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The limitations of the crowd

15 Feb 2008
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MARGARET SIMONS looks at the results of an experiment in online reporting launched by Jay Rosen

WANDER the mahogany-veneer rows of most Australian newsrooms over the last five years and you would have heard from various old farts that the internet was nothing to get too excited about. At first it was said to be a passing fad. Once that line ceased to be credible, it was said that it didn?t really matter. What mattered was content, and the credibility of the brand, and most of all good journalism. The method of delivery made no essential difference.

That line of argument lives on, although for anyone with their eyes open it is clearly only part of the truth. Bloggers and others interact with newspapers, critique them and, as we saw during the federal election campaign, sometimes do a better job on interpreting facts than the media organisations that ?own? the data.

So what exactly are the implications of the internet for the ways in which journalists do their jobs? Opinion is cheap in every sense of the word and can be found on any blog, but what about the reporting of the facts on which opinions are based? Will the internet change, enhance or undermine that underestimated yet essential trade skill of the professional reporter ? the ability to find things out.

Eighteen months ago Professor Jay Rosen of New York University launched a brave attempt to find out. He started newassignment.net, helped by seed money from Craig Newmark of the free Craigslist internet advertising site. Newmark had been stung by allegations that enterprises like his were a threat to the future of newspapers, and therefore quality journalism. Newmark?s money was followed by another, larger, grant from Reuters.

NewAssignment.net was described as an internet based project in which readers would commission the journalism they want to see performed. Professional editors and journalists would work on the project in a ?pro-am? collaboration with the readers.

Rosen said at the time:, "NewAssignment.Net is a not a plan for a company; in fact, it?s closer to a charity, an editorial engine anchored in civil society itself, rather than the media industry or journalism profession... [It] can be on friendly terms with Big Media, which it is is not trying to destroy or supplant.?

Newassignment began its first project with great optimism. ?Assignment Zero,? a collaboration with Wired magazine, was to be an attempt to use so-called ?crowdsourcing? to report on ?crowdsourcing.?

To interpret, crowdsourcing is the idea that a crowd of people, geographically dispersed but sharing common purpose, can achieve things better or differently to small groups of professionals and gatekeepers. It is the idea behind Wikipedia, but also many other internet enabled ventures. Why not journalism as well?

Assignment Zero announced that its goal was to ?have a crowd of volunteers write the definitive report on how crowds of volunteers are upending established businesses, from software to encyclopedias and beyond.?

If that sounds like a crowd of volunteers disappearing up their multiple orifices, well that was part of the problem. The principals now acknowledge that they fast came to regret their choice of topic. ?The topic of crowdsourcing was too nebulous ? too new ? to gain immediate traction. One thing any volunteer project must inspire ? be it citizen journalism, an open-source programming project or simply an AIDS drive ? is passion. Using the crowd to investigate crowdsourcing inspired, by contrast, confusion.?

Nine hundred citizen journalists signed up to help in a welter of enthusiasm. Yet an article in Wired magazine by Jeff Howe last July asked the question ?Did Assignment Zero fail?? The answer is clearly ?perhaps, or very nearly,? although there is a sense in which experiments never fail, because the success comes from the lessons learned.

In the twelve weeks the project was open to the public it floundered badly. Its ambitious goal ? to produce ?the most comprehensive knowledge base to date on the scope, limits and best practices of crowdsourcing? ? had to be dramatically curtailed in order to yield some tangible results when the experiment ended on 5 June last year.

Partly because of the overall confusion most of the initial volunteers drifted away. Rosen says one of the lessons learned was that contributors needed somebody to give them clear direction on what they were being asked to do.

Funny, I can hear the newsroom old farts say. Sounds like they needed a traditional commissioning editor.

Sure enough, in a fast redesign of the Assignment Zero website, each topic page was introduced with a picture and e-mail address of the relevant editor. Things began to go much better after that, but there were limits. Most of the topics Assignment Zero principals had expected to fill up remained empty. People simply weren?t interested enough to work on them. Naturally, the project skewed to what interested the crowd.

Eventually a great mess of material was gathered, including scores of interviews and some good feature stories. I?ve looked through it, and there is undoubtedly some good stuff there, but it takes time and an iron constitution to digest it all. Volunteers were more willing to conduct and transcribe interviews than to do what a journalist normally does ? boil down, condense, prioritise, write and edit. In other words ? gatekeeping.

Says Howe: ?Asking contributors to ?write the story on open-source car design? had all the appeal of asking people to rewrite their college term papers. Asking them to talk to someone they admire and respect was met with a far warmer response.?

On the other hand, the best of the interviews showed the advantages of using volunteers. Because they were interested in the material for their own sake, they were passionate and often far more knowledgeable than a generalist reporter has time to be. Says Howe: ?It is a community?s ability to allocate intellectual resources organically in this way that can make it a more efficient machine than a traditional, hierarchical organisation.?

Granted ? in theory. But how can it work to help good journalism? One of the lessons learned was to be clear about the topic, to keep it clear, and to make sure people were interested. Not crowdsourcing, perhaps, but city hall.

Thus arose the next newassignment experiment, Beatblogging. (A beat, it should be said, is in the USA what Australian reporters would call a ?round?, or a speciality, such as law, medical reporting or consumer affairs.) Thirteen US media organisations have assigned one of their ?beat? reporters to this pilot project.

The idea is to use the interaction and social networking capacities of the internet to alter the relationship between specialist reporters and their sources. Instead of the reporter having numerous one to one conversations with sources, the sources will be connected, able to discuss and self publish on line, all in the interests of improving the reporting.

Thus in the pro-am relationship, the ?pro? reporter sits at the centre, conducting and drawing on the specialist knowledge of the ?ams,? independent of them yet having to live with their ability to answer back, in real time and in public.

Beatblogging is only just getting underway, but the various reporters on the site are already communicating their hopes and fears. An MTV reporter with a specialty in video games hopes it will let him get around the public relations and spin that infect his field.

Other reporters wonder how they will keep the discussion ?legitimate and free.? What is to prevent it from being taken over by paid public relations operatives? What will happen to the traditional virtues of the newsroom (assuming they are not a myth) of being sceptical and questioning of all sources?

The other concern is predictable, but powerful. How are reporters already under pressure to find the time to manage and interact with their communities? And, by the by, journalism schools don?t teach anything about the management of online communities.

So what lessons can we draw, and what to say to those old farts still to be found harrumphing around the newsrooms?

I think two things: that they are right. There is a continuing need for professional reporters and editors, and for the traditional (and one hopes not entirely fictitious) merits of the newsroom ? focus, hard work, disinterested reporting and the ability and willingness to edit. On the other hand, as Rosen and others have been arguing for years, no journalist knows more than the collective audience.

However the pro-am relationships of the future turn out, the new factor is public conversations and interactions, and the ability of almost anyone to publish to the world. This creates a new journalistic imperative and calls for new journalistic skills. It is, essentially, a redistribution of power. It will make a difference, and it won?t go away. ?

Margaret Simons?s latest book, The Content Makers: Understanding the Media in Australia, is published by Penguin.

Photo: pjnet.org

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2008
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