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AssignmentZero: By the People Formerly Known as the Audience
Sarah Rich, 12 Jun 07
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This story is rife with Web 2.0 geek buzzwords. Open Source, crowdsourcing, citizen media, peer production, information commons, swarming...It's a tale of an online project called AssignmentZero, the first collaborative journalism project from, which we wrote about last year when it was announced by its founder, NYU professor Jay Rosen, who wanted to create a platform for professional journalists to collaborate with "the people formerly known as the audience." Rosen describes NewAssignment as:

a non-profit site that tries to spark innovation in journalism by showing that open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust.

In April, AssignmentZero went public with its first assignment, a piece (tentatively slated for publication in Wired or at about crowdsourcing, created through crowdsourcing. Rosen calls it "pro-am" journalism, in which professionals and amateurs pool their intelligence to develop a story. At the AssignmentZero site, participants can create a login and find an assignment at the Assignment Desk. The editors have marked assignments that can be taken up by any number of people, and those (such as interviews) that can only be assigned out once. The site is extremely user-friendly and features a discussion forum, a blog and direct channels of communication with the primary editors. They welcome all levels of experience and a range of different skill sets.

With all the tools deployed and available, participants spent about two months culling information and conducting interviews. Last week the editorial development phase reached its conclusion and the team set about tagging their interviews and producing a final package to send off to editors at

I spoke with one contributor, Randy Hunt, who conducted an interview with John Pratt of for his part of the project. He describes himself as falling closer to the "Am" side of the spectrum than the "Pro." I asked him what guidelines he followed (or ignored) from AssignmentZero when he conducted the interview, what kind of support he got, and how it worked to have the elements of a single product come from such widely distributed sources.

In order to establish some commonalities between the 50+ interviewers/interviewees' conversations, the group shared (through an email list) ideas for baseline questions to ask. We ended up with a shared list and each reporter did what they wanted with those suggestions. Some pro editors shared their prep and interview processes.
For me [journalism] has always been seat-of-the-pants and intuition. I have no idea what the conventions are, and this certainly revealed some of them. Interesting considering how unconventional the project was.
The editors were also available to help with the logistics of setting up interviews. It was pretty awesome that such support was there. I was mostly going about business as usual, while this stream of side communication was happening to facilitate the journalism.

Once the editors at Wired have had their time with the material, we'll find out how much of this will be used on their platforms, and the rest will be published on AssignmentZero's site, alongside a masthead fit for the Guinness Book. As a Creative Commons project, material not picked up by Wired can also be freely published elsewhere on the web. As the organizers themselves say, this is a learning process. Presumably there will be an AssignmentZeroPointOne which will take the lessons learned and try it all again.

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Great coverage of the world-changing Assignment Zero phenomenon, Sarah!

The Assignment Zero csLab has been a great first experiment on the macroscale to harness the wordpower of the journalistic-inspired crowd. Indeed, crowdsourced journalism is out of the test tube.

The core team of editors that Jay Rosen assembled to kick AZ off were ready, enthusiastic, prompt, motivational, and, perhaps most important in dealing with the crowd, flexible. David Cohn, Lauren Sandler, and others quickly organized our throng into a productive crew, as the lab results show.

As a contributor, I found the experience to be broadening and accessible.

I had a part in two pieces coming out of the Assignment Zero/Wired success. One was writing the sidebar to the first crowdsourced Assignment Zero article to post on Wired, Assignment Zero First Take: Wiki Innovators Rethink Openness, by Michael Ho and others in the Citizendium story "crowd."

I also conducted the interview with Innocentive founder, Alpheus Bingham. Innocentive crowdsources the crown jewels of corporations – the R&D process – with a great level of success.

In fact, Innocentive is now partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and other nonprofits to bring the Innocentive crowdsourced solutions model to the emerging field of activist health and social philanthropic solutions. (For more about this exciting topic, see the AZ Innocentive interview...)

One of the interesting things about Assignment Zero is that it turns the editing process inside out, allowing the public to look at the backstory in process.

For example, the longer version of my interview with Tom Panelas of Encyclopedia Britannica that became the Citizendium sidebar is available. Tom had some interesting things to say that didn't make into the Wired piece.

There are a number of other examples where Assignment Zero contributors' works can be viewed in similar frontstory ways.

Other writers can leverage the AZ crowdsourced content through the Creative Commons license.

Posted by: Randy Burge on 13 Jun 07



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