Monday, July 16, 2007

Assignment Zero Post-Mortem: Participation was Paramount

This morning, as I read --Did Assignment Zero Fail? A Look Back and Lessons Learned--Jeff Howe's Assignment Zero post-mortem--I noted that Jeff mentions the importance of participation, but doesn't mention either myself nor Amanda Michel, and our key roles in keeping people interested and active with Assignment Zero....

As I quickly IM'd Amanda--who's now on Jay's new project Off the Bus with former fellow Deaniac Zack Exley--I could not help feeling somewhat crestfallen by Jeff's omission (although I know Jeff had a tough job encapsulating the AZ experience in 2,000 words.)

I came into the project at a most difficult time--during the 500-volunteer crush that Steve Fox experienced, the insanity of amassing the significant number of volunteer editors that were necessary for the project, and the massive complaints about site usability. One of the first things I noticed--and Amanda had hinted about to me--was the inability of many of the journalists to understand the importance of organizing and staying in constant contact with volunteers. I'd had much experience in online forums, messagboards and blogs (going back to '98) as well as a very successful run as the Volunteer Co-ordinator for the Northampton Independent Film Festival (where I consolidated a haphazard volunteer recruitment policy into a more concentrated, online focused effort.)

Amanda and I spent many days trying to figure out how to get through to the journalists, and decided it was perhaps better to do what we could to bolster the volunteers (some of the journalists got it--because they had done some interaction already--while others just didn't.) One of the first things we did was to start regular newsletter-style email communications with everyone registered to the site. This was something we both knew worked--it gives volunteers the sense that they are needed and important to the project...

And it's true: without volunteers, there would be no project.

At one point, it hit me that there were far too many stories to handle. I'd asked Lauren Sandler how stories were triaged in a newsroom. She explained how stories where no one was showing interest pretty much fell off the vine--and we thought that might happen with AZ. But, that wasn't happening with AZ. We were putting topics out there, and even if one person showed remote interest, we kept them. We hadn't figured out a system for deciding what not to work on. So, we had a potential unlimited number of contributors--thus a potential unlimited number of opinions and story lines for the feature. For our purposes, we needed a different system.

It became imperative to cut things down a bit or risk losing everyone who volunteered...because, at this point, volunteers were asking us for more direction--where they were needed. They were getting tired of us asking them for what aspect of crowdsourcing they were interested in writing about.

So, the first triage was to cap the projects. This was a process--not wholly cut-and-dried. Amanda and I corresponded with Jeff, David, Jay and Lauren. We decided to spin off the Citizendium story to publish early--it had a fantastic, dedicated writer, Mike Ho, and some good reporting from a few other AZ participants.

We also decided to give the blog a group voice rather than a single personality- driven voice. The project, after all, wasn't about one person on the Team, but about all of us on the Team working together.

Then, myself, Amanda, Jeff, David, and Jay concentrated on what stories to keep and what stories to triage. Amanda and I had been looking at stats weekly, and I mentioned to her that it might be a good idea to "unpack" the stats we had so that we could see the focus of our volunteers' attention.

We were running on a tight timetable. There was a limit to what we could accomplish because time, and volunteers had been lost (for a number of reasons.) We couldn't waste the volunteer's time nor their attention.

Amanda drew up a concise report as to where people's interests were directed--lots of numbers broken down incrementally. We then strategized on what kind of reporting a group of folks from a wide variety of backgrounds might be able to accomplish. My experience had been that the Q&A format was the easiest to handle--David agreed this might be easiest for a group with a broad level of journalistic experience. We could see from the reports that there were some topics where a significant amount of work had been done, and others where there remained a good amount of interest. So, the decision was made to allow those topics that were developing to go to full fruition, while others would be truncated to Q&A status.

Even Jeff mentions that many of the Q&As exceeded his expectations. Indeed, excellent work was done by the majority of our participants.

One thing to note here: every day we faced an onslaught of email. We received email to the "assignment zero editors" account, as well as individually. A key skill for dealing with a crushing volume of email is knowing how to filter communications--knowing when to read and when to respond (or not.) With- out this skill, it is easy to feel one is the center of a project's communications universe and never get any work done. David, Amanda and myself became proficient at filtering, about letting some things go, and knowing when to clarify others.

Angela Pacienza, Director of Online News for The Canadian Press came onboard to help us organize the Q&As, and Hillary Rosner (former editor at the Village Voice and contributing editor at New York magazine) took the reins on the features.

All of this, even with the new divisions of responsibility, still required constant communication with the volunteers. Now, though, there were editors that volunteer contributors could go to with questions.

But none of us on the Team were ever working in isolation (none of us were ever not working either.) Deftly communicating via email and IM became of paramount importance--both with volunteers and among ourselves. A curious thing about working virtually: egos must be left at the door. When working virtually, and all over the country, it's easy to evolve into a 24 hour operation....and because there's no social outlet, it can be very easy to take others for granted (or imagine slights.) Upon first reading an email, nothing can be projected into email text. The reader must be dispassionate in order to maintain equilibrium and to respond constructively. If something seems biting--let it go, or ask the person privately. Don't escalate. Yet we did thank one another often, and were much kinder to one another when personal matters kept us from being on-call 24/7. We didn't learn quite as much about each other had we worked in the same office--but we were able to humanize one another and work consistenly and with compassion.

After all, if you think about it, compassion may take time, but it is truly an easy thing to do...

All in all, we did our best with what we had at the particular time in history--and did rather well. We learned that in "crowd" or "open"-source projects, organizing the crowd is vitally important. People want to be a part of new--possibly historic--undertakings, and when they step up, need to be acknowledged. Once acknowledged, they need to know what's going on--even moreso with virtual projects where there's the perception that there's no Central Office. People don't want to just hang out waiting for instruction--in fact, they expect to be given direction right away. This means that the core group--the leadership of the project--has to be unified, have good communication, know the details of the "game plan." If the Team doesn't know the game plan, or if there's a breakdown anywhere in the chain of communication--if anyone's ego or need to horde information gets in the way--then things will go wrong. And with Asssignment Zero, more things went right than they ever went wrong.

Expect the unexpected. Be prepared for any eventuality. Fuck the critics. Communicate Openly. Love your People.

That's what it's really about.

I've also written another piece on participaton in Assignment Zero for the Connected Intelligence Wiki...

Update: Jeff Howe's posted important follow-up to his article (which, he informs me, will have an addendum.)Jeff says:
The plain fact is that in the future, journalists will have to develop these skills if they want to succeed in a future in which their readers are also their writers. . .The crowd does not contribute in a vacuum. They do so as part of a community of other contributors. I see this again and again in researching my book and, no surprise, it was true with Assignment Zero as well.
Yes, Jeff gets it. :-)

and don't forget to check out David--the hardest working young man in journalism--Cohn's fab perspective on AZ. Suffice to say I'd be super-happy work again with DigiDave. (oh, and David's also started a link post at the blog.)

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DigiDave said...

A fantastic summation of what was a flurry.

I especially like your take on how we were constnatly in contact with each other. I can't remember exactly how many emails/im conversations we were having a day in the thick of it -- but between our internal conversations and conversations with contributors -- it was more than I had been used to.

All in all -- it was a lot of fun. In this project -- Content is still king, but participation was key. You hit it on the head.

Truly enjoyed working with you (as you already know) and hope we can again in the future.

Tish Grier said...

Hi David....

thank you--and it was wonderful working with you as well. Yes, there were frustrations, no sleep, and times when we could all have had one of those collective primal screams, but it was pretty darned amazing....

I too hope we can work together again in the future.

Pramit Singh said...

Hi Tish,

I read your post and learnt in detail about what goes in building a online community of citizen reporters.

I am re-posting here a response to your comment on my post on crowdsourcing and Assignment Zero:

In the outset, I would like to acknowledge that Assignment Zero is a great idea and you all did a great Job with it. I posted a link to a collection to 80 interviews on Assignment Zero as well.

Here is my response:
I am sorry if I meant 'lack of editorial' support.

All i wanted to convey that Assignment Zero, a great idea, might have been more productive if there were more trained/experienced online editors assigned for the citizen volunteers.

I agree with you when you say that Crowd Sourcing cannot be taught in Journalism, just as sucessful business startup can't be taught in Business Schools.

I look forward to newer initiatives . All the best.

Tish Grier said...

kHi Pramit...thanks so much for stopping by. One thing we needed in place from the start was a group of editors (so you are right there.) And, it would have been nice to have them around for, say, a week before launch to help them figure out how to work in a virtual environment (everyone's online to some degree--working virtually, however, is a different concept.)

The editors, however, were working as volunteers as well, so many who have solid editorial experience sometimes found that the amount of time that was necessary for the project was far too much time than they could spare--and left. So, again, we had to shift and find more editors. We can thank the Online News Association for helping us out!

Our group of editors who helped to pull it all together were amazing--ones I worked most with were Lisa Selin Davis, who worked on the architecture story; Michele McLellan, who worked on the novels story; and Vivian Martin, who worked on the journalism story. All had a wonderful grasp on how to work virtually with a wide variety of people.

What I believe gets lost in discussions on editorial are discussions on participation and organizing. This is where Amanda and I found many of the editors lacking. We were often told not to "pressure" the editors about this, but all we wanted was for them to be more pro-active with their groups *because* the groups were not f2f, and it takes more to keep non-f2f feeling appreciated and involved. It was asking editors to open up and learn a new skill--and many simply would not budge.

Further, many of the volunteers were not completely inexperienced. That's a misconception. Like open-source programming projects that attract programmers of various levels, we attracted journalists of varying levels--from retired to student. And the "amateurs" were, for the most part, academics from other disciplines who knew how to write and listen to editors.