The Virtual Assignment Desk and The Launch of the Local East Village

Today The Local East Village launches. That makes it a big day for me and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. And for Studio 20, which developed for the launch a new piece of software: the Virtual Assignment Desk. What is it? Read on...

13 Sep 2010 3:37 pm 14 Comments

Today The Local East Village launches. That makes it a big day for me and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.

A daily news blog that covers the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, The Local East Village—or LEV, as we call it—is a New York Times site produced in collaboration with NYU faculty and students. Some quick facts, and a caution:

Quick Facts

  • On Twitter, it’s @nytlev. The Facebook page is here.
  • The editor is Richard G. Jones , a former New York Times reporter, with oversight by Mary Ann Giordano, a Deputy Metropolitan Editor at the Times. They’re responsible for the content and the coverage.
  • The Studio 20 program at NYU, which I direct, was intimately involved in the planning and conceptual stage, working closely with Jones and Giordano, as well as Jim Schachter, the Editor for Digital Initiatives and Associate Managing Editor of the Times, Jeremy Zilar, Blog Specialist for the Times, Brooke Kroeger, Director of the Carter Institute, Jason Samuels, my colleague on the Studio 20 faculty, and Yvonne Latty, who directs the Reporting New York program at NYU.

The caution

It is going to take a while for The Local East Village to find any kind of stride. The East Village is already well served by a healthy blogosphere and a newly launched site is not going to equal what’s already there. Because two of the bigger institutions in New York, the Times and NYU, are teaming up, there’s going to be high expectations— and some resentments. The plan is to make steady progress, not to wow people out of the gate.

The Virtual Assignment Desk

From the beginning of our discussions with the Times, a consistent mandate from the editors has been to involve the community in production of the site. This had to be pro-am journalism or it wasn’t worth doing. We quickly settled on an ambitious goal: as soon as we could get there, at least half the material should come from people who live in the East Village. That means half the posts authored by the community and half the ideas for what to cover coming from the community. To that end we hired a community liaison editor, Kim Davis, an East Village resident who publishes At the Sign of the Pink Pig, a weekly ‘zine about restaurants and the arts.

I felt we needed more than that, however, and that’s how we came up with the Virtual Assignment Desk, a piece of software that I want to describe for you.

The Times uses the WordPress system to run its 100+ blogs; The Local East Village will be one of them. The Virtual Assignment Desk is a WordPress plug-in, still in beta form, that is designed to help us reach our goal: a 50 percent community-authored hyperlocal newsblog. It allows for an editorial work flow system that is “open” to the community at two places: where assignments are made, and where story ideas are generated.

The idea is to lower the transaction costs for engaging with community contributors. We do that by making it easy to get an assignment or suggest something the site should cover, integrating both of these directly into the content management system. (To test drive the Virtual Assignment Desk, go here.)

Here’s how the system will work when it is de-bugged and fully functional:

1. Any registered user of will be able to click on a link off the front page of the LEV and see a list of assignments, approved by the editor, for which we need contributors. By “contributors” we simply mean someone to do to the reporting and write a post, or to take photographs, record video, etc.

2. Users will be able to express their support for assignments that are listed there in three ways: by voting them up, by volunteering to do the work (cover the event, take the photos…) or by commenting and adding information.

3. Any registered user of can volunteer for an assignment by filling out a simple form at the Assignment Desk site. It goes directly to the editor of the LEV.

4. If the volunteer is approved by the editor, an email to that contributor describing the assignment and giving a deadline is automatically generated and a draft post is opened up in the wordpress system for the contributor to fill in.

5. Any user can also suggest a story to the editor—an event to cover, a problem to investigate, a question for the site to answer—by filling out a pitch form at the Assignment Desk site. It goes directly to the editor.

6. The editor can reject, modify or approve the pitch form. If approved it goes up on the list of assignments for which we need contributors (see no. 1 above) to be voted up, commented on or volunteered for.

7. A given user can both suggest a story by filling in a pitch form, and volunteer to do the story. Or not. The editor can easily modify pitch forms and generate new ones by adding a bit of code to a WordPress page.

8. Assignments can be listed by contributor types. This allows the editor of the LEV to reserve certain assignments for, say, community residents, or NYU students, or regular contributors— or maybe first time contributors. From the potential contributor’s point of view, this means you can see a list of assignments for which you are eligible, excluding all others.

9. For the editor (or anyone with admin status) there’s a dashboard widget that shows all the assignments and their current status. It shows up every time the editor logs in. If new pitches have come in, there’s a quick link to filter and approve those.

EditFlow and Assignment Desk

Daniel Bachhuber is a wordpress developer who is also Digital Media Manager for the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (which produces The Local in Brooklyn.) He worked with Erik Froese of NYU’s computer science program on the final stages of the plug-in development. Daniel is also one of the co-authors of the EditFlow plug-in, with which Assignment Desk combines. I did this brief Q & A with him to further explain the software.

I just gave my description, but how would you describe what the Virtual Assignment Desk is?Assignment Desk is a WordPress plugin enabling anyone to participate in the sourcing and production of journalism. By establishing structure around the production process, it scales up the number and quality of contributions.

Can you explain what Editflow is, and what the Assignment desk adds and how they work together?

Edit Flow is a WordPress plugin Mo Jangda, Andrew Spittle, Scott Bressler, Joe Boydston and I have been working on over the last year and a half. Edit Flow adds structure to the editorial workflow with custom post statuses, editorial metadata, email notifications, editorial comments, and a story calendar.

The Assignment Desk and Edit Flow are in some senses two halves of the same project. Where Edit Flow focuses on the editorial workflow, Assignment Desk manages the relationships between contributors and production of content.

When will the plug-in be ready for other users of WordPress?

If you’re feeling adventurous, Assignment Desk is ready for you. Today, we released version 0.6. It includes functionality for pitching story ideas, opening those story ideas for public comment, voting and volunteering, and then assigning contributors to a story in various roles. A more thorough introduction to how the plugin works and other documentation is available on the project website We hope to hit version 1.0 in a few weeks, after we tie up loose ends and spit-polish the features.

As a developer and future-of-newsie yourself, what’s exciting, interesting, significant to you about this project?

The people formerly known as the audience now have the tools to self-identify their information needs. I’d love to see pitching framed in the context of “What don’t you know about your community?”, and then users can vote to establish the most pressing questions for their community.

What else would you like people to know about the plug-in?

We’re looking for contributors! Our hope is that the Desk becomes a true open-source project, where everyone that contributes code gets 10x value in return.

Wouldn’t it be cool if the Assignment Desk suggested writers to you based on who is most active in your comments, what topics they most commonly comment on, and whether their insights were voted up or down? We think so too; with more people we can build more cool features! Shoot us an email at [email protected] if you’re interested.


Work on the Assignment Desk plug-in began when Studio 20 struck up a partnership with Professor Evan Korth’s Information Technology Projects class in the computer science program at NYU. Korth puts teams of developers to work on innovative projects with partners, an approach similar to Studio 20’s in journalism. Anuj Bajaj, Erik Froese and SungHyun Bang were the original developers, assisted by Tal Safran, a computer science undergrad with an interest in journalism who took my class devoted to the launch of the LEV. Undergraduates Lily Quateman (who had interned on The Brooklyn version of The Local) and Jessica Roy contributed a number of key ideas from the editorial side. Studio 20 students Anjali Mullany and Matylda Czarnecka helped keep the project on track.

Over the summer Erik Forese, Tal Safran, Matt Diaz and Daniel Bachhuber continued what Korth’s class has started, working closely with me and with the New York Times blog and tech teams. The Times is now checking the code and integrating the plug-in into its wordpress installation. When version 1.0 is finished it will be available for to any site using the wordpress system: free and open source. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is expected to support continued development of the Assignment Desk with a grant to be announced soon.

Any questions? Feature requests? Put them in the comments.


Aaron Crews says:

Wow, building the assignment desk into a community platform and integrating it into WordPress is a powerful idea.

We’ll be looking at this as a mechanism for finding the most demanded/useful content and for establishing accountability in our internal knowledge management efforts.

Anastasia says:

I find it fascinating that nowhere in this entire overly verbose explanation does it mention that NYU is NOT the first school to team up with The Times to create a hyperlocal project — CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is. Regardless of being one of the “bigger institutions” NYU isn’t as original or clever as they’d like to think they are and it only fuels the notion behind NYU’s undeserving sense of self worth.

That being said, while it will take some time for the project to get off its feet, once that happens I wish nothing but the best to NYU. Just a friendly reminder that in order to be successful, they’ll have to get off their high horse to do so.

Jay Rosen says:

What an unfortunately and unnecessarily snarky comment.

In my first post on The Local East Village, which I referenced and linked to here, I made this background clear:

The Local East Village (or LEV, as we’re calling it) builds on the prior work of the Times in starting two other community news sites on the wordpress blogging platform: one for Maplewood, Millwood and South Orange New Jersey, the other serving Ft. Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is collaborating with the Times on the Brooklyn Local.
Second, since you challenged us on the facts: NYU is, in fact, “the first school to team up with The Times to create a hyperlocal project.” The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where the Brooklyn Local is edited and produced, did not create that site. The Times did, on its own. CUNY took over the operation of an existing site.

I did not use the terms “original” or “clever” in my post, those are your words.

Thank you for your well wishes. We will try to be equal to them.

Anastasia says:

I was not trying to be snarky, but instead, just simply pointing out the facts while giving my opinion. And regarding the word “original,” I was referencing the fact that sections of the LEV are mimicking those of The FG/CH Local. I.e. posts titled “The Day” and “Locals.” Was that a choice by NYU or did the Times suggest using the same titles for continuity?

Also, in regards to your post and how you said in your reply that you mentioned CUNY and The Local, your original post did not attribute past Local projects. I know the original post was edited, and for future reference, when adding or editing an already published post, it is proper etiquette to make a note in the post, making readers aware of the change.

Best of luck to you and the NYU staff!

“The first school to team up with The Times to create a hyperlocal project.”

Nice play on words here. CUNY was the first journalism school to team up with the Times yes? In the early stages (stop me if I’m wrong) they consulted with Newman (sp?) and company, and have kept the blog running (I don’t believe, and correct me if I’m wrong again, that they just hit the ground running the site and ran without consulting with the site’s previous editors).

To downplay the work they’ve been doing by nitpicking on Anastasia’s word-choice is glossing over the fact of the downplay of CUNY’s pioneering involvement with the New York Times experiment in hyperlocal fields.

If we resorted to a nit-pick of words…

Wouldn’t it be true to say that “NYU is the FIRST school to COPY a hyperlocal project with the Times.” Or that “NYU is the SECOND SCHOOL to team up with the Times”

Your sites don’t look to different. And like you said it’s a wordpress template. And many posts are very similar to the older model.

What’s next? An NYU-Tow Entrepreneurial grant? A branch in Times Square? Now to take down Columbia…and BEYOND!!!!!!!

typo- of the downplay should be read “and the downplay”

Digidave says:

Awesome stuff Jay. I can’t help but look at the Assignment Desk and see parts of Assignment Zero.

Fantastic to see these ideas slowly but surely bubble up.

Patrick Boylan says:

An assignment desk for citizen journalists? Been there and tried that. Two words: Fail whale.

Good luck with all that

Jay Rosen says:

Hi, Patrick. How can we see your Assignment Desk? Any way you could send me the code?

I only accidently discovered this valuable website and such lovely piece of writing. Cheers mate and carry on the fantastic work!

Looking 4work says:

So when the Times says the posts will be written by volunteers does that mean no pay? If so then why is everyone so excited to work for free? It would be more pioneering if there was pay for the posts IMHO.

Could you make one more blog page? I enjoy this 1 so considerably.

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