Story location:

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:

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 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
demonstration of—heh—Williams’Law:

“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… 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