Historically, journalism has been best practiced alone. The reporter, huddled in his cubby, furiously pounds out a hot story on deadline, wanting to be left alone rather than helped. "Team coverage" is a nice idea as far as it goes - but writing, ultimately, is a lonely pursuit.
But the masses of the Internet, always eager to improve or destroy a well-established practice, have deemed "crowdsourcing" the journalism technique of the future. The wisdom of crowds, the theory goes, will allow large numbers of disparate people working on different parts of various assignments to come together in a quasi-journalistic fashion to produce material that is richer and more varied than what the mainstream media can turn out.
The concept's first high-profile test wrapped up this month, with decidedly mixed results. Assignment Zero (AZ), a joint venture between Wired and crowdsourcing site NewAssignment.net, ran for the first six months of the year. It failed to produce any likely Pulitzer winners. But it did manage to turn out some interesting material, and, more importantly, to serve as a great laboratory for what works and what doesn't in such "Pro-am" (professional-amateur) journalism collaborations.
While most of the public will not read what AZ contributors wrote, they may very well end up participating in future crowdsourcing projects based on the lessons gleaned from this one's stumbles.
Jeff Howe, a Wired contributing editor who was the magazine's point man on AZ and is also writing a book about crowdsourcing, says that traditional inverted pyramid journalism is not what the movement is all about.
"I don't think the crowd wants to produce journalism as we think of it," he says. "What we do really isn't that interesting - writing, especially."
Rather that grinding through the tedium of a factual story thousands of words long, what the crowd really desires is to "participate in the journalism experience," partly to "correct what they see as a media gone awry," explains Howe.
That means that the motivation exists among the public to produce content that they actually want to see (but not necessarily the skills). In a "pro-am" setup like AZ, the professionals will ostensibly shepherd the amateurs along the path to a polished final product. In reality, however, staffers found coordinating all of the far-flung participants to be a rather time-intensive slog. But apart from the fundamental dissatisfaction with the media that necessarily motivates such crowdsourcing efforts, Howe says, "People believe in the idea of the fourth estate."
Tish Grier, a blogger who was heavily involved in AZ, says that different models of pro-am relationships must be experimented with in order to find the one that clicks. She cites work done by The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) during Hurricane Katrina - in which professional journalists took in tips from the public and published them in an understandable way - as one example of intelligent crowdsourcing.
"The advantage of crowdsource pieces are twofold: in emergency situations, readers stand a better chance of getting the most current information," she says. "Another advantage will be for investigative pieces. As newspapers and magazines cut budgets for investigative journalism, crowdsourcing can help fill in gaps in research."
What has yet to be proven is whether people can be motivated to do the lowliest grunt work of journalism in a coordinated, timely fashion. And, perhaps even more importantly, whether a crowdsourcing project can be monetized well enough to support itself and its staffers on a full-time basis.
Despite the looming questions, the benefits of crowdsourcing outweigh its challenges, according to freelance journalist and AZ editor David Cohn.
"It does have advantages: the advantage isn't 'free content,'" he says. "It takes a lot of work, including professional work, to get content in a crowdsourced fashion. The advantage comes in having expertise and the effect of the wisdom of crowds."