Can news be as successfully reported by innocent bystanders as it is by the
fair and balanced, media? That was the question asked by the NewAssignment.net initiative, Assignment Zero
. An experiment in “pro-am” (professional/amateur) journalism, in which journalism is run by the public rather than the media, Assignment Zero is an attempt at journalism without strings -- one might call it an audience-run newsroom. In the Assignment Zero project, stories are thought up, chosen and researched by "citizen journalists", rather than designated by editors. The aim of this experiment was to promote social democracy -- rather than the anarchy that one assumes would naturally result -- and works to employ a crowd model that allowed several contributors to shape a story.
Founded by NYU Professor Jay Rosen
and supported in partnership by Wired.com, Assignment Zero was originally inspired by Chris Allbritton, a journalist who, with funding raised off of the Internet, snuck into Iraq to report on war.
Rosen was intrigued by the grander implications of “alert publics [that] hire their own correspondents and share the results with the world, cutting ‘the media’ out entirely” and NewAssignment.net came to life. This week, results of their twelve week experiment were published.
According to Wired.com's article Did Assignment Zero Fail? A Look Back, and Lessons Learned
, the open source initiative "suffered from haphazard planning, technological glitches and a general sense of confusion among participants. ...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." Yet, despite these harsh critiques (and realities), the results are being hailed as "a highly satisfying failure," mainly because contributors described their experiences as positive.
Assignment Zero had to regularly improvise and shift their overall goals throughout the project. Faced with issues of organization and retention, involving both staff and articles, after six weeks, AZ redesigned its site to offer social networking features that allowed contributors to collaborate more readily than before. AZ also learned, perhaps most importantly, that "the community controls the scope and direction of the project." This vital lesson forced the Assignment Zero team focus more on producing interviews rather than feature stories; contributors were more eager to to talk to someone they admire and respect rather than write about topics that failed to resonate with them personally.
All of this lends itself to the real issue that Assignment Zero tried hard to promote: crowdsourcing as a viable, cost-saving tool. As it is turn out, like most successful communities, crowdsourcing needs to be "cultivated, respected and deftly managed" if it is to create economic value.
Yet, even if Assignment Zero failed to attain its rather lofty goal of dominating the news industry by producing more substantial and collaborative stories, it was able to garner the attention of citizen journalists, who worked to create a substantial body of work -- an achievement in itself and one that lends credence to the notion that there is real potential in crowdsourced journalism.