Citizen journalism: a spectacular failure?

August 10, 2007 at 3:00 am 2 comments

Lalida flower photo ThailandI’m a great fan of Dan Gillmor’s book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, and his blog, Backfence. After reading his book a couple of years ago, I had grand plans to set up a citizen journalism site for my local area (still thinking about it). So a Wired article and an experiment in citizen journalism piqued my interest.

Wired became involved in a project called Assignment Zero, which explored crowdsourcing (or what happens when a crowd or community gathers together). In this case, the experiment was to focus on pro-am journalism and a “crowd of volunteers” would write content around how average citizens are upending established business through citizen media initiatives like Wikipedia and blogs. Assignment Zero was open to the public for 12 weeks but the crowd apparently was too tough to manage.

After some technology glitches and general confusion amongst participants, the major lesson learned appears to be that crowds require organisation. The original aim was to produce 80 feature stories on crowdsourcing but Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor who initiated the project, believes that only 28% of Assignment Zero worked. So what happened?

Seems there are further lessons:

  • the topic of crowdsourcing was too broad, too nascent and too nebulous. It created confusion rather than passion.
  • the technology didn’t help participants engage with the site and the open source publishing system chosen (one that is common for community-driven projects) didn’t have editors assigned. So when volunteers signed up and went onto the site, it was basically a ghost town.
  • in the first week, there were 500 volunteers but only one Assignment Zero staff member. So organising fell back on the volunteers themselves and given the confusion over the broad topic and technological issues, many volunteers drifted away.
  • 30 volunteer editors were assigned to manage the various topics and understand the technology being used, but online organising is different to physical organising and the editors found themselves lacking in experience with online projects.
  • half-way through the 12 weeks, a lot of volunteers had shot through; some topic pages had been abandoned; and communication between contributors and editors was fraught with difficulty (mmm….sounds like a few discussion forums I know).

A redesign of the site took place and social networking features such as photos and discussion areas were added, and contributors could now review each other’s work. A major lesson was that a community controls what is spoken about and shared- so many of the topic pages had to be ditched as volunteers just weren’t interested. Instead of being asked to write feature stories, volunteers were now encouraged to interview someone they admired – given this clear task, which was easier than writing a long feature piece, the crowd started to gather. This is similar in a way to my experience with Communities of Practice – if they are given a specific purpose (not a task!), then they have some direction they can take control of – they become a Community of Purposeful Practice.

Many of the interviews gathered were of professional standing – well-sourced, written and edited. The community allocated itself to topics organically, depending on who had the passion, the knowledge or interest. But a major lesson would appear to be around the model of engagement. As the article says: “….one model that doesn’t work is attempting to use crowdsourcing simply as a cost-saving measure. Communities must be cultivated, respected and deftly managed if they are to come together to create economic value.

And the knowledge management practitioners amongst us will not be surprised to learn of another lesson from this project. Volunteers decided to engage with the community for a variety of reasons – enhancing one’s status within the community; the opportunity to learn or perfect a skill; or the intangible reward of working with others toward a achieving a shared goal.

I’ve been following the topic of crowdsourcing for awhile and you can check out a great blog on this – Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur. Howe was the author of the Wired article and was involved with Assignment Zero. One of his original articles – The Rise of Crowdsourcing – is here.

Entry filed under: Citizen journalism, Communities of Practice, Knowledge Management.

Visual literacy How curious!

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Brad Grochowski  |  November 16, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    Just ran across this post. Thanks!

    I have created a site called which is an experiment in community journalism for the Baltimore community. I would love to hear what you think about it, and any suggestions you might have. I’m just now trying to sort of get it off the ground, and get people to participate.

    Anyway, read your post with interest and will have to check out the crowdsourcing site you recommend.



  • 2. thinkingshift  |  November 17, 2007 at 5:44 am

    Hi Brad

    I’ll definitely check out your site and hopefully some ThinkingShift readers will too. Let us know how you go with your site!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Search ThinkingShift

   Made in New Zealand
     Thinkingshift is?

Flickr Photos

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.

ThinkingShift Book Club

Kimmar - Find me on

%d bloggers like this: