It was exceedingly difficult to sum up a complex, six-month project in the 2,000 words Wired.com allotted. As such, there were several themes left undeveloped. Due to the same space constraints, I was also unable to relate the various heroics that went into snatching (a qualified) victory from the jaws of defeat. It's easy enough to dispense with both of these tasks at the same time, as there's much overlap between the two.
Crowdsourcing projects are generally characterized as being the product of a few super-contributors and a mass of people who contribute some minor bits. I've heard this called the "dirty little secret of open source," the fact that most of the heavy lifting is done, not by the crowd per se, but by a few select individuals from within the crowd. I'd like to posit another rule: Any crowdsourcing project must install one go-to guy (or girl) who will thanklessly toil day and night to keep the project on the rails. At a magazine this person is called the Production Manager. On Assignment Zero he was called David Cohn.
It is no exaggeration to say that Assignment Zero would have never launched, must less reached completion, without David. Saddled with the totally inadequate title of "associate editor," in reality David did everything from customize Drupal for us, play Webmaster, manage the content on the site and play point person for a wide variety of volunteers and contributors. It's no accident that contributor after contributor emailed me to tell me how much they loved working with him. "The great thing about David isn't that he'll take on all the dirty jobs and work all night to get them done," Lauren Sandler said to me several weeks into the project. "It's that he never plays the martyr. He's all walk, no talk." David is not motivated by laurels and glory, but he deserves both, in spades. (Full disclosure: David is my writing and research assistant on the crowdsourcing book. I'm lucky to have him.)
Another concept that by all rights should have been more fleshed out in the Wired.com piece was the importance of community. While I'd like to think this idea suffuses the piece, I could probably have been more explicit in noting its importance to making AZ productive. Lucky for us, our organizers, Tish Grier and Amanda Michel, understood this to a degree that the rest of us did not.
There was a crucial turning point when a rift opened up between the journalist types (myself included) on one side and Amanda and Tish on the other. They felt our volunteer editors had to play community manager, going out and soliciting contributors, keeping people engaged, holding a few hands. Us hard-bitten journos essentially snorted in disdain. Editors do not play cheerleader, and God knows they do not do outreach. We won the battle and, in doing so, contributed to losing the war. 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. Tish has written an excellent distillation of how this went down at Assignment Zero, and I'd suggest anyone serious about crowdsourcing and journalism experiments put it on their summer reading list.