NYT and LAT talk up 'crowdsourcing'

Crowdsourcing - the enlistment of one's audience to provide reporting power on a mass scale - is making mainstream media headlines literally from coast to coast.

Approaching the topic with a touch of wide-eyed wonder, The New York Times this morning profiles Assignment Zero, an "experimental" journalism site launched by NYU professor Jay Rosen and Wired magazine.

Meanwhile, the Los Angles Times shines a well-earned spotlight on Talking Points Memo (TPM) and its sister site TPMmuckraker.com, a small band of blogger/journalists who may not have invented crowdsourcing but have mastered the new art to such a degree that they have broken much of the scandalous news about the U.S. Attorney firings, helped bring down a Senate majority leader and spared us all the bamboozlement of "Social Security phase-out."

I have a TPM T-shirt and coffee mug, so count me as an unabashed fan.

Here's the gist of Assignment Zero from the N.Y. Times:

The idea is to apply to journalism the same open-source model of Web-enabled collaboration that produced the operating system Linux, the Web browser Mozilla and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

"Can large groups of widely scattered people, working together voluntarily on the net, report on something happening in their world right now, and by dividing the work wisely tell the story more completely, while hitting high standards in truth, accuracy and free expression?" Professor Rosen asked last week on Wired.com.

Assignment Zero will use custom software to create a virtual newsroom that allows collaboration on a discrete, but open-ended, topic from the very start.

Minus the custom software, TPM's been doing this kind of thing for years. From the L.A. Times story:

In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM , posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas.

For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress. One senior Justice Department official has resigned, and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs.

Impressive, but by no means TPM's most important contribution. During the successful effort to turn back President Bush's proposed phase-out of Social Security, TPM readers were invaluable in terms of writing and calling their lawmakers to pin down concrete positions on an issue that that had lawmakers squirming for political cover. A thing of beauty, journalistically speaking.

We have dabbled in crowdsourcing here at Buzzblog, with our Buzzblog Brigade, an e-mail list to which I address the occasional tech-related question and publish the proffered replies. I haven't done this often enough (will be in touch soon, folks), but it has created interesting copy, such as "Could that be the wireless police knocking?" and "Hypothetical Death Match: E-mail vs. The Web."

The question isn't whether crowdsourcing works or not but how to make it work on a consistent basis and without having troublemakers pollute the honest efforts of the volunteer masses.

TPM's crowd is clearly a well-oiled machine.

It'll be interesting to see how others fare over time.

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