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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  1. [...] What is NewAssignment.Net? New Assignment.Net is a non-profit that tries to spark innovation in journalism by showing that open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust. A second aim is to figure out how to fund this work through a combination of online donations, micro-payments, traditional fundraising, syndication rights, sponsorships, advertising and any other method that does not compromise the site’s independence or reputation. At New Assignment, pros and amateurs cooperate to produce work that neither could manage alone. The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion. It pays professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards; they work with users who have something to contribute. The betting is that (some) people will donate to stories they can see are going to be great because the open methods allow for that glimpse ahead. Who is it for? New Assignment is for people who are interested in the news, online regularly and accustomed to informing themselves. It does stories the regular news media doesn’t do, can’t do, wouldn’t do, or already screwed up. And it allows for participation that is effective. The site gives out real assignments— paid gigs with a chance to practice the craft of reporting at a high level. Because they’re getting paid, the journalists who contract with New Assignment have the time—and obligation—to do things well. That means working with the users who gave rise to the assignment. How can I find out more? Go to PressThink, Jay Rosen’s blog. (Bio.) He’s the one who thought it up. The Introduction is here. At that post, you will find links to reactions and comments, and other PressThink posts spelling out how it works. How can I contribute? You can comment here, and soon you will be able to donate in small amounts online. NewAssignment.Net will be running it’s first test in Fall 2007, so watch this site. Donors interested in contributing $1,000 or more should contact Jay Rosen via e-mail. If you’re a blogger, write a post about it! What are they saying? Lots. Here’s the Technorati search. And here are some of the initial reactions: Craig Newmark of Craigslist.org at his blog. “Journalism’s evolving, and we’re seeing the convergence of professional journalism and citizen journalism. Staci Kramer at paidContent.org. “A good example of how people at all levels are grappling with ways to turn the potential of community-based journalism into reality.” Kevin Maney of USA Today. “A terrific experiment that should teach us something about where journalism is heading.” Mark Glaser at the PBS blog Media Shift. “Perhaps there’s a way to harness the power of the easy, powerful connections we can make online to do a new kind of investigative journalism.” Amy Gahran at Poynter’s E-Media blog. “It’s intriguing.” Scott Rosenberg of Salon. “Old-fashioned editorial processes mesh with newfangled feedback loops and reputation systems to produce something new and unique.” Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine. “NewAssignment will not replace the work of professional news organizations. It will complement them, attacking the stories that are not being covered.” Andrew Nachison at Morph. “Certainly the open process will be a novel flip of the traditional approach to journalism, which itself works in some cases and not in others.” Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News. “Let’s face it, the current system of investigative reporting has broken down.” Gal Beckerman at CJR Daily. “Let’s give it a whirl.”If there are images in this attachment, they will not be displayed. Download the original attachmentWhat is NewAssignment.Net? New Assignment.Net is a non-profit that tries to spark innovation in journalism by showing that open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust. [...]