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Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

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Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

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If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

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Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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October 9, 2007

What I Learned from Assignment Zero

As some of us conference at CUNY around networked journalism, here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with and thinking through the results.

Jeff Jarvis has pulled together almost 200 people able to make progress in pro am journalism. David Cohn interviewed some of them (here’s the one with me.) They in turn asked us to pull together our own thoughts in advance of the summit at CUNY’s J-school, which is named for a related idea— networked journalism. (“It’s about action and next steps, not talk.”)

These are my thoughts prior to the conference, and after the conclusion of Assignment Zero, a collaboration with This post is also background for my session at the summit, thirty minutes on “NewAssignment.Net’s story.” (Conference schedule. )

In March 2007, when we launched Assignment Zero, I said it was trend reporting gone pro-am. That meant Wired and New Assignment asked for help from anyone within their editorial reach who was inclined to contribute pieces of a larger narrative. Open platform means just that: the door is open. Anyone can play who’s a qualified user of the site.

Open platforms don’t work like closed systems in news production, and we shouldn’t expect the two to be similar.

The larger narrative we picked to investigate was a trend story (and a Wired story): we wanted to track the spread of peer production and wisdom-of-the-crowd efforts across the social landscape, including the practice of crowdsourcing, which Wired had on its radar since a June 2006 essay by writer Jeff Howe.

To some critics, that was a geeky and overly meta story to start with. “Great project - crappy assignment,” wrote blogger and ex-reporter Tom Watson at Buzzmachine.

Where’s the news value? Where’s the impact on people’s daily lives? How does this fit into the current discussion of issues? Why so esoteric? Why a subject that will only attract cyber-geeks?

Others, like sumiteer Jeff Jarvis, thought that asking people to help report a big trend story is asking for way too much at the start. “I think they actually bit off a big bite for their first story, their assignment zero, because it’s more qualitative than quantitative, more about interviews and views than numbers and facts,” he wrote.

The numbers and facts approach says: ask each participant for a simple and clearly-stated “bit” of information. Then combine lots of bits—hundreds at first, thousands eventually—into a report that reveals something new. For how it looks in practice, see the Brian Lehrer Show’s Crowdsourcing Project: Are You Being Gouged? It maps grocery prices using commodity items (a six pack of Bud) to see where neighborhood differences may show up. Lehrer uses his midday radio program on WNYC to recruit partcipants and air the results.

I think both criticisms—geeky and self-referential story! simplify it for people if you want to succeed!—have a lot going for them. I accept their counsel.

“Start with clear, simple tasks,” says Assignment Zero contributor Derek Powazek in his own review. (See Did Assignment Zero work?) “This isn’t because the crowd can’t handle complicated ones - they can - it’s because they haven’t decided if it’s worth doing them for you yet.” And: “People won’t do what you say because you just told them to. You have to inspire them to want to participate.”

Both points are dead on.

I remember what Evan Hansen and I were thinking. (He’s the editor-in-chief of We wanted to be in a situation where readers knew more than we did about the story we were investigating.

Because there were many participants in the open sources spreads out from software story who were within plausible reach of Wired, PressThink, and NewAssignment.Net, we thought there were many potential contributors to Assignment Zero who could furnish first hand accounts or serve as good sources. And because a good number of readers already knew something about the open source idea and its roots in software, we figured they would be qualified to assist in a more detailed, updated and fully-rounded coverage of its spread to domains beyond tech.

In announcing its participation in Assignment Zero, said it was testing an idea: “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.” One way to find out is to attempt it. Assignment Zero was essentially that. (Some people got the point. Zero won honorable mention in the 2007 Knight-Batten awards for innovation in journalism.)

Here is what I wrote for on July 9th of this year, after the project concluded:

I wouldn’t say it’s easy for widely scattered people working together voluntarily on the net to report on a big story unfolding in many places at once. But we know a lot more about it now than we did when we started, and one of the goals of Assignment Zero was to test whether pro-am methods had potential. I think they do, but we haven’t really unlocked it yet. We are, however, getting closer.

Which brings mean to these points, attempting to get closer still.

Here are the coordinates for the territory we need to be searching if we’re going to figure out how to do “pro-am journalism in the open style made possible by the web,” as my Wired essay put it. I found them by working with Evan Hansen, Amanda Michel, David Cohn, Tish Grier, Jeff Howe and hundreds of other contributors.

Get the division of labor right.

In order to succeed, networked reporting projects have to get the division of labor part right, and that means right-sizing the work in a way that works for the project, as well as the different types of participants who walk through the (open) door. Dividing up the work into tasks people can and will do is among the trickiest decisions the project will have. Expectations have to be extremely clear or a crowd will generate a limitless number of honest misunderstandings.

If pro-am reporting has an art it’s in breaking up the work into tasks doable by the contributors you actually have, in the time they have available. Since the division of labor in “open” reporting systems resembles not at all the system in a professional newsroom, denizens of the newsroom may not understand the challenge at first.

For some participants it’s, “I have two hours a week; tell me what to do.” Fitting into your scheme is fine for them. Others want an assignment where there is more creativity and control. Meeting different kinds of participants where they are permits the project to benefit from different kinds of contributions.

Grok their motivations and they may contribute.

When the gift economy is involved in editorial production the “right” division of labor starts with the motivations people have for freely participating and volunteering what they know. A well managed project correctly estimates what motivates people to join in, what the various rewards are for participants, and where the practical limits of their involvement lie.

Derek Powazek is right: “People won’t do what you say because you just told them to.” It sounds simple, but the difference between Powazek’s Law and a command-and-control system (like a newsroom) is profound and decisive. This is one reason amateur production will never replace the system of paid correspondents. It only springs to life when people are motivated enough to self-assign and follow through. Experience suggests that will happen spontaneously for a very limited range of stories.

Plan for sudden coordination costs.

If they are to succeed, networked reporting projects conducted on an open platform have to be ready with answers to the “sudden” coordination costs generated by the project’s success in drawing participants, who will inevitably have questions, problems, suggestions and demands. Assignment Zero went through this when more than 1,000 people signed up to help. These steering costs go up as the invitation to join in succeeds. Unless they can be absorbed at the edges, shared among contributors themselves, or eliminated by sheer elegance in project design, these costs will collect at the center.

That’s fine as long as the center is ready and budgeted for that. Frequently it isn’t ready, and hasn’t budgeted. A solution common in open source settings—super contributors share the costs of coordinating other contributors, so the project scales—is promising but more needs to be known about how it works in reporting projects. Assignment Zero did not crack that case.

At the other end are projects engineered to have extremely low coordination costs; participants get instructions online and they can send in their content or upload their data without much assistance. An example would be the contest method with cash prizes, which even the New York Times uses.

Where the solo pieces meet the larger puzzle confidence gets created.

At the moment of contribution, it has to be abundantly clear how the individual contributor’s piece of the puzzle is received, and how it fit into the larger narrative. If it is clear, the project has a chance of working. If it is not clear, people won’t find participation satisfying and they are unlikely to return. The strength of the connection between the “little” tasks and the big story is thus critical to success. The science of reception matters. What happens when participants upload their portion tells them whether they have wasted their time, or contributed to a public good. Designers: zero in here.

Shared background makes for an information foreground.

An invisible factor in the success of a networked journalism project is whether a broad group of participants coming into the project shares critical background knowledge that lets the story’s editorial signal stand out from the noise. A good example is TMP Muckraker’s plea to readers as the US Attorneys scandal reached its peak of intensity: TPM Needs YOU to Comb Through Thousands of Pages. (March 20, 2007.) This works only because TPM readers have followed closely along in the story by reading Josh Marshall and his fleet of contributors on the mysterious firing of United States attorneys.

The build-up of background knowledge among widely-scattered users makes them a far more potent force when called upon to help. Here the danger is in under-estimating what readers are capable of.

Communities that already coordinate can distribute reporting.

Networked journalism projects conducted by already existing online or offline communities—people brought together by shared beliefs or a common world of interests—are different in kind from “open call” projects that recruit participants from the online public or from a crowd of unorganized users.

Existing communities, people in already-formed networks, are strong on coordination and mobilization. This is one way distributed reporting might scale quickly: start with a community already able to divide up work, and run the reporting project over existing tracks, as it were. I haven’t investigated that possibility yet, but someone could.

Summary: hitting the coordinates

That is my attempt to map the perimeter: solutions lie within. Division of labor is the key creative decision in acts of distributed reporting. Grok the motivations or it can’t be done. Watch for ballooning coordination costs as ramp up succeeds. Where the small pieces meet the larger narrative the alchemy of the project lives. Shared background knowledge raises group capacity. Extant communities already coordinate well.

When the editors of Assignment Zero hit upon the idea of asking contributors to pick from a list of key sources and do a single interview, returning the results as a cleaned-up but otherwise raw Q and A, the division of labor clicked with participants and the “ask” worked.

People were motivated because it was interesting, challenging and fun to interview a mover and shaker in this story. They could get their minds around that task, and “see” it from start to finish. There were some coordination costs, but like the essay contest posted instructions worked well enough. Contributors understood that their individual interview was part of a larger coordinated act, interview week at Assignment Zero. The connection made sense to them. And by participating in Assignment Zero they had gained enough background to steer the interviews toward common themes without being told what to do.

The result: within days we had our target list assigned to contributors who went to work and got the interviews done. We were within the coordinates I just identified, and the distributed model came to life.

Finally, Assignment Zero’s published results and some earlier evaluations.

  • Assisgnment Zero’s compendium of interviews, under Creative Commons license at NewAssignment.Net. Q and A’s with 70-plus key participants conducted by contributors choosing from a list and posting the finished version. This is the closest the project came to Wired’s vision of a “reporting project of far greater scope than a team of two or three professionals could manage.”
  • The interview I gave with Len Witt reflecting on what was learned from Assignment Zero and put into OffTheBus. My initial takeaways are explained.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

(May 2, 2008). Academics Jane Singer and Louise Thomas present their overview and summary of what’s known about crowdsourcing and what’s been done so far.

“Long Tail” author Chris Anderson says news providers should harness the collective power of their “engaged, smart, informed, opinionated readers” in order to succeed in the digital age.

But how exactly can this be done? Is anyone already doing it? And what exactly are crowdsourcing techniques?

A very handy resource, with links.

Why do things like Assignment Zero? (one)

On Oct. 11th I was on the Brian Lehrer show (WNYC) discussing their crowdsourcing (or “group journalism”) experiment on grocery prices, Are you Being Gouged? You can listen here. Brian kindly said New Assignment.Net “inspired a lot of the thinking that went into this project.” He said they were going to keep at it: “The next thing we want to do is a group investigative journalism project… together with many of you.” He mentioned health care and health insurance as possible areas, and also asked for ideas from listeners.

Another guest, New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt, said, “I think this is exactly the kind of thing we should be using the Internet to do: to make information gathering in journalism a more collaborative and interactive process.”

Why do things like Assignment Zero? (two)

From Oliver Luft at

Trinity Mirror Regionals is to launch a crowd-sourcing pilot project at one of its Liverpool newspaper titles.

Speaking at the Journalism Leaders Forum, at the University of Central Lancashire yesterday, Trinity Regionals editorial director, Neil Benson, told attendees the group was taking its first step into crowd sourcing with its ‘Making the News’ project.

Speaking over a telephone link Benson said the project had been inspired by US crowd sourcing site Assignment Zero.

Why do things like Assignment Zero? (three)

Dan Barkin of the News & Observer, in reflections on the summit for his readers, said that “beware sudden coordination costs” made sense to him:

When we asked for help with the speeding project, all of a sudden I had more than a hundred e-mail messages and phone calls from people who wanted to be involved. Contacting them all, editing their contributions — thanking them — took weeks. Their involvement was invaluable, but this was just a baby step in citizen journalism. Fortunately, Rosen’s project and his lessons learned give people such as me a great road map on how to do more ambitious projects with you.

Here’s video of me presenting the heart of this post—the coordinates—to the CUNY Networked Journalism conference. Courtesy of cybersoc, Robin Hamman’s blog.

Here’s a good list of highlights from the conference.

John Abell, a pro-volunteer in Assignment Zero’s pro-am mix, in the comments: “Newsrooms developed as monasteries not because reporters were anointed (though many believe they were and are) but because there wasn’t really any frictionless way to include the public in the reporting enterprise.” Now there is. His calls Assignment Zero an “attempt to use common communication tools to create ad hoc communities of reporting teams, with a twist: There was to be a strict time limit and a finite, pre-selected choice of sagas to pursue.”

Some notes from the morning of the Jarvis summit:

Jarah Euston, founder of Fresno Famous, on what happened when McClatchy bought her site: “The community felt like it had been sold.” She said the same thing has happened at Newsvine with its sale to MSNBC.

Clear from the morning panels that printed newspaper pages is still where the revenue is, even for “user generated content.” Dan Barkin of the News & Observer says that any newspaper that is not doing reverse publishing—content produced for the web, re-packaged for print—is missing a trick.

Robin Hamman of the BBC says that a lot of media companies, including his own, are very excited about social media; to learn about it, however, they have to find people who are not journalists to teach their own troops how social media works.

“We can wave our big email address and say send us stuff.” Hamman says the BBC has done that for big international stories and gets a flood of material, with significant costs for sorting and replying. He thinks a better model is for people to post their stuff on a sharing site like YouTube, tag it properly, and let the BBC know so it can point to the material.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 9, 2007 4:01 PM   Print


This is a great analysis of Assignment Zero. Almost all of the contributors I have spoken with (and some I still keep in touch with) have said they learned something from the experience. I know I learned from AZ (and from you, Amanda, Tish, Jeff, etc, etc.).

Between running NewAssignment.Net's blog, Assignment Zero and now with the Networked Journalism Summit, I do feel like these types of practical solid lessons are starting to form. Funny enough -- I don't know if you or anyone involved in the project could have come to these conclusions without blindly stepping into this territory. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to break new ground.

I hope we get to try it again as you note with a less geeky and obscure topic.

Posted by: David Cohn at October 10, 2007 12:23 AM | Permalink

Amen in particular to David's last's my nominee for the next go-round: a media-related piece--maybe looking at consolidation? -- using a community of people devoted to media topics. In fact, I'll volunteer to recruit our community to get involved as a resource

Posted by: Rory O'Connor at October 10, 2007 12:20 PM | Permalink

Assessing how AZ did based on original intent or deviation from it, as some have done, strikes me as missing the point. Blue Sky projects -- the good ones, anyway -- don't remain true to original concepts that the process reveals are flawed.

My own takeaway as a "pro" volunteer on the AZ team is that there is a tremendous amount of energy and expertise outside the pro perimeter and that we are on only the leading edge of being able to capitalize on it.

Newsrooms developed as monasteries not because reporters were anointed (though many believe they were and are) but because there wasn't really any frictionless way to include the public in the reporting enterprise. They were sources, and readers. Technology has now changed that in ways I don't think most of us have begun to fully appreciate.

In my view AZ was an attempt to use common communication tools to create ad hoc communities of reporting teams, with a twist: There was to be a strict time limit and a finite, pre-selected choice of sagas to pursue. By this criteria, a reasonable one, it was a success. A single saga with a handful of new best friends would have been a success, so the scale to which it aspired can hardly be held against it.

But the truth is that pro-am collaborations are going on everywhere already and the participants may not even quite know it. We are not far from the time that public/professional collaborations are considered routine and that not drawing upon the crowd except when a story needs an initial cover of darkness will seem suspect.

AZ will have an important place in the history of that saga, I am sure.

Posted by: John C Abell at October 10, 2007 2:23 PM | Permalink

John C Abell: "... there wasn't really any frictionless way to include the public in the reporting enterprise."

That's excellent and I've never seen it stated that way before.

I wonder if that's always been true. Was it true when Ben Franklin was publishing? Or is it a more modern phenom (19th century, early 1900s)?

Would you agree that there is now an intentional friction meant to keep the public out of the newsroom, keeping the camel's nose out of the tent?

Posted by: Tim at October 10, 2007 8:09 PM | Permalink

@tim: "Would you agree that there is now an intentional friction meant to keep the public out of the newsroom, keeping the camel's nose out of the tent?"

I would say it is almost the reverse: There is a hunger to include the public in the process by all the big players. I think there is also still a sad tendency to be defensive about one's mistakes by some major media, and perhaps this is what is perceived to be pushing back the public.

At some point soon -- we will know it only in retrospect, so we may have already crossed over -- the "iPod moment" will occur, when readers are getting more of their news and information from amateurs rather than professional media. When that happens the question will be not whether the public should storm the gates of a resistant MSM but how much of traditional media is still viable. What will probably happen (it already is) is that MSM will buy up independents, and that will be the most likely way amateurs will infuse the system in large numbers.

Posted by: John C Abell at October 11, 2007 1:58 PM | Permalink

> "There is a hunger to include the public in the process by all the big players."

Maybe. But likely also fear. This past year I suggested a couple of pro-am projects to a paper but got no sign of interest. I don't know why - maybe I approached the wrong person, maybe my email has bad breath, maybe they just weren't promising projects - but I suspect fear of the unknown played a role. And it's not irrational, there are legitimate concerns.

I wonder, would the alternative press typically be more open to pro-am collaborations?

(and I second Tim's applause for John's "frictionless way to include the public" wording.)

Posted by: Anna at October 11, 2007 11:21 PM | Permalink

Me too. "No frictionless way to include the public" is an observation brilliantly put.

I hope you're right in what you said about AZ, John. I really do. Thanks for the variety of things you did as a pro joining in.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 12, 2007 12:12 AM | Permalink

re: "defensive about one's mistakes"

Good point. There is a difference between including the public in the (not frictionless) pre-publish process and including the public in the (more defensive) post-publish feedback loop.

Pro-am like AZ is groundbreaking in the pre-publish process, whereas ombuds and news councils are more focused on the post-publish after matter.

I was thinking about Abe Rosenthal when writing about the "camel's nose."

Posted by: Tim at October 12, 2007 2:42 AM | Permalink

NPR's On The Media did a feature on crowdsourcing built around interviews Bob Garfield did at the Networked Journalism Summit, including one he did with me.

Unfortunately he got the story--and facts--wrong, misreporting the sequence of what happened in Assignment Zero, probably because he had my part in the narrative all picked out before he did his interview with me.

Garfield asked me to start off by first telling his tape recorder what went right with Assignment Zero, and then what went wrong. Okay, I said.

For the "what went right" part I explained what I explained in this PressThink post: "When the editors of Assignment Zero hit upon the idea of asking contributors to pick from a list of key sources and do a single interview, returning the results as a cleaned-up but otherwise raw Q and A, the division of labor clicked with participants and the 'ask' worked." (Those weren't the words but that was my answer.)

For the what went wrong part I explained what I told Len Witt in an earlier Q and A: "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."

What I didn't focus on at the time (though I should have, because it's happened before with me and him) is that Garfield is one of those journalists who lets his gotcha mind think for him at times. And that's how he made his goof.

You see in reflex-driven gotcha journalism, which On The Media allows him to practice, "what went right?" is the PR question, the puff ball, the chance for a source to show off and spout off about the wonderful things he's been a part of, and the glorious success of his plans and schemes. What went wrong is, of course, the real question, the "journalism" part. That's where the professional reporter has to exert himself on behalf of the listeners and zero in.

But gotcha journalists are mindful of the demand to be fair. They know they have to make it sound like the good and the bad, what worked and what failed, have been equally weighed, and so they put into their stories the surface cues that they believe signal fairness, and this is what creates the freedom to blast, to needle, to demolish, to raise that big eyebrow of doubt-- and to play gotcha which is more fun than PR.

So now to Garfield's goof. The On the Media segment says...

that failure to finely calibrate expectations, along the lines of remove child before folding stroller, helped sink the highest profile experiment in journalistic crowdsourcing. That was Assignment Zero, the much heralded brainchild of NYU prof and blogger Jay Rosen.

Actually, AZ wasn't "much heralded" at all. David Carr and Joel Achenbach wrote about it before launch but that's about all the press it got. But Garfield needs that for his gotcha moment, coming here...

That project began auspiciously with participants quickly conducting interviews with 70 stories, then quickly everything unraveled.

This is where I come in, with the soundbite from Garfield's second question. "What went wrong?" I ask myself. I am then heard saying we kinda thought that if we divided up our trend stories into smaller parts people would self organize. But they didn't and so "our scheme fell apart."

The problem is it didn't happen that way. The project didn't "begin auspiciously with participants quickly conducting interviews with 70 stories," as Garfield said. It began with... "we kinda thought that if we divided up our trend stories into smaller parts people would self organize." When that didn't happen we had to think it through, re-design the site, and rework the project. It was out of that reworking--exactly what is supposed to happen in an experiment--that the (successful) plan for the interviews came.

Thus the "auspicious beginning" that OnTheMedia reported was actually the conclusion. Because of this error, his "Then quickly everything unraveled..." is a fictional construct. Gotcha Garfield got the sequence wrong. I answered his questions in the order he posed them--PR first, then the real story--and he just adopted that sequence as event chronology without checking. (It's an error quickly caught by reading my post and clicking a few links, but when Gotcha journalists think they got the goods they stop reporting.)

For good measure he threw in something else that's wrong. "Rosen also believed that the nature of the story didn't lend itself to narrow divisions of labor." I didn't say that, and it isn't correct. If he had asked me that question, I would have said that we didn't have the division of labor part right at the start but we got closer to it at the end with interview week and the 70+ Q and A's. This would have saved him from his error.

But that didn't fit his narrative, "much heralded crowdsourcing journalism project falls apart in practice."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 13, 2007 7:14 PM | Permalink

I posted this criticism at Buzzmachine, which had a post up about the On the Media segment, and at the On The Media site.

Garfield responded at Buzzmachine. He acknowledges no errors. He suggests I apologize to him for making wild charges. He references an earlier interview he did with me on the subject of NewAssignment.Net, which did not go well.

By contrast, the interview I did with him at the CUNY event went smoothly; it was a normal interview, one in a series for a taped piece. It was in putting together the story that he erred.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 14, 2007 12:14 AM | Permalink

Jay, it's easy for me to notice now but didn't you think (at the time) that asking you those conclusion type questions (what went right?/what went wrong?) at the beginning of exploring the topic was really not a good sign? Couldn't you have said..."no, let's not do that right now -- it's not the right time for it"? D.

Posted by: Delia at October 14, 2007 12:27 AM | Permalink

No, I didn't think about it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 14, 2007 1:02 AM | Permalink

I think Bob Garfield should save himself some time and instead of reviewing the raw tape on Monday, he should just post it for everyone to review.

Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2007 2:41 PM | Permalink

'Forbes' Puts Journalists on Endangered Species List

Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2007 3:07 PM | Permalink

Gotcha journalists generally don't do that, so I wouldn't expect it.

But it is telling that his only concern is what's on the tape, not what's in the factual record and already established about Assignment Zero.

He's not thinking about misinforming On the Media listeners about Assignment Zero--which already happened--but whether the tape will establish that he had non-gotcha reasons for putting together the report he did. He believes I don't recall what I said and that therefore the tapes will establish his complete professionalism.

As he said at Buzzmachine, "I have all the raw tape from the Rosen interview, which I will review at the earliest opportunity. I’m pretty sure he’s entirely wrong, however, and that the tape supports the narrative every which way."

On the tape I discuss what went right first, because he asked me to. Then I discuss what went wrong, because he asked me to. Garfield didn't ask me to establish which came first because he wasn't interested in what went right-- to him that's just PR, and not worth a follow up question. The journalism is in what went wrong, the moment when "it all fell apart."

So listening to the tape won't help him establish how he made his sequencing error. He would have to click a few links and read my post, or Len Witt's interview, or Jeff Howe's Wired essay. He would have to know something about Assignment Zero, not just his interview.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 14, 2007 3:21 PM | Permalink

It gets funnier at Buzzmachine, Hubbard Sands Says::

Word to the wise Professor Rosen, sometimes sources don’t like how journalist’s stories portray them. You are the one who decided to spend 90 minutes with Bob Garfield and his tape recorder.
Oh, the humble interview ...

Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2007 9:24 PM | Permalink


I'm having a hard time equating Garfield's sequence screw-up with gotcha.

To me, he is sensationalizing AZ ... both in its buildup and failure. It's more sensational to portray AZ as on track with a fast start that then unraveled and failed, then as it was - a slow start that found some footing at the finale.

Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2007 10:02 PM | Permalink

I also wanted to point out this from Garfield: "There is certainly no dispute on the ultimate failure of Assignment Zero, yet the tone of my piece with respect to it is altogether neutral."

I disagree. I didn't think the tone was neutral, at all. I thought the tone was very evaluative and personal.

Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2007 10:16 PM | Permalink

I consider Garfield a gotcha journalist based on my direct experience with him in several interviews for On The Media, and in particular the contrast between him and Brooke Gladstone, the other host of the program, who does not do that.

In this piece, it's a factor because he was completely uninterested in what went right. Had he been more interested in what went right, he would not have made his error. He would have asked a follow up question about the 70+ interviews so that he could understand how they came about. But there's no "gotcha" in what went right.

Gotcha journalists, when called on their behavior, always say the same thing: they accuse the source of wanting "softball" questions, expecting puffery, demanding that journalists behave like publicity agents rather than probing reporters. This is what Garfield did at Buzzmachine.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 14, 2007 10:50 PM | Permalink

Interesting, gotcha journalists fall back on the same "overdetermined plot" that all journalists fall back on when faced with "too negative" criticism.

Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2007 11:45 PM | Permalink

Conducting an experiment in journalism, Jay Rosen is forced to revise his hypothesis to fit his early results. The utility of his corrected hypothesis establishes definitively that his initial hypothesis was significantly in error!

Is it too Freudian to find it symptomatic that a gotcha journalist is unable to wrap his mind around the concept of the scientific method--that data both support and challenge almost any sophisticated hypothesis, that adjusting for error is how we expand knowledge?

In other words, it seems the gotcha approach to journalism nearly precludes learning from experience in principle.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 15, 2007 1:19 PM | Permalink

Perhaps another way of describing gotcha journalism is as the unthinking presumption that any and every interviewee will always be unceasingly cynical, duplicitous, and self-serving.

Is it really that difficult to reflect on whether this assumption actually happens to apply to the interviewee in question? There are public figures whose past performance requires this attitude and more. Others with more checkered careers. It verges on self-parody to insist on applying this sort of standard to an avowedly experimental project that is explicitly designed to organize a feedback loop between assumptions and results.

Most maddening of all is how this fits into a larger press performance record of abject complicity in serving the ends of power and authority, but magical rediscovery of backbone when it comes to applying relentless and cynical skepticism to anything that might actually improve the broken status quo.

Perhaps we might summarize the credo of this side of the contemporary press in the following way:

Credulity toward abuse of power, implacable and militantly uninformed skepticism toward credible reform!

A proud and noble tradition indeed.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 15, 2007 1:48 PM | Permalink

From Buzzmachine's comment thread:

Bob Garfield Says:
October 15th, 2007 at 1:45 pm

I have gone back and reviewed the raw tape from the interview. It appears as the sequencing mistake is just as you describe it: I assumed the “whole thing fell apart” part followed the “what went right” part. If any error could be deemed a natural one, this would seem to be it. Naturally, I am very sorry I got the order of things incorrect. In my 30-year career, the number of such mistakes I’ve made can be counted on Antonio Alfonseca’s two hands.

Now then:

1) As another commenter observes, there is no “gotcha,” because the incorrect sequence has little or no bearing on the overall discussion. If I had properly understood the sequence of events, my script would have been slightly different, but the thrust of the section on AssignmentZero would have been he same.

2) There is no “gotcha” because the tone of this section is not especially negative or judgmental, much less confrontational or gloating.

3) Your behavior remains disgraceful. On the basis of an unfortunate but utterly understandable chronology mistake, you have publicly attacked my integrity. I await your apology.

4) Your principal accusation, that I am a “gotcha” journalist, is partly correct. Sometimes I am an explanatory journalist, as in the piece in question. Sometimes I am a satirical journalist. Sometimes I am a purely objective reporter. And sometimes, as a watchdog and critic, I indeed aim to catch others in their trespasses. Gotcha.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 15, 2007 3:55 PM | Permalink

I call BS on Garfield's #1. Prove it. Provide the different script with the same thrust.

I'll help, this part is now an admitted falsehood:

That project began auspiciously with participants quickly conducting interviews with 70 stories, then quickly everything unraveled.
This was never true:
that failure to finely calibrate expectations, along the lines of remove child before folding stroller, helped sink the highest profile experiment in journalistic crowdsourcing. That was Assignment Zero, the much heralded brainchild of NYU prof and blogger Jay Rosen.
My understanding has always been that it not contributor expectations that caused the early stumbling at AZ, but rather because there wasn't an "encyclopedia, right!" understanding to pro-am crowdsource reporting.

I've already called BS on Garfield's #2.

So what does the new script look like, without the wrong sequence ... and without the complete misunderstanding of what caused AZ to stumble in the beginning and what learning took place ... and arriving at a non-judgmental, neutral explanation of AZ's results? Narrative bias?

Posted by: Tim at October 15, 2007 5:26 PM | Permalink

Don't you understand, it's your fault that Bob Garfield doesn't feel it's necessary to actually know what he's talking about before he expresses an opinion on something. Contextual ignorance is the industry standard, so no harm there. And to think that you even failed to divine in advance how he would misrepresent you thereby refusing to help him do it more professionally?! How disgraceful. Apologize already!

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 15, 2007 5:33 PM | Permalink

Bob Garfield, watchdog and critic of potential reform.

Where would we be without press lions such as Bob Garfield defending us from the potential danger of better ideas.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 15, 2007 5:40 PM | Permalink


Please delete the 2d (redundant) comment above. I cross-posted the comment at Buzzmachine.

I also wanted to link one of your earlier essays to this one: I am Not Optimistic But I Do Have Hope, scroll down to Character cops and the gotcha game

Posted by: Tim at October 15, 2007 5:58 PM | Permalink

re Mark Anderson's
"...abject complicity in serving the ends of power and authority, but magical rediscovery of backbone when it comes to applying relentless and cynical skepticism to anything that might actually improve the broken status quo."

Mark, that was glorious. Thank you.

Re gotcha journalists (like, umm...) I wish there was a compendium of journalism styles akin to Mike Reed's Flame Warrior Roster - "gotcha", "blue suits", "sighs and whispers", "racetrack bookie"...
(these are poor names, sorry; perhaps someone could improve them?)

Posted by: Anna at October 15, 2007 7:45 PM | Permalink

Here's a comment from Bob Garfield in response to a critical review of a piece he did in March, 2007. I love this:

“I promise that under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn't trouble myself to respond, but as i see you have 17 other blogs linked to yours, I thought I might just clear up a few things for any innocent bystanders:”

(BTW, his comment is at the bottom of the post.)

Posted by: Kristen at October 15, 2007 9:30 PM | Permalink

I tied to post this at Buzzmachine. It didn't appear. I edited it and re-tried. It said I double posted. I don't know what will appear at Buzzmachine or when. This is what I wanted to post.

Well, thank you for acknowledging that mistake.

"My script would have been slightly different, but the thrust of the section on Assignment Zero would have been he same..."

Really? I wonder, Bob, how many students of narrative-or indeed ordinary listeners-- would agree with you that things went right, at first, then they went wrong... is essentially the same story piece, and functions for listeners the same way as things went wrong at first... but then they went right...

I would see those sequences as very different story "thrusts." One sequence, the one that didn't happen, supports an "Assignment Zero: pro-am hopes get wrecked" narrative (that's the one you reported, mistakenly.) The other sequence, which did happen, supports "Assignment Zero: pro-am learning curve," the story that I think you missed. (Not that your listeners will ever know you missed it. But do see this post from Dan Pacheco for what I mean by the learning curve.)

But again, maybe you are correct when you say there really is no difference between those two, and the error is trivial because everyone knows that Assignment Zero was a big bust, anyway. I mean everyone who's into neutral description, as I know you are.

These guys--J-Lab at University of Maryland--dissented a little. They gave honorable mention to Assignment Zero in the annual Knight-Batten innovation awards. I make no large claims for this award; I think it is a very modest achievement. You say "there is certainly no dispute on the ultimate failure of Assignment Zero." But what were these (news industry) judges thinking? Let's give it to the project where it all fell apart?

Summing up: I said that your description was in error and that I should have remembered: you occasionally let your gotcha mind take over.

You said that your description was, yes, understandably in error and, yes, you occasionally operate as a gotcha journalist.

I also argued that there's a connection between the error you made and the "gotcha" mindset. The connection is that a gotcha journalist isn't very curious about what went right because there's no gotcha, bad-news-detection, "then everything fell apart,"points to plot in that. You say no way.

Fair enough. But I would call that a legitimate difference of opinion well within the bounds of normal criticism. To me there is nothing sinister--just neutral Bob reporting!--in your suggestion that I waltz into radio studios expecting NPR hosts to blow air kisses and validate my schemes. Now that's criticism. Rough words, but so what? This is blogging. There are sharp disagreements sometimes.

In gotcha journalism, I said, "what went right?" is always the PR question, the puff ball, the chance for a source to show off and spout off about the wonderful things he's been a part of, and the glorious success of his plans and schemes. What went wrong is, of course, the real question, and the "journalism" part lies there.

Anyone wondering why newsrooms have not been sites of innovation might well begin with the easy outs in gotcha journalism, a temper of mind that can be applied to everything. There are plenty of newsroom people who can testify about its corrosive and self-defeating power within the legacy media culture of their joint.

Make a great segment for On The Media.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 15, 2007 11:42 PM | Permalink

My God, but what a Jay-Rosen-centric worldview you have. This explains a lot, because your scenario for my thinking and how I go about my business presumes that I get up in the morning wondering how I might diminish Jay Rosen and his projects.

But I don't. It so happens, I'm a big advocate of distributed journalism in various forms, and I think your work is interesting and in some respects promising. Otherwise, I wouldn't be devoting a book chapter to it, and I surely wouldn't have left a sickbed to shlep around the conference for 11 hours and pull a 16-hour day the next day to produce a piece which we hadn't even planned for the week's show.

It's true, I believed last year and believe now that your experiment was too divorced from the real world to be much of a model for the future. That's why I asked you a number of challenging questions in our previous interview (which is, by the way, not called "gotcha journalism." It's called "journalism.")

However -- I know this will be difficult for you to grasp, but take a deep breath -- since then I hadn't given you or your project much thought. I've been pretty much absorbed in about 300 other subjects across the whole breadth of media, marketing and government. That's right, Professor. While you are obviously at the center of the solar syste, you just not all that important to me.

But then, Wednesday morning, there you were at CUNY, up at the podium holding forth on Assignment Zero. And what was the subject? Oh, I know: all the things you would have done differently.

So you see, the notion that AssignmentZero wasn't a riproaring success wasn't my construct.

It was yours.

And since all the planets revolve around you, who am I to argue?


-- since over there in the Ivory Tower nobody ever bothered to show you how journalism is actually conducted, and

-- since you continue to make bizarre, defamatory and pathologically self-involved accusations about how I conduct my business, and

-- since I obviously am never going to get an apology from you for your childish and boorish behavior, might I just just suggest that you grow up, and shut up?

Posted by: Bob Garfield at October 16, 2007 1:00 AM | Permalink


Otherwise, I wouldn't be devoting a book chapter to it, and I surely wouldn't have left a sickbed to ...

Just to be clear, the book chapter is about crowdsourced journalism in general-- NOT about AssignmentZero in particular.

Posted by: Bob Garfield at October 16, 2007 1:09 AM | Permalink

Wowzer. Well, I think that wraps up this frank exchange of views with Bob Garfield. Further dialogue would be both fruitless and heartless.

Should be a zinger of a chapter, though.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 16, 2007 1:51 AM | Permalink

The fact that Bob Garfield imagines his personal state of mind is the acid test of the professional, moral, and ethical consequences of his actions on others tells you all you need to know about who thinks they are the center of whose solar system.

It's Bob Garfield's world and the rest of us just happen to be incompetently reported on in it. If he didn't mean to wildly distort the very premise of Jay Rosen's actions, no biggie. Because how can what he does possibly be considered bad reporting if it doesn't also involve obsession and stalking.

Jay, I can see these Garfield Principles being proudly passed on from generation to generation of future journalism students. A new, more practical, real-world credo they can live and work by. Bob Garfield thoughtfully personifies for us a new standard for a new world--the journalistic equivalent of the Bybee torture memos:

If my reporting does not involve antisocial or self-consciously sociopathic behavior, it does not violate journalistic standards so shut up and apologize.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 16, 2007 11:46 AM | Permalink

Why We Hate the Media

Also recommend Breckenridge's essay in Winter 2000 Neiman Reports, Wanted: a 21st Century Journalist

The commonality of journalism's Garfields has done a lot of damage over the past 30 years (how long has Garfield been in the biz?).

Posted by: Tim at October 16, 2007 1:36 PM | Permalink

What have I stumbled upon here...Fight Club?

Mark Anderson, you forget that I owned up to my reporting mistake. What I objected to -- and continue to object to -- is the accusation that I was on a mission to misrepresent Jay Rosen and his work. That accusation is a lie. Simple as that. But the lie seems to be caught up in your own paranoic assumptions about the Monolithic Old Media. You sound like a bunch of Scientologists. It gives me the creeps.

Posted by: Bob Garfield at October 16, 2007 4:01 PM | Permalink

No Bob, you did not own up to your own reporting mistake.

The false narrative you constructed, converting scientific feedback into failure, is no less a part of your reporting failure than your problem with the facts of the case. I'm still waiting for a recognition of responsibility on your part there.

"Different facts, same narrative" is gibberish and you know it.


You need to read Freud at home a little more and act out in public a little less.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 16, 2007 4:19 PM | Permalink


Righto, Mark. I'll get right on that.

Posted by: Bob Garfield at October 16, 2007 4:54 PM | Permalink

I am done with this. What I had to say I said. Excessive flaming will cause the thread to be shut down. If Bob wants to continue with PressThink commenters, fine, but if it's just more ugliness, what's the point?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 16, 2007 4:57 PM | Permalink

I'm done.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 16, 2007 6:12 PM | Permalink

You put up with that thread a lot longer than I would have...

If you don't mind, I'm going to rewind the tape to when we weren't speaking of a tape.

As the principal reporter on the midpoint story (or, as you put it, the "initial results"), I was standing there when AZ really turned the corner and, in an Avenue Q moment, Found Its Purpose. (That makes me part of the continually sullied "only 28% worked" crowd, but I'll set that aside for a moment.)

I think the Q-and-A format gave the volunteer contributors a reasonable and understandable set of boundaries that didn't require mastery of journalism itself, "gotcha" or otherwise.

I'm wondering about this:

Derek Powazek is right: “People won’t do what you say because you just told them to.” It sounds simple, but the difference between Powazek’s Law and a command-and-control system (like a newsroom) is profound and decisive. This is one reason amateur production will never replace the system of paid correspondents. It only springs to life when people are motivated enough to self-assign and follow through. Experience suggests that will happen spontaneously for a very limited range of stories.

This suggests to me the freelancing model, wherein people self-assign but are compensated -- it's not quite an either/or (full disclosure: I'm currently freelancing, so it's at the top of my head). There's some kind of correlation -- the more you pay someone, the less self-motivation is needed (at this end of the continuum lies the command-and-control newsroom that you cite), and if you're relying on free labor, you end up with your very limited range of stories (the pro-am model wherein the ams are unpaid).

Everyone has individual interests. The challenge is aggregating them into something resembling what we think of as a newspaper today. Most blogs, for example, stick to a very few topics. I'll be interested to see how a networked journalism project can work on a pro-am model, where pros ensure that a broad enough range of topics is being covered, while the ams remain unpaid and conscious of their status as "the amateurs."

Posted by: Mike of Concrete at October 16, 2007 6:13 PM | Permalink

It was nice to re-read Fallows' piece on why we hate the media.
Fallows looks at the media as it appears to those of us on the outside. Pressthink looks at the media from the inside looking in. Little or no consideration of how you look to the consumer.
This is unfortunate, since in the real world how you look to the outside determines your future.

We have the NYT lamenting the loss of a defining atrocity (Haditha) and not mentioning a hometown Medal of Honor winner. The previous NY MOH winner got part of a graf in the midst of an article about Bush and Congress over Iraq.
We have quite a number of folks recounting part of Sanchez' speech, not the part where he flays the media. But that's getting out anyway. So we have two facts. One is that he said it. The other is that you guys tried to spike it. Better, all in all, to have let it out. Then you wouldn't have gotten busted spiking it, anyway.
The Israelis blew up a Syrian reactor. You'd think it would be newsworthy that the IAEA says they know nothing about it.
A couple of reporters went on television, in front of God and everybody, and smirked about why they didn't think it would be a good idea to report decreasing casualties in Iraq.

You guys are doing it to yourselves. Thing is, you don't have to. But it's like a tropism or something.

You don't have to do this.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 16, 2007 7:12 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Mike.

If you have any other nuances that should be added to my list of lessons, or lessons beyond what's already been said about AZ in other forums, do tell.

My “about 28 percent of what we did worked" comment was not about what you and other contributors did; it referred to what the people running the experiment did.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 17, 2007 8:27 AM | Permalink

Bob Garfield's Track Record

Posted by: Mark Anderson at October 17, 2007 11:59 AM | Permalink

From the Intro