What’s a Virtual Assignment Desk ?

If The Local East Village, a collaboration between The New York Times and New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is an experiment in online journalism, then one of its most ambitious applications, the Virtual Assignment Desk, is an experiment within an experiment.

Designed as a digital interactive platform that provides readers with a way to suggest stories or volunteer to produce them, the Assignment Desk is an effort to help readers shape The Local’s coverage of news in the East Village.

“The Local East Village is about experimenting with innovative means of producing quality journalism in and about our own community,” said Brooke Kroeger, director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “Making it easy for community members to participate in this project is just as high a value. One of our major purposes in taking on this project is to have an in-house professional-level laboratory for journalistic innovation.”

Ms. Kroeger explained that the Virtual Assignment Desk is designed to provide a means of engaging users and contributors in the editorial process. Readers can suggest ideas, tips and pitches, as well as volunteer for those proposed by editors. “It enables contributors to offer their evaluation of pitches already on offer, to volunteer for an assignment, to suggest another contributor for the task, or to see where or how they might team up on the same subject with, say, another contributor who works in a different medium,” she said.

Professor Jay Rosen said that the Virtual Assignment Desk “makes it possible for anyone in the community to propose a story that The Local East Village should cover, or to scan a list of current assignments approved by the editors and then volunteer for one. The idea is to lower the transaction costs for contributors and editors as we try to make good on our mandate from The New York Times: half the material should come from the community.”

When The Times launched its first Locals (in Fort Greene-Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and in Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange, N.J.) last year, it experimented with a simple Virtual Assignment Desk made up of links to posts and e-mails. It allowed readers to see one assignment at a time, and to raise their hands for assignments by e-mailing directly with the site’s editor.

“The NYU application adds transparency to the news-gathering process and provides a better way to manage ideas and posts, which are challenges that many news organizations and the broader journalism community have been grappling with,” said Mary Ann Giordano, deputy Metro editor at The Times, who oversees The Locals. “We hope that NYU’s application not only allows us a way to more fully engage with our Local readers, but also proves to be a model for other community sites.”

Designed by NYU students, the Virtual Assignment Desk is an open-source WordPress plug-in, so any registered user of nytimes.com will be able to access it. 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.

“We hereby invite you and the whole East Village community to beta test it,” Ms. Kroeger said.

Go ahead. Try it. Take the Virtual Assignment Desk for a spin.