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.


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.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

5 Responses to “A "citizen journalism" trifecta of failure”
  1. I was just thinking the same thing! But what about The Washington Post launching its own local site at around the same time?

    Auspicious timing. Er.

  2. It was an interesting day in citizen journalism. A confluence of forces — excellent wrap up.

    I wrote a little about my experinece at AZ on my blog , but Tish Grier did a much more thorough job:


  3. Interesting to see that in many cases citizen journalism requires similar structure to traditional journalism to thrive; i.e.: the way the end state of Assignment Zero was described made it sound like a regular MSM outlet with editors, topical departments, set assignments & deadlines, and so on.

    In one sense, this shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone. Say what you will about the merits of MSM, its had several hundred years to evolve to its current state.

    It seems that the imposition of structure is an all or nothing proposition: either there’s no agenda, or there’s a comprehensive structure set-up to achieve an agenda. Agenda without structure flatlines. Structure without a consistent agenda results in push-back – as was the case with the Digg HD-DVD key fiasco.

    Interesting times!

  4. “The way the end state of Assignment Zero was described made it sound like a regular MSM outlet with editors, topical departments, set assignments & deadlines, and so on.”

    Actually it was the reverse. We started with topical departments and set assignments with editors.

    That was when it wasn’t working. There are a couple reasons for this. One, I think, was that we were dictating where the story would go.

    Then we constricted and basically said: Okay — no set departments — let’s just do interviews. It was a set task — but the interview could be with anyone (assuming a contributor could make a case that the interview was related to crowdsourcing).

    We made a list of people we wanted to interview, but some of the best ones were suggested by contributors (usually the person who suggested the interview followed up by actually doing it too).

    But there were no set beats during the interview process. Everything scaled on the assumption that we were just trying to get a specific task done.

    The feature stories that we did were a result of a more MSM newsroom organization.

  5. Rod…one of the reasons I wrote my post, (and perhaps one of the reasons Jeff Howe posted this followup was in part because of the sense that participation issues weren’t sufficiently discussed–when they were a significant and important part of the project.

    and thanks David–“the hardest working young man in journalism”–Cohn for posting the link to my participation post :-)

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