Thursday, May 13, 2010

Adventures in Participatory Journalism: An Interview with Sarah Rich about 48 Hour Magazine

A few weeks ago, a group of San Francisco-based writers had a crazy idea: they would make a magazine in 48 hours. And not just any magazine—they wanted to produce something of high quality, in keeping with their day jobs with Wired, Dwell, and other journalistic outfits. Oh, and they wanted it to be participatory. They put out a worldwide call for submissions on a Friday, and put the magazine to bed on Sunday.

That Sunday was this past Sunday, May 9, and by May 10, the magazine was available for sale. It looks great—60 pages on the theme of “hustle” culled from 1502 submissions (all of which were created, received, selected, edited, and laid out in 48 hours). I talked with Sarah Rich, one of the project’s instigators and staff members, to learn more about 48 Hour Magazine and its implications for other participatory media projects.

You had a huge response to this project. People were talking about it all over Twitter, and I was amazed to see how many submissions you received. What generated all the buzz?

The momentum was almost exclusively Twitter-based. None of us is a huge celebrity, but between the six of us who ran the project we have several thousand Twitter followers. We also have contacts with a lot of nodes in the Twitter network who have really big reach. It was almost entirely the reason this happened the way it did – we’re all pretty involved in the new media space.

We launched the Twitter feed and the website on April 29, and a little under 8000 people signed up to get an alert when the theme was announced. And then we had 1502 submissions when we finally announced the theme and the clock started.

That’s a lot of submissions. How did you read them and cull down the list in the time you had?

We had a really great custom content management system (CMS) built for us by one of our teammates, Dylan Fareed. He set up an infrastructure for people to evaluate submissions by giving it a yes, no, or maybe, with comments. We called upon our personal networks of trusted San Francisco-based editors to come in and read onsite during the weekend (with everyone working on their own laptops using the CMS). The CMS tabulated how many times each submission was read. We made sure everything was read three to five times. We didn’t have explicit criteria for selection—it came down to whether a piece was outstanding and reflected the theme.

What did you do when people disagreed—when you got a yes, a no, and a maybe on the same piece?

The three primary editors read all the contentious ones and all the ones that got more than two yes votes. Even after starting from ones with two yeses, we still had way more than we could use, and our core editorial team of three made the decisions about what would be included.

Once we figured out a final approval, we gave each piece to an editor for a more intense edit. There wasn’t any time to go back to the contributors for an okay, but that was part of the deal we outlined at the start. There were a couple instances when we cut something so dramatically (for example, from a 1,500 word essay to a two-line quote) that we did send an email to someone explaining the plan and we got their blessing to include it in the reduced form.

How did you work out the narrative flow of the final magazine?

That’s one of the phases for which we had the least amount of time, and something we’d like to give more hours to in the next issue. When each piece was edited, it went to Derek Powazek, who was doing layout and design, and he made the executive decision about where to put everything for the most part. The narrative arc of the whole magazine could probably have been more calculated but it actually came together well considering the speed.

How did you choose the theme of the magazine—hustle?

We talked about debt as a theme but
it wasn’t perfect. Then one night we were talking about our own careers and lives and how we had to hustle to make money as journalists. We liked that it wasn’t too prescriptive a theme—there’s the swindle side, the speed side—lots of ways to look at it.

Were the submissions really variable? Did you get some stuff that was just a mess?

The content was all over the map. We got something from a 9 year old blogger about Justin Bieber which was probably the most surprising. We got a lot of fiction and poetry, people in the literary magazine vein, people who write for themselves personally. Because the magazine theme was “hustle”, we received lots of personal narrative about sex and drugs. That represented a bulk of things we didn’t put in.

Beyond the excitement and buzz factor, what’s the value of doing this project so fast?

Magazines don’t have money to pay anyone anymore. A lot of people are expected to invest a lot of time to get published but then don’t get paid very much for their efforts. This was a way for us to get super-talented writers and only ask for a morning of their time. And it was a sort of question in our heads: do you have a higher probability of getting great creative work from people because we made it fun and not burdensome? There was a “let’s make it happen” attitude that I think was really appealing.

We were intentionally vague about the idea that the contributions had to be entirely conceived and created during the 24-hour submission period. And that vagueness definitely did enhance the overall content. For example, we received a photo essay that featured images taken months ago in French Guyana. The photos were old but the text was new. We couldn’t have had that piece if we were super strict about the timeframe.

This project appears to have been an incredible success. In lots of situations like this, I see well-intentioned people or institutions launch something like this and it bombs—the participation is not strong enough. You clearly had a lot going for you as a team, but do you think this kind of participation is replicable for people who are less tech-focused and connected than you?

I think there’s some truth to the fact that we’re in San Francisco, we’re media people, we can have great editors because we know them, we know great programmers – those are results of our specific circumstances. But I think this is definitely doable on a local level. The Internet is obviously a key tool for organizing. And then it’s about getting the people together and energized and ready to go.

You made contribution to the magazine participatory. Could you imagine making the editorial experience more participatory as well—crowd-sourcing the curation of the final magazine?

In terms of my vision, internal curation by trusted editors is a key piece. I really wanted it to be a refined and curated product in the end. We will work with different sets of editors on the next issue, and I’m excited about having a new group of staff members, but it really helps that they are professionals.

We considered putting up every single submission on the website and we decided not to in the end. It would have created a weird separation between the people in the community who were selected and those who weren’t. What I’m really excited about is that a lot of people who didn’t get in are posting their work on their own blogs, etc.

For the most part, the vast majority of the feedback from people whose work wasn’t selected was “I’m so excited I got to be creative this weekend, it was really great to do this thing.” And then there’s a smaller faction who said, “Why did you make all these people waste their time?” which to me is not the point at all. There’s some value in doing creative work, whether it’s included in the magazine or not.

What do you want people to say when they see the magazine? Sometimes participatory projects are seen as creating inferior products—projects that are “nice for the community” but not as high-quality as professionally-produced work.

I hope that people look at the magazine as a great magazine with great content and art. I don’t want people to say, “this is great for something they did in 48 hours.” I hope that they just think it’s great.


I haven’t received my copy yet, but it looks great online. I bought two; if you’d like me to mail my second one to you, leave a brilliant comment and I’ll pick a winner at random (US only for this one).

5 comments, add yours!:

Shalmanese said...

You're making us hustle for a copy? How meta.

Mary Warner said...

Don't I get 48 hours to be brilliant?

Nice article, Nina. I caught news of the project first on Twitter.

Samantha said...

Thanks for sharing this! I had no idea this was going on. Very interesting.

I actually just came across your blog by chance, but I wanted to let you know that I'm currently a graduate student at JHU and this semester my Business of Museums professor had me read "Principles of Participation," Chapter 1, The Participatory Museum. Great work! I felt like this chapter provided a great introduction for me being able to see the museum from the eyes of a visitor; verses a museum intern and student.

gih said...

Wow, that's very adventurous.

Kevin Buist said...

This is great. I'll be sure to pass it on to friends I have who are working on a crowd-sourced local news outlet in Grand Rapids, The Rapidian.