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March 19, 2007

Assignment Zero, Day Six: Help Wanted Section

I'm looking for amateur-friendly pros who can work with the people who have joined up with us. Five days ago we launched AZ. We now have 450 contributors--each with a profile and a blog--slowly filtering into the site. What do we do now? they're asking. That's where you come in...

“We’re going to take one big, moving story—the spread of crowdsourcing and peer production methods across wired society—and with your active assistance break it down into reportable parts,” I wrote at last week. “Some of these parts we already have. More of them is what we need. Then we’re going to develop those parts — in the open, at the site — into pieces we can formally assign to contributors.”

It is a hybrid form of journalism—pro-am, I call it—now playing at our site. So far there’s been strong response from the am side. We had 450 volunteers by Sunday. We will soon have 500 people who have joined Assignment Zero and our partnership with Wired. That means they’re willing to contribute to the nuanced telling of one sprawling (but manageable) trend story.

In this we’re ahead of where I thought we would be.

And so today I need to recruit more pros who can work with the Assignment Zero team, and with contributors like Michael Ho, who joined up over the weekend. He says he works in IT but had an interest in journalism back in college. “I am a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and would be able to assist you with background or interviews throughout the area.”

Exactly. Put a pin in the map. Now that we have Michael Ho interested and able to assist, we need to get him something to do that advances the story. (A newsroom phrase I like.) But that’s not enough. The small piece he’s working on has to clearly connect with the larger narrative. The beta site we launched last week has most of the architecture required for breaking a big story into parts so contributors can improve those parts. (The developers were ChapterThree, specialists in open practice.)

But the site needs a lot of work. It also generates a lot of work when people start using it. Lauren Sandler, the editor of Assignment Zero, can’t easily guide 500-plus contributors to their best contributions and 75-plus pieces to completion. She needs help. I’m betting there are curious professionals out there who would like to contribute on a voluntary basis. I mean experienced and talented journalists who…


1. Editors who can provide oversight of topic pages as they evolve from suggestions into stories in our open newsroom. An example of a topic is No. 669 on Crowd Sourced Film. Right now the page is quite undeveloped. For Assignment Zero to work these topic home pages have to be way more effective.

The idea is that some in our swarm of 500 will want to contribute what they know about crowd-sourced film (as I did here.) Meanwhile, if those who love indie film gravitate toward their interests, they’ll find topic 669. We have to be ready with our Things to Do list when they land on this page— which we will re-tool and develop as soon as we can. But mostly we need someone to care for it, and work with contributors who want to add to a story percolating there.

2. Reporters who can work on the right side of a page like this one. It’s 583, Open Source Religion. Is there anything to it? This is typical of what the ams can help us find out. See that list on the right? (“Sketch out the big picture.”) Right now it’s pretty weak. But a reporter with experience covering religion could make it a whole lot better. We need people like that.

3. Web-savvy journalists with multiple skills who can learn our system quickly and solve problems, put out fires and handle discrete tasks for editor Lauren Sandler, who is learning as she goes. (Fast.) You simply report for duty and she assigns you to work needed now. A lot of it will be communicating with “am” contributors so they know what to do and can do it. Here we need pros who are flexible and play well with others. Willing to be sent where needed. You have to be able to work independently, and report in with updates.

4. You don’t have to be a journalist for this category. Amanda Michel is not a journalist. She’s Director of Participation for NewAssignment.Net. Her background is in online organizing. As DP for Assignment Zero, it’s her job to solve the problems people have when they try to contribute. She’s supposed to lower the barriers to entry for the people we want to attract, and actively recruit new people, while equipping the ones we have with better and better tools. (As well as voice.)

Big job. Impossible without help, especially when you have a team of 500-plus people. What kind of help? Super organized people with experience on the net. People who are good at meshing with volunteers. People who have worked with teams to collaborate via the web, and who know how to keep track of complex projects with many players. Journalism by the many, edited by a few, requires great efficiency and strong systems. Help us out if you understand what’s required.

Do I have your interest?

EDITORS: Volunteer your editorial eye and oversee, O-fficially, one or more topic pages for us. Just send me an email telling me who you are, and where your interests lie. Reality check: seven hours a week to devote to it should be enough for one page (… ten is better.) We’d like to know what you can donate per week for the next 5, 6, 7 weeks. And a bit about why you’re interested in making a contribution like that. Retired from the game with strong editing experience and good Web literacy? We’re interested.

REPORTERS: Donate to Assignment Zero your reporting skills and sense. You’ll be helping to scope out a story and break it down, which means right-sizing Things to Do for our crowd of contributors (while taking their suggestions) and sorting them into two kinds…

We want you to help develop bite-sized reporting tasks in both categories for distribution through the Assignment Desk. Do some of the reporting yourself, and show contributors your tricks. Comment on what they are doing. Work with them backstage. We anticipate that volunteers will want to learn from you, as this is one of the benefits of the pro-am style.

For experienced reporters thinking about raising a hand, five to seven hours a week would be enough of a donation for you to materially help us, and get something out of it. Send me an email telling me who you are, what you have done, and why you want to join up with Assignment Zero. My best guess is it will be frustrating (because we’re at such a crude stage) and fun (because we’re at such an early stage.)

WEB JOURNALISTS with flexible skills. Ready for some serious real time philanthropy? Donate free hours to editor Lauren Sandler, and let her deploy you where you are urgently needed. Just write me an email telling me who you are, and why this sounds like something you’d want to do.

SUPERBLY ORGANIZED PEOPLE with Net sense and common sense. Volunteer to work with Amanda Michel, director of participation, as she figures out the social architecture we need to do this assignment. Its not obvious how you organize a big meet-up in editorial space with a moving story, an open platform and hundreds of amateur contributors. Can you assist? Send me an email and explain all. I will forward it on to Amanda.

COMPANIES, PROFESSIONAL NEWS ORGANIZATIONS. Give us one of your staffers, a journalist who is most interested in Assignment Zero. Let him or her work for us for a while, and we’ll return to you a journalist more educated in the possibilities in many-to-many reporting and pro-am investigation. Deal? Write me with an idea.

DRUPAL DEVELOPERS with a feel for what we’re up to. Help! Work with me and, possibly, Chapterthree as we try to make this site rock. There’s a lot to do. (And check out the critique from Andrew Nachison: “I’ve had this feeling before with sites built on Drupal - a powerful open-source publishing system that seems to inspire complicated sites.”)

FINALLY, FUNDERS: We need $1.5 million over two years; we’ve raised about $450,000 of that. Take a look at who’s supporting us— MacArthur Foundation, Craig Newmark, Reuters among them. Do contact me if you can assist.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

For his media business column in the New York Times (March 19) David Carr wrote about Assignment Zero. I liked this part, about readers knowing more than Carr…

This past season, I wrote a blog about the movie business that would flick at topics that I was either too uninformed about or too hard-pressed to nail down. Inevitably, readers would begin buzzing around in comments, a hive that sent out a swarm that eventually, through conversation, argument and annotation, yielded valuable insights and hard facts.

That would be his Carpetbagger blog, about the Oscars and more. One of the first serious attempts at doing a blog for the New York Times.

A lot of people have been telling me about the “readers know more than we do” reporting that Josh Marshall and his gang have been doing so successfully at Talking Points Memo and TPM Muckraker. Well, yeah. I have been writing about Marshall’s methods since 2004. Here’s a recent Los Angeles Times article about his success. And here’s Paul Kiel at TPR Muckraker (March 20), discussing how to sort through 3,000 pages of emails released by the White House in the ongoing scandal over the firing of United States Attorneys:

Josh and I were just discussing how in the world we are ever going to make our way through 3,000 pages when it hit us: we don’t have to. Our readers can help.

So here’s what we’re going to do. This comment thread will be our HQ for sorting through tonight’s document dump.

In my introduction at Wired I wrote:

An “author” in our system can be an individual writer, a two- or three-person team. A class could get an assignment. A blog, plus users, could do one

Well, Debbie Galant and Liz George of the pioneering local news site, Baristanet (Montclair, NJ, and environs) announced today that they will run to daylight with Assignment Zero. (Both have written for PressThink.) They and their readers—which include a lot of writers—plus anyone else who wants to join will tackle… Crowd sourced traffic and transit. Can commuters avoid jams by going peer to peer?

From Baristanet today.

Our friend NYU J-school prof Jay Rosen has just hung a great big “help wanted” sign on his blog. He’s looking for journalism pros to volunteer to join the biggest reporting team in the history of journalism.

The overall story is crowdsourcing — think Wikipedia — or as the folks at Assignment Zero put it,”how the Web makes it possible for the crowd to be the source of good ideas.”

Barista-in-chief Debbie Galant was inspired by “Conductor Josh’s” experiment in distributed transit news, and will be working on Assignment Zero’s transit-traffic crowdsourcing story. Join the team of 450+ journalist-volunteers here. And tell them Baristanet sent you.

I look forward to working with Debbie and Liz, two of the most creative Web journalists I know.

Those testy copy editors get all cranky on AZ.

Lauren Sandler on Carr’s column… “I wanted to know, after the sheer amount of reporting I knew he had put into this 1,004 word column, what he opted to quote or directly reference and what simply informed his writing and thinking about what we were doing.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 19, 2007 7:06 AM