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July 25, 2006

Introducing NewAssignment.Net

Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t. They raise the money too. Q and A explains. There's $10,000 to test it, courtesy of Craig Newmark.

(This is part one. Part two.)

Alright, what is it?

In simplest terms, a way to fund high-quality, original reporting, in any medium, through donations to a non-profit called NewAssignment.Net.

The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up. There are accountability and reputation systems built in that should make the system reliable. The betting is that (some) people will donate to works they can see are going to be great because the open source methods allow for that glimpse ahead.

In this sense it’s not like donating to your local NPR station, because your local NPR station says, “thank you very much, our professionals will take it from here.” And they do that very well. New Assignment says: here’s the story so far. We’ve collected a lot of good information. Add your knowledge and make it better. Add money and make it happen. Work with us if you know things we don’t.

But I should add: NewAssignment.Net doesn’t exist yet. I’m starting with the idea.

For whom would the site exist? Who are the customers?

People who are interested in the news, online regularly and accustomed to informing themselves. They would come because New Assignment 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.

A sub-group of “customer” would be donors, wherever they are found. One of the major unknowns is whether such donors exist.

Finally, professional journalists with the required skills and a commitment to truth. They would be there looking for contract work.

For what kind of work?

Well, 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 smart mobs who gave rise to the assignment and handed it over to an editor and correspondent with the story part-of-the-way there.

Is this about unleashing open source journalism, or hiring reporters to get the story?

Rather than proclaim one over the other, give us the advantages of both. I think this is what people listening to the conversation about citizens media want to see. And they’re right to want that. They are also saying: stop with the proclamations, on with the demonstrations. Let’s see the work. What can networked journalism, as Jeff Jarvis now calls it (“professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story”) actually do?

Where would the results of New Assignment investigations be seen?

At, or they will be presented by partners, or syndicated to clients.

Big Media sites could be a destination for New Assignment stories? Is that your hope?

That would be fine. I’m not expecting it. My hope is that open source methods can work when sensibly adapted. I think we’re a long way from knowing how that is done, or if it can be done. New Assignment is an attempt to find out. Parts of this puzzle are scattered all about: in the news business, blogger empires, on the political Web in several places, on the air— and indeed around the world. My scheme isn’t advanced enough yet to go live. It’s in the development stage, quite unfinished. I’m hoping to improve it by a lot. This Q and A is the start. And the comment threads, of course.

And if it works?

If I can improve it, get the funding, find people who know how to operate in the more open style, NewAssignment.Net would be a case of journalism without the media. That’s the beauty part. Reporter + smart mob + editor with a fund get the story the press pack wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t.

And if it works really well, the site could eventually support people— the careers of the editors and reporters who give and get the assignments.

That’s in the distance. A more likely payoff is that, properly configured, journalists and volunteer networks of users can do some things better together than either could alone. NewAssignment.Net is a test of that proposition. It should be possible for the site to discover things that would be hard to discover any other way, certainly by an individual reporter, unaided. So when I say original I mean that too. Of course, maybe my premises are cracked and what “should” work won’t. We’ll see.

Okay, but we’ve heard a lot about “tapping” the powers of the Net. That’s no help. To what problem in journalism is NewAssignment any kind of answer?

A big problem, actually. It’s probably the one heard more than any other around the industry water cooler, Romenesko. Where’s the money going to come from to support real reporting in this brave new media world we’re building? Anyone with half opened ears knows this is the deepest anxiety in the news business. It’s always there at conferences and roundtables where journalists talk about their future. More than once I’ve seen a senior executive or pundit in the news business, contemplating how hard it is to make money on the Internet, turn to bloggers and say: guys, where’s the money going to come from?

Like we knew!

NewAssignment.Net is not “the” answer, by any stretch. But there can’t be one best way in the new political economy of newsgathering. We’re better off with many people trying many schemes, including some that sound crazy. Mine is no solution at all to how the press funds its Moscow bureaus, or how to keep the metropolitan newspaper together. I have answers to none of that.

I just think journalism without the media is at this point a practical idea, worth testing. By raising money and “raising” great stories that are worth the money, NewAssignment.Net makes it possible for the people formerly known as the audience (I’ve been writing about them lately) to originate outstanding work. The design assumes no antagonism at all between “citizen” users and “professional” journalists. The assumption is we need both, and ways for them to work in tandem. A journalist who can’t work with people and tell them the truth isn’t right for New Assignment. Visitors who cannot accept an account at odds with prior belief will not be happy participants, and they certainly won’t donate.

How did you get started on this idea?

By thinking about what happened to Chris Allbritton, the former AP reporter who got a blog and used it to cover the war in Iraq as the United States forces descended on that country in 2003. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking and patriotic hype. That was the assignment. It was new because it didn’t involve the media at all, but it was real journalism: war correspondence with an intimate feel.

Allbritton needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and found the war) a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, enough cash to move around, keep fed and buy his way out of trouble. He went as an independent, representing only his readers, his backers, himself. He never asked permission to be in the country. He just went. The law was changing hands anyway.

On March 27, 2003 his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site, Back to Iraq. That was NewAssignment.Net in improvised form, because the journalist and a “paying” public got together and pulled it off. The people formerly known as the audience could, in a sense, hire their own journalist. Allbritton showed that it was possible; and I wrote about what he did in Columbia Journalism Review.

But I kept thinking about that episode because the implications were large. Alert publics hire their own correspondents and share the results with the world, cutting “the media” out entirely. This had promise. Meanwhile, Chris started stringing for Time magazine, and eventually became a Middle East Correspondent based in Beirut. Michael Yon, who is more sympathetic to the President’s aims in Iraq, has shown that Allbritton’s idea wasn’t a total fluke: he’s raised money from users to report independently from Iraq on the Net. The people who rely on Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo have funded expansions in his operation, including a Muckraking Fund that led to a new site.

They’re all journalism without the media, in my book.

Is that the “new” part then, cutting out the middle man? And why is it called New Assignment?

Several reasons. Two are most important: First, all assignments emerge from open source (we could also say collaborative) methods. They bring into investigative journalism what Net-based social networks can know. Our hunch is you can break stories that way if you don’t try to control it too much. Or too little! Second, the money is raised, and the journalism is completed after that “open” stage has been run. The site seeks funding for assignments that have been well-defined, vigorously discussed and are part-of-the-way there because they were open-sourced successfully (failures having fallen away).

“Successfully” means what?

Take a relatively simple example: “Why does Zorflexe Cost What it Costs?” It’s a drug-pricing story (I made up the brand name Zorflexe) that attempts to establish what a commonly-needed Arthritis drug costs in North America and around the world, including information from every zip code in the US, and then tries to explain the variations in price by sending journalists out to investigate what the network returned as data. I am not saying this is an earth-shattering story, or that none like it has ever been told. It’s just a simplified example to show network effects.

The users help find out what a drug costs “everywhere.” It would be hard for a reporter to do that alone. Journalists are hired to get answers to questions developed by users, filtered through editors, who in turn enforce a certain standard of excellence, fairness and transparency that is indistinguishable from New Assignment’s reputation.

Successful assignments emerge when lots of participants show interest in the early stages to contribute knowledge and help refine the story to the point where it is assignable and (the editors believe) fundable. And if not that then affordable.

So what’s different is: the site does professional quality, but (very) amateur-friendly reporting, it’s journalism without the media, it runs all assignments through an open source gauntlet, it requires the participation of a smart mob for a story to lift off and become an Assignment, capital A. What did I leave out?

The correspondent doesn’t “take over” until work is well along. The early stages are done in the open. The money for the reporting isn’t raised until the story is outlined and partially developed. Which means you can see where it’s going. Don’t like it? Don’t contribute! The evidence for why there’s a story there can be examined by anyone who is interested. When you go to the site itself,, assignments are in motion, from bubbling up to rolling out, sort of like projects at a studio.

These are relatively new methods for doing journalism with the Net. Thus: NewAssignment.Net.

So this is the wisdom of the many, rather than the few, which we’ve heard so very much about?

No. It’s journalism by the many and the few, who try to redeem the promise of the original assignment by creating great journalism with it. They also continue to collaborate with the network that “birthed” the piece. Then they report back to the people who started the ball rolling, with answers to their questions and a lot more they uncovered. This is how the site builds reputation.

To be clear, I said users get answers to the assignment’s questions. That does not mean they get the answers they want or anticipate.

We’ll go into that more in part two of this Q and A. What happens after an assignment is developed online?

Well, by then the assignment “sheet”—a content-rich web page of our own design—has a one-word slug (Zorflexe) a title Why Zorflexe Costs So Much, And So Little, a one paragraph summary (100 words or less) the key questions the account has to answer, a why section where it’s explained why we need these answers, call lists with sources who should be consulted or have agreed in advance to talk, links for the critical background material, the prior journalism on which this act should build, and assorted leads, hints, suggestions, data and resources the eventual correspondent can pick up and use to create great work. A wiki-fied roadmap to a story of high public interest.

But the roadmap is also supposed to interest potential supporters by allowing them to judge for themselves the likelihood of success. Suppose in our Zorflexe example we’re getting wild variations in prices and we can already see they follow some patterns. That content-rich web page of our own design has to show all this. It will be a lot of work to get it right.

The assignment, if things click, is also the enticement. We get that. But how does it get before donors’ eyes?

An editor decides when an assignment gels. At that point the story moves to the front page of NewAssignment.Net. It’s officially ready to get talked about and seek greenlight status. A time window is chosen and it’s “out there” to attract support.

If open sourcing really works, and the assignment page is strong, it should generate excitement about the investigation yet to be done, a sense that “someone has to do this story.” The people who worked on the open stage have an investment in seeing the rest happen. But will it happen? Yes, if the site and its editors can find the money. This creates suspense for those who care.

Yeah, but why would people care? I mean care enough to want to help you out in your data collection schemes, or give you money. You’re not assuming most people would be interested in that, are you?

No, we’re not. Some people. In some cases a very few people. But if you’re a middle-aged man in Minnesota with elderly parents and one takes Zorflexe and you can’t believe how much it costs, especially compared to prices in Canada… well, you might very well be willing to join in, especially if we make it easy for you to see that your efforts could add up to some big discoveries.

The betting is: if you give a lot of people an investment in the early stages some of them—-of course it could be just one-—will step forward and make it happen. Others contribute knowledge only, no money. They in turn are a tiny percentage of the readership. An assignment can have one funder, or several hundred, even thousands once the micropayment puzzle is solved. Maybe we sell NewAssignment.Net memberships for $50.00 a year and you can apportion those dollars in micro-amounts over 12 months. That would be cool.

Some back-of-the-envelope math: If 3,000 users decide to commit $3 of their $50 fund because they got excited about a story, that’s enough to place a reporter on the trail of that story full time for, say, a month. Don’t hold me to those numbers.

But you don’t have to donate to participate in NewAssignment.Net, right?

Not a dime. But then you are a donor if you contribute what you know or found out, if it’s reliable information.

You said “only if editors can get the money.” How much would you be trying to raise for each story?

Each assignment would have a price tag, which is simply a realistic budget—- the amount that has to be raised to get the right people and do a very good job. NewAssignment.Net is a non-profit because it’s just about the journalism. Delivering audiences to advertisers isn’t the mission. The budget reflects the actual cost of doing the work, plus overhead for sustaining the site, plus whatever tax we decide to impose to carry New Assignment ahead.

If the money is raised, the project moves to the next stage: a reporter is hired, a deadline is set, work begins, editors oversee, journalists operate in traditional and open source fashion to answer the assignment’s questions, with a brief to go beyond that when necessary. Of course for some stories more than one pair of hands is needed, which means more money has to be raised.

What if the money is not raised?

That is one failed assignment. There will be those. This is one of the Darwinian moments built in.

Is that the end of it, then?

Might be. Not necessarily. The assignment may be dropped, written off as a dud. Or, an editor can decide to fund it out of precious special projects fund that editor controls. That would be a gamble. An editor can also decide that the money can be raised after-the-fact, a bigger gamble.

Special projects fund? And where does that money come from?

In the beginning from the initial funding NewAssignment.Net gets from people who believe it might work. Start-up funds.

So you plan to raise money for this?

Yes. Enough to try it out. And if you’re reading this and want to help with funding, e-mail me at PressThink. I will be in San Francisco soon for a week.

Editors have to develop reputations or they’re sunk. In order to do that, they have to be able to fund extremely promising or urgent ideas that for one reason or another are not a “hit” in the online fundraising stage.

It wouldn’t make sense to do kick-ass open sourcing and then “lose” it to the vagaries of Paypal. Even though online donations may work well much of the time, we cannot make good ideas hostage to that. So the editors have reserve funds. It creates flexibility for funders too because you can fund an editor directly.

So you’re not only talking about fundraising story-by-story, with click and contribute?

Right. NewAssignment.Net has no dogma about how the money comes in. It’s a charity and will raise funds for high quality journalism any way it can figure out that’s wise, that works and maintains the site’s independence and reputation. It may be that very good editors can raise a lot money for their special funds by developing a track record, knowing their donors, finding sponsors who want to be associated with the work, or buyers in the media who will pay the costs. New Assignment syndicates to Big Media and gets paid that way. Or it could accept sponsorships. We’ll see.

No matter where the money comes from, all assignments have to be open-sourced and developed online, and brought to the “completed roadmap” stage.

In that sense the users have veto rights, correct?

In the same way that users of Slashdot and Kuro5hin “veto” the things they are not interested in, yes. Stories aren’t limited by the wisdom of the crowd. But they aren’t NewAssignment.Net stories unless they get a suitable response online.

The challenge is to develop the art of collaboratively-reported stories, which is waiting to be proven viable. I wrote about it recently as Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism. I said it’s about time we found out if the idea works. I also did a BloggerCon session (the MP3 is here) with the same theme. I think this kind of thing can work, but no one really knows.

Can it challenge the major news organizations?

In the sense of doing what they do every day? No way. New Assignment is like a “boutique” firm. Not a major producer, an irregular and niche one, with no obligations to carry a full line or be omniscient in newsland. We’re not putting the world under surveillance, just doing our thing.

You’ve referred to the editors several times, like we know them. Who are they and what do they do?

Editors at New Assignment do a great many things, some of which differ not at all from traditional section editing at a newspaper or magazine, while others have no parallel to prior work. New Assignment editors hire writers, supervise their reporting, edit the work that comes back, and prepare it for publication—all traditional tasks.

But they also blog in their area of interest to generate story ideas and attract knowledgeable people to their area of the site. They work with users as assignments come together online. They decide when an assignment is far enough along to be packaged and sent out to seek its fortune. They set budgets; negotiate contracts; develop and nurture new writers; raise money for their special funds; cultivate a network of reliable supporters; find new patrons; participate with other editors in the approval of story ideas; “place” finished work with media outlets in syndicated fashion; and—much the most important thing—they uphold the site’s standards and practices. They also drum up excitement for the work they are doing by being visible, clued-in and articulate persons on the scene.

That’s putting a lot on the editors isn’t it?

Yes, and I’m not done yet— there’s more we’re expecting. Editors are the key people in every way. They drive things. The biggest expense will be to employ them. If the site is ever successful it will be because of particular editors who learn how create journalism—-and get people to fund it—using open source methods. Putting it together, as Sondheim said. That’s what editors have to be most skilled in.

That doesn’t sound like “new media.” Remember how bloggers celebrated their freedom from editors when they burst on the scene? If I have you right, nothing gets through unfiltered, and editors have a very traditional role, not like blogging at all.

Exactly right. NewAssignment is all about the editors. Except: They are editors who have sworn on a stack of Dan Gillmor’s: My readers really do know more than I do… sometimes! The trick is to know when. It’s not a mantra, it’s a method. They also know that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web so that people could easily collaborate. But you’re right. The editors are czars, gatekeepers even. All very traditional.

Could you take an example through all the steps you have described so far?

After Katrina, we all knew that a huge flow of money would be headed to the Gulf and New Orleans. (In 2005, Americans donated $5 billion to Hurricane Relief. And there has been good watchdog work about it.) If New Assignment was up and running then, you might go there and find that Gina, our Follow the Money editor, has opened a thread for “tracking the billions after Katrina.”

You have some ideas of how that might be done. Your brother-in-law has better ideas because he rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew. Saw lots of scams; and you know he’s online. So you shoot him an e-mail about the thread. Then you visit Gina’s blog and she tells you what’s going on, how to participate, what kind of ideas have been floated so far for following the money after Katrina, and where to add your bits to the project.

At the top right of Gina’s homepage and blog is a dollar figure (let’s say it stands at $35,000) which represents how much she has in her venture fund for Follow the Money stuff. That means she can greenlight an idea herself, if the right one emerges, but in practice the money is rarely used. It’s there to let visitors know that if they participate in the coming together of a great idea, it can happen. Therefore there’s nothing abstract or pie-in-the-sky about the discussion at Gina’s site. This makes it different than an ordinary political blog.

You watch the story develop. Six likely scams to check into, and where to look for evidence of each. Plus assorted tips and background. One day you go to visit the thread and it’s closed, with a pointer to the front page of NewsAssignment.Net where the stories that are successfully open sourced and ready to seek angels are found in a rotation. Your idea has “graduated” to the next stage.

Now there’s a dollar sign attached to it, and a deadline for raising that much. A counter shows progress to getting the greenlight. But the key thing is the editor’s “pitch,” a blog post that explains the story: what’s known, what’s not and what’s at stake. Users can follow along and “root,” or contribute themselves and help make it happen. Donors names are listed as they come on board. Influential donors may cause movement toward a project they commit to. Meanwhile editors are on the phone, or in e-mail, matching stories to patrons. They have many choices during the limited period when the assignment is out.

How long is that period?

Don’t know. But it lasts for a certain interval, the exact length of which we determine later. At any one time, the front page features a limited number of assignments that are “open” and compiling contributors. Each is well developed, and promising enough to warrant precious promotional space. If the money is raised from small contributions, or a special sponsor is found, or an editor chooses to support the work from a venture fund, or a syndication client agrees to buy, then the greenlight is given. The front page shows the projects that are “in the field.” It promotes the latest NewAssignment journalism, and the hot topics from which the next story might come.

Okay. I’m starting to see that. How do correspondents get matched to assignments?

Editors. Of course would be-writers are watching the board, too, and will nominate themselves for projects that are moving forward successfully. NewAssignment.Net will have to have a reputation system for journalists, which reflects how well they complete their assignments, according to users, editors, and funders. By signing on to a project, the reporters at the top of the reputation system help make it happen. Stars could emerge, and make money by doing great work.

So if a correspondent builds up a track record, and gets assignments based on it, where does that leave the newcomer who has no record yet?

Editors, again. They give new people a try in various ways, maybe as second correspondent on a two-person team. It’s partly a talent development job— not unlike what magazine editors commonly do now. Since NewAssignment specializes in collaboration, there are ways for newcomers to start slowly and get the hang of it. Just as new bloggers have emerged from comment threads, new journalists will probably emerge from the user base. Editors can hire anyone they want. If they think you can do the job, you may get the assignment.

What happens after the assignment gets the green light and the correspondents are on board?

The next few steps proceed as they would in a traditional freelance assignment, except that reporters better know how to tap into the instant knowledge networks that collect at the site when it’s cooking. When the work returns it is edited in compliance with NewAssignment.Net protocol. The questions asked in the beginning are supposed to be answered; the reporter is de-briefed online. The reporters and editors who have a feel for the pro-am and open source styles will be the ones who succeed.

In my example Gina’s reserve fund is $35,000, a pretty modest sum. Suppose, for the sake of argument, it was ten times that: $350,000. That would be one decently powerful editor, wouldn’t it?

I guess it would. Any luck yet in finding funders and supporters?

Some, yes. I have a grant from the MacArthur Foundation (their John Bracken helped a lot) to support my work in this area over the next year— writing, speaking, finding partners, refining the idea at PressThink and in other forums, raising money to try it out.

And we have our first partners. First was Daylife, a start-up based in New York and set to launch later this year with a product that will gather, analyze, organize, and create a new platform for following the world’s news. NewAssignment.Net will specialize in stories the rest of the world’s news organizations aren’t covering; Daylife can help track that. They will be providing technical help and some distribution.

You may have heard something about Daylife because Jeff Jarvis is involved in it, and because one the company’s angel investors, Craig Newmark of craigslist, has been talking about it. and Daylife are working together now on a pilot project that would test some of these ideas.

Then yesterday I got word from Craig Newmark that he’ll give $10,000 for an initial test. It’s coming from the Craig Newmark Foundation, his personal charity, not the company. That means we can hire an editor and a reporter and actually do some networked journalism with users. It’s our first reserve fund.

Cool. One more question and that will be the end of part one. Why would anyone come to this site in the first place? You speak of NewAssignment.Net users, but what makes you think you will have users?

Have you ever looked up from the news and said to yourself, why doesn’t someone in the media try to find out how it could possibly happen that… Pretty common experience, right? New Assignment is where you would take it. The money available for real journalism would pull people in too. A lot of users would have no interest in open source methods; they would just come for the stories we do.

I believe that just as there is a human hunger to know that sustains journalism, there is a human desire to share knowledge, and that too can sustain journalism.

* * *

Part two of this Q and A (July 28) examines the problems with the sketch I have given so far, answers some common objections (including the problem of the interested donor) and explains why I think New Assignment can work. See Some Problems with New Assignment.Net Also see another follow-up post, How Realistic is NewAssignment.Net? (Aug. 11) which tackles other criticisms.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Podcast interview with Jay Rosen and Craig Newmark by David Berlind of ZDNet’s Between the Lines (27:03). It fleshes out the post. And I explain how NewAssignmen.Net had its origins in the Max Headroom TV series from the 80s.

Craig explains why he’s involved. He says it’s connected to the Constitutional crisis the American Bar Association says we’re in. Listen.

Newmark, announcing that he’ll fund NewAssignment’s first test run, tells PressThink. “Journalism’s evolving, and we’re seeing the convergence of professional journalism and citizen journalism.” New Assignment, he said, is “moving this forward.”

Amanda Congdon, the pioneering V-logger who left Rocketboom recently, likes it: A New Assignment, Oh… My… God. “Jay Rosen has developed an exciting new idea that the new media glitterati (doc, winer, jarvis, steve, craig) are all buzzing about. It’s a totally fresh concept. I love it. What’s even more awesome? Jay is using the community to iron out the kinks before he launches the effort. Smart.”

Dave Winer says he doesn’t know what to make of New Assignment. But he adds: “Buried in Jeff Jarvis’s writeup is a description of a startup called Daylife. As far as I know this is the first public description of the service, which I saw in April when I visited NY. I liked it so much I bought some stock.”

David Weinberger: “NewAssignment may validate that hybrid, networked journalism gets the job done. But as a charity, it is not — and Jay is clear about this elsewhere in his post — the business model for the future of journalism.”

Andrew Nachison at Morph has a nuanced response.

Reporter Liz Halloran of US News interviewed me: Giving the ‘smart mob’ a voice in the media. Best exchange:

On the potential for the traditional media to hover at NewAssignment.Net, where story development is public, and poach story ideas.

That means we won.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon (with a new blog) gives a good summary:

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.

And Scott has a warning (which I expect will turn into one of the major responses): people won’t stand for it if the investigation doesn’t confirm their beliefs.

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…? Will these citizen-journalism sponsors want their cash back?

See Scott in the comments.

Lisa Williams of H20Town in the comments: “There should be a big sign above the door of No Refunds!”

Frank Barnako for Dow Jones’s Marketwatch: “Rosen’s idea is laughable. Imagine an editorial meeting to decide on suggestions from Jerry Falwell and Al Franken, or anyone in between. Nothing will get decided in anything like a productive fashion.”

Shelley, formerly of Burningbird, summarizes New Assignment: “Keep the smart, lose the mob.”

Rosen’s idea brings up all sorts of utopian sounding concepts, but rather than play to the strengths of the new information infrastructure, it plays to the weakness–the mob is encouraged to be a mob, but thankfully the end result is refined under the civilizing influence of an editor and other professionals. Why, on earth, would we do such a thing? Because we can’t stop sacrificing on the altar of journalism worship.

There’s more to her post. She seems to know what would—and would not—make the front page of New Assignment. “The same people who would push the stories at New Assignment, are the same people who push the top stories the New York Times and the Washington Post; at the BBC and the Guardian; at and its cousin.”

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0: New Assignment’s “breakthrough is conceding that journalism is not — an in fact never was — a for-profit business. Journalism has always been subsidized, whether by the pure commerce of classified ads or the mass media monopoly of the old network newscasts.” He thinks “the tough work of investigative journalism and reporting from war zones should transition as much as possible to the nonprofit model.”

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica: “Today marks the official separation, or distinction, of two terms (now two concepts): citizen journalism and networked journalism… Whereas networked journalism is a collaboration between citizens and professionals, citizen journalism is, or should now be considered, those efforts by the public to create their own journalism.

“These are not opposing ideas.”

Michael Migurski at Eyebeam’s reBlog: “Like Mechanical Turk for Journalism, a great idea.” He thinks “accountability and reputation are 2.0 features. Punchiness, fun, and addictiveness are 1.0 features.”

Staci Kramer at “Few start-ups with an initial $10,000 in funding even get noticed, let alone draw the intense attention being paid Jay Rosen’s”

Kevin Maney, USA Today’s tech blogger: “If I were running a mainstream media outlet (hey, I only have so much clout here), I’d read Jay Rosen’s very long document carefully and think about how some of those ideas could become part of the journalism at a newspaper or TV station. Maybe there’s a hybrid somewhere in that haystack that could work beautifully.”

Angela Gunn, USA Today’s other tech blogger: “The system he proposes combines open-source (that is, public) idea generation and fieldwork, editors who can evaluate that material to see which stories appear to be good candidates for further development, reporters who can bring it on home, and donors who are willing to put up so good stories don’t get shut up. If it works, it could be one way of balancing the celebrity-obsessed and quarterly-return-driven trends so painfully obvious in the mainstream media.”

Adrian G. Uribarri’s one sentence version: “Put enterprise reporting on an open-source platform where users can interact with reporters and editors on stories big media outlets didn’t catch or cover properly.”

From part two of this Q and A: “I’ve seen ugly mob behavior online, who hasn’t? I’m afraid of it too. I’m afraid of it when I see it at the train station or the sports arena. I’ve also seen journalists act like mob a few times.”

Jim Romemesko: “Rosen’s NewAssignment.Net is journalism without the media.”

Some testimonials

PressThink regular Daniel Conover, who blogs at Xark and works for the Web arm of the Post-Courier in Charleston: “Unlike previous attempts to solve the 21st century’s media riddles, NewAssignment combines the best features of old and new media into a can-do, thoroughly modern system. Its idealism is admirable, but its practicality is genius.”

Dan Gillmor of Berkeley’s Center for Citizens Media is an adviser to NewAssignment.Net. He e-mails: “I continue to believe that the people who could pull this off best are the traditional media, and that there will soon be some amazing examples. But the media business can’t do everything, and we need to see experiments of this sort.

“I’ll be helping Jay as much as I can on this, and hope you’ll participate, too,” says Gillmor.

Jeff Jarvis, in a post at Buzzmachine, on New Assignment’s articles of faith. “First: The public will support journalism and investigation. Second: The public will then want more of a voice and a role in that reporting. Third: Given the opportunity to have more of a voice and role, the public will contribute more support. It’s a virtuous circle, if it works.”

Something is going to happen in this space,” says Doc Searls. “This is a great start.”

Jon Lebkowsky: “The real power of the idea is that it’s not just bloggers, not just social networks, not just journalists, but a collaborative combination of these elements, so that you have the wisdom of the many channeled through the professional capabilities of the few.”

Pieces of the puzzle (all linked to in the post)

  • The Center for Public Integity: donor-supported, high quality investigative journalism.
  • ChiTown Daily News, an independent news site aiming to have correspondents in every zip code in Chicago.
  • Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight network, which has signed up over 20,000 people to provide intelligence to radio journalists.
  • The Economist, The Hamburger Standard: Price of a Big Mac around the world.
  • Kent Bye’s Echo Chamber project, experimenting with collaboration in video.
  • TPM Muckraker from Josh Marshall, an investigative site funded by users.
  • Chris Lydon’s Radio Open Source, which is Net-friendly radio.
  • Oh My News, originally from S. Korea.
  • Global Voices Online, a network of “bridge” bloggers around the world that has a deal with Reuters and just won a Batten award for innovation in journalism.
  • Michael Yon’s user funded reporting from Iraq.
  • The Daily Kos community, capable of assembling a dossier when the headlines demand it.
  • The most successful smart mob there is.
  • Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has started Wiki Politics which he calls a “meeting ground for people on all sides of the political spectrum who think that it is time for politics to become more participatory, and more intelligent.”

NewAssignment: meeting ground for people who think it is time for news to become more participatory, and more intelligent.

Michael Skoler of Minnesota Public Radio tells Leonard Witt: “Public Insight Journalism starts with a truth: On any given story, some people in the audience know more than even our smartest reporters and editors. This model establishes a systematic way to tap into the vast expertise and insight within the public, and then brings that knowledge into our editorial process to create deeper, more relevant news coverage. It multiplies our source list by a hundred fold or more and lets us pursue new angles and stories that set a distinct and leading news agenda.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 12:30 AM   Print


Okay, the big question is, when will the site be open for story questions? (I note that the url http://NewAssignment.Net relays me right back to here.)

Posted by: just john at July 25, 2006 10:07 AM | Permalink

Probably some time in September, John. If you have questions about how it works, ask them here. Ideas for how to conduct our test can be taken here too.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 10:13 AM | Permalink

Sounds exciting. You've been a great source of advice and inspiration for me. Let me know if I can help.

Posted by: Roch101 at July 25, 2006 10:15 AM | Permalink

Last paragraph: Michael Skoler gets it.

Jay's experiment may avoid the embarrassment which follows not knowing your readers know better until after you've stepped all over your necktie in print.

Given the responses from professionals on various earlier discussions, Skoler may find either disagreement that it's true, or disagreement that it's important.

I can see the breathless anticipation of nailing the makers of Zoreflexe foundering on the discovery that, west of the Mississippi, the manufacturer, in order not to have to reset his packaging process, provides twenty-four count packages, while to the east, for the same reason, a different plant provides eighteen count packages and the per-pill-price is the same. Nice to know that in advance of trying a Sixty-Minutes type expose'.

It's even nicer to see somebody putting up some real dough.

I recently listened to an economist who spoke of the flood, avalanche, humongous amount of extremely discretionary money floating around this society. You could get a cup of instant coffee at home for a nickel, add a drop of flavor from a twenty-four ounce bottle that costs eight bucks, and a penny's worth of milk. Or you could go to Starbucks for what is only slightly more elaborate and put three bucks, essentially, in the shredder. Starbucks flourishes because there are millions and millions of people who are willing to put ten or twenty bucks in the shredder each week because it means nothing to them.
Ditto having your nails done at the age of, say, thirteen, weekly. I'm sure you can think of other examples.
You don't need to find a few millionaires. But there are about three hundred million people in this country, many of whom put money in the shredder each week and might be attracted to send one or two bucks your way each month if they like the product.

Ought to work.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at July 25, 2006 10:25 AM | Permalink

This sounds fabulous Jay! Congratulations!! Can't wait to see it succeed, as I know it will.

Posted by: Rebecca MacKinnon at July 25, 2006 10:30 AM | Permalink

I want to start suggesting assignments. For example, with the privatization of prisons in the U.S., how do we beat the conflict of interest between private operators (who would love repeat business) and good public policy (which should seek to reduce recidivism)?

Posted by: Rob Johnston at July 25, 2006 10:33 AM | Permalink

No, no, it seems a pretty clear concept.

(I've never been a fan of the Q&A form of exposition, but it can work in a pinch.)

Posted by: just john at July 25, 2006 10:34 AM | Permalink

This sounds like a great idea, but I think someone's beat you to something very similar.

I'm sure more than one can flourish and am curious as a journalist myself as to how one can be considered for assignments, of course!

Posted by: Maia Szalavitz at July 25, 2006 10:39 AM | Permalink


This is fantastic. A few questions.

I have a friend whose an editor at a traditional paper. Can she use this site, or is it only for people who are hired by it?

Relatedly, I work for a non-p/rofit -- can I use the site when I have a story idea? Is it something that can work for one-or-five-off editors?


Posted by: zephyr at July 25, 2006 10:42 AM | Permalink

There's a strong link in this model between money raised/ citizen support and the kind of stories that'll be covered. How is this different from the way MSM operates today? And isn't this the reason why some stories don't get covered by MSM?

Posted by: Roxanne at July 25, 2006 10:50 AM | Permalink

Hi Jay:

An update on Skoler and Minnesota Public Radio. MPR is now tying its Public Insight Journalism into face-to-face forums. Indeed, just yesterday MPR announced a $3 million dollar grant from UBS corporation for the forum operation.

So money is available for connecting news and the public. The Knight Foundation will also be giving away millions this fall. Good ideas will get funded, and this is a good idea.

Posted by: Leonard Witt at July 25, 2006 11:12 AM | Permalink

It seems to me subjective decision making should be avoided whenever possible. I doubt the public will be inclined to support your proposal monetarily unless they have a good idea how the sausage is being made.

For decisions common to all project ideas; guidelines for as many steps along the way as possible should be prominently displayed; broken down into subjective and objective decisions. The guidelines wouldn't initially be comprehensive, but they should be publicly discussed and updated on a regular basis. When violating guidelines, explantion would be necessary. Don't assume the public doesn't care or notice.

When it comes time to request project funding, if widespread donations can't be achieved, there probably isn't widespread public interest. If only one or two sources fund the project, it leaves the impression that someone is funding a position paper or press release. That isn't necessarily bad or true, but that isn't really TPFKATA. I doubt the public will patronize the site extensively if many projects end up going in that direction.

It seems there will always be a considerable lag time from project idea to publication. To me that would make it more like a magazine than traditional news. It may be worthwhile gauging viability against that model.

An interesting concept. Good luck with it.

Posted by: Bob K at July 25, 2006 11:39 AM | Permalink

Zephyr: Not sure what you mean by "can she use the site." Do you mean go there and tap into the smart mobs for a story she's doing for her local paper? Probably not, because her local paper would not want to buy into the transparency and accountability standards of NewAssignment, or subject its work to a NADN editor. If you worked for a nonprofit you could go to the site and try to drum up interest in a story you have. But it would still end up going through "our" editors.

A local newspaper could in theory contract with NewAssignment to work with its users and editors and buy the story that results. But then it would be taking money from its newsroom budget and people would sqwawk at that.

Universal first reaction from pro journalists: "People won't stand for it if the final story doesn't come out the way they wanted and confirm their beliefs. They'll want their money back. They'll attack you for being gutless or biased."

Maybe they're right, but I do think that's an interesting first response.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 11:51 AM | Permalink

Let me know if there's any interest in doing this for video/television reporting. I'm editing a project I shot for Frontline World Roughcut which is as close as TV gets to this model, but the producers pitch the idea and then do it for the web. I'm interested in coordinating video producers to take the assignments and run with them. Media rapid response.

Posted by: Dave Pentecost at July 25, 2006 12:43 PM | Permalink

Rob: I like the idea about a privatization of prisons story. Also, I'd love to have a "follow the money" story with plenty of graphs and video clips following the US healthcare dollar from the citizen's pocket to wherever it ends up.

Also, may be a way for reporters to report on the newspaper industry in a way that's hard to do at a newspaper. I, for one, am fascinated by the private equity investors that bankroll privately owned newspaper chains. You read very few interviews with these investors. Fortress Investment, which bankrolls Gatehouse Media, that owns my local paper, has a very colorful business: they also own Michael Jackson's debt. No kidding.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at July 25, 2006 1:08 PM | Permalink

I actually like the idea of letting people at newspapers play too -- there might be problems, but it might also encourage them to ask questions they don't already have canned answers to, and give more resources to the kind of open-ended, more long-term project. And let them get their feet wet in using distributed journalism.

There would have to be limits, though; maybe established media organizations should have to pay into the pool on a matching basis. But if we really want stories covered, then we presumably want them distributed to as wide an audience as possible, including the audience that is still reading newspapers/watching TV/etc.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at July 25, 2006 1:12 PM | Permalink

You say, "A journalist who can’t work with people and tell them the truth isn’t right for New Assignment. Visitors who cannot accept an account at odds with prior belief will not be happy participants, and they certainly won’t donate."

What's to stop the site from instead becoming popular with the sort of journalist that tells his audience exactly what it wants to hear, true or not, and the sort of audience that will only fund reporters whose stories match their prior beliefs?

Posted by: Andy Latto at July 25, 2006 1:41 PM | Permalink

Hi, Andy!

Posted by: Lisa Williams at July 25, 2006 2:16 PM | Permalink

Jay, I appreciate you upward outlook. We need people thinking about new models, and you're a great resource for those ideas.

But I can't help questioning how such an idea can gestalt. I interviewed Christopher Allbritton in 2004 (here and here), and as I remember he spent months raising just $15,000. An admirable task, for sure, but as I recall at least a third of that came out of his pocket (at least for the trip I caught him before). He did it, but it took a while, and that was a really important story.

Your model would need a massive reserve to keep it going and to do the kind of journalism people would pitch a nickel in the tin cup for. I wish you well.

Posted by: Jeremy A. Verdusco at July 25, 2006 2:28 PM | Permalink

Universal first reaction from pro journalists: "People won't stand for it if the final story doesn't come out the way they wanted and confirm their beliefs. They'll want their money back. They'll attack you for being gutless or biased."

That shouldn't surprise you, Jay; you raised that very possibility in your initial post, noting that "Visitors who cannot accept an account at odds with prior belief will not be happy participants, and they certainly won’t donate."
And then Scott Rosenberg chimed in that "people won’t stand for it if the investigation doesn’t confirm their beliefs."

That's just human nature; no one likes to pay money in order to learn that his own belief systems don't hold water.

I had an other first thought: The proposed system is one where money talks, and big money talks loudest. In that sense, is it susceptible to being hijacked by any loon with too much loot on his hands ?

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at July 25, 2006 2:29 PM | Permalink

Isn't that the editors' job?
Interesting that there is still a separation of church and state here -- a separation of money from journalism. It is the editors' job to assure that credible, intellectually honest, independent journalism occurs or their and NADN's reputations and brands fail.
So some stories will disappoint some funders.
And some potential funders will be disappointed that they cannot get a story done no matter how loudly they scream.

Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at July 25, 2006 2:55 PM | Permalink

I agree that the editors have a huge responsibility in a venture like this. They're going to have to walk a very fine line to gain the confidence of the participating readers and at the same time maintain some level of journalistic integrity... it'll be a pressure cooker I think, especially with the transparency (although obviously that's necessary. Jay, do you have anyone in mind for this job?

Posted by: paul goyette at July 25, 2006 3:14 PM | Permalink

A few thoughts. When I read this it reminded me of a similar "business model" that was proliferating back in the internet boom days: collaborative design, internet sharing of intellectual property etc.

The idea was: high tech products are becoming more and more complex to build and required the kind of investment to develop the intellectual property (IP) only big companies can afford. But these big companies, by being big and walled, are not taking the advantage of the tremendous knowledge, skill and the stuff that's already developed out there in the world. And the small companies, startups, don't have that kind of monies. So the collaborative business model came along and said, "OK, we provide you the web platform over which you can reach "buyers" and "sellers" of IP and talent and this leads to a better, faster, cheaper design."

It didn't work, for many reasons but the main one is: there was no way to authenticate the IP that's coming from say, Nigeria or Romania or India or China etc. Did the person peddling it steal it from his work place, does it work as it's claimed etc., etc...opening up a host of legal problems that are still unresolved.

For NewAssignment.Net, this specific kind of authentication problem may not exist, I don't think. But a concern is it might lead to a lot of "truthiness" because the responsibility of verifying, authenticating (I am probably not using the journalistic lingo here) and certifying etc., might be a bit tricky. It is an obvious point, but the problem may be much much bigger than most people think.

On the other hand, if this problem is addressed/curbed, then my hunch says this model is more needed on an international basis. There are a lot more talented, skilled and eager journalists, investigative or otherwise, who don't have a platform to channel their work to the public. Corrupt, unmotivated, clueless governments and the ass-backwards thinking administrative staff hinder their work. But the public may be willing to "pay" the money to get to the truth. You get my point.


Posted by: Crazyfinger at July 25, 2006 3:23 PM | Permalink

There's a strong link in this model between money raised/ citizen support and the kind of stories that'll be covered. How is this different from the way MSM operates today? And isn't this the reason why some stories don't get covered by MSM?

Posted by: paul goyette at July 25, 2006 3:25 PM | Permalink

Crazyfinger -- the authentication problem won't be a problem if people are open and transparent with their contributions. This will be a site for grownups, both on the editorial side and the participating reader side. If it works like it's supposed to, an internal culture of transparency will emerge, and those who don't play by those rules won't have the social currency they need to actively participate.

Posted by: paul goyette at July 25, 2006 3:28 PM | Permalink

It seems to me that this isn't an ideal project for most local papers to "tap into" per se, because a widespread user base is going to pull your average story away from any sort of a local focus. I can't imagine many stories will get a lot of funding at NADN if they are sharply localized.

However, there's nothing to stop a clever paper from implementing a similar experiement on their own site. Create a "Readers' assignment desk" that follows the general model you're describing here:

-- Users submit story ideas that they think their local paper is undercovering or missing
-- Users and editors from the paper work together to flesh out ideas in the larger story pool. The most promising get moved out to a front-page area.
-- Users vote on those front-page ideas; when they reach a certain threshhold, editors assign them to a reporter. The funding is not an issue here, so perhaps you use a Digg-like system for voting. If you want to keep the "money-where-your-mouth-is" component that NADN has, maybe voting is only open to your subscribers. Not sure here.
-- Once a story is assigned, it moves to an "in-progress" area of the site, where the reporter can create the scene-setting blog post describing the story, and continue to blog it if warranted.

Maybe you even go so far as to transform a particular reporter's beat, and put him/her full-time on these reader-assigned stories. Team the reporter up with an experienced person from another beat when the issue warrants.

That type of responsiveness to readers could have nice repercussions on the rest of your journalism as well.

Posted by: Ryan Pitts at July 25, 2006 3:28 PM | Permalink

"In that sense, is it susceptible to being hijacked by any loon with too much loot on his hands?"


They're going to have to walk a very fine line to gain the confidence of the participating readers and at the same time maintain some level of journalistic integrity... it'll be a pressure cooker.

Exactly. That's what I love about it. The editors have to withstand enormous pressures. They have to keep making the right choices. They can't let donors run them and they can't ignore donors. They can't let users run them and they can't ignore users. They can't let correspondents run them and they can't ignore their correspondents. They can't let transparency run them and they have to be transparent.

It's an impossible job. But the editor's job means we don't need 363 other "systems" for keeping things on the up-and-up.

Jay, do you have anyone in mind for this job?

Conover. Beyond him, no. But they're out there.

I interviewed Christopher Allbritton in 2004 (here and here), and as I remember he spent months raising just $15,000.

It took a while, yes. All I said is he raised the money to go-- more than enough for that trip. It wasn't a particularly efficient or reliable system. That's why I called it "improvised."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 3:31 PM | Permalink

Steve, Andy: There should be a big sign above the door of

No Refunds!

and maybe: Edward R. Murrow can get credit, all others, PayPal!

Posted by: Lisa Williams at July 25, 2006 3:33 PM | Permalink

It's an impossible job. But the editor's job means we don't need 363 other "systems" for keeping things on the up-and-up.

Which is probably why we have editors in the first place.

I really like the idea of the editors keeping a blog about this. You should get that started as soon as possible...

Posted by: paul goyette at July 25, 2006 3:43 PM | Permalink


> Maybe we sell NewAssignment.Net memberships for $50.00 a year

suggestion - make it a small (and ongoing) monthly credit card charge, to lower the threshold for signing up and make it feel painless. (Assuming the credit card co's fees for the recipient are minimal; I don't know whether this is so)

Name: "new" isn't good to have in name for a long-lasting organization, since it becomes increasingly content-free and quaint with the passage of time; e.g. in biology the Modern Synthesis is about 80 years old now. If not too late, I'd suggest something with 'swarm' or 'hive'...

> Ideas for how to conduct our test can be taken here too.

Do you already have a test story, that'll grab a lot of people?
(I have an idea, have just now emailed it)

> "people won’t stand for it if the investigation doesn’t confirm their beliefs."

I don't think so, I think that's a misunderstanding coming from a structural bias in decibels; that's just who's most motivated to yell at the journos. (silent majority...)

> Conover. Beyond him, no. But they're out there.


Jay, you have such good taste.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at July 25, 2006 4:05 PM | Permalink

Jay, you are really onto something here.

Question -- Are you only taking foundation grants at this point, or are you hoping that individual contributors will get in earlier?

I too have some thoughts on a test case which I'll email you.

Posted by: Emily McKhann at July 25, 2006 5:00 PM | Permalink

Fascinating idea, Jay!

What I would hope might come from this is that new voices are brought in to do the reporting.

Not just young. New. These are two different tihngs.

Perhaps more people who have strong voices as bloggers would be more willing to work on "professional" journalistic projects with this sort of model. This would help some who might never thought of making the leap into journalism actually do just that.

And invigorate the profession in the process.

Where, though, might the editors come from? I would think that the best editors would be savvy individuals, but would they necessarily need to be from print journalism, or could they come from broadcast as well?

The editors, as well as the reporters, would also benefit from having been online for awhile. For them to be effective, they both would need to know how to navigate not the general myspace-style social milieu, but the social milieu that still exists on most blogs and forums (people tend to confuse the myspace community with the greater world of the blogosphere--two different places, actually. elaborating, though, would take too much space.)

As for patrons getting upset with how their funding is used--ever hear of anyone asking for a refund from PBS?? From my non-profit experience, people ask for refunds more when the donation is squandered or misappropriated--not if a project doesn't do as well as they'd hoped.

Posted by: tish grier at July 25, 2006 5:01 PM | Permalink

The editors have to withstand enormous pressures. They have to keep making the right choices. They can't let donors run them and they can't ignore donors. They can't let users run them and they can't ignore users. They can't let correspondents run them and they can't ignore their correspondents. They can't let transparency run them and they have to be transparent.

NADN aside, that's as good a job description of an editor as I ever saw.

You sure you didn't once run a newspaper in a busy town with a lot of news and a very demanding readership, Rosen ?


Posted by: Steve Lovelady at July 25, 2006 5:04 PM | Permalink

Tish: In putting together the pieces of this experiment, I got the most kick out of the editor's job. I think it would be a very fun (and impossible) job. To me a very wide range of people might conceivably be good at it. I wouldn't want to restrict myself to someone with this or that background, or birthdate. It's a very political job. It's entreprenurial. It's editorial. It's a writing job. You have to know the technology.

Think of an editor as a blogger with a war chest, able not just to write posts but to find stuff out. Or think of a section editor with a network of bloggers. Or a VC who pays off in great stories.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 5:09 PM | Permalink

Emily McKhann (of

I have a feeling that a very wired together network of moms--bloggers, plus users, plus key fourms--would be an ideal community to test some of these ideas with.

Are you only taking foundation grants at this point, or are you hoping that individual contributors will get in earlier?

I have a 501(c)3 for this experiment; it's called NYU. (Nonprofits that are officially called tax-exempt by the IRS are 501(c)3's.) Individuals can make a donation to NYU. So can foundations, companies. NewAssignment is, right now, a research project of mine. So one would be donating to the University to advance that project. If NewAssignment catches on, it will probably need to be its own 501(c)3. That's down the road.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 5:21 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the link, Jay. Just so we're clear, I recognize that lots of pro journalists may share the reaction I had -- that sponsors of investigations might be unhappy with the outcomes. I just want to point out that my post and observation was not speculative but based on actual experience in the field at Salon -- which obviously doesn't have the same model as NewAssignment but shares some of the characteristics (users who ponied up some cash to fund investigative journalism in a particular direction).

Posted by: Scott Rosenberg at July 25, 2006 5:36 PM | Permalink

Scott; You're right, I should have mentioned that because you gave an interesting example:

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.

Sounds totally plausible.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 5:42 PM | Permalink

This is going to be an exciting experiment! By way of an update from the Public Insight Journalism crew at MPR/APM, the public insight network now has more than 20,000 people who have agreed to help us cover the news.

Posted by: Joellen Easton at July 25, 2006 5:46 PM | Permalink

I will fix that. Thanks Joellen. You must have quite an IT person to handle it.

Here is the Podcast interview I did with Craig Newmark and David Berlind of ZDNet's Between the Lines. David asks us questions (27:03). It fleshes out the post and Craig's reasons for being involved.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 6:53 PM | Permalink

CJR Daily has had an experience similar to Salon's -- although not so much with readers as with donors.

We were born as an idea that donors dreamed up and at this point we remain entirely donor-supported -- we get no funds from the University, or from the journalism school, or, for that matter, from CJR the magazine.

Fortunately, most of those donors understand that what they are buying is a daily online critique of press performance, and that what they are not buying is an endorsement of their own personal views re what is wrong with the press.

But every once in a while, a few forget that caveat, and that's when my phone rings.

I'm used to it. That's life in the non-profit world.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at July 25, 2006 7:52 PM | Permalink

Have you seen the Cultural Capital model of rtMark?

The RTMARK system supports the incubation of cutting-edge cultural ventures, while providing a unique opportunity for private investors to sponsor these activities. By working with the RTMARK company, activists enjoy anonymity, limited liability, and increased exposure to resources and other activists. Furthermore, RTMARK creates awareness of the corporate citizenship model by imagining an investment system driven by cultural capital.

It's not exclusively journalism, but it provides a platform for valuing and funding projects on line. They also have mutual funds that aggregate related projects into groups so a donor could fund a basket of projects.

Posted by: Mark Howard @ News Corpse at July 25, 2006 8:07 PM | Permalink

Great idea. Let's see some project ideas! I wonder if msm employers would be willing to underwrite the salary of reporters who applied.

Posted by: Elise Ackerman at July 25, 2006 9:55 PM | Permalink

NewsAssignment is a great idea ... but, as an old guy steeped in traditonal forms, what I'm having trouble envisioning is ... the end product.

Would it resemble a well-done project by an enterprising newspaper -- employing such traditional storytelling elements as premise, narrative, compelling anecdote, punch line, and subsequent amassing of evidence to support the punch line ?

Or would it take some other form entirely ? Like the editor on his/her blog, saying, "Okay, you all know how the pieces came together because you have been the participants throughought the hypothesis/initial research process; so let me tell you the end conclusions that we have reached ..."

I can imagine either ... or both ... or some format in between ... or some format currently unknown. Which is exactly what makes this idea so intriguing.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at July 25, 2006 10:27 PM | Permalink

Ever heard of It's got an ad revenue-sharing model, 90% goes to the columnists.


Posted by: Aine at July 25, 2006 10:47 PM | Permalink

i've been developing this conceptual template with emphasis on videoblogging culture... last few weeks, i've started to output the project at

this is an excellent post that utterly spells out this horde sourced approach to collaborative creation and execution of ideas/assignments.

Not long ago, began and has had absolute success in funding selected projects so far.

It is indeed time to do this. try this. experiment. test the waters. bring the ideas talked about in books and magazines and blogs...bring it into a tangible entity on the net. Start it up and see what it has got to give.


Posted by: michael sullivan at July 25, 2006 10:56 PM | Permalink

Who pays and where is the product found?

Posted by: Augustus at July 25, 2006 11:32 PM | Permalink

Hey Jay,
Thanks for mentioning The Echo Chamber Project as one of the puzzle pieces -- I intend on launching some collaborative video editing functionality within the next month or so. I gave a demo of it in the second half of my Vloggercon presentation.

I wanted to pass on a few more thoughts and links.

You should definitely consider using Drupal as your content management system since there is quite a lot of functionality available for what you want to do -- as well as additional features that I've been developing for my own project. Count me in for helping advise or share resources if you do go the Drupal route.

Also, I attended an Open Source Intelligence Conference with some of the OSINT pioneers from the Intelligence Community at the beginning of the year. I came home with over three hours of video interviews, and I've posted the audio here.

The thing that I took away from this is that one of the most important things that journalists and intelligence analysts do is to put information into context. In some cases, the mosaic of journalists are better at getting many different perspectives to put a set of facts into perspective. On the other hand, there are a number of intelligence analysis methodologies that are very well-suited for making the wisdom of the crowd more explicit and systematically overcoming groupthink.

So with regards to the issue that people won’t stand for it if the investigation doesn’t confirm their beliefs, the methodology of "Analysis of Competing Hypotheses" is designed to evaluate many different theories / narratives / stories used to explain a set of facts.

Futurist Kevin Kelly independently described this same methodology in his Speculations on the Future of Science essay:

Instead of proposing a series of single hypothesis, in which each hypothesis is falsified and discarded until one theory finally passes and is verified, a matrix of many hypothesis scenarios are proposed and managed simultaneously. An experiment travels through the matrix of multiple hypothesis, some of which are partially right and partially wrong. Veracity is statistical; more than one thesis is permitted to stand with partial results.

So the US Intelligence Community already uses this type of ACH approach for doing analysis -- and in fact, the Palo Alto Research Center has released an open source piece of software that implements the ACH workflow. I'd recommend downloading and playing around with it since the instructions are very helpful for getting a better intuitive grasp for this type of approach.

It'll take a while for ACH to be successfully impemented in a collaborative Web2.0 type of way, but it has the potential to drill down a lot deeper into controversial issues than Wikipedia's Neutral Point of View approach. Anyway, I've been brainstorming this with a few people and it's on my roadmap to give it a shot a some point with the Echo Chamber Project.

Posted by: Kent Bye at July 25, 2006 11:36 PM | Permalink

After giving this some more thought, I really like the idea of funding groups of stories.

Since the editors would be staff, you could assign them to specific beats (environment, politics, crime, health care, etc.). Then donors could have the option to fund editorial sectors of news instead of specific stories. This would give the editors discretion when a potentially important story didn't attract sufficient donations on its own.

Posted by: Mark Howard @ News Corpse at July 25, 2006 11:39 PM | Permalink

on Ryan's
> this isn't an ideal project for most local papers to "tap into" per se, because a widespread user base is going to pull your average story away from any sort of a local focus.

Depends. If local data was collected for the project, you've got a ready-made 'glocalized' story in the difference-if-any between your community's data and the wider data.
(or so I think - tentatively, since I've thought wrong once in here today already)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at July 25, 2006 11:51 PM | Permalink

"Sectors of news." Exactly, Mark. I think of an editor as an area specialist, who blogs. But whereas in your mainstream news organization (or university for that matter) the areas have to fit together to make a universal map of the news, (international, national, local) NewAssignment can have editors areas that are wildly inconsistent and overlapping, but realer, based more on life than on "news."

I would think that a parents editor would do well, for example. But so might an "area" like Holding Bush Accountable. (A cross-partisan category because supporters have a strong interest in holding Bush accountable.) I know if I were a donor to this site, I would fund an editor because I cared about her area and trusted her judgment.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 25, 2006 11:55 PM | Permalink

Where's the paypal link? I'm excited, I'm willing to help out but only a small amount, so I need a paypal link.

Or am I on the wrong page?

Pay Pal should be in the top right corner.

I got here through Dan Gilmore's blog

Posted by: John at July 26, 2006 12:57 AM | Permalink


We've been doing a similar model for over a year at ePluribus Media, sans "professionals."

We happily accept donations; actually, aside from miniscule income from GoogleAds and our new entry into the Blogads network, we are an entirely donor-funded volunteer operation.

Posted by: wanderindiana at July 26, 2006 1:15 AM | Permalink

John; The page you are looking for will be up and running when we do out first test in the fall. Maybe September, October. New Assignment is not operational yet. But we know we need that button.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 26, 2006 1:40 AM | Permalink

I can't imagine many stories will get a lot of funding at NADN if they are sharply localized.

I can't either. And although it's many months since I abandoned by own experiment in reader-funded local political journalism-by-blog, that's still the nut I think someone's going to have to figure out just how to crack.

Posted by: b!X at July 26, 2006 2:00 AM | Permalink

As an ePluribusMedia contributor (with some professional trade journalism [not necessarily an oxymoron] experience), I applaud any efforts that take the concept further and expand it into new realms and collaboratively explore the possibilities. I'm looking into similar techniques, wikipedia-inspired, for a new topic-specific venture I'm developing.

Posted by: Raines at July 26, 2006 9:02 AM | Permalink

A couple of concerns have been brought up here that I think should be addressed.

Donor's Remorse
Some folks think that donors will be upset if a story arrives at conclusions that are contrary to the donor's own bias. I think that's a possibility in some cases, but if NewAssignment makes it clear that this is journalism, not advocacy, then informed investors won't have that problem. When people invest their own money, most of them are likely to apply some due diligence to their actions.

Local Blackout
The risk of local stories being underfunded does exist, if only because there are fewer potential donors in a locality than in the country (or the world). But there are also local benefactors that take particular interest in their communities that could take up some of the slack - people like Ron Burkle in L.A. or Paul Allen in Seattle (though they don't all have to be billionaires).

I have a concern of my own. What measures could be taken to prevent the American Idle-ization of NewAssignment? I worry that we could end up with celebrity editors whose popularity might be based on something other than their journalistic integrity. If donors show up in large numbers to support a crusading editor, ala Bill O'Reilly, how would NewAssignment respond?

Posted by: Mark Howard @ News Corpse at July 26, 2006 12:29 PM | Permalink

> I can't imagine many stories will get a lot of funding at NADN if they are sharply localized.

True, but a lot of stories that one might think of as unique to 1 area might not be - all small towns will tend to have similar issues, etc - and a story on the pattern (if it could be done well) would be of interest to all.

A suggestion/request, re sectors of coverage - special focus on "news that oozes".

Posted by: Anna Haynes at July 26, 2006 12:33 PM | Permalink

I could poke a million holes in this but what would that accomplish? I think a better idea is to get behind what you're doing, where can I send a check?

Media that's not beholding to those who brought it to the dance-- now that's what journalism is supposed to be. I can't wait to see it in action and I can't wait to see it spread throughout the grass roots.

Posted by: Billy The Blogging Poet at July 26, 2006 2:00 PM | Permalink

Just now digging out from under vacation-followed-by-illness -- I'll have more to say later, but this looks exciting.

Posted by: Lex at July 26, 2006 3:23 PM | Permalink

Thanks a lot, Billy. Don't send any checks yet. But there will be a time for that.

This is fun: Amanda Congdon, the pioneering V-logger who left Rocketboom recently, likes it: A New Assignment, Oh... My... God. "It's a totally fresh concept. I love it. What's even more awesome? Jay is using the community to iron out the kinks before he launches the effort. Smart."

Reporter Liz Halloran of USNews & World Report interviewed me: Giving the 'smart mob' a voice in the media. Best exchanges:

On the potential for the traditional media to hover at NewAssignment.Net, where story development is public, and poach story ideas.

That means we won.

On the best result, outside of good journalism, he hopes from the effort.

To show that there is a wisdom in the public, there is wisdom in the crowd. That people do understand the need for truth and will in some way demand it. This is a current in American culture – Jefferson was a believer in it, Whitman was a believer in it. There's a lot of intelligence out there, in all classes and stations in life, and we have to use it all.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 26, 2006 3:46 PM | Permalink

We'll probably be trying Ryan's idea out here at one little newspaper, in the near future: reader-assigned stories. I can hear the know-it-alls groaning already, but: At this level of journalism, small dailies, quite a bit of the news in the paper is already "reader assigned," in that it is developed after people call in tips or observations. We're just going to try to formalize the process a little and -- the flavor of the month -- make the fact that stuff comes from readers more 'transparent' to readers.

I think Steve's point about loons funding projects can be ratcheted up a notch. If we're considering this as "Who is likely to fund projects to uncover "news" that supports their agenda?" do we not get all the usual suspects now accused of controlling the mainstream media? I think there's a major idealism gap between Jay and some others, and the world. Where you guys are expecting a disinterested grassroots movement, I'm seeing yet another opportunity for the people who already control everything, those who have the money to fund anything. On the other hand, they already are spending to manufacture the kind of news they want people to have, so what the heck? Go for it. But this is not a small consideration. I got news release emails today from something called Page9, which is focused on reporting every possible incident where a law-abiding citizen uses a gun to defend himself or herself. I'm willing to bet that some scratching around will turn up funding for this guy and his website from some pro-gun lobby somewhere. If not, it's "reporting" to advance his own beliefs agenda. It is definitely not dispassionate reporting by a civic-minded citizen of the type more or less envisioned in Jay's idea.

Not a reason to kill the idea, just a comment from a guy who has been fending off spin doctors for 35 years. This kind of journalism has a high potential for getting hijacked, but no more, really, than if a newspaper in, oh, I don't know, Santa Barbara for instance, were to be bought by a rich woman with an odd agenda.

Posted by: Bill Watson at July 26, 2006 3:49 PM | Permalink

The concerns about special-interests gaming the system are meaningful, but let's not kid ourselves. Special interests are gaming the current system every single day, but because that system has no transparency, none of us has any significant defense against this beyond an ambient sense of mistrust.

Jay hasn't gone into great detail about this, but the NewAssignment plan calls for transparency and interactivity between the projos and the participants. We can talk about ways to find the right mix of transparency and protection of privacy for donors, but as the editors commenting here have said, living and working in the intersection of opposing forces is the definition of a professional editor.

But consider this difference:

If a traditional city editor suspects that a story about an environmental fine has been hellboxed because the violator is a golfing buddy of the publisher, he really has no way of proving that suspicion. He's got no way of communicating to the readers about the pressure, so he can't solicit their support or help. And since there are probably layers of management between him and the publisher, there may be huge penalities for a city editor who tries to get a meaningful answer as to why a legitimate story got spiked.

City editors fight those battles sometimes, but many times they save their ammo.

In a system like what Jay proposes, a NewAssignment editor would be in constant communication with the participants. Rather than being neutered by an opaque hierarchy, this editor would be empowered by the broad base of integrity-seeking NewAssignment participants. How are those participants going to react if the editor reports a pressuring phone call from a wealthy donor?

The trick is, for the editor to draw power from that base, the editor has to stay in constant contact with its interests. Assuming that the larger NewAssignment community will often be in various levels of conflict and competition, we're talking about some very heady relationships, being acted out in the Great Wide Open.

But if I understand this properly, we're not just talking about specific donations driving stories. There's foundation money. There's public-interest money. There's group money. There's individual donor/members. There's sweat-equity. There's reputation. There's transparency and personality and yada yada yada. Any human endeavor can be gamed, but this one may be far more difficult to game because there are so many potential levers in play.

Compare that to today's closed-door media system, where all it takes is a bribe or a threat or a promise to affect important coverage.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at July 26, 2006 5:05 PM | Permalink

Great ideas, Jay. Go for it! Some random thoughts, with links... If these don't fit the current project, maybe they'll suggest things to do with all the left-over money... There seem to be plenty of story ideas out there, but too few places writing paychecks for reporters to do the digging... sifting public records, interviewing scores of people and other legwork.

Possible motto: " for the rest of us"?

Or a new gig for Bartlett & Steele, the Pulitzer-winning investigative reporters that Time decided it couldn't afford to keep on the payroll? (At end of story.)

Or a locally-focused model that could be cloned in other parts of the country to set up public-service news bureaus at state capitals and city halls? (New York may needs this less than anywhere else in the country.)

Seed money to pay the expenses of editors or reporters at pre-existing Drupal-based community sites? (Throw in IRE memberships too.)

Part of this inspiration for this long note: Just before getting to your blog, I finally read this ArizonaSU survey of journalists saying their publications aren't putting their money where their civic-spirited mouths are when it comes to investigative reporting.

Hmm. Would Knight or someone please pay the tuition for Better Watchdog Workshops for citizen journalists who can't afford to attend, encourage them to write for freelance publications in their local area, then provide a safety net online publication (and legal defense fund) if they can't find a publisher?

Just thinking outloud...

Bob in Knoxville

Posted by: Bob Stepno at July 26, 2006 5:10 PM | Permalink

What about other languages?

English is not understood by most people on this planet. How do you plan to make these stories evolve and being translated or transposed so that foreigners can access it?

Posted by: brem at July 26, 2006 5:11 PM | Permalink

Mark Glaser at Media Shift has an article on whether community-edited news sites should pay editors? It discusses the recent offer by Jason Calacanis of Netscape to pay top Diggers $1,000 a month to do the same work they're doing now at Digg for nothing.

There is an interesting quote in the article from Jaron Lanier, who reminds us that crowds can be stupid too:

"Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals,” Lanier writes. “These people focused the collective and in some cases also corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes. The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing projects. There’s a lot of experience out there to work with. A few of these old ideas provide interesting new ways to approach the question of how to best use the hive mind."

Daniel Conover: "...let's not kid ourselves. Special interests are gaming the current system every single day." - Amen!

Posted by: Mark Howard @ News Corpse at July 26, 2006 6:15 PM | Permalink

if NewAssignment makes it clear that this is journalism, not advocacy, then informed investors won't have that problem.

If old journalism had made that distinction more clearly, we might not be having this discussion.

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) at July 26, 2006 8:41 PM | Permalink

In any case, though, it's an interesting idea. I'm curious what you think the value-add of the official journalists will be?

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) at July 26, 2006 8:43 PM | Permalink

I liked this so much I am posting nearly the whole thing;

Angela Gunn, Tech Space blogger for USA Today

Jay Rosen's got a not-so-modest proposal over at PressThink, one that could both move along the development of distributed journalism and its variants and provide old and new media alike with some insight into how the good stuff's going to get paid for. He's calling the project NewAssignment.Net, and the post in which he describes it and answers some ought-to-be-frequently-asked questions is worth your thoughtful scrutiny.

The system he proposes combines open-source (that is, public) idea generation and fieldwork, editors who can evaluate that material to see which stories appear to be good candidates for further development, reporters who can bring it on home, and donors who are willing to put up so good stories don't get shut up. If it works, it could be one way of balancing the celebrity-obsessed and quarterly-return-driven trends so painfully obvious in the mainstream media.

If it doesn't... well, Rosen's had this proposal out and about, and some of his detractors (eg., a huffy Frank Barnako at Dow Jones' Marketwatch) comment at the bottom of that post. The sentiment seems to be that it's a good idea, but time will tell. And some guy named Kevin Maney likes it but wants to see the ideas folded back into the mainstream newsroom.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that will work. Long ago, when I was a tiny editorial assistant, I worked for a large publishing company owned by one guy -- no shareholders, good walls between advertising and editorial, ethical. Naturally, that guy retired almost as soon as I'd signed on. But before he did, he gave a speech to a certain publishing-awards ceremony about the dangers of letting the stock market and its quarterly-results obsession run publishing. It was lauded as a brilliant speech and promptly ignored.

In the years after, I've seen plenty of publications fall victim to the mindless pressure of stock-market results (and don't tell me that shareholders aren't mindless; the modern market relies on folks not thinking too much about the broader consequences of their investments) coupled with the equally mindless pressure of pack journalism, in which Brangelina and various missing white women are news because everyone else is covering them. Enough already. I wish NewAssignment.Net all the best, and if they give the mainstream media a kick in the pants on their way, all the better. But don't confuse that with being the point of the exercise.

"Donors who are willing to put up so good stories don't get shut up." That's good.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 26, 2006 10:50 PM | Permalink

Could we talk about this in San Francisco? I'll be speaking at AEJMC's Breakfast of Editing Champions at 8:15 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 4.

Posted by: Adrian G. Uribarri at July 26, 2006 11:15 PM | Permalink

This is a splendid idea –

just like my friends at “

Posted by: D at July 27, 2006 8:33 AM | Permalink


I have just read your project description with great interest.

Over the past four years I have been working on developing a cross-platform (online, broadband, broadcast) project in Israel and the West Bank territories entitled Jerusalem: A Living History.

The core concept being to chronicle the conflict directly through the eyes of those directly impacted by the events that surround them.

The project received initial development funding from KQED, San Francisco and ITVS.

As the production evolved it became apparent that the story was (is) ongoing and the site needed to be developed with robust user/viewer interactivity. Funding, however, has been difficult.

I would very much like to plug into your endeavor and would very much appreciate feedback on the "living history" concept as outlined on the preview web site:

Again thank you for your vision and I look forward to hearing back from you.

Maurice Jacobsen
Independent Producer
Research Fellow, Media Center at the American Press Institute.

Posted by: Maurice Jacobsen at July 27, 2006 9:52 AM | Permalink

"if NewAssignment makes it clear that this is journalism, not advocacy, then informed investors won't have that problem."

response: "If old journalism had made that distinction more clearly, we might not be having this discussion."

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) at July 26, 2006 08:41 PM | Permalink

I think you haven't reached back far enough. "Old" journalism WAS advocacy. Freedom of speech and the press was specifically unfettered in the Constitution late in the 18th century so that no advocates of a particular philosophy or agenda could be silenced by law. It is a logical outgrowth of the entire new social contract experiment, in which all stakeholders agreed that rather than use the power of public office to bleed, impoverish, emasculate, silence and imprison opponents, all would agree not to do those things instead. And we'd have a peaceful change of government whenever the stakeholders wanted, without bloodshed, and with the winners agreeing that at some visceral level they would represent the interests of all stakeholders, even the losers of the election. It was quite a novel idea, and, as in any innovation, it was "sold" by offering a more attractive set of outcomes than people had been seeing in the European models for several hundred years: Limited consequences for defeat, and always the promise that you would have a chance to keep your agenda in front of the stakeholders. Newspapers were the voice of advocates in that system when it was set up.
What you think is "old" journalism is the post WWII model in which newspapers dropped their old political affiliations and adopted the paradigm of dispassionate reporting. It was advanced as a way to reassure readerships that just because the Summerville Whig, the Jeffersonian Democrat, and the Summer Republican were all now merged into the Daily Blob, no advocacy group would suffer. And it is now widely perceived that this paradigm of dispassionate reporting has been hijacked, only nobody appears to be quite sure whether it is by the filthy liberals or the greedy capitalists.
In some ways it was simpler when you worked for the Summerville Whig. Everybody knew where you were coming from.

Posted by: Bill Watson at July 27, 2006 10:43 AM | Permalink

I'm curious about how transparent the money part of this would be. Would my donations be made public? If I donated to a particular story would that be public information? It seems like there's a strong possibility that who paid for the story could become the story... make sense? Transparency might help with this, but it might not. Again, something the editors' agility would have to content with.

Posted by: paul goyette at July 27, 2006 11:10 AM | Permalink

There's been a lot of good discussion on editorial transparency, so I think this project starts with plenty of options there. But donor transparency? That essentially unplowed ground.

I think figuring out how to handle donor transparency while protecting the privacy of individual donors is a big deal for NewAssignment. Participants will want to know what agendas are in play, and end-users will want to know that they're not being taken for a special-interest ride.

Is the information provided by 501(c)3 rules sufficient? Maybe. Particularly if you make your reports accessible and searchable. But will that level of public disclosure scare off potential donors? It could have the opposite effect -- people who donate so that their backing can be witnessed.

My guess is, whatever system you set up for donor transparency, the most valuable technology will be human beings acting in concert. I think Wikipedia is best understood as an evolving human community, rather than as a piece of interactive software. If Wikipedia stays functional as a human community, it will remain viable no matter what changes come along. Same with NewAssignment. The game is all about creating the opportunities for interesting relationships, and then adjusting on the fly to keep the relationships healthy.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at July 27, 2006 12:07 PM | Permalink

Paul: I'm not sure what the right policy is on transparency of donorship. It's probably one of those cases where no one's religion applies, and there is no pure answer. But you have to have a policy, or your dead within weeks.

So you find some kind of policy that works well enough, and then after you discover the rationale. You could say: no anonymous donors, ever. Good policy, stong. Transparent. But there might be situations where that's a really bad policy, so you switch around....

Sociologists, who study these things, have a name for it, the kind of name that is ugly to a normal person's ear but effective to an academic ear, as description of something we all do: "criterion-less muddling through." Which means solving problems as they come, using common sense and improvised schemes. Most of journalism is that.

I never try to figure something by starting with all the rules first. Better to start with the activity you can imagine happening in the space.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 28, 2006 12:31 AM | Permalink

i am waiting for the story suggestions to start. i have a suggestion for you to uncover the reason for Colin Powell's being outside the ring of power so soon in the first term of Bushs' administration. it links us to the war in Somalia (under Bush the 1st), Powell's middle east trip (feb-march 2001) and Dick Cheney's heart attack. there is an audio tape of an interview with Powell, if you can find a copy (most have been burned for sure) the whole closet might spill out on the floor.

Posted by: edward reidy at July 28, 2006 12:06 PM | Permalink

A good idea in New Assignment terms is not just a story that hasn't been covered by Big Journalism, but the kind of story that a big network of users could contribute reliable information to, where collaboration among widely dispersed users improves upon what a dogged reporter could do. NewAssignment has a niche. I'm looking for ideas that recognize we're trying to do networked journalism here.

The first questions New Assignment has to answer go back to my earlier post:

* What kinds of stories can be usefully investigated using open source and collaborative methods? I gave some examples here. Let's hear some more.

* Which user communties are good bets to be interested enough to make something like this happen?

* What needs to be invented for this kind of journalism to flourish?

* What tools already exist, and how can we adapt them?

* How relevant to open source journalism are previous tech chapters like open source software?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 28, 2006 12:55 PM | Permalink


If the goal is to let the audience be the owners, then why not let us start taking part now?

If you setup this idea as a project at, the people formerly known as the audience can start becoming the funders of this project, right now. Later, when NewAssignement is up and running, give discounted first-year subscriptions to those of us who helped fund it from the start.

If you do, let me know and I'll be the first to put in $10.

Posted by: F. Spoon at July 28, 2006 1:21 PM | Permalink

I think this is a great idea, however, if this is going to be used primarily as a device for bashing the government, it will simply become another sucessful poison. I'll be interested in seeing the actual assignments. Too many people already make their living from lying, and whose to say this won't be another one of those neat ideas that gets corrupted? We all know what happens with good intentions sometimes.

Posted by: Alexa at July 28, 2006 1:35 PM | Permalink

I think this is a good idea. But related to the question of whether sponsors will keep paying once they get results they didn't expect and don't agree with, how will the site avoid being perceived as partisan by sponsors/participants? Once a few stories come out that are seen as favoring the right or the left and are picked up instantly by the political blogosphere and scrutinzed for partisan bias, what will keep sponsors of the non-favored political persuasion from abandoning the endeavor?

This problem seems especially acute given the polarized state of the blogosphere, from which I'm guessing most of the initial sponsors/participants will be drawn. Seems to me this will end up a firmly partisan (if fair-minded) project something like Muckraker. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing ... maybe this is what you had in mind already. Will there be any effort to keep this thing politically neutral? More to the point, would that even be possible?

Posted by: Dave B. at July 28, 2006 2:55 PM | Permalink

I have a million questions of how this is really different than out-sourcing editing and reporting and perhaps changing the funding mechanism.

But in the end of the day, it is the results that counts. If the buyers (donors, consumers, etc) believe it is a good product (no matter what the bias and perception thereof) to extent to keep it financial viable, then it will be successful.

God speed.

Posted by: Tim at July 28, 2006 3:35 PM | Permalink

The idea is brilliant. I, for one, however, will not automatically dismiss the premise of commerce as a way of earning revenue.

As a long-time veteran of publishing, I see the problem with large media companies as being that they have let the voice of commerce and/or political interests get way out of control. There is nothing intrinsically bad about commerce, though--particularly if businesses are offering their information to end-buyers who desire that information. This scenario definitely exists where advertising relates to subject matter. (For example, if I'm reading a story about rose gardening, I might well be interested in books about growing roses, a seed catalog from which I can purchase roses, and a local store that has a sale on fertilizer.)

I also note that there are many ethical companies, and there is even a percentage of companies engaging in "conscious commerce," a way of doing business transparently. In such companies, everyone (employees, owners, vendors, suppliers, and even customers) know everything about how the company operates. They all know costs, profits, salaries, etc., too.

What I'm getting at here is that, if money is sought to launch this project and keep it going, then let's not discount the possibility of raising that money by providing a venue for business to reach the people reading the site. If anyone is interested in discussing this aspect of operations further, please contact me at

Posted by: Wendy Schnegg at July 28, 2006 3:42 PM | Permalink

Some Problems with New Assignment.Net

Part Two of my Q and A. "Every time I have explained the site to journalists the first objection has been the same. It's a prediction. If people do step forward to fund these New Assignments, they will be interests with an agenda who only want results that support that agenda."

It's up now. I am going to keep this thread open a whiles.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 28, 2006 3:47 PM | Permalink

I don't think you can stipulate the use of professional journalists on the back end. Doing this is essentially the same as commercial news entities' processes. You're saying to the world at large 'Give me all the info, do all the leg work, now I'm going to pay someone to bend it the way I want.' At least, that's the way it's going to be perceived by the [paranoid|sensible] amongst us. If you want it open source, it has to be open source top to bottom. If someone can do it, let them. If you put a staffer on it, you taint the process. Not only do you have to do it right, but you have to be seen to do it right.

How about having more than one final version? Let anyone who cares to spend the time writing it up produce a final piece, then post them all, and see who agrees with what. That's the open source way... Hack it until it works! The good guys stay with the project, and the chaff falls away. Evolutioniary technique versus directed success, or failure.

Posted by: Carey at July 29, 2006 9:48 AM | Permalink

"Essentially the same as commercial news entities' processes?"

I don't agree with that. Even with the assignment to paid professionals who complete the story it isn't essentially like anything we have now.

New Assignment is a "mixed republic." It isn't totally one thing or the other. That's why I call it pro-am. You say it shouldn't be mixed; it should be all open, all amateur, all network. Okay, but I don't agree.

You can't push a story until it works. There are an infinite number of stories that "work" for a given set of gathered facts. In that instance the analogy with software development breaks down.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at July 29, 2006 5:50 PM | Permalink

On Bob Stepno's

> "(Throw in IRE memberships too.)
> ...
> Would Knight or someone please pay the tuition for [IRE] Better Watchdog Workshops for citizen journalists who can't afford to attend...

Sounds good.

From IRE's website, Who can become a member of IRE. Your task: find the citizen journalists.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at July 29, 2006 5:59 PM | Permalink

But there are also local benefactors that take particular interest in their communities that could take up some of the slack...

We'll see. I'm likely jaded from my own experience -- success when it comes to the work and the craft, failure when it came to finding enough financial support -- but I mainly hear a lot of people saying things like the above, but no one ever being able to point to proof that such resources exist on the local level.

Posted by: b!X at July 30, 2006 2:00 AM | Permalink

b!X, what approaches did you take toward getting funding?

I know you asked on your site, but did you ever try to get grants from foundations (especially local ones), or anything like that?

Posted by: Anna Haynes at July 30, 2006 11:42 PM | Permalink

IRE's position on admitting citizen journalists as members:

"if you are not a freelancer, or have no journalism background, then you would not qualify for membership."

(via email from the membership coordinator)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at July 31, 2006 3:12 PM | Permalink

I would love to see an investigation on why the Bin Laden family was allowed to leave after 9/11?

Posted by: Kirk at July 31, 2006 3:54 PM | Permalink

This is way, way, way too complicated. News by committees won't work. What this does not address is the business model. Yes, Craig Newmark is rich and can sponsor news, but is this the future for journalism? Rich benefactors?

Posted by: Tom Foremski at August 1, 2006 12:49 PM | Permalink

Tom: News by committee? If that's your summary, I don't think you understand my proposal. Maybe it's too complicated for your tastes, but plenty of readers have grasped the basic principles.

Ask the tech reporters at USA Today for help (here and here). They seem to grok it.

And... I didn't say New Assignment had a business model for the news industry. In fact, I specifically said it wasn't that. New Assignment isn't a business at all. Get it? It's a non-profit. Surely you have heard of that.

Nor do I claim "this is the future for journalism." Who does? What I specifically said is: we need to be trying lots of things. But it's a good example of how journalists inflate what they don't understand, and then seek to pop the balloon they blew up in the first place.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 1, 2006 1:19 PM | Permalink

Am I rich?

If so, can someone help me out and fill me in on that?



Posted by: Craig Newmark at August 1, 2006 4:43 PM | Permalink

Excellent idea - better manifestation of another concept we discussed at a BrainJams last year. Focusing on demand aggregation rather than news aggreagtion is a key element that has been really missing.

We talked with people about building a tool where people could ask questions about other things they read, saw, overheard or talked about with friends. More than just a Wondir or Yahoo! Answers - it would connect people who are experts on a given topic, or perhaps just geographically appropriate for a given story with people who want to really know the truth about a given topic.

I wish we had more time to talk at Bloggercon as this would have undoubtedly come up. It is a busy week, but I will dive deeper into this discussion and see where we might be able to support you with our work on Social Media Club.

Posted by: Chris Heuer at August 1, 2006 6:44 PM | Permalink

Certainly, American journalism needs an infusion of mad, genius ideas and you may have just the right approach here. But this widely held presumption that the "real stories" are not covered and therefore only alternative sources will be able to reveal the "truth" is woefully inflated.

If you're looking for the facts about the Iraqi war, or the Neocon ideology animating it, there are abundant sources. Despite the existing resevoir of alternative sources, however, the country is sharply polarized into true believers or passionate skeptics, liberals or conservatives, us versus them.

The news doesn't seem to nudge the masses towards enlightened activity. For instance, as a rule, the politicians aren't relying on the facts per se but rather on their allegiances. Is a new alternative news source going to rectify that? Is it going to miraculously transform a society geared to instant gratification and sound bites into a more reflective, wiser nation?

Let's say every good story idea presented herein was pursued with due diligence. Would the results yield more enlightenment overall? Would 5,000 patrons paying, say, $25 a year, or even 50,000 paying $50 a year produce a sufficient amount of work to radically improve the national consciousness? Is the problem of America's insidious culture and general lack of understanding a result of minimal news or minimal interest? Will more news maximize the interest?

It appears that this is a bit of a chicken and egg construct. Until the culture significantly changes, all the profound news in the world won't produce a sizable difference regarding the way America operates. Unfortunately, the main problem is philosophical, not journalistic. Until the ruling philosophy of escapism, apathy, lethargy, and rank self-interest changes, journalism won't have much of a chance to push the culture to higher places. Where's the kind of site that can do that?

Posted by: peter "the sheriff" yoon at August 2, 2006 5:33 AM | Permalink


Your concept is beautiful to behold -- it is the perfect way to express that which is unique and exciting about the Internet, and is a concept could help fulfill its true potential.

My only concern about your model, with its crucial "open sources" criteria, is: What happens when the story's development could affect a multi-billion industry in a way that damages profit substantially? Couldn't this compromise the story, as people and organizations could run interference with the intended sources or areas of investigations?

Although this might be a concern, I believe that having the story "out there" with a posse of citizen journalists on the case would help counter those difficulties.

I have one such story for NewAssignment.Net that has the potential to effect dramatic changes in the health of the next generation. It has the potential to upset a multi-billion dollar industry, yet it is a story that must be told. I have emailed you some of the details at: Please contact me for more details.

-- C. Sarlo

Posted by: Caroline Sarlo at August 3, 2006 5:56 PM | Permalink

From the Intro