A "citizen journalism" trifecta of failure

by Mathew on July 16, 2007 · 5 comments

Through some bizarre confluence of events, we have not one but two restrospectives on two separate citizen journalism or “crowdsourced” media projects today — Backfence, which recently announced it was shutting down, and Assignment Zero, which was the joint venture between Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net and Wired magazine, run by my mesh friend Jeff Howe — as well as an overview of the whole citizen journalism concept by Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media, whose own local journalism project, Bayosphere, failed and was absorbed by Backfence.

Dan’s overview, in a nutshell, is that citizen journalism has come a long way but has much further to go:

“There’s a growing recognition and appreciation of why citizen journalism matters. Investments, from media organizations and others, are fueling experiments of various kinds. Revenue models are taking early shape. And, most important, there’s a flood of great ideas.

But we have a long, long way to go. We need much more experimentation in journalism and community information projects. The business models are, at best, uncertain — and some notable failures are discouraging.”

After much talk about the failure of Backfence, former CEO Mark Potts finally takes a long look at what happened and tries to draw some lessons, including the need to:

“Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together.”

Potts also talks about the need to trust the community, and to treat the entire affair like a conversation, instead of trying to impose external controls on it. And Jeff Howe has both a Wired piece and his own blog post on the end of Assignment Zero, which he describes as “a highly satisfying failure.”

“Although Assignment Zero produced a strong body of work, consisting of seven original essays and some 80 Q&As, the real value of the exercise was discovery. We learned a lot about how crowds come together, and what’s required to organize them well. But many of the lessons came too late to help Assignment Zero.

In the 12 weeks the project was open to the public, it suffered from haphazard planning, technological glitches and a general sense of confusion among participants. Crucial staff members were either forced out or resigned in mid-stream, and its ambitious goal… had to be dramatically curtailed.”

Well worth reading, all of them. If failure is educational, then we are all learning a lot. And as Eric mentions in the comments, the Washington Post has also just launched a new “hyper-local” journalism experiment called LoudounExtra.com.

Update:

For more on Assignment Zero and the lessons learned, be sure to check out this post from Tish Grier, who acted as the project’s deputy director of participation and has some worthwhile thoughts. David Cohn, who was a key participant, also has a post on the project.

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