism project should have been "something OTHER than a self-referential strange circle endless loop of citizen dogs chasing their own tails."

I, for one, applaud the effort. It offers the best of both worlds, as I've mentioned before, and it's a project of limited scope destined to get some attention and also to provide a meaningful experiment as to how citizen journalists and professionals can collaborate instead of compete.



Thanks for this post.

Re: "Why pick a subject so self-referential?" (So far the most common criticism of Assignment Zero...)

I like to say we're doing a trend story about a sprawling development going on out there-- people pooling their labor and knowledge to make stuff of value because the costs of doing so have plunged rapidly in the Net era. That the methods on view in Assignment Zero are a (small) part of the trend does not mean there's no trend there. Nor does it doom the effort to a fatal circularity. I'm not sure why people insist that it does. But I am curious about it.



To mind mind at least, AssignmentZero does seem like a gamble, but an interesting risk, none the less.

What isn't mentioned is the long-term benefits, should the project be any kind of success.

Ownership of such a project (joint, shared, call it what you will) is a strong motivator.

I'd say that people won't mind so much the rough cut of a piece of work if there's a degree of personality to it, or if the human angle is personalized enough to anchor the story to a place, a people or an way of thinking.

Maybe we're no longer the ones just seeing the news unfold, but we're at a point where we could become active participants in the retelling of those stories?

We're going local on a global scale...


Jay, I was curious about the criticism as well, as it seems to be the only major beef people tend to have with the project. I think testing the method of reporting out on such a self-referential story makes sense because it is a good testing ground for a new method of reporting that hopefully will catch on and can lead to other meaningful series in the future.

As for Wayne's comment, I think you are right that the implications of this type of storytelling are huge. How often have we heard a news story and known of something local that affects this very global phenomenon. The ability to plug in that piece of information, that local tie to the global, could lead to a whole new angle on reporting. The professionals still generate the heart of the story, maintain its authenticity and their business model at the core, while citizen journalists can help do their part to make the story relevant to their own communities, and share stories that give a more nuanced view of the overall phenomenon studied in the project.


Thanks for checking out Spin Thicket, Sam. Please come back anytime