Story location:

July 28, 2006

Some Problems with NewAssignment.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."

Background: see part one, Introducing NewAssignment.Net (July 25) plus the podcast with Craig Newmark and Jay Rosen, this Q and A with and an audio interview with Jon Gordon’s Future Tense.

In part two, we want to examine some of the problems with NewAssignment.Net, as explained in your first post, introducing the idea. In your mind, where do they start?

Let’s start with the mind of the American press. 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. Or they will be passionate believers in a cause who know the truth and won’t accept an account that differs. By taking their money you’re asking for trouble.

To which your answer is?

Editors. Good editors.

That’s it?

What else do I need? Editors are the barrier between donors and journalists, the guarantors of New Assignment’s independence, the guardians of quality. End of system. Not unlike a traditional newsroom.

Guidelines at New Assignment will make it clear what is and is not kosher in accepting donations. But mostly it would be common sense. If you take money from someone who knows what the story is—before the reporting—and who only wants validation… expect problems.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon had an example from his own operation. Farhad Manjoo checked into complaints that Ohio was stolen in the ‘04 election. The finding: “There is no evidence that Bush won because of voter fraud.” Scott said, “It wasn’t what many of our readers wanted to hear.” Isn’t that likely to happen with NewAssignment?

I’m sure it will happen. But how did Salon react? “We can’t publish this, it will anger our base.” No, they had the same solution I have: good editors. Like Scott! Editors of all agendas and genders need cojones. I’m sure Salon didn’t consider for a moment killing Manjoo’s report.

For New Assignment to work, donors can’t have an editorial say greater than anyone else’s. They explicitly sign it away as a condition of giving the money. Those who expect outsized influence will be disappointed after one experience. Would they return for more? Besides, management has a policy: no refunds.

You said “not unlike a traditional newsroom,” but you’re talking about editors who operate differently. Yours are directly involved in extracting (some would say clawing) money from people who can afford to part with it to get the reporting they want. Editors, you said in part one, have to “cultivate a network of reliable supporters.” It would be awfully hard to say “screw off” to someone who’s funding three of your biggest investigations, wouldn’t it?

Sometimes, readers know more than I do. I’m going to let one of them, Daniel Conover , blogger and editor, answer that.

“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.”

He’s got it. And when I say “good editors” I mean people who get it.

If “Donors balk at an inconvenient truth” is the first warning, what’s the second?

The site will only fund projects that bring in the donor clicks. So the perceived availability of funding, not the intrinsic newsworthiness of a story, will come to rule the editorial roost.

To which your answer is?

Good editors. With reserve funds. That’s exactly why the reserve funds are there. To un-enslave the editors. Still, I think this is something to watch out for.

And who will be watching out for it?

As Conover said, the broad base of participants. If it grows New Assignment will have an editor-in-chief I suppose, and probably an editorial board. But it should be uncomplicated.

Even so, the availability of donor dollars—clicks, if you will—will affect the work. It has to. If nobody gives money for stories about the social problems of Native Americans, you aren’t going to see a lot of New Assignment journalism about the social problems of Native Americans, right?

That’s probably right. Unless we fix that somehow. On the other hand if there’s huge user interest, and great knowledge collection, and some of your best correspondents are itching to get involved, but no one donates, the pressure is on the editors to find a way to do that story.

What other objections have you heard?

Local stories won’t play well at New Assignment because the fundraising part demands a big national market to draw donors from. I’m not sure that’s true. (See Will Bunch and Columbia PhD student, Chris Anderson.) It only takes one donor. Local “swarms” have an advantage in getting started and staying focused.

Many other concerns I’ve heard come down to fear of mob behavior or mass judgment. I’m not quite sure how to reply to those. 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.

My guess is there will be “junk” areas, where you can always raise money but the stories are crap knowledge, they’re utterly lame. Keep going down that road and soon you’ll be doing UFOs. By adding those dollars you are subtracting from your reputation, which ultimately affects your ability to raise money. I don’t think that’s hard to figure out. Good editors will see it in a second.

What else do journalists say?

It hasn’t been negative at all. Many are quite interested in the possibility that some hybrid, pro-am form will work. I think a good cross section of “traditional” journalists want something like this to be proven viable. Maybe they’re not ready to jump ship. They would like to know there’s another fleet sailing.

But their experience also teaches them to be wary. Often times, they doubt that the people formerly known as the audience can be reliable judges or informants.

Kevin Many, tech writer for USA Today, said you left out a lot in your first sketch, “like how good stories often come from a talented writer’s or editor’s unique vision, and whether non-fiction stories essentially researched and written by crowds will be as good as a novel or screenplay written by crowds — i.e. not very good.” What do you say to Kevin?

An editor skilled in the network style can propose a story idea and argue for it with his crowd of users. It’s persuasion. Even with a user’s veto and the passions of the crowd, editors would find many ways of making sure their own sensibility comes through. I would expect the majority of subscribers would be to editors’ feeds. If they were regular visitors to NewAssignment.Net, they would visit their favorite editors’ blogs, where there is always something going on.

Think blogger with a war chest and a loyal readership that knows a lot stuff. They’re networked together in the way the site works. They read the news together and react to what’s missing.

Okay. Like what kind of blogger?

One of my favorite independent bloggers is Susie Madrak. (I haven’t asked her about any of this, but she likes NewAssignment.) She has a site called Suburban Guerilla. It’s linking and thinking on Left politics and culture with equal parts anger, beauty and wit.

A New Assignment editor might be someone like Susie. Except that it’s Suburban Guerilla with a war chest: Funds to spend on checking into stuff. She’s got a user friendly site that can handle big feats of collaboration. She’s got her network of correspondents who kick butt, get paid, and love what they do. She’s got a smart mob of users. She herself is being paid as an editor at NewAssignment.Net. It’s her party and every day she’s ready to journalize with you.

Yes, I’m rhapsodizing. Point is there’s no way Susie Madrak checks her vision or sensibility at the door, if she becomes a New Assignment editor. It’s the opposite, Kevin. Her unique angle on the world expands.

What about the covert interest group or disciplined gang of disruptors who feed you bad information during the assignment stage?

I don’t know. We’ll have to figure that out. But it brings up a good point. Need a reputation system for users as suppliers of fact. If who’s a reliable seller? can be solved at E-bay—more or less—then who’s a reliable source of information can be solved at New Assignment. The history of rating systems on the Web will tell us something there.

When is the first live test?

I don’t know that, either. But it won’t be this summer. We need to get more in place before we can do that. Like set up a temporary page at NewAssignment.Net.

What makes you think it can work?

You mean the live test?

No, I mean the whole thing: New Assignment.Net-— open sourcing the assignments, funding it the way you fund it, the editors and their areas, the users and their role. Obviously you think it can work. Why?

Part of it is the example now being set by liberal journalist and blogger Josh Marshall. His Talking Points Memo blog is invaluable if you follow national politics; he’s widely read on Capital Hill. During the 2004 campaign he raised money for a trip to New Hampshire to hear and question the candidates. He told readers why he wanted to go, what he thought he could accomplish.

The essential transaction I’m counting on is right there. Users fund an act of journalism because they have confidence—a lot-—in who’s doing it and why; the chances of getting something really good back seem pretty good.

Marshall recently raised money from his contributors to fund two investigative reporters, Paul Kiel and Justin Rood, who run a new site,, linked to Talking Points Memo and TPM Café, Marshall’s forum site. He had to explain why he wanted to do more investigations. Enough users agreed with his pitch. More than 2,000 came forward to hire these two guys, who investigate things that Marshall and his crew at TMP Café are buzzing about. (See this post and that one.)

Isn’t that vulnerable to the objection that there’s only one Josh Marshall? Maybe what works is him, Josh.

Maybe. He’s an unusually talented guy who is open to users. But transpose Josh over to New Assignment. TPMmuckrucker is like an editor’s area of influence. Josh Marshall is behaving like a NewAsssignment-style editor, proposing to readers of his blog, who trust in his editorial judgment and political savvy, that they donate to works of investigative journalism—- his brand of left liberal muckraking and commentary on national politics.

Potential donors read Josh; they know what Talking Points Memo is about. They know what kind of investigations he does. He gives the project a price tag, creates a description, undertakes a campaign with a deadline, updating supporters on how much has been gotten. All as anticipated in New Assignment. That’s pretty close, but yet several steps away from what I propose.

What kind of things does he do that you would call “collaborative?”

I wrote about one of his more inspired gambits: His attempt to get publicly recorded a voice vote the Republicans took behind closed doors to change their ethics rule in anticipation that Tom Delay could one day be indicted. In a very clever (and transparent) way, Marshall got TPM users to help him get lots of House Republicans on the record about the vote, a vote which they later regreted. To me it was a great work of collaborating with users, and yet only partially successful.

Okay, so Marshall’s a blogging editor who raises money. I’m having more trouble imagining how reporting in the networked style works.

Second to Chris Allbritton in the DNA of NewAssignment is Doug McGill, former business reporter for the New York Times. He moved back to his home state, Minnesota, and set up his own site, the McGill Report. In 2003 he uncovered a genocide in Ethiopia and told the world. It was him and a social network of immigrants using the Net and cell phones. They established that something genocidal happened half a world away. (His new project is a citizen’s journalism manual. See also his essay for PressThink, Our Code is Falling to Pieces.)

Here’s what I wrote in PressThink, Feb. 18, 2005. “It started, according to the McGill Report, when ‘hundreds of Anuak refugees living in Minnesota reported receiving frantic telephone calls from their relatives living in Gambella state in Ethiopia.’ A local story. McGill heard about it. He interviewed the relatives of survivors who had witnessed the killings. They became his eyes and ears on the ground in Ethiopia. He became their link to the Internet, and to the possibility of world attention.”

I hope that makes it a little more vivid.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

I’m in San Francisco this week (Aug 1-6) attending the AEJMC convention.

Susie Madrak: “Apparently Jay was reading my mind.”

Scott Rosenberg with a crucial observation about New Assignment editors:

Note that in this new world being a “good editor” involves some significantly greater political leadership, by which I don’t mean “involvement in parties and elections” but the more generic, abstract kind of politics — the mustering and deployment of power through the creation of consensus among competing interests and diverse people.

“The editor’s job at New Assignment is going to be as much about managing online community as about assigning stories, editing copy and mentoring reporters,” Scott writes. “That’s a demanding, but certainly not impossible, pile of responsibilities.”

Doug McGill in the comments:

What’s different about NewAssignment.Net, to me, is that it is public-spirited from the start. It’s an obvious point, I suppose, but worth highlighting if only to once again remind ourselves that the very idea of journalism as a public service is what’s most in danger today. That’s what we could lose completely, and NewAssignnment.Net is a project designed to ensure that this idea flourishes in the new forms of cyber-journalism that are being created – and just as quickly being eyed for lunch by commercial forces.

His concerns are worth highlighting:

Will Femia at MSNBC’s blog column, Clicked:

If you were skeptical about Jay Rosen’s new participatory journalism project, some of your criticisms are likely addressed here. The part I must have missed somewhere along the way is why the only money at play has to come from donors. The site doesn’t even exist yet and it’s already got a good buzz around it. Surely someone can get some ad dollars moving to pay for those stories that don’t motivate donors. If the editors are protecting the content from the corrupting influence of donors, why not let them also protect the content from the corrupting influence of advertisers?

Mark Glaser takes a look at New Assignment for his Media Shift blog at

The one possible weakness in this idea is the reliance on paid editors. If NewAssignment wants to capture the “wisdom of crowds,” it will have to tread lightly on the issue of paid vs. free contributors. Rosen would do well to follow the recent brouhaha over Netscape paying social bookmarkers from Digg and Reddit. Can a two-tier method of compensation work, with editors being paid and contributors donating time and money to help? Perhaps.

And of course Digg is not about collaborative investigative reporting, so these are different styles of sites. But still, any project that aims to harness the power of collaborative work online should consider the delicate balancing act of paying some people and not others.

See Glaser’s able summary, Should Community-Edited News Sites Pay Top Editors?

Jason Calacanis of Netscape and AOL explains why he wants to pay the top users on the major social news and bookmarking sites: “Talent wins, and talent needs to get paid. I love paying talented people so they can sleep well at night doing what they love. That’s my biggest joy in business: gettin’ people paid.”

Over at Rhetorica, Andrew Cline has some concerns about part two: “The model he’s proposing leaves journalists, including those good editors, somewhat at the mercy of the very thing that challenges them ethically when they practice journalism for commercial institutions—money.”

Glaser asked me why I decided to publish these questions and answers “before they had even hatched a placeholder website for New Assignment.” My answer:

I borrowed the idea for doing it this way from [open source software advocate] Eric Raymond’s Release Early, Release Often. I’m aware that this approach has sometimes worked and sometimes flopped in the tech industry. It got oversold as a method there, I’m told. But I thought it might work well here because, frankly, NewAssignment isn’t in good enough shape to work yet.

It needs examination, discussion, and way more thought by people who know a lot more than I do about… (take your pick) reputation systems, social software, investigative reporting, micropayments, online fundraising, swarm sites, wiki use, open source history, and the range of initiatives that have gone before this one but resemble parts of it… I am expert in none of those things.

People who know a lot more than I do have to look at it, take the thing apart, add their knowledge, ask their puzzled questions. My scheme just isn’t good enough yet to work. What’s the best way to improve it? The Q&A at PressThink seemed the best way. Maybe some kid in Finland will read about it on Techmeme and start fooling around with a piece of the puzzle that later proves critical. The purpose of NewAssignment is not to ‘own’ its leading ideas (which mostly come from the Net anyway.) The purpose is to spark innovation.

And if there’s no site to look at readers have to conjure it up. There are certain advantages to that.

CJR Daily’s Gal Beckerman: “Let’s give it a whirl.”

Lots of doubts and replies in the comments at Buzzmachine.

Mark Hamilton reflects on part one: “The elegance of Jay’s proposal is in bringing together ideas from a number of sources and fitting them together into a solid, workable whole.” is not the model for remaking journalism, although it stands to become a significant part of that new mediascape without the need to become The New York Times of “new media.” It also stands to become significant in showing that a mixed model (distributed journalism, networked journalism, whatever you want to call it) makes sense, works and delivers quality journalism. It stands to become significant as that success is ripped, mixed and burned by others, including mainstream media, and extended to areas of journalism other than unreported or underreported stories.

Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News responds at his blog Attytood:

Let’s face it, the current system of investigative reporting has broken down. Too many news organizations have make the same bizarre decision to slash in-depth, long-term reporting first, while keeping coverage of “headline news” that readers can get from six other sources. Paid journalists increasingly must focus on the big picture — U.S. policy in Iraq, for example — whereas the best investigative work is the “micro,” like who are the small contractors getting fat on corruption because of U.S. policy in Iraq.

There is still some great work by great professionals, but there is also a growing body of successful investigative reporting by amateurs, for the very reason that they aren’t constrained by some of the phony boundaries of “pro” journalism.

Jon Gordon of American Public Media (the national production and distribution arm of Minnesota Public Radio) did a well-produced audio interview with me about New Assignment. I am on the advisory board for their Center for Innovation in Journalism (announcement).

What is this man saying?

Even for bloggers who use their own names, all the compulsive linking—to a degree, linking is the new logrolling—is a way never to say anything provocative without nervously assuring the reader that someone else said it first. Maybe the blogosphere is in such danger of slipping into the status quo because a lot of bloggers have the mainstream editors’ very same social reflexes, but in reverse.

See if you can figure it out.

Here’s another one. Can’t make sense of what he’s saying. Can you?

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 28, 2006 3:22 PM