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May 7, 2007

Assignment Zero, Updated. With Initial Results...

We published the first piece from Assignment Zero. The project has morphed a bit. And we're introducing Interview Week. "Right now I'd say about 28 percent of what we did worked. But there's time to push that up."

The first results from Assignment Zero are in. They ran on the front page of in the form of a feature article, Wiki Innovators Rethink Openness. (May 3, 2007) “The creators of expert-led collaborative encyclopedia Citizendium hope to eclipse the cacophonous success of Wikipedia,” said Wired. The by-line read “by” Then it was broken down further under “credits.”

Principal reporter and writer, Michael Ho
Sidebar reporter and writer, Randy Burge
With reporting from Anna Haynes, Robert William King, Steve Petersen, Sean Richardson, Muhammed Saleem, J. Jack Unrau, Paul S. Wilson
Additional research by John Eisched, Carl Collins, Matthew Kress-Weitenhagen
Discussion and editorial guidance from Francine Hardaway, Ken MacNamara, Derek Poore
Art by Mark Selander
Fact-checking by Craig Silverman, Ian Elwood, Christopher Nystrom
Edited by John C. Abell, Jeff Howe, Lauren Sandler

We published this piece as a preview of fuller results due out in June. So that was our first morph, and our first result— journalistically speaking: Assignment Zero editor Lauren Sandler, with volunteer contributor John C. Abell and Wired’s Jeff Howe sharing the load, took Citizendium and twenty of our contributors onto the front page of

Here’s a small sidebar that went with the story. Here’s the topic home page at Assignment Zero where work came together. And here’s my explanation at the AZ site for why we decided to publish a preview piece ahead of a larger body of work.

Evan Hansen, editor-in-chief of, wrote, “The team’s research and reporting are up on the Assignment Zero site for you to see — or even use to write your own article, if you don’t like this one.” That’s because a Creative Commons license applies. “While keeping the reporting and much discussion of the piece transparent, Assignment Zero edited and fact-checked through e-mail. Ho filed his preferred draft to the site as well; you can decide for yourself which one works better.”

We’ve made some other decisions, leading to a new idea, Interview Week, which I will explain in a minute.

Second morph: Instead of trying to do what we were earlier trying to do—investigate 22 separate cases where wisdom-of-the-crowd efforts are going on and ten specific places where it seems to be happening—we’re going to scale back to five topics that have drawn the most interest from our contributors. These we will try to develop into pieces for, as Abell, Howe and Sandler did with Citizendium. They are…

The rest of the project will be folded into interview week. It works like this: Picking from our people-of-interest list, contributors volunteer to do one interview and post it as a clean, readable but otherwise raw Q and A— like this one by Len Witt (done via Instant Messenger.) My idea is to try to interview in a concentrated one-week period (May 8-14) as many of the key figures in our story as we can.

By posting the list, we give the people we need to talk to a public heads-up about our editorial interest in them. (It’s working, as this Google search shows.) Simple links to their sites and projects tell contributors why we have this interest. The “raw” Q & A’s can be material for multiple writers to develop into finished pieces during the following week. (See, for example, this one with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.) The best of those we will publish at NewAssignment.Net and submit to

When Assignment Zero launched I wrote: “We’re going to report on the spread of what’s called crowdsourcing and the larger practice it’s part of: peer production on the new information commons, in all of its forms. Collaboration online — and why it works when it does — is an expansive and nuanced story with lots of locations.” Interview Week is a chance to visit those locations, through the eyes of the people trying to make things happen.

The current list of interviewees numbers about 70. But we’re still adding to it, so leave your suggestions here. Contributors have responded well to our call. Fifty of the interviews are already taken. Here’s a few names that give you a feel for what we’re doing during I-week:

We were criticized for starting with a geeky and self-referential story. “Man, you could have tackled health care, education, immigration, race relations, religion - or any number of real news topics,” said Tom Watson, whose instincts I respect. “And the thing is, even if this thing rocks, it will only prove the concept to a bunch on insider head-nodders anyway.”

It’s a fair point, and I replied to it here. Jeff Jarvis, a friend of the project, said we started with something too hard. “I think they actually bit off a big bite for their first story,” he wrote, “because it’s more qualitative than quantitative, more about interviews and views than numbers and facts.” He was more right than I thought at the time.

We struggled to lay out a clear path to participation, emphasis on the word clear. “Bring back a Q and A with a key player in our story…” is our answer to that: it’s an extremely clear task because participants already know the Q & A form and can easily see the results in their mind’s eye before they sign up. (Clarity in this sense is more important than the simplicity of the task. Doing a good Q & A isn’t simple, but it is easy to grasp what we’re asking you to do.) The 70 or so names on the list emerged from our earlier reporting for Assignment Zero. They are, in a sense, its result.

So is our improvised platform for pro am reporting, a topic page where a team of contributors can pick up a thread in the story and develop it. Take this example on crowdsourced fiction. On the left side are slots for a lead editor who oversees the page, an editing team that helps oversee it, a team of contributors who have joined the topic and, when active, make it go. On the right are tasks for that team to complete. They can come from the editors, they can come from the team. In the middle is the discussion where the people and the work meet.

On the tabs are a discussion zone where anyone can open a thread, and an archive for completed reporting. The editor has the “keys” to the page. Contributors add work to it and can also edit parts of it. It’s a forum, task management system, user group home page, filing desk, group blog and work flow system, inelegantly combined, all at one url.

We didn’t have that page when we launched. We realized we needed it after a few weeks. By the time we got it in place a good deal of reportorial enthusiasm had dissipated. The page is crudely functional now, but not easy to use and so it is under-used. At least one of the contributors’ teams is finding it easier to operate by email than at the site. So we have a long way to go in building a participant-friendly platform. On the other hand, the second version will be way better than the first. (Can you do better? Great! Build it in Drupal and email me right away.)

Hillary Rosner, senior editor for the final month of Assignment Zero (and formerly tech editor at the Village Voice) will work with Associate Editor David Cohn, Director of Participation Amanda Michel and her deputy Tish Grier to bring the final package in and submit it to Wired on June 5.

At the moment it looks like five feature stories, and the best of the writing we will do from the 50-plus Q & A’s. I’m hoping that many more than 50 will come in. The interviews will also feed into Jeff Howe’s final essay for For how he plans to use them, see Assignment Zero: What’s it All For? at his blog,

By an agreement with the board, members of the Online News Association (ONA) will help us complete the remaining work. They will oversee the pages where we coordinate our interviews during I-week— pros assisting ams. ONA will also do an evaluation of Assignment Zero after its over. Board reps Jonathan Dube of and the CBC, and Ken Sands, online publisher of the Spokesman-Review, are coordinating for ONA, along with Angela Pacienza of the Canadian Press, who is matching contributors to interviewees.

Whether Assignment Zero worked or not is ultimately in the journalism. Right now I’d say about 28 percent of what we did worked. But there’s time to push that up. If you want to help join one of the five topics I listed above, pick up an assignment during I-week and make it sing, or suggest someone we really need to talk to.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 7, 2007 1:21 AM