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Jay Rosen Draws a Crowd of 700; Now What?

Jay Rosen, one of the founders of the Public Journalism movement, is now pushing one of journalism’s most radical experiments with his Newassignment.net’s first experimental project. The topic, crowdsourcing, has, indeed, drawn a crowd. Some 700 people have signed up, and in this Leonard Witt IM Interview Rosen tells how he and his crew are trying to assemble the crowd into a working unit. If all works well, it will become a feature a feature at Wired.com.

Leonard Witt: Hi, Jay, we’re short on time, so let’s get right into it. Now that NewAssignment.net’s Assignment Zero is up and running, what’s the most compelling thing you want to tell the world about it?

Jay Rosen: I thought we would have 250 people by the end of Assignment Zero and maybe 150 would make significant contributions. Eleven days after launch we have more than 700. Way more than I expected. So that’s our first finding; people want to participate in journalism like this.

Witt: So what are all these people doing? DSC_0062.JPG

Rosen: Well, when they join Assignment Zero, they fill out a profile and get a blog. Then they can begin to scroll the various topics we are investigating — crowdsourced law enforcement, a new open source political party would be two examples — and see which ones interest them. Some are beginning to request gigs from us, and we have begun to make writing assignments. Other people are adding background research and links to topics. Some are discussing what else we should be checking out in the forum section. And some are wandering around, asking what they should do first. Obviously we have to do a better job with that last group.

Witt: Is it working as you expected it would? Any major anticipated or unanticipated hurdles? Anything keeping you awake at night?

Rosen: Lots to keep me awake. The site works in a crude way, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy to use. There are still annoying bugs that interfere with participation. We have to do better on clarity and user-friendliness. I am worried about managing expectations, about organizing 700 people, about overwhelming my editors, and several more things….And we have many hurdles yet to cross. Right now we have to improve a couple of key pages on the fly, including the Assignment Desk and the topic home page as in here. We have to show that there is value in posting a topic, then letting users add background and do reporting. I want to see topics develop online before they are assigned to writers, through the gradual layering of additional information from among our 700 members.

Witt: So how do you show there is value? I know this IM Interview takes a fair amount of time. But you are asking some people to do full blown profiles. Who is willing to do that and why?

Rosen: That’s something you’d have to ask our participants, and, later on, Amanda Michel, director of participation. I don’t want to speak for them when they could tell you themselves. But seems clear that there are people who want to try their hand at reporting and writing a piece of this story. Our method is to put them to work, then get to know them. In a few months, I will have a good answer to, “who is willing to do that and why?”

Witt: You have always framed this is as experiment. So success or failure, lots will be learned. What have you learned so far?

Rosen: There are people who want to play. They include people from many parts of the world. If you can figure out the right size thing to ask of them, and post it, then this model may work. Also, going back to an earlier question, about what I anticipated. I anticipated that if we got a wave of participants, we would also have to grapple with a wave of “interaction costs” generated by those participants. Simple expression of it is a full in-box, and hundreds of emails to return from the very people you asked “in.” This happens in every open source project with significant volunteer action. It forces you to innovate and find volunteers who can help organize other volunteers. We are right in the middle of this riddle now, and there will be some big learning there if we can solve it because that is what allows the project “to scale,” as we say in Web. 2.0

Witt: Given the magnitude of the project and doing things on the fly, what’s the mood of your shop? How does it square with, shall we say, your feisty personality?

Rosen: Uh, well, we’re all learning as we go. Me included. But the mood in general is very high because we launched without a really major screw-up, and we’re underway. The immediate response from participants was also very invigorating and it told us we weren’t crazy to attempt to do a story this way. I think we’re all curious about how it works. One thing I found helps is when the experiment morphs from a very unfamiliar shape — 700 people on one story — into a very familiar shape from the practice of journalism. Like on March 22, Lauren Sandler gave out the first wave of writing and reporting gigs. All of sudden, what we’re doing looked very traditional. I like that: the “flip” from one to the other. The method I call “pro-am” is about moments like that. It sometimes looks very traditional, other times radically different.

Witt: I think the invitations into the project are radically different, but the backend is looking traditional? Is that a fair assessment?

Rosen: The closer we get to publication day the more familiar it will look, I speculate.

Witt: Is that good?

Rosen: I don’t know the answer to that, yet. It’s just what I am trying this time. I am trying to do something that is simple to grasp. It’s a trend story. But with 700 people working on parts of it and to work together and separately with pros in the mix with ams. We’ll see at the end if there are any advantages to doing it this way and we will know way more than we did on March 15, about how to organize big teams of people to find something out. Right now, we’re doing a trend story with Wired, which is our proof-of-concept for distributed reporting.

Witt: So a traditional journalist might be asking 700 people to do a trend story? Are you kidding me?

Rosen: No, a traditional journalist would never do that. Did I say otherwise? I said I am trying to do something simple to grasp: a trend story! But with extremely different methods.

Witt: No, my question is, 700 people to do a trend story, sounds extravagant.

Rosen: I agree. It sounds impossible. But we don’t know how many will end up contributing, or how many have contributions to make. I should not say 700 people are needed to do a simple trend story. We have strong indications that this many are interested in participating. But suppose we wanted to find out what the actual results of No Child Left Behind were. Would you say 700 is too many, or too few?

Witt: I see what you mean. So given the complexities of using the site, the large number of emails, and 700 people already involved, what might you tell a reader who is approaching the site for the first time?

Rosen: Follow Lauren Sandler’s blog. Browse through the topics you can find at the Assignment Desk. If you find one you are very interested in, let us know or go to The Exchange and follow this discussion thread.

Witt: That’s the mechanical stuff, what kind of attitude should they bring to the site?

Rosen: Some patience (at least for another two weeks), extreme curiosity, and a problem-solving attitude. Also, think what we could do next time, if we can figure out how this works. An attitude like that.

Witt: One last question: In the 1990s you were a professor pushing public journalism theory, how did you ever make the transition to building a hands-on, applied site that might change how journalism is practiced? What was the motivation, the epiphany, the tipping point?

Rosen: I got tired of passing my ideas about journalism through “journalism,” and the costs to try your own thing had plunged.

Rosen: Gotta run

Witt: Okay, I promised a last question, but you forced me to ask one more. In your next to last answer you said, “if we can figure out how this works…” So that’s still a big worry? Which way is it tipping toward now?

Rosen: Can’t say yet.

Witt: Thanks Jay.

Full disclosure: I have signed up at Assignment Zero and might be doing an assignment. Whether or not I will, well, I can’t say yet.



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