Newassignment.net: new-model journalism

Jay Rosen has posted a detailed sketch of a new, non-profit venture in the “citizens’ media” (or “networked media”) realm that he is calling NewAssignment.Net. The idea is to create an institution online where people can contribute dollars to fund reporting projects they’re interested in. These projects will in turn be pursued by paid reporters and editors working creatively with information and contributions flowing back to them from the Net. Foundation seed money gets the thing off the ground; money from the crowd keeps it going. Old-fashioned editorial processes mesh with newfangled feedback loops and reputation systems to produce something new and unique.

Jay is one of the bright lights in this area, and I’m looking forward to what he comes up with — especially since some of the issues and problems he’s exploring are similar to the ones I’m working on at Salon these days.

Rosen’s description makes it clear that he’s seeking to create an institution where many traditional journalistic values persist and shape the work being done in a novel mode. In particular, there’s the idea that the reporters are going to go out and ask questions and consider all the information flooding back to them from the Net and determine the truth as best as they can — even if that truth is not what the people ponying up the cash wanted to hear.

This, to me, is likely to be a major friction point for NewAssignment — which will doubtless be avowedly nonpartisan but which will not be able to insulate itself from the fierce political divisions that shape so much online discourse today.

At Salon, we don’t make any claims to nonpartisanship but do maintain our own tradition of journalistic pride, and a commitment to fairness and giving the “other side” a say, and a belief in telling the story as you find it, not as your political preferences might dictate it. This has regularly placed us at odds with at least some of the readers who are funding our stories with their subscription dollars. (The relationship is not quite the direct quid pro quo that Rosen envisions, where individual site visitors put their chips on specific stories, but emotionally it seems similar.)

So, for instance, in the wake of stolen-election charges in Ohio in 2004 we had Farhad Manjoo — one of the most talented, hardest-working and open-minded reporters I’ve ever worked with — devote a lot of time to exploring the story. He’d done significant reporting on the topic in the past. His conclusion — as our headline put it, “The system is clearly broken. But there is no evidence that Bush won because of voter fraud” — was well-documented and carefully delineated. But it wasn’t what many of our readers wanted to hear.

Ever since, Salon has had a steady trickle of disgruntled subscribers cancel on us, citing these stories as a factor. It’s never been enough to make any difference to our business, and it certainly won’t stop us from doing further reporting on the subject, and presenting our findings accurately. But it’s disheartening. And I think that NewAssignment may face some similar tensions if it ends up reporting on topics that people have strong feelings about, which it must if it is to matter.

The sample story Rosen walks us through to explain his new idea is one about wild variations in drug prices from one place to another. The assumption is that some people who are upset by what they perceive as unfair, rigged drug pricing might be willing to help fund such an investigation. But what happens if the reporters come back and say, gee, it turns out that the drug companies are innocent here, the fluctuations are actually the result of [some other factor]? (I’m not saying I love drug companies. This is just an example.) Will these citizen-journalism sponsors want their cash back?

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis’s post about NewAssignment provides some tidbits of interest about the new media venture he’s been dropping hints about for a while, named Daylife. But I wonder about his comment: “We must explore new business models to support coverage of news and this is one of them.” It strikes me that the not-for-profit, institutionally-supported model Rosen has picked — perfectly reasonably — is good for many things, but maybe not so good for exploring new business models. Yes, there are sustainable nonprofit models, and maybe NewAssignment will turn out to be one of them; but it seems to me that Rosen’s plan is more about delivering a proof-of-concept for important new ideas about networked journalism than it is about building a business. If I’m wrong, I’m sure he’ll let me know!

[tags]Jay Rosen, citizens media, newassignment.net, Salon.com[/tags]

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