Assignment Zero, an experimental news site that brings professional journalists together with volunteer researcher-reporters to collaboratively write stories, has kicked off its tenure at Wired News by doing an extended investigation of “crowdsourcing.” Crowdsourcing is the latest internet parlance used to describe work traditionally carried out by one or a few persons being distributed among many people. I’ve always found something objectionable about the term, which is more suggestive of a business model than a creative strategy and sidesteps the numerous ethical questions about peer production and corporate exploitation that are inevitably bound up in it. But it’s certainly a subject that could use a bit of scrutiny, and who better to do it than a journalistic team composed of the so-called crowd?
It is in this self-reflexive spirt that Jay Rosen, a exceedingly sharp thinker on the future of journalism and executive editor of Assignment Zero (and the related NewAssignment.net), presents an interesting series of features assembled by his “pro-am” team that look at a wide variety of online collaboration forms. This package has been in development for several months (many of the pieces contain links back to the original “assignments” and you can see how they evolved) and there’s a lot there: 80 Q&A’s, essays and stories (mostly Q&A’s) looking at innovative practices and practitioners across media types and cultural/commercial arenas. From an initial sifting, it’s less an analysis than just a big collection of perspectives, but this is valuable I think, if for no other reason than as a jumping-off point for further research.
There are many of the usual suspects like Benkler, Lessig, Jarvis, Shirky, Surowiecki, Wales etc., but as many or more of the pieces venture off the beaten track. There’s a thought-provoking interview with Douglas Rushkoff on open source as a cultural paradigm, some stuff on the Wu Ming fiction collective (which is fascinating), a piece about Sydney Poore, a Wikipedia “super-contributor,” and some coverage of our work, an interview with McKenzie Wark about Gamer Theory and collaborative writing. There’s also an essay by one of the Assignment Zero contributors, Kristin Gorski, synthesizing some of the material gathered on the latter subject: “Creative Crowdwriting: The Open Book.”
All in all this seems like a successful test drive for an experimental group that is still inventing its process. I’m interested to see how it develops with other less “wired” subjects.
It began with what is still referred to as the “Kaiser Memo” within the Washington Post organization. In 1992, Bob Kaiser, then managing-editor, wrote a handwritten memo on the way back from a technology conference in Japan. In the memo, he posits the development of an electronic newspaper. In 1996, washingtonpost.com was launched. Last week, it marked its 10th year with three insightful articles. The first, gives a brief overview of the effect of the Kaiser early vision, recounting some of the ups and downs, from losing millions in the heady dot.com bubble of the 90s to turning its first profit two years ago. Lessons were learned in this new form be it from the new growth from coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to traffic bottlenecks during 2000 US presidential election to the vital role online news played during 9/11 and its aftermath. Ten years later, the online news landscape looks nothing what people, including Kaiser, originally envisioned, which was basically a slight modification of traditional news forms.
The other two articles serve as counterpoints to each other. Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor and blogger on PressThink, reflects on the Internet as a distruptive technology in the world of journalism. Washington Post staff writer Patricia Sullivan argues that traditional journalism and news organizations are still relevant and vital for democracy. Although, both authors end up at the same place (having both traditional and new forms is good,) their approaches play off each other in interesting ways.
There is a tension between to the two articles by Sullivan and Rosen. In that, they are focusing on different things. Sullivan seems to be defending the viability of the traditional media, in terms of business models and practices. She acknowledge that the hugh profit margins are shrinking and revenues are stagnant. This is not surprising, as the increases in citizen journalism, “arm chair” news analysts, as well as, free online access to print and born-digital reporting all contribute to making news a commodity, rather than a scarce resource. Few cities still have more than one daily newspaper. Just as cable news channels took market share from the evening network news, people can read online versions of newspapers from around the country and read feeds from web news aggregators.
With the increasing number of voices in print, network television and cable, news is becoming increasingly commodified. Commodified here means that individual news coverage is becoming indistinguishable from one another. It is useful to note Sullivan’s observation that the broad major weekly magazines as Time, Newsweek, and US Weekly are losing readers while the weekly magazines, The Economist and the New Yorker with their specialized perspectives, have increasing circulation. If a reader cannot distinguish between the reporting of Time, Newsweek, or US Weekly, then it is easy to move among the three or to another commodified online news source. Therefore, the examples of the Economist and the New Yorker show the importance of distinct voices, which readers come to expect, coupled with strong writing. Having an established perspective is becoming much more important to news readers.
If general news is becoming commodified, then news sources that differentiates its news will have an increased value, which people are willing to pay money to read. Rosen comes to a similar conclusion, when he mentions that in 2004 he called for some major news organizations to take a strong left position with “oppositional (but relentlessly factual)” coverage of the White House. His proposal was decried by many, including staff at the CNN, who claimed that it would destroy their credibility. Rosen asks why a major news organization cannot do for the left what Fox News has done for the right?
Rosen directly and Sullivan indirectly suggests that one key feature in the reshuffling of news will be the importance of voice and perspective. If a new publication can create a credible and distinct voice, they claim it will attract a sustainable audience, even in the age of free, commodified news.
Sullivan closes by discussing the importance of investigative reporting that reveals secret prisons, government eavesdropping is expensive, time consuming, and requires the subsidies from lighter news. However, history shows that the traditional news room is not infallible, as seen with the lack of rigor journalists examined the claims of weapons mass destruction during the events that lead to the invasion of Iraq. When Sullivan sites that “almost no online news sties invest in original, in-depth and scrupulously edited news reporting” it is clear that her conceptualization of new journalism is still tied to the idea of the centralized news organization. However, in the distributed realm of the blogosphere and p2p, we have seen examples that Sullivan describes, not from single journalists, but rather by a collaborative and decentralized network of concerned “amateurs.” For example, citizen journalists can also achieve these kinds of disruptive reporting. Rosen notes how the blogosphere was able to unravel the CBS report on President Bush’s National Guard Service. As well, technical problems with the electronic voting machines in the 2004 election (an example Yochai Benkler often recounts) were revealed by using the network. People using individual knowledge bases to do research, uncover facts, and report findings in a way that would be quite difficult for a news organization to replicate.
Where as, Rosen finishes with a description of how during the India Ocean tsunami, that despite Reuters’ 2,300 journalist and 1,000 stringers, no one was in the area to provide reporting, as the concerned world waited for coverage. However, tourists armed with amateur equipment provided the watching world with the best and only digital photographs and video from the devastated areas. For Reuters to report anything, they had to include amateur journalism, until professional journalists could be deployed to supplement the coverage.
Not surprisingly, ten years on, washingtonpost.com along with the rest of the news media industry is still figuring out how to use and grow with the Internet. Nor it is surprising that their initial strategy was to re-purpose their content for the web. We understand new media based on the conventions of old media. The introduction of the Internet to newspapers was more than adding a new distribution channel. With increases in the access to information and the low cost of entrance, news is no longer a scarce resource. In the age of commodified news, washingtonpost.com, the political blog network, major daily newspaper columnists, and the editor-in-chiefs of weekly new magazines are all striving to create credible and reliable points of view. Active news consumers are better for it.