August 11, 2006
How Realistic is NewAssignment.Net?
"The key is going to be the trust that develops in the continuous back-and-forth between an editor and users. If it's based on an unspoken covenant to strengthen each other’s prejudices and find facts that support them, then, yeah, this is going to lead to big, big problems."
Amid the many reactions to my first two posts about NewAssignment.Net (Introducing… and Problems With…) some doubts and alarms have been heard that are worth exploring.
Two posts in particular have questioned how realistic my earlier sketch is. That is to say, they have done the idea a favor. In NuJournalism, Mitch Ratcliffe (who has a ton of experience in Net ventures) explains why he thinks NewAssignment.Net will fail. Mark Hamilton, one of my favorite press bloggers, thinks it will work, but he has several reservations, or as he puts it, a niggle or two.
Their major points are these:
- Ideology will rule. The NewAssignment forum will degenerate into rival ideologies clamoring for their stories to be done. Ratcliffe: “The best we can hope for is competing versions of reality funded by groups that want verification of their views.” Hamilton: New Assignment could become “yet another battlefield for the ideological wars raging across much of the blogosphere.”
- The news agenda is made hostage to the funding cycle. At Ratcliffe put it, story ideas “will live or die on the basis of funders’ willingness to pay for the research and writing of each story.”
- The system creates perverse incentives for reporters. Future funding for will depend on “delivering the story promised” as against what the reporter found, which “makes agreeing with the perspective of the funders more important than telling the truth.” (Ratcliffe)
- A story’s “worth” cannot be judged ahead of time. Ratcliffe: “No one knows what an important story is until after it has been reported, therefore you have to trust the judgment of someone who will occasionally ignore the wisdom of the crowd and go somewhere unexpected or unwanted.”
- What if, after investigation, it turns out there is no story? Ratcliffe: “How do we fund someone if they decide, based on their best judgment and research, that there is no story? Don’t we want that?” Hamilton: “Will those who invest energy — and money — willingly settle for a story that says there’s no story and here’s why?”
- By organizing around stories New Assignment slights the truthtelling force of committed reporters. Hamilton: “So far missing from the equation is a way to capture the many, many great stories that begin with a reporter wondering “What if…” Ratcliffe: “Without an investment in people and a process of self- and institutional-criticism… rather than stories, there is no check on the worst behavior people can engage in, the pursuit of their own comfort level with the world.”
- “Open” methods give the story away before it’s done. “The NewAssignment process, being open and accessible in order to make funders aware of stories citizen journalist/reporters want to tell, gives the subjects a heads up that they may soon be under investigation.” (Ratcliffe)
- NewAssignment isn’t open enough. This concern cuts in a different direction. It came from Dave Leigh, a commenter at Ratcliffe’s post: My sketch “doesn’t trust the open collaborative process enough,” he says. “I don’t think you can do this halfway and be successful.” Too much control is given to editors and the funding process, making NewAssignment a lot like the media system it is trying to improve upon.
There are other concerns mentioned but these seem to me the major ones. Mitch Ratcliffe also had one great suggestion, which I will get to later.
First a general caution. Mitch and to a small degree Mark Hamilton have taken what is perhaps the sexiest, riskiest and most controversial part of my sketch—users donate to stories they want to see happen—and treated it as if it were the heart and soul of NewAssignment.Net, the “thing.” It’s not. The heart and soul is the connection, or bond, between a New Assignment editor and the community of users drawn to an editor’s portion of the site because they can participate in the coming together of important stories.
The key is going to be the trust that develops in the continuous back-and-forth between an editor and users. If it’s based on an unspoken covenant to strengthen each other’s prejudices and find facts that support them, then, yeah, this is going to lead to big, big problems. But that’s not journalism, and an editor who operated that way would not be welcome at NewAssignment.Net. If the interactive bond is based on, “let’s find out what’s really going on here,” then there’s a chance this thing can work.
Mitch Ratcliffe in particular decided to ignore (I mean completely ignore) an important feature of the design: the editor’s reserve fund, which is supposed to correct for several of the problems he says will sink New Assignment. To me this is odd. It’s sitting right there in the middle of my post.
“Editors have to develop reputations or they’re sunk,” I wrote. “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.” (Italics added.)
I explained that an editor’s fund would initially come from start-up monies NewAssignment would have to raise. (I am doing that now, so email me if you can help.) Funding editors—as opposed to stories—becomes one of the ways supporters of the project can contribute. The more dollars in an editor’s reserve fund, the more freedom of maneuver she gains. That includes independence from the “decision of someone with some money to pay for a report that justifies their world view,” as Mitch put it.
Here is what I wrote:
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.
It could also accept advertising if the traffic got high enough, with most of the proceeds distributed to editors’ funds, further empowering them.
In another part of my introductory post I tried to get readers to visualize the front page of a New Assignment editor’s site-within-a-site. In the top right corner—in bright lights, as it were—would be a dollar figure, telling visitors how much is in the editors’ reserve fund. “That means she can greenlight an idea herself, if the right one emerges.”
My hope is that the more successful an editor is in creating great work that draws public attention, the larger that fund would grow, making possible bigger, better, and more consequential stories. Institutional funders (like foundations) would be more likely to support editors or the site itself, while individual users would be more likely to contribute to stories they want to see.
These are really two different funding streams. Syndication is a third, sponsorship of the published work a fourth, advertising a fifth. It’s not known, of course, which of these will prove workable. It seems to me the chance of success are greater if New Assignment remains flexible and does not rely on one method.
I don’t know why Mitch chose to ignore the reserve, especially since he’s concerned that ideas “will live or die on the basis of funders’ willingness to pay for the research and writing of each story.” The venture fund is not a bell or whistle but an important structural element, one of the pieces holding up NewAssignment.Net. Possibly he considers it too far-fetched, as in no one’s going to go for that. But as I explained in that first post, NewAssignment already has $10,000 in its first reserve fund, a gift of Craig Newmark.
As I pointed out in my second post, Josh Marshall offers a model of an editor with a loyal user base. He operates in the “let’s find out what’s really going on here” style. His readers have contributed to a fund for more investigative work springing from the ideas and concerns that Marshall blogs about. That’s not far from what I envision.
Here are my other replies to the concerns I listed:
Ideology will rule. Could be. It depends on how the editors operate, and what sort of user they bring to the site. Demagogic editors would draw demagogic crowds. New Assignment would try not to hire them. Editors with a world view who respect the rules of evidence and demand verification would draw a different kind of crowd. New Assignment would look for that kind.
This objection is partly based, as Mark Hamilton said, on how the political blogosphere works. Having an ideology isn’t the problem; there are very few ideology-free citizens (or journalists.) Expecting the world to conform to your wishes and prior assumptions— that is the problem.
All I can do is build in controls, and set expectations properly. Critics who points out the problem and ignore the controls aren’t helping me improve NewAssignment.Net. And that’s sad because it needs to be improved. It’s not good enough yet.
The news agenda is made hostage to the funding cycle. Not if the reserve funds work as intended.
The system creates perverse incentives for reporters. I could be wrong, but I just don’t think it’s true that what will draw the most user interest, the most donations and the most praise are stories that bend the facts to conform to existing beliefs or validate a wish. I think it will be stories that tell us something we didn’t know before, that explore what the major media leave unexplored, and that hold up under examination.
The essence of an assignment is the questions the reporter is charged with answering, which come from users filtered through editors. Users have a right to see their questions answered. They have no right to the particular answers they wish to hear. The site will have to make this very clear, especially to those who donate.
I’m sure that some will flock to New Assignment.Net and expect to have their pre-existing ideas confirmed by any report they participate in or donate to. The question is what they will do when that happens. They can’t get their money back. (No refunds.) They can decide not to return. Is that really a bad thing?
A story’s “worth” cannot be judged ahead of time. Lots of times that’s true. I suspect that one of the most successful fundraising streams will be contributions collected after a story is published. Want more like this? Contribute to the editor’s reserve fund.
What if, after investigation, it turns out there is no story? Could happen. As I said, the reporter and by extension the editor who gave out the assignment are responsible for answering key questions developed by the user community during the “open” stage. If the big question is: did the telcos cheat their customers? and the answer is: “we checked it out—with the help of a lot of customers—and they didn’t cheat,” then the contract has been met.
In that case there may not be a story worth publishing on the front page, or syndicating to clients. (Of course innocence could be a story in itself.) If there’s no story, there would be a report to users and donors explaining the results. The conclusion—no story warranted—would have to be defended, just as a published story finding cheaters among the telcos would have to be defended.
By organizing around stories New Assignment slights the truthtelling force of committed reporters. Well, I think New Assignment is organized around editors and their user base. The site grows by adding editors who can grow the resources available for reporting. If New Assignment is very successful it could provide a decent living to reporters who are the most skilled in open style. Even at moderate levels of success it will provide an alternative way to break in and get noticed.
Mark is right when he says that we need “a way to capture the many, many great stories that begin with a reporter wondering ‘What if…’ If New Assignment were operating, that reporter e-mails an editor and the editor lets him guest blog for a while to see if an assignment emerges from the reporter’s what if…
Mitch writes, “Suggesting that we can freelance our way to an alternative media is missing the learning a reporter (citizen, professional or otherwise) gets from doing the job all the time, rather than just when a group of funders says ‘Sounds good, we’ll pay for it.’” I think that’s a valid objection. I’m not sure what to do about it. But Mitch had an interesting idea in the comments to his post. “So how about this to deal with the problem of funding people, not stories.”
The funders create a pool of, just for argument’s sake, $1,000,000. The writers can borrow against a source of funds allocated to them by the funders (could be $1,000 or $10,000 or some other figure) in exchange for the rights to resell the story (though the writer retains rights in the story itself, so they could write a
NewAssignment then sells the story and, after the loan is paid back by revenue generated by the story, the writer retains the rest, or, better, 80 percent of the rest so that some additional funds become available to NewAssignment.
Cool suggestion. More please.
“Open” methods give the story away before it’s done. This is another valid objection. There are certain kinds of stories that rely heavily on secrecy that just cannot be done in the New Assignment way. Is that fatal? Only if the site has to be all things to all people. I also believe that when NewAssignment starts operating reporters will have to keep certain things quiet, and not share with users until the work is done. After-the-fact transparency will make up for whatever secrecy is required during the reporting.
NewAssignment isn’t open enough. Others familiar with open source efforts in the tech world have told me that it won’t do to have editors who make critical choices. People won’t participate, they say. It should be stated that NewAssignment.Net is not a purely user-driven site, and cannot present itself as such. Nor is it a “pros in charge” system; editors and reporters will have to understand that. It’s an attempt at a creative hybrid, a mixed republic. Jeff Jarvis calls it networked journalism.
Now I think it would be fascinating to try to do investigative journalism with a swarm only (no editors) but I have no idea how to do that.
Finally, here is something incisive that Lisa Williams of H20Town sent me shortly after I introduced the idea.
NewAssignment.Net’s Future Will Be Determined By Fewer than 300 People
I think the self-organizing swarm that automagically produces news is a myth. While we can break down newsgathering tasks to smaller size chunks, and distribute the doing of those chunks more widely than ever before, it’s still not small enough, and not closely related enough to life activities, to become like a market: the informational particles emitted by our everyday decisions to buy, live someplace, etc. Unlike a market, participating in something like NewAssignment.net is a conscious, not unconscious process (I’m usually not aware of my effect on Kraft Foods’ stock price when I buy Goldfish crackers). Consciousness is at a premium.
All efforts online that demand conscious action from a distributed pool of users form a two-tier structure: a small nucleus of committed people donate a large amount of their consciousness to a project. What these people build make it possible for a far larger number of people to have casual contributions to the project. In this I include everything from blogging to Digg to Slashdot to Wikipedia.
Kari Kraus, reporting on a talk by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, is a good
“Although Wales pitched his talk to the uninitiated, I got the sense
that most of us in the audience were already converts. I went with the expectation that I’d hear a lot about bottom-up and distributed knowledge, emergence, and social software. To my surprise, though, Wales took pains to distance Wikipedia from the emergent model (EM) and opted instead to classify it according to what he called the “community model” of production (CM).
I’m not sure, but my sense is that he was reacting to parodies of Wikipedia as a pseudo-Darwinian enterprise, one in which only the strongest or fittest or most adaptive content survives. So he’s using completely different language to brand Wikipedia: it’s a “community of thoughtful users”—*a few hundred volunteers at its core, many of whom know each other—rather than an object lesson in swarm intelligence. He noted, for example, that over half of all Wikipedia edits are done by one percent of Wiki users; and 72 percent by just two percent of users.
“Wales argued that numbers like these make reputation mechanisms like those at Slashdot and Ebay superfluous and unnecessary; reputation on Wikipedia, he said, is a natural outgrowth of human interaction. In the EM, users are tiny and have no power; in the CM, by contrast, users are powerful and must be respected.”
Getting the community right—the rewards and disincentives for the
core of the community—is a make or break issue.
I think that’s very wise. Thanks, Mitch; thanks, Mark. And on we go.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Chris Anderson, a PhD student at Columbia J-School with a background in Indy media, put together a typology of what he calls actually existing citizen journalism. From earliest to latest, they are personal home pages, Indy media, blogs, hyperlocal sites, Big Media “citizen journalism” efforts, and finally networked journalism. Anderson’s treatment allows us to see the lines of evolution very clearly. He concludes this way:
We should keep in mind that networked journalism is a retreat from the more expansive, utopian claims of (some, not nearly all) of the citizen journalists. Not only are we no longer talking about replacing professionals, but we are actively putting them at the center of the new journalistic model. Although its common now to repeat the refrain that “no one wants to replace professional journalists” I don’t know if this is true. Indymedia, as part of a much larger critique of hierarchy, takes a more radical line where this is concerned. So do the anti-MSM partisans of the right.
Dante Chinni in the Christian Science Monitor on NewAssignment.Net.
While NewAssignment relies on those great democratic levelers, the Internet and citizen journalists, it actually proposes a less democratic vision of the blogosphere. Rosen says his idea is “journalism without the media,” but it’s actually journalism functioning within the idea of a new kind of Media - with a capital M.
After all, there will be editors. As his site says repeatedly - and correctly - Rosen thinks good editors are essential for his idea to work. And if citizen journalists agree, that in itself will be an interesting development in the changing media landscape.
It will mean that even those who decry the big media recognize there is something to the way those organizations are structured. And the new citizen journalist media age may look less like a revolution than the next step in evolution.
Writing from Italy, Robin Good is enthusisatic:
While I am not betting myself on its sure success as a media project that will last over time and produce tons of great content, I am sold already on its ability to make people think and consider aspects of new media journalism under new and different lights. And this by itself is worth for me the price of entrance…
NewAssignment.net is a lesson in media innovation, future-thinking and in remixing the best of our journalistic heritage with the new emerging ideas that the Web has allowed to grow in recent times.
Mark Glaser on Oldthink vs. Newthink. Spelling Out the Media Shift.
Extra, extra. PressThink regular Steve Lovelady quits as editor of CJR Daily because Columbia J-School Dean Nick Lemann wants to slash his budget in half to pay for a direct mail campaign for CJR, the print magazine. There’s this:
Mr. Lemann’s decision to transfer money from the site to a small-circulation print magazine would seem to run counter to some of his own writings on the importance of the Web.
He wrote recently in The New Yorker, “As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.”
In the interview, he said redirecting money to the magazine did not contradict that view because he was still maintaining a relatively large online staff.
“We’re making a powerful commitment to the Web because we really believe in it,” he said. But he said he also believed in print.
“I don’t think print is going away,” he said. “Keeping the print magazine brings in revenue, and print can do some things that the Web can’t.”
Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, said the move was a “strategic error” and that the review should drop its print version to reduce costs and go entirely online.
“I’m sure their current subscribers want it in print, but you have to look at your potential subscribers,” he said. “Since the profession is going toward the Web, in the long run, that’s the smarter move.”
Jeff Jarvis gives his take: Investing in steam, coal, and paper.
Dan Kennedy: “I’m astounded.” Techdirt has more. Nick Lemman’s statement. David Hirschman of Editor & Publisher has the best analysis I saw.
Bruce Nussbaum of Businesss Week calls it “the extraordinary mistake just made by the prestigious Columbia Journalism School.”
John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro:
I can’t imagine responding favorably to a subscription solicitation for a monthly publication as it is designed today. And I doubt many of my colleagues would either.
I wonder about the role one of the leading journalism schools could play in helping us ink-on-paper wretches better understand and grow into the future (and the present, for that matter). This ain’t it.
Terry Teachout: Ink not included. He thinks Lemann is cracked. “I now spend more time reading blogs than magazines. Maybe it’s just me—but I doubt it.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at August 11, 2006 1:23 AM
As a part-time reader of PressThink and other media-oriented blogs, I have to say the volumne of commentary and posting on such topics is intimidating. My job and family prevent me from keeping up with the flurry of discussion, much less participating.
Will my fate be the same in this open-source world of journalism? Only the interested and leisure class will have time to be a smart-mob?
I also wonder whether too much is being hung on the "good editors" mantra. There are undoubtedly a few gifted, passionate, and multi-talented folks out there who could fill this role. I think of the early 19th century rise of the penny press when "great editors" created a new form of journalism. Of course, it only became a new form of journalism because the economics of the penny press worked so well that even "doltish editors" could pull it off.
I'd also be more comfortable with a system that was created with the assumption that people are going to be less than angelic and try to build robust checks into it from the start. My experience is that humans are sinful creatures and large groups of them even more so. Best to control that from the beginning. I think we call it checks and balances in US Government 101. Counting on brilliant editors and smart mobs may not be enough there.
On another front, as a former MSM reporter, the description of how a story gets assigned by the editor/mob sounds to me ominously like the manner in which my editor used to hand me. He would say, with a gleam in his eys, here is the story, here is what it will say. I'm putting it on the front page.
Reporters hate this for many reasons. One of them is that finding out "what a story is" often requires reporting. You only learn what the story is in the process of reporting and writing it. Indeed, as you are writing, you sometimes discover things that you never thought about earlier.
The entire NewAssignment model seems to be buying into a very linear model of the reporting and writing process that just does not seem to match my experience of what journalism entails.
Finally, I second heartily the worry posted previously about the lack of a strong institutional support for things like lawyers. We all hate them until our source is threatening to sue or refusing to turn over documents.
I've been *very* surprised that there hasn't been more discussion on the editor's position.
Lisa Williams and I talked about it recenctly at BlogHer and said to each other that we'd be really interested in meeting the persons who would be interested in coming into a project like NewAssignment and that it might be a great experience to work with, provide assistance to, and learn from them.
The people who take these editor positions, in the beginning, will need to be super-dedicated and willing to make sacrifices (monitarily and in other ways, too). They will certainly be challenged. Which makes me wonder what type of individual is going to be willing to not only make sacrifices but also be challenged?
Still, when I thought about it further, the editor's position reminded me alot of what I know of some protestant ministers and how they work with their congregations (in my early professional career I worked with ministers and other theologians). If one minister, with a couple of good assistants, can channel the "wisdom" of his/her "crowd," be an effective leader and make the right sermon decisions, there's no reason why an editor can't do the same. It's not rocket science inasmuch as it is having a certain kind of character.
And Mitch's ideas about the of a story being judged beforheand, as well as limiting the "truthtelling" of the reporter--I'd like to ask Mitch if he's ever worked as a freelancer. As a freelancer, the "worth" of your stories are judged all the time by gatekeeping editors. Even if you the frelancer has had great input from the wisdom of your crowd, you've got a better than even chance of getting your idea, your truthtelling, your research, shot down by an editor. What's the difference between having it shot down by one editor or shot down by a group? Personally, I don't see any difference. If the idea is all that great, then just take it and pitch it somewhere other than NewAssignment.
Awful news about CJR, too. Sounds like Lemann's manifesting the disdain he demonstrated in the New Yorker piece. If other journo school deans feel as Lemann does, it's no wonder so many journalism profs are feeling hamstrung and in a bit of despair over not being able to move the profession forward in their classrooms.
Most websites that seem like a big phenomenon are a bit like The Wizard of Oz: The site is the great and powerful wizard, but it's an illusion controlled by a little guy (or, in this case, a small number of mostly guys but some women) behind the green curtain.
Taking Jimmy Wales' own numbers that 50% of edits are done by 7/10ths of a percent of the users -- well, how big is that group of people doing the work? Answer: a little over 600 people. Produce. Half. Of. Wikipedia.
So, is that a bad thing? Maybe. But look at it this way: 600 is more than any newsroom that I know of. Sure, most of those people are volunteers and aren't working full time, but 600 is a pretty big number, even if not all of them are working away all the time. Big enough, in any case, to produce Wikipedia. We don't need as much as we think we need to make big changes. Remember: to win a race you don't have to be the fastest person on the planet: you just have to be a tenth of a second faster than who you're competing against.
BTW: this also means that the angle on so many Internet trend stories is dead, flat, wrong: it's not about thousands of millions of faceless people participating on the net: it's about a much smaller, knowable group of committed people.
The contributions of a few committed people make the casual contributions of a lot of people possible. At H2otown, I do most of the work, but because H2otown is there, others can try their hand at doing more than just consuming information.
The other good news is that that number -- 600 -- is about the size of a decent-size urban high school. It's not easy, but it's possible, to create a community with shared values if you have a relatively small and knowable pool of contributors. Ya just need a really good principal.
"It might be true, but in that case, we're diverting that class's energy towards something that helps the public rather than only themselves, and that's not such a bad thing. "
Gosh. How nice of them all to do something for the little people. Reading your subsequent posts, it appears you approve of the knowledgeable class acting for free on behalf of the masses. It's for their own good, after all.
Anyone who works for free is doing something only for himself. It may or may not benefit the public.
I keep reading about this project hoping to find that this project will have a revenue stream other than angels or readers. I haven't seen it. Apologies if I missed it.
If I didn't miss it, and that's the plan, I'm confused. Angels funding a money-losing media project is nothing new. See The New Republic, The New Yorker, National Review, and The Weekly Standard, just for starters.
Expecting users to pay for media has a history of about 10 years. It's a dismal story, too. What evidence do you have that people will actually pony up for stories?
This probably leads back into Lisa Williams' "leisure class working on behalf of the masses" line. Ironic if both the money and the work comes from the same small group of people.
If you're planning on supporting this through advertising, terrific. I'd love to see that mentioned more, and I apologize again for missing that post.
Add me to the list of people wondering what Lemann's smoking.
Jay--I saw that. I just guess I hoped against hope I'd missed something sensible in an earlier post. In fact, I now see this, here:
"It could also accept advertising if the traffic got high enough, with most of the proceeds distributed to editors’ funds, further empowering them."
Which you didn't quote in your response, and I didn't see before, either. I don't know how I missed it--I even searched for the phrase "adv".
Still, advertising seems an afterthought, rather than the one relatively unbiased and reliable source of funding.
"But who said it was [something new]?"
I can't think how I got the idea that your many posts explaining a project called NewAssignment.net was anything new. No doubt all the extensive commentary from other sites were well aware that this was the same old thing, too.
Sarcasm aside, you said the project and its revenue stream was fundamentally new and different. Several times, over and over. I guess I would have expected something like "The funding, of course, is nothing new. Like many political magazines, I'll rely on angel funding if the users don't pony up as much as I hope they will". But then, I could have missed that as well.
However, your ready admission of it brings up another point. All angel-backed media publications have a strong ideological bias, yet you reassure people that the site won't have a bias because you'll have good editors. Presumably, the New Yorker, Weekly Standard, National Review, and America Prospect have good editors. That doesn't prevent ideological bias.
Or, as Delia said:
"In order to get excited about your project, people familiar with previous (somewhat) similar projects that have failed expect you to show them how your project would prevent the same mistakes from happening (because if it would not, it would presumably end-up in failure as the other ones did…). "
Do any straight news organizations have angels?
"I guess you would prefer the leisure class to stick to buying Jaguars? "
Buying a Jag and donating your time to work for free are both luxury spending and therefore equivalent. I expressed no preference for your spending habits. But I do get sarcastic when a dilettante enraptured with her dogooding (dogooding that appears to be funded by her husband, unless you live off your own interest income) gets righteous about working for the "public good", particularly when she says " we're diverting that class's energy towards something that helps the public rather than only themselves".
And to Jay: Lisa is precisely the sort of reason why I'm skeptical about the second half of your funding scheme (the readers). She's entirely correct about the relatively small number of people who become the core users/funders of any volunteer work effort. But like all charity workers, they have very clear ideas of what's acceptable and not acceptable, and just like the angels, they won't fund you with work unless the goal is one they approve of.
In the best case, your venture ends up as a clearing house/marketplace, allowing angels to find reporters for their own pet causes and reporters to come here with ideas, looking for backers. But you won't need an editor in that case--in fact, the site wouldn't need to provide content at all. Once they have funding, reporters would want to sell the end result to the highest bidder.
Cal: The open-sourced assignment part is new, so far as I know. I haven't been able to think of a news organization or citizens journalism experiment that does things quite that way. Thus NewAssignment.Net. However, if someone has an example of one that does I would be happy to withdraw my claim. That's just one part of the model; other parts, I have tried to suggest, have lots of precedents.
Here's how I put it in my original post, explaining the name:
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).
I haven't stressed advertising because until you have relatively major traffic, advertising is not going to provide much. Possibly it will work well enough that advertising pays the bills. If so, great. If click-and-contribute doesn't work, but sponsorship does, great.
By the way, Cal, certainly the most likely outcome of this project is that it will fail. Most new ventures do. I am well aware of that. I do bristle I bit when people tell me they know in advance it will fail. I don't think that's warranted, and in any case it's an anti-experimental attitude.
"All angel-backed media publications have a strong ideological bias, yet you reassure people that the site won't have a bias because you'll have good editors." I didn't say the site will have no bias. I said predictions like “The best we can hope for is competing versions of reality funded by groups that want verification of their views" are unwarranted at this stage. That's not the best we can hope for. Here is what I wrote:
Ideology will rule. Could be. It depends on how the editors operate, and what sort of user they bring to the site. Demagogic editors would draw demagogic crowds. New Assignment would try not to hire them. Editors with a world view who respect the rules of evidence and demand verification would draw a different kind of crowd. New Assignment would look for that kind.
I did say New Assignmemt will have good editors. I didn't say New Assignment will have editors without discernible ideology.
Do any straight news organizations have angels?
An example, cited in my first post, is the Center for Public Integrity, which I called "donor-supported, high quality investigative journalism." The Christian Science Monitor would be another example, though it has struggled lately.
The rest of your response to too ugly to reply to.
Here is my English version of the “Nanoblog” entry (http://www.nanoblog.com/past/2006/07/newassignementnet.htm) -- the initial French blog you mentioned earlier on. I tried to simplify things (especially syntax) without altering the message – it just tends to come across better for English speakers (French seems to take the “scenic route,” while English usually takes the highway – just my personal take on it). I’m sure it’s not perfect but it should give a good idea.
NewAssignment.net is a new project by Jay Rosen, expert in journalism and blogs. He describes it in detail on his blog.
The project builds on the idea of “OpenSource journalism,” meaning media financed by users. But it’s not only about asking for donations, it’s also about having the public participate in the production of information, which remains largely produced by professional journalists.
Even if there have been some precedents, the concept is pretty novel. I think it’s a real alternative for the future of media and for citizen journalism.
Citizen journalism is interesting, but models of production/consumption/financing of information are even more so. Certain entries in my blog are picked-up by Agoravox, one of the major French-language “citizen media” sites. That gives them visibility but that doesn’t change things for me or the information conveyed. Agoravox works well as an article aggregator, mostly for blogs. But how could I do more with my product? Why would I go to the trouble of putting together a long article or producing a reportage at the end of the world to just have it published on Agoravox? Maybe some would do it just for their ego or simply for the pleasure of being read. But when you are a professional journalist there is nothing in it for you and few independent journalists could afford such a luxury.
Jay Rosen proposes a very different model: citizen journalists can submit story ideas and collectively develop them by providing information, donating their time or co financing the production. The professional journalist does his job, pretty much as usual, just that instead of being paid by traditional media, he/she is paid by the people who would like to see such projects done. The “best journalists” are identified through a reputation system.
Although it’s still in the preparation stage, NewAssignment.Net seems exciting to me. At a time when parts of the media are in a crisis and journalists’ salaries seem to be free falling, NewAssignment.Net offers an attractive alternative. Also, like some other projects on the web, NewAssignment.Net would enable internet users to be actors as well as spectators. Finally, it offers an alternative to simple citizen media. Speaking of which, it seems to me that many haven’t understood that the real point of citizen journalism isn’t as much to develop new ways of producing information but to come-up with economic models capable of giving life to new forms of media. Finally and above all, Rosen’s project makes perfect sense: why should media intermediate between the public and the information producers?
P.S. Jay, if you ask me… this is a standing ovation! Let me know if you want me to translate the trackbacks too or maybe something else?
P.P.S. If you plan on discussing French blog entries in here it might be nice to invite those people to come over… I mean… it’s been a while since they posted the stuff and they may have changed their minds or something… (kidding:)… No… but, I think they might like to be present and would probably have interesting things to add.
Lisa--I didn't say your husband funded H20town, but your do-gooding. If you are able to fund your and your daughters' lives out of your work as a property manager, then terrific. I withdraw the remark. If, on the other hand, you bring in a nice little second income but you would make very different professional choices if you were the sole breadwinner, then my remark about your own personal backer stands.
Again, I didn't bring it up out of the blue, but rather in response to your self-congratulatory remarks about doing this "for the public good" and declaring it superior to "buying a Jaguar." You are indulging in a luxury. Enjoy it. Just don't expect everyone else to think your willingness to work "for free" is objectively a public service or superior to other luxuries.
As for the contempt that stay at home moms face, I expressed no contempt for them. But had I done so, here's my response: my gosh, you're right. This society celebrates working mothers exclusively. I'd completely forgotten that only non-working mothers face condemnation. Poor dears. And "blogher", last I checked, was for all women, not just stay at home mothers.
Jay--I know that you think your idea has enough staying power to at least be an interesting failure. I enjoy your blog, but I can't share that opinion.
As for my comments about volunteers, which you seemed to think unduly harsh, I advise you to reconsider. People who give time or money to a volunteer effort have high expectations of value.
So, for example, if you genuinely strive for a value-neutral news site, in which all political and ideological voices are equal, then you are very unlikely to get many ideologically-driven volunteers. They'll go to sites that openly cater to their pov. Instead, you'll get the much smaller number of people who are drawn to the idea of keeping things absolutely evenhanded. The smaller pool radically reduces your odds of picking up much talent--and evenhanded people are boring, by and large (David Broder, anyone?).
That's just one possibility; there are plenty other negative outcomes. But the fact is that volunteers/donors expect payment of some sort, and you'll have to deliver them emotional satisfaction.
On advertising--again, why not use affiliate advertising? You could magnify the effect of your donors, who could make normal purchases while you pick up a piece of the action.
Well… if you let the model go straight into the public domain (so anybody can use it) I think it’s quite likely that *somebody*’ s going to end-up making quite a bit of money at some point… (by taking what you’ve done – the model *plus* all the hard work done within the project -- and figuring-out how to apply it commercially…) Assuming you can make it work, of course… (and I think you *can*… if you just stick with it… -- I don’t think Craig was wrong when he picked your project :).
If I were in your shoes, I’d see if I could get a patent and use licensing fees as a source of funding (at the point where others would want to use the model). That would not only provide some built-in funding but would also allow you to control who gets to use it and how… If you don’t like the ethics of a company (they can’t be trusted), they don’t get a license… To get a license, you could require that companies build-in a gift for the local communities (say, free coverage of major political events). And you could give away licenses to non-profits if you wanted…
I just think that this alternative would give you a lot more to work with than the CC type of thing… (I could be wrong, of course…).
Hiring more journalists:
Again, I’d only hire people when the volunteer community (someone or other or a whole bunch of people) couldn’t get the job done and even then I’d do it with an eye on strengthening the community: say you need a reporter (the volunteer reporters you have don’t have some critical skill needed to cover this particular story…OK, then! You need to go out and find someone who can do the job *and*… also train the interested volunteer reporters -- at a minimum, through job ghosting).
It might be tempting to just get some money, go out and hire the best journalists you can get, let them do their job “unencumbered” and have very high quality work from the start. I don’t think that would be particularly smart… because that doesn’t do anything for the future of the community (the skill set of those who would have liked to volunteer remains inadequate and they will have no chance to do this kind of job next time around).
OK! Here’s some more of that translation (I picked the shortest of the two articles for now; I’ll try to post the other one tomorrow night):
NewAssignment.net -- an experiment in new journalism
Jay Rosen, Journalism Professor at New York University, expert in citizen journalism just started NewAssignment.net (see on his blog, Press Think, in English), a totally innovative journalism project.
Jeff Mignon explains on his Media Café blog:
“It’s a simple idea: doing high quality ‘open-source’ journalism. How would it work?
Anybody will be able to request a reportage, an investigation… on an internet site: NewAssignment.net. Professional journalists, employed by the site, take on these projects. With public participation, they help better define the request.
Journalists and Citizens joining forces
In fact, citizen participation (readers, internet users, information seekers) is essential to Assignment.net. They are the ones who define the questions they want to have answered and also the ones who finance the journalistic investigations.
Ideally, it guarantees a journalism perfectly attuned with the readership and independent of big money or advertising.
The idea of putting journalists and readers together, on equal footing, (using personal knowledge, the readers can correct an investigation while it’s going on) is very timely. It answers the question posed by Benoit-Raphael’s blog motto: “Tomorrow… will we all be journalists?” Well, of course! *Can* be done… at NewAssignment.net.
Except that, as opposed to Agoravox – the ambitious citizen journalism collective project started by Carlo Revelli and Joël de Rosnay -- NewAssignment.net gives the choice of subject to the citizens but delegates the editorial job to paid professionals.
Rather exciting, no?
Obviously, the project poses a number of questions: what level of funding would set the journalistic inquiry in motion? Who proposes the subject of the investigation: NewAssignment or the readers? Would the readers suggest pertinent questions? And finally, always the same question at the end: is the project economically viable?
To finish with something I completely agree with, here is a part of Damien ‘s commentary on the Media Café blog: “[…] I think it’s even cooler to imaging the editing handed over to the clients (which for the first time would not be the advertisers) where the topic of discussion would be what interviews to go get, everyone bringing to the table their knowledge and motivation. What a vote of confidence for the journalists and, above all, what confidence builder to know that you got the community backing you up when you use your press pass to go ask the bothering questions: ‘Prime Minister, I got 350 people paying me to ask you this question…’ Rather exciting, no?”
Nighty night, all…
I looked over my previous article translation…hmmm... definitely not perfect! Missing “s”- es, “which” instead of “who,” infinitive-gerund “mash-up”… oh, well… I hope everybody understood… (if not, just ask – I could redo the parts that seemed to make no sense, if any…)
And here is my translation for the other link:
“Public Journalism” Renaissance by means of the internet?
The is a follow-up to Cyril Fievet’s blog entry on NewAssignment.Net, an experiment in citizen journalism. It’s a reaction to the idea of novelty:” Even if there have been some precedents, the concept is pretty novel and I think it’s a real alternative for the future of media and citizen journalism.” Jay Rosen, the initiator of this project, is a promoter of “Public Journalism,” a movement that would like to reform journalism. The internet, the most revolutionary ways of producing of information seems to be the means to reactivate this initial project.
At the end of the 1990s, the moral crisis with economic repercussions sweeping US media has engendered a renewed attempt to local journalism involving “the public” (those traditionally regarded as the listeners) in the process of information production. The dream of “Public Journalism” is to contribute to social debate by redefining the legitimate speakers and also to question the higher status of experts and elected officials when it comes to selecting the topics of debate.
Rosen defines Public Journalism as a set of principles, a professional reality and a movement.
Here are the key four principles:
-- a priori, the readers of printed media are active citizens
-- the press can help the citizenry address public problems
-- the media should do more to improve the quality and utility of public debate
-- the press plays a crucial role in public life
According to Rosen, the “function” of media is to contribute to a better “rendition” of democracy and to profoundly revise fundamental journalistic practice. Politically, this movement is a kind of a continuation of the American “progressivism” from the end of the 19th century, resisting partisan politics take over. It expresses the exasperation of journalists over the political figures’ ability to control media, the decrease in public debate who resembles a “board game” between candidates. It also reacts to the public’s malcontent with the written press by providing an alternative to the competition among audiovisual channels. “Public Journalism” aims to give rise to an “opinion agenda” regarding issue hierarchy and choice of solutions to be interpreted by the citizens. It’s rooted in a procedural vision of democracy where the confrontation of opinions gives rise to deliberation and choice, the journalist becoming the facilitator not caught-up in the exchanges.
Thierry Watine (Le modèle du « journalisme public ») analyses public journalism in issue no 35 of Hermes (“The Journalists, do they still have power?”). Here is a summary of his article: “In spite of reservations of a part of the profession since the apparition in the united States at the end of the 1990s, public journalism experiences today a spectacular blossoming. A large study done in July 2001 involving about 360 American newspapers shows that two in three editors have knowledge of the principles of the new paradigm and almost half of them regularly apply the main techniques (serious talks, focus groups, citizen forums, polls, new feedback procedures etc).
According to Jay Rosen, founder of this “rethinking approach” to the profession, public journalists must contribute more to the quality of democratic life, notably by renewing the confidence bond and thus having real dialogue with the citizens. Aside from the relevance of specific facts to current events, these citizens are expecting concrete solutions to big societal dysfunctions and to certain personal problems concerning their daily lives. In the absence of such solutions, most of these citizens continue to turn away from traditional media.”
However, let’s not forget that although it consecrates media’s position as central to democratic play, “Public Journalism” is a movement largely motivated by economic issues. The issue Cyril Fievet points-out is and has always been fundamental: ‘coming-up with new economic models, capable of giving life to [forms of] media.” The other side of this issue has to do with the possible use of the public (through opinion polls, for example – assuming that public opinion exists and is not just an artifact) and serves journalistic ends more than those of citizens. Is underestimating the reality of the social divide and doing journalism born of political demands of citizens not the danger of this type of journalism? As a consequence, this movement, instead of clarifying the social debate, doesn’t it open the door to creating a confusion between journalism and the representative function [of government]? It seems to me that lack of political autonomy (that becomes all relative) during the process of public action is a necessary evil when compared with the illusion of transparency that the proposed change can entail.