Q&A: Jay Rosen and Assignment Zero

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, built NewAssignment.net as a laboratory on the Internet to test whether the same Web-based collaboration that spawned Wikipedia, the Firefox browser from Mozilla and the Linux operating system could spur a new form of journalism.

Assignment Zero, the site’s first experiment in collaboration with Wired, is to cover the small but growing trend of crowdsourcing using crowdsourcing—that is having large groups of people spread across the world working together to report and write about the phenomenon of large groups of people working collaboratively from far flung areas to produce high quality work.

“We are trying to figure out whether you can do open platform journalism and whether there are advantages to it,” said Rosen, who emphasized that this is “just an initial test.”

Rosen spoke to OJR about how the Assignment Zero experiment is progressing and what he hopes to learn from the results.

OJR: Why this particular topic for Assignment Zero?

Rosen: We used the gift of particularity that an assignment like this with Wired gives us. We don’t have to ask ourselves what on earth should we investigate because we have to investigate something that’s of interest to Wired, and so the collaboration helped focus our first efforts and give some shape to our story.

It’s also an initial test that also helped us launch our site. Because it’s hard to think of what should be in your site if you want to do open source reporting. It’s very difficult to think of something in the abstract and try and build something that works for a practice that doesn’t exist yet. So instead of doing that we just built what we needed for this assignment.

OJR: What are the criteria for whether the final product is a success or a failure?

Rosen: And there’s a number of answers to that. The most important result is learning how to practice in this area. That’s all I am trying to do we are trying to learn how to practice in this area. Where you have the many reporting and a few editing, is there a way to do it? What do you need to be prepared for? How do you motivate people to contribute? What can volunteer users do? What do they have trouble doing? All these questions are open questions and so our first imperative is simply to learn a lot about that and to learn the lessons that can only be gotten through practice.

The other goal is the work of journalism at the end is exactly going to be lots of pieces of journalism that we can compare to other forms and we can compare to standard methods. So there will be a Wired.com cover story written by Jeff Howe, who is a Wired writer, that would draw on Assignment Zero and link downward to it and at the same time we will publish a editor’s cut or edited package of features and interviews and articles and close ups–recognizable forms of journalism that can be compared to peer products as it were. So these are all ways of judging what we are doing and I think it will be pretty easy for people to judge. I’m trying to kind of make it easy by doing something recognizable on the one hand but novel for journalism on the other.

OJR: The idea of how open source reporting might work is important given some of the problems that can crop up working in an open source environment. How do you plan to deal with these negative aspects as they come up?

Rosen: Here is the way I think of it. I said we are doing an open platform reporting. We are trying to capture some of the benefits of openness. What are they? Well it’s not a big mystery. It starts with what Dan Gillmor said – readers know more than I do.

So we picked a story where we think users know a lot more than we do because the spread of crowd sourcing and open collaboration is in fact a sprawling story. So we are trying to get the benefits of openness like that crowd is more diverse than we are and has more perspectives than we do. And when you try to gain the benefits of the openness you also know that there is a lot of cost, there is a lot of problems that come with openness. And so working in this area, is by definition trying to capture the benefits and solve the problems or reduce the costs and if a reporter comes along, as many have, and brings up one of those costs and says “what about this?”

Well the answer is almost always going to be the same it’s a problem we are working on that and the solution is going to be different in each case and most of them don’t have magical solutions. They have approximate solutions.

So if you can reduce the costs enough and you can get the benefits it may be worth doing. But I can’t even tell you right now that it is. I don’t know yet, we are trying to find that out. I don’t know that this is going to work. I think it’s the most important thing to mention in this interview. We don’t know yet what the potential is. A lot of people think that there could be potential and I am one of them but by practicing we will reveal some of the problems.

OJR: Based on the volunteers that you have gotten so far, what is it that is driving these people to, as you say, “commit acts of journalism for free?”

Rosen: We hope to have a better understanding of that at the end than we do now, but a lot of them are well aware of the citizen journalism discussion. They see themselves as participants in it. They want to be part of it. It’s sort of like the de-professionalisation of journalism appeals to them, but its not that they are terribly ideological about it. They are not. In some cases it’s somebody who took a few journalism courses in college and so it’s a road not taken but still of interest. Some of them are dissatisfied with the way professional journalism has been conducted. Some of them have an interest in this subject that we are investigating here, and a lot of them we don’t exactly know. We don’t know what they intend yet and we don’t know why they joined and this is not unusual in a project like this.

OJR: There is a certain amount of enthusiasm when things are novel that drives people to want to participate. How will you sustain that interest and enthusiasm from start to finish?

Rosen: Definitely, that’s a major challenge, preventing premature disillusionment. I wouldn’t say we totally succeeded at that and that we have seen that happen. Sustaining involvement is definitely a huge puzzle.

I consider that this participation the part of this work to be puzzles within puzzles. It’s all really fascinating and difficult to understand.

OJR: As a pilot project, everyone is watching Assignment Zero very closely. With the limited resources of independent journalists or small publishers, how might they implement aspects the Assignment Zero model?

Rosen: The whole point of NewAssignment.net is for people to take what we are doing and develop it. That’s why I founded this project. It’s supposed to give its results away, it is itself a part of the gift economy.

And my belief is that since this is simply a set of tools you let people practice in this area and they use these tools the way they want to, they will start inventing things, creating things, discovering things that others will be able to pick up very quickly. So I can write 10 blog posts about how open source journalism could work should work but if I can send people one URL where a smart editor is organizing a group of people they will get it like that.

OJR: There are also hurdles in journalism culture that make this a hard sell to some organizations and journalists even if you were to prove it a success.

Rosen: I could think of a zillion and one ways in which it would be a hard sell. And there are also hidden weaknesses and traps in it that I think will come out. Because there’s a ton of problems–and I can’t stress this enough–with an open approach to reporting.

That’s why everybody loves the idea of blogging as in individual writers giving their opinion. But when we are trying to figure out the right route to reliable information than a whole bunch of new problems arise. And I just wanted to steer right towards the biggest problems because I feel that I don’t really think that I am going to figure this puzzle out. I think it’s going to be someone somewhere looking at what we are doing or reading about it who says to themselves – that’s not the way to do it, you know there is a simpler way. And they’ll figure it out. But that’s fine. Again, that’s what NewAssignment.net is; it’s not a company. Its only mission is to spark innovation. So I have a very simple agenda and I don’t care where the innovation happens.

OJR: Did the fact that you have never been a professional journalist help or hinder when putting this project together?

Rosen: I haven’t been a journalist and so I do approach the routines and rituals of American professional journalism in a more anthropological way and a lot of what journalists do seems very strange to me, but I have made a study of the routines and rituals of the press, and there are parts of them I know better than professional journalists. Not in the sense that I know how to do the job better than them, I don’t. I rarely tell journalists what they should do, in terms of like editing their newspaper or covering their story. Usually they know much better than I do but if you look at parts of their professional life, I know them better.

One of them for example is the legitimacy system that they use to derive their rationale. I studied that and know where it comes from. They tend to just reproduce it you know. It’s nature to them. It’s professional culture to me.

But this thing is not really about that. What I am trying to do with Assignment Zero is it doesn’t really have its reference points in the problems of the newsroom. It really has a different reference point which is the fact that open source projects have succeeded in other areas and so we know people can collaborate online and then pool what they know. So we are trying to figure out can this work in journalism too.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, he wasn’t inventing a new platform for CNN, he wasn’t trying to put the newspaper out of business, and he wasn’t trying to create a multimedia world. What he was trying to do when he invented the World Wide Web was make it possible for people in a scientific community interested in the same problem to share knowledge and to share data and work together.

So collaboration is not something new in use of the Web; it is in fact the original motivation for creating the Web and it’s in the DNA of this wonderful machine. And so I see what we are doing as springing from original promise of the web which is a democratic promise. It’s the idea that we are stronger together if we share what we know. Than if we are atomized and alone. And it’s not really the obsessions of the newsroom that gave rise to what I am doing now.

OJR: How do you plan to handle info overload in this project as it flows in from the legions of volunteers?

Rosen: If you invite participation that generates a lot of activity and that activity generates certain costs, like returning e-mail, for example, and if you simply try to absorb those costs by hiring more people your project runs out of money within a week. And so this point has been reached many times in open source projects and the way they work and the way they scale, as people say in the valley, is that you have to convert some of those participants to organizing the others.

And those people frequently called super contributories if you look in the literature on online organizing you’ll find that these are key players right in your volunteer core. And so that’s what you a have to do you have to configure participants so that they themselves absorb the cost of organizing other participants. I can’t say that we have done that completely yet but we are highly aware of the problem.

One of the coolest things I think in NewAssignment.net and this is something that I am going to develop more of as I go along is we have a director of participation. Her name is Amanda Michel and I got her from the world of online organizing and politics. She worked in online organizing for Dean and for Kerry. And she could have worked and made quite a bit of money actually doing the same thing in the ‘08 cycle but she is more interested in the media side of things.

And so I went out and this is the person I found when I went out looking for somebody who would actually organized people horizontally on the net to work under high pressure conditions where being wrong could have consequences right. That’s what I had wanted somebody who had done that because that’s what kind of situation we are in. So the director of participation their job is to organize people while the editors who are much more traditional figures organize the story. And learning how those two jobs work and how they those two people can work together is another thing that we are trying to discover here. And there has never been a need to organize people to report stories except for the news people. This is all a whole other kind of thing and you need somebody working on that. You need someone who is constantly removing barriers making participation easier because participation always has costs and they can get high very quickly either for you like the institution doing it like Assignment Zero or for the participants.

And if you are battling those costs constantly your project quickly becomes unworkable.

OJR: What’s the timeline for you the work that comes from this reporting?

Rosen: Yeah there will be we are looking right now… this could change of course. But right now we are looking at about June 4th or 5th to publish and so everything has to work backwards from there.

But we are going to have a filter and we are going to have… hope to have a verification round but we might end up like with two days of back checking by crowd you know what I mean. Throw everybody at what we need to check really we don’t know yet but that’s exactly why we are doing this and journalism doesn’t happen until the familiar structures of bylines and deadlines and you know…

So basically we are going to let 40 people steer 40 pages through to completed text and publish the best of them and Jeff Howe will do an overview.

'Alive in Baghdad' uses Web to report the everyday dangers in Iraq

Brian Conley visited Iraq in October 2005 and spent three weeks filming a documentary about the life of Iraqis in a war zone. Accompanied by a translator and no security detail, he interviewed Iraqis about their lives at a time when the United States was struggling to shape some semblance of stability out of the growing chaos.

But instead of creating a documentary that screens at film festivals, he decided to create a website that “airs” short videos weekly. The site, Alive in Baghdad, has seen its traffic rise to well beyond film festival capacity.

“We’ve grown to actually become a small organization,” said Conley. “We have two Iraqi correspondents producing stories about daily life in Baghdad.”

Conley, 26, spoke to OJR about the challenges of running an independent Web operation that focuses on the lives of Iraqi struggling to survive in a war zone.

OJR: When I Google the word “Baghdad” and “video,” Alive in Baghdad comes up as the No. 1 result — above CNN, MSNBC, the BBC or Al Jazeera. What does this mean to you?

Conley: I think one thing is that we’ve got a niche. Alive in Baghdad is video only about Iraq and at this point still primarily about Baghdad. I think that if you look up “news” and “video,” you’ll likely get CNN much higher. But if you are looking for something about Baghdad specifically with video, there we are. It is really great for us because it means that we are really getting our message out that we have video about life in Baghdad.

OJR: The Alive in Baghdad correspondents… are they shooting and editing the video or does it come back to you?

Conley: They edit the video to the degree that they select tapes, but as of right now we do the editing here in the States. We try to take pains to do the editing in a way that it captures the story that they are interested in telling. And so far we haven’t had anybody say that ‘you took it out of context’ or ‘that is not what I was trying to get at.’

We try to produce stories in collaboration, where I’ll pitch some story ideas to the guys over there, and they’ll pitch story ideas to me. Then we come up with what’s do-able and what makes sense.

OJR: Do consider yourself a news organization?

Conley: Well, we take pains to be somewhat objective and unbiased.

OJR: What does “objectivity” mean to an independent Web-based organization?

Conley: I think being objective means that we always say that this is the story, these are the limitations of the story, and these are limitations for us get the story. Depending on the story, we try three to five sources but sometimes it is difficult. We did a piece about young people in Baghdad and what do they do for entertainment. We ended up airing it with only one interview because after trying for three months, we just couldn’t get the young people to even talk on camera about something as basic as “what do you do for fun?” Everyone is just so scared. Those were the limitations in that piece.

We also take really great pains to educate the correspondents. One correspondent very often would ask leading questions. So we told him to be more general. Don’t say, “Tell me about your son who was killed by the Americans,” say, “Tell me what happened to your son.”

OJR: And what are some of the challenges of running Alive in Baghdad?

Conley: Iraq and Baghdad have gotten more and more dangerous. We are realizing we have to branch out and find correspondents in different neighborhoods because somebody in one area doesn’t feel safe covering another area. But if we want to maintain balance and objectivity, we need to get stories from different parts of Baghdad instead of just one or two neighborhoods. That’s particularly challenging.

Tied to that is the issue of translations. I’m trying to get translations done in time to produce a story for every Monday. We have correspondents from one part of the Baghdad ship the video to us by DHL, which provides some level of security. Then in Boston, we capture the video as highly compressed QuickTime movies and then send the files by email or FTP to a translator in another part of Baghdad. The correspondent who shot the video from one part of Baghdad doesn’t feel safe traveling to another part of the city to hand the tapes to the translator.

OJR: You have actually interviewed an insurgent and a mother of a suicide bomber. Do you sometimes have to defend Alive in Baghdad from people accusing it of giving terrorists a platform?

Conley: Yeah, it’s definitely been a huge issue. Do I think that larger news organizations should be reporting on the military issues and interviewing politicians, and government officials? Yes, I certainly do. Right now CNN does that, MSNBC and other organizations do that fairly well.

I think that we are doing something very different. We are trying very hard to have a mixture of stories about the direct impact of the war, whether it’s about someone whose son was killed fighting the Americans, or a family whose home was smashed up during a raid by the U.S. forces. We are producing pieces that are just daily life in wartime stories. We try to get a variety of stories–from a piece about a house that was hit by a rocket to a story about a guy trying to figure out how to get electricity.

OJR: Do you have a sense of who is watching these videos globally?

Conley: It’s primarily the coastal areas of the United States, with some from the middle of the country. And Europe. There are some dedicated viewers in Japan with a surprisingly large upsurge in Brazil.

OJR: Specifically Brazil?

Conley: Yeah. We didn’t have a very big penetration in South America until some an article came out the press in Brazil in January or February. Since then the audience in Brazil has ballooned.

OJR: What about from Iraq itself?

Conley: Some, but not a lot.

OJR: Do you see a time when traditional media might rely on Alive in Baghdad to get the type coverage that they are currently not getting… somewhat of a symbiotic relationship in which you provide content and they funnel their massive following to your site?

Conley: I think a large part of this is just having more people be aware that the project exists and that they can find alternative coverage from Iraq. The larger media corporations won’t be able to get away with just saying, “sorry but this is the best coverage we can do,” because people can see the coverage we are doing.

The BBC and Sky News as well other media companies have approached us about doing work with them. I will pretty soon have a short documentary for BBC News and the licensing of five of our stories from Alive in Baghdad to Sky News for use during the anniversary of the war.

We are hoping to create a relationship where one of these media companies would air each week a weekly episode or one episode a month or something. And it still remains to be seen how we are going to work it out.

OJR: How are you financially supporting Alive in Baghdad?

Conley: We have pretty lucrative contracts with Sky News and BBC. We are also about to sign a contract with a company called Next News Network and that will finally let us pay a regular salary to Steve Wyshywaniuk, our editor and myself. Because of these deal, we can continue to produce for the next six or seven months as well as a probably hire a third correspondent.

OJR: If and when the U.S. forces leave Iraq, what role will Alive in Baghdad play?

Conley: That’s something I was thinking about a lot this summer when it was looking as though a withdrawal might even come sooner than first expected. What I realized is that once the American troops leave, so will the rest of the media. We have to scramble to get as much out of this as possible at that time so people will still keep their eyes on Iraq. That’s really important.

From New York to L.A… by way of Paris

When Meredith Artley started her journalism career as a producer for NYTimes.com in 1996, there was a distinct power structure in the online newsroom of the Times. The editors mostly came to the website after decades of experience at the paper while the producers were fresh to journalism–with more experience with HTML than reporting and writing. That was the case at most newspaper websites.

Earlier this month, that distinction was laid to rest when Artley was tapped by the Los Angeles Times to become one of the first of the digital generation to assume the leadership of a major newspaper website. Despite cost cutting at the Tribune Company, the news organization has big expectations of Artley as the executive editor of the LATimes.com. She is charged with overseeing an expansion of the online staff, a redesign of the site, the launch of new projects and integrating the print and online newsrooms.

Artley spoke to OJR from Paris, France where she is wrapping up her work as at the digital development director at the International Herald Tribune website. During the interview, she gave advice on how smaller news organizations can integrate their print and online operations, how to produce high-quality digital journalism on a limited budget and setting up lucrative tie-ups between news organizations.

The complete interview. Speaker [17.75 MB]

Click on each speaker symbol below to hear Artley’s thoughts on specific topics (all links are mp3 format):

Speaker Introduction and Artley’s goals during the first year at the LATimes.com. [1.8 MB]

SpeakerChallenges facing regional news websites. [1.8 MB]

SpeakerCommon problems faced at the NYTimes.com, IHT.com and likely to face at LATimes.com. [2.8 MB]

SpeakerProblems integrating print and online news divisions early in the industry. [1.1 MB]

SpeakerHow is it likely to be different today? [1.9 MB]

SpeakerWhat resistance do online divisions face today? [1.4 MB]

SpeakerHow will you deal with all the expectations at LATimes.com with all the cost cutting? [2.1 MB]

SpeakerAdvice for smaller news organizations for creating a strong web presence despite smaller budgets. [3.1 MB]

SpeakerSetting up tie-ups between larger and smaller news organizations and blogs. [1.8 MB]