Shortly after midnight on March 20, as the House Judiciary Committee began uploading more than 3,000 pages of internal Justice Department e-mails relating to the U.S. attorneys debacle to its website, a small army of armchair investigators sprang into action. "TPM Needs YOU to Comb Through Thousands of Pages," the editors of TPMmuckraker.com wrote to their readers, explaining that they were sitting around wondering just "how in the world we are ever going to make our way through 3,000 pages when it hit us: we don't have to." Why not just let the readers do it?
Within a few minutes, their eager audience answered the call, digging with aplomb through the documents for the ultimate incriminating missive. Dozens of them worked through the night, posting hundreds of comments, dissecting e-mail excerpts, and building the case for the foregone conclusion that nefarious motives lurked behind the firings. There was plenty of backbiting; volunteers whose posts hinted that the U.S. attorneys' performances were perhaps not as sterling as originally believed were swiftly dismissed as Internet "trolls" who bait and antagonize others in online forums. There was a woeful degree of disorganization, misinterpretation, and repetition, not to mention back-patting (3:06 a.m.: "Cheers to all of us") and griping (3:47 a.m.: "this crap is nothing but smoke %amp% mirrors and the administration has not released the real damming [sic] sh*t"). In a few scant hours, this merry band of citizen-muckrakers produced enough commentary, most of it barely decipherable, to rival the document dump they were fervently scrutinizing.
And that, if you believe NYU professor and new-media guru Jay Rosen, is the future of journalism. It's ordinary Joes, toiling for free to dig for the stories that the mainstream press can't or won't touch. If blogs have handed anyone and everyone a soapbox, Rosen wants to hand everyone a press pass. His new online project, Assignment Zero, is designed to grant anyone with the inclination and the time the power to report, research, and write major news stories alongside volunteer professionals. No longer will citizens be oppressed and controlled by Big Media, goes the theory, forcing them to drink the Kool-Aid that prevents them from seeing how the news landscape has been redrawn forever. "The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power," he wrote last July. It's war, in other words--and Rosen and his fellow champions of citizen journalism have declared preemptive victory.
Rosen's "pro-am" (professionals and amateurs) virtual newsroom, financed in part by the likes of Wired and craigslist.org founder Craig Newmark, launched in late March, signing up hundreds of volunteers ready to hone their nascent reporting skills on Assignment Zero's Assignment Desk, where such tasks as "Tell us about Lawrence Lessig" and "What does the bible say" about open-source religion await. Their first major investigation is typically navel-gazing; citizen reporters are hard at work probing the phenomenon of "crowdsourcing"--the outsourcing of work to an unspecified number of people working for free. This penchant for self-reference is a hallmark of so-called new media, and Assignment Zero has more than its fair share. Among the profiles of earnest new contributors who have offered up time, Editor Lauren Sandler singles out Edward Domain, who "has one of my favorite ideas so far--to find a way to develop a limited edition Assignment Zero T-shirt."
But whether Assignment Zero will be able to slog through the obvious challenges of Wikifying investigative journalism--all those Joes on the comment boards with axes to grind, no experience in verifying facts, or a fondness for conspiracy theories--and come out the other end with a readable product is really only of minor consequence. Sure, the mere existence of this experiment surely has some media executives scrambling to rethink where it's all headed, and there will no doubt be an unfortunate number of reader brown-bag lunches as a result. But what really smacks of trouble is Assignment Zero's proposed financing scheme. The Public suggests the topics to be covered and then ponies up the cash to support stories they want to hear about most. Rosen has solved the vexing question of how to monetize online media--by simply asking people to pay for their interests. But what if Sally in Peoria wants Assignment Zero to dig up evidence that Dick Cheney is guilty of war crimes? How long can it stave off a public revolt if the site can't deliver the storyline its funders have in mind? Or does it simply deliver, no questions asked?
But, in even asking these questions, most pro-am enthusiasts will likely dismiss you as a poor sod who missed the revolution train at the station. When Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia Journalism School, voiced his skepticism of the transformational power of citizen journalists in The New Yorker last summer, writing that "most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter," he was roundly written off by new-media digerati as a dinosaur. But it gets at a fair question: In believing that Assignment Zero can prevent its reporting from being hijacked by warring groups that want their vision of the world reinforced, is Rosen putting way too much faith in the wisdom of his crowd?
It's interesting, at least, to watch his assembled digerati friends geek out about the future of the public sphere--everyone is so excited and enthusiastic--but, in the end, they're also parting ways with their stated goal of digging up more of what escapes Big Media. In inviting John Q. Citizen into the trenches, Assignment Zero simply shifts the focus from the product to the process. It's like a newsroom reality show for the new millennium. All the reporting and researching--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the irrelevant--are published in real time. The methods and strategies and angles and ideas are endlessly hashed out--this is open source, after all--like a nightmare editorial meeting that never ends. So, can people possible care about the finished product when they've seen the 95 percent that didn't make the cut? It's a new-media truism that access to such detritus is the key to greater enlightenment. But, last time I checked, knowing how the sausage gets made renders it a lot less appetizing.
By Carolyn O'Hara