Experiment unleashes
citizen journalists

By David Carr
International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK Journalism has always been a product of networks. A reporter receives an assignment, begins calling "sources" — people he or she knows or can find. More calls follow and, with luck and a deadline looming, the reporter will gain enough mastery of the topic to sit down at a keyboard and tell the world a story.

A new experiment wants to broaden the network to include readers and their sources. Assignment Zero is a collaboration between Wired magazine and NewAssignment.Net, the experimental journalism site established by Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. Zero.newassignment.net intends to use not only the wisdom of the crowd, but its combined reporting efforts — an approach that has come to be called "crowdsourcing."

The idea is to apply to journalism the same open-source model of Web-enabled collaboration that produced the operating system Linux, the Web browser Firefox and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

"Can large groups of widely scattered people, working together voluntarily on the net, report on something happening in their world right now, and by dividing the work wisely tell the story more completely, while hitting high standards in truth, accuracy and free expression?" Rosen asked last week on Wired.com.

That may not seem like much of a revolution at a time when millions are staring at user-generated video on YouTube, but journalism is generally left in the hands of professionals.

Assignment Zero will use custom software to create a virtual newsroom that allows collaboration on a discrete, but open-ended, topic from the very start.

In this instance, the topic will be crowdsourcing, so the phenomenon will be used to cover the phenomenon itself. Citizens with a variety of expertise will produce work to be reproduced and edited by experienced journalists.

"This is designed as a pro-am approach to journalism," Rosen said. "I think I saw possibilities here that others did not, and you can only do so much writing about it. There is so much up for grabs right now and the barriers to entry, the costs of doing something, have become low enough to where it seemed it was best to just give it a try."

If all that sounds like Web 2.0 rebellion, consider that the Gannett publishing company is in the process of remaking the newsrooms at its 90 newspapers into "information centers," a place where readers are given access to all the tools of journalism, including the journalists themselves.

At the Gannett newspapers, citizens can dial into databases and public records or contribute their own experiences to provide grist for reports.

A project at The News-Press on the high cost of sewer and water lines included volunteer engineers going over blueprints in their spare time and an insider who disclosed critical documents.

Making the choice in favor of transparency, dialogue and in some instances collaboration, Gannett, the largest American newspaper company, is willing to surrender traditions of competition, expertise and control.