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July 20, 2007

Assignment Zero Lands. OffTheBus Launches. Lessons Fly.

"A highly satisfying failure," Jeff Howe called it in Wired. No, "a spectacularly successful failure," says Beth Lawton at The Digital Edge. Meanwhile, OffTheBus.Net launched this week, carrying the lessons of "Zero" into political space. My Q and A with Len Witt explains more.

Big week for NewAssignment.Net, born one year ago in a post at PressThink.

Assignment Zero concluded its run with publication of a final package at, followed by Jeff Howe’s excellent (and sober) report. Did Assignment Zero Fail? A Look Back, and Lessons Learned. I highly recommend it.

Also important is his follow-up post on the contributions of associate editor David Cohn, (miraculously, half geek, half journalist) and our online organizers, Amanda Michel and Tish Grier. It includes this story:

There was a crucial turning point when a rift opened up between the journalist types (myself included) on one side and Amanda and Tish on the other. They felt our volunteer editors had to play community manager, going out and soliciting contributors, keeping people engaged, holding a few hands. Us hard-bitten journos essentially snorted in disdain. Editors do not play cheerleader, and God knows they do not do outreach. We won the battle and, in doing so, contributed to losing the war. The plain fact is that in the future, journalists will have to develop these skills if they want to succeed in a future in which their readers are also their writers.

Well, some will. Grier’s post-mortem is also vital if you’re interested in how it went.

And while the reactions to Howe’s essay were coming in a second project launched. Over at the Politics section of the expanded Huffington Post, OffTheBus ( began revving up for the campaign season. Some early signs of life:

My own “what I learned” post about Assignment Zero will have to come later. In the meantime, Leonard Witt of PJNet, a contributor and chronicler of Assignment Zero, did an interview with me about it, which we are co-publishing today. (Scroll down to see the exchange.)

As I told Witt, the most important lessons from Assignment Zero, an open platform trend story, I am putting directly into OffTheBus, an open platform campaign news bureau. A big part of it is the email list we have already, which we plan to build up and work with. It’s a pool of self-identified potential contributors, our crowd of semi-interested people. From it we’ll recruit smaller groups of truly interested people to work on reporting projects— in teams. Some contributors will work alone, writing blog posts that have either new information or an original observation in them. The more advanced among them will (we hope) have beats. For others it’s providing expertise when called on.

In Assignment Zero we found that you don’t “have” contributors just because you signed them up. You still have to convince them that participating is a good option, that it won’t waste their time, that they will know what to do, or be able to figure it out.

“Start with clear, simple tasks,” writes Assignment Zero contributor Derek Powazek in his own review. “This isnít because the crowd canít handle complicated ones - they can - itís because they havenít decided if itís worth doing them for you yet.” And: “People wonít do what you say because you just told them to. You have to inspire them to want to participate.” Both points are exactly right. And that’s why OffTheBus combines features of a campaign organization (The List) and a news organization (the Front Page).

Special to PressThink

Did Your Experiment Work?

Q and A with Leonard Witt and Jay Rosen (also published here.)

Leonard Witt: Hi Jay, I have read some of the early critiques from people involved in the project, but let’s hear from you. What was the most important lesson learned from Assignment Zero?

Jay Rosen: That large groups of people can work on a story together only if you make it extremely clear what you expect them to do, and only if you get the organization of people right.

Witt: One thing troubles me. You have 80 interviews. Jeff Howe says, “The final result met the goal of being the most comprehensive exploration of crowdsourcing to date.” But nothing more seems to be happening with the interviews. Just a handful ran at Isn’t there a wealth of information in there? If that’s true, why not do more with them?

Rosen: There is a great synthetic essay to be written from those 80 interviews. Or maybe it’s three or four essays. You’re right that we have not done everything we could with that material, but it suggests a possible model for pro-am journalism. The ams gather the raw material, in a certain abundance. The pros synthesize, package and present.

Witt: Yes, that’s what is missing, especially the packaging and presentation.

Rosen: Agreed. We ran out of bandwidth and time for that.

Witt: Okay so it is there for the taking for anyone who wants to do it. Is that right?

Rosen: Absolutely. That is the whole meaning of having a creative commons site and that is why the “raw material” model for crowdsourcing makes sense under Creative Commons rules.

Witt: What a gift for anyone who wants to put it to use.

Rosen: “Can there be a gift economy for news?” was one of the questions I asked in launching NewAssignment.Net.

Witt: So what’s the answer?

Rosen: There can be, but forget any notion you have of “the invisible hand.”

Witt: What’s that mean?

Rosen: That’s a term from economics that refers to the way a market economy is said to work…no one coordinates it and figures out the price of everything in it. An “invisible hand” is at work matching buyers to sellers and supply to demand. Well, the gift economy for news doesn’t work that way is all I am saying.

Witt: So how does it work?

Rosen: People will contribute only because they want to, because the work stirs a passion they have, or is inherently interesting or they find the community of people, a great group of people and everything starts from there, not from “what needs to be done,” but the motivations and interests of the people joining the project. It’s an old lesson from open source software and one of the first things people from that world told me when I began to check into it.

Witt: So how did all of that play out at Assignment Zero?

Rosen: Well, in the beginning we thought, naively, that people would sort of figure out how to collaborate on parts of the story if we broke the story into parts. Wrong. They didn’t. Then we figured they would figure out how to collaborate if we named an editor for each part and then created a page for that story and allowed people to join the page as you join a group in a social networking site. Wrong.

Witt: So what is right?

Rosen: Only when we took a page from you, and hit upon a task—one interview with a key figure in “raw” Q and A form—did we propose a division of labor that fit with people’s interests and motivations and available bandwidth. That turned out to be “right.” And the work got done, as you can see, so you actually had a very important role in Assignment Zero; at least in my mind you did.

Witt: Thanks. That’s gratifying.

Rosen: The crowd—with Witt in it—turned out to have the answer to: How do we assign the crowd to tasks it can do?

Witt: When I first came to the Asssignment Zero project as a contributor, I was totally confused. I kept thinking how does Wikipedia do it? It’s simple, you hit the edit button and type away. Simple, simple, simple.

Rosen: I am on the Wikipedia advisory board, and in the spring I had coffee with Jimmy Wales when he was in town. I asked him why did Wikipedia work when the odds are that most things don’t work, and he said something very important, although its significance escaped me at the time. People come to Wikipedia not knowing how it works, but they do know how a regular, ‘ol encyclopedia works and so the “leap” to what a free online encyclopedia would be like is not that great. This prior knowledge is critical to a system’s viability because is constrains users and points them in the logical directions. How much did it cost Wikipedia to put that common understanding into each contributor’s head? Zero! They already knew it. Explaining the way it works takes all of six words: “The online encyclopedia anyone can edit.” With 6,000 words we did not get clarity on what a crowdsourced investigation asked of participants because there was no common image to start with, nothing comparable to “encyclopedia, right!…”

Witt: So how are you going to carry these lessons over to Off the Bus, but first give a quick description of Off the Bus, your next project.

Rosen: Off The Bus is open platform campaign journalism, involving many hundreds—actually more than 1,000 people are on our sign up list—in the production of alternative campaign news and commentary. There are three main parts to it: 1) Group reporting projects….crowdsourcing with our Alert List. 2) A blogging platform for people who want to try their hand at reporting; the posts that rock are filtered to the front page, and 3) a network of experts on call, people with special knowledge ripe for the plucking who can be on call to help both bloggers and the projects.

Witt: Who filters the best stuff to the front page?

Rosen: Originally, editors we employ; contributors who distinguish themselves will eventually share those duties. That is how it has worked at sites like Daily Kos, at Redstate and TPM Cafe. It’s an existing model adapted a bit.

Witt: So, if it is already happening at other sites, what’s the experiment?

Rosen: Because that is only one of three parts to the model, and we are focused exclusively on election coverage. Everything we learned from Assignment Zero we are putting into the “networked reporting” projects that will draw participants from the Alert List we have. To do this kind of work, you have to borrow things that already proved viable and combine them with a minimal number of untried ideas, then be ready to toss and improvise. It is harrowing in some ways.

Witt: The sites you mention, have a political agenda. Your partner, Huffington Post, has a political agenda. So will Off the Bus have a political agenda?

Rosen: What is Huffington Post’s political agenda? I am not aware of one. If you mean the site seems to have a politics, and not be “neutral,” yes, I agree. Let me quote from our About page, which I wrote:

“The site covers the campaigns of all the candidates for president in both parties. It is independent and unaffiliated with either the Democratic or Republican Party. Its perspective is determined by the publishers, Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen; by the editorial staff they hire, and by individual authors and producers who use our platform. There is no party line.”

But we also do not deny: I have a political identity, so does Arianna, as will our contributors. We are not going into the “objective journalism” biz.

Witt: Yeah, but is it journalism?

Rosen: I don’t understand your question. Is what journalism?

Witt: Off The Bus.

Rosen: You lost me; only if the producers claim to have no politics can the product be political journalism? I do not agree with that.

Witt: Is it journalism or commentary?

Rosen: I still don’t understand your question.

Witt: Okay, how would you classify your project?

Rosen: There is no journalism unless the maker of it stands outside the political community? Again, I don’t agree. I am not worried about what bin you toss the resulting work into. I am worried about whether it is good, relevant to the campaign, and whether it reveals the world well and attracts a following on the Web. The first sentence of the “About” says:

“Off The Bus is a news and opinion site about the 2008 election and the race for the White House.”

I don’t like the politics of your classification system, as you can tell!

Witt: That’s what I thought. So let’s move on. I want to come back to those 80 interviews. Howe said 60 of them were top notch. Even a tight, cheapskate editor would pay $300 for each of those interviews. That’s $18,000 worth of value hanging out there. If you did it again, how much would it cost to get that $18,000 worth of value?

Rosen: If we did it again? Not sure what you mean.

Witt: You did an experiment. So if you were an editor and wanted to copy the interview crowdsourcing part of the project, how much would it cost in real dollars to duplicate that part of the project?

Rosen: I really don’t have a good way of answering that, but if you knew what you were doing and had “banked” the results of Assignment Zero it might be quite viable to do multiple interviews simultaneously that way. However, some people think these efforts are all about getting people to do for nothing what journalists do for pay. That is not my interest, focus or project, and I don’t think anyone with that motivation is going to succeed, but I am willing to ask how a journalist working for pay can have her powers and reach extended by collaborating with users who have their own reasons for doing some of the work. It goes back to Dan Gillmor’s maxim: “My readers know more than I do.” Let me quote Good Morning Silicon Valley:

‘Somehow, there’s got to be a way to harness the power of interested citizens in the wired world and pool their time and talent to produce well-researched, timely and consistent journalism on subjects large and small. It’s just that nobody’s found it yet.’

Witt: Last question. You went from a journalism critic to being the in the middle of the fray. And you used the word harrowing above. So what range of feelings, emotions have you had personally felt in this transition and has it been worth it?

Rosen: Oh well worth it, yes, but let me correct you. I wrote about the need for civic journalism and the philosophy of it, but as you know I was also in the fray. In this phase of my work it is even more true. Range of feelings? Total exasperation and “why oh why did I ever try to…” and “wow, it’s really happening” to “well, that didn’t work” to….”why does that site over there work?” At the end I felt I had the challenge more squarely in my sights and I am not nearly so clueless now.

Witt: Since you mention civic journalism, I have to ask one more question: Is citizen journalism a new evolutionary stage of that work?

Rosen: Yes, it is, but with a break point; the break point is essentially the arrival of “edit this page.” After that moment (well told in Dan Gillmor’s book) it didn’t matter if journalists thought citizens could be more involved; they could get involved without permission from the press. This altered the environment in which journalism happens.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 20, 2007 1:42 AM