August 15, 2006
The Era of Networked Journalism Begins
Today marks a key moment in the evolution of the Web as a reporting medium. The first left-right-center coalition of bloggers, activists, non-profits, citizens and journalists to investigate a story of national import: Congressional earmarks and those who sponsor and benefit from them.
This is networked journalism (“professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story”) beginning to come of age, and it’s very much in the spirit in my initiative NewAssignment.Net.
The partners in the Exposing Earmarks Project are the Sunlight Foundation, Citizens Against Government Waste, Porkbusters, and the Examiner Newspapers, along with Club for Growth, Human Events Online, The Heritage Foundation, Tapscott’s Copy Desk— and you, should you choose to be involved.
An editorial in the Examiner explains:
Something new is happening today as The Examiner invites readers to help uncover which members of Congress sponsored the 1,867 secret spending earmarks worth more than $500 million in the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriation bill now before Congress.
These earmarks average more than $268,000 each. To our knowledge, The Examiner is the first-ever daily newspaper to join with readers, citizen activists from across the political spectrum and bloggers in this manner to uncover the facts behind government spending.
Check out Sunlights’s Google Map (“Show me the money…”). Here’s Porkbusters’ resource page. And The Examiner’s database, state-by-state. Instapundit has more.
The pro-am part builds on the method Josh Marshall used when he tried to get Republican House members to own up to their closed-door vote changing House ethics rules in the case of then Majority Leader Tom Delay (I discussed it here). Marshall asked his readers who lived in districts with Republican Congressmen to call their Representatives and ask how they voted on the Delay rules, then e-mail the results to Josh, who would collate and distribute them.
Again from the Examiner:
Check out the earmarks for your state and then call your congressman and ask if he or she sponsored any of your state’s earmarks. If the answer is yes, ask why the congressman’s name isn’t on the earmark. If you recognize the institution designated to receive the earmarked tax dollars, call them and ask them what they intend to do with your money.
Then email us at email@example.com with the subject line “Earmarks” and tell us what you found out. The Examiner will be asking more questions about who got the earmarks and why, so your information could be very important. You will be part of an army of citizen journalists determined to shine some much-needed light on spending decisions made behind closed doors by powerful Members of Congress.
Why is this project a significant marker in Web journalism?
- It’s trying to bring new facts to light: “which members of Congress sponsored the 1,867 secret spending earmarks worth more than $500 million in the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriation bill now before Congress.” That information is a secret right now.
- It’s the work of a coalition that crosses partisan lines— from Zephyr Teachout to Glenn Reynolds, if you will.
- It’s about a fundamental matter of accountability in elected government: will members of Congress own up to their concealed actions?
- The story is still in motion. As The Examiner said, “Congress may still modify the bill, approve it as is or reject it.” This is journalism in time to make a difference. As Dan Gillmor notes, “It could work to shame Congress people into at least telling the truth about their special favors.”
- It enlists Net users across the country in the collecting and sharing of information of vital public importance.
- Journalists in Washington do what they can do best (“Examiner reporters will be asking questions on Capitol Hill about many of these earmarks in coming days”) citizen-reporters do what they do best— contacting their Representatives as concerned constituents demanding answers.
- It develops a pool of common data that different partners can interpret and talk about in their separate ways. Therefore they don’t have to see eye-to-eye on everything, just the importance of bringing these facts to light.
- It has a clearly measurable goal by which to discern progress: More than 1,800 appropriations, the authors of which are unidentified. The more who are identified the more successful the project.
- It shows that in newspaper journalism Web innovations are more likely to come from outside the established players— in this case billionaire Philip Anschutz’s Examiner chain (See Jack Shafer on Anschutz and innovation.)
- It couldn’t be done without the Net.
I’m excited to see if this works. Pro-am journalism isn’t an abstraction any more. It’s happening today. But how did it come together? I asked Zephyr Teachout, National Director of the Sunlight Foundation, to answer some basic questions about that. Here’s our Q and A:
Why did the project begin with the bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments?
Zephyr Teachout: I think this began because there was a story in The Hill about how members were eager to pass this appropriations bill in order to help their reelection campaigns. Also, there was time. The minimum wage provision was inserted at the last minute, making it impossible for the bill to be passed quickly, creating an opportunity to actually review the proposed earmarks and create a database.
Why did Sunlight choose to partner with these organizations, most of which, as you know, would be seen as conservative leaning or hard right?
Zephyr Teachout: All the groups got involved over Porkbusters initially. We don’t necessarily agree, nor do we have to, about what happens when you get greater transparency. The point is that we do agree about greater transparency. The fact that a liberal like David Weinberger, a leading Democratic figure like Josh Marshall, and a Heritage Foundation alum can all swarm around this project says that this is not an ideological effort.
Did you ask any liberal good-government groups if they would join?
Zephyr Teachout: It was somewhat accidental how all this came together. There wasn’t any attempt to exclude or include anybody — we all had a shared interest and we wanted to get the project out in the open as soon as possible.
Did you ask any other news organizations, beyond the Examiner, if they wanted to be a part of this?
Zephyr Teachout: I guess its the same answer as above — I think the Examiner got involved because Mark Tapscott was on the call. I can’t underscore enough that this is a project we’re all really excited about, but came together out of more serendipity than planning.
This is a first run — we hope to be involved in making a similar project even better for the next appropriations bill!
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
NewAssignment.Net now has its own site, a Wordpress blog set up by Jake Jarvis, son of the famous blogger and webmaster for Buzzmachine. Thanks, Jake!
Jeff Jarvis, a key adviser to New Assignment, writes his Guardian column (Aug. 21) on networked jouralism: The bloggers and journalists are comrades-at-keyboards.
Aug. 18: Some of the guys at ePluribus Media (“citizen journalism, for the people, by the people”) are having problems with NewAssignment.Net. It’s too top down and it won’t work, they say. Or they say, “Rosen’s model calls for the professionals (both reporters and editors) to take over each assignment at some point in the process. This, to ‘citizen journalists,’ is completely unacceptable.”
I understand that. A “takeover” is not what I had in mind, but I recognize the point of principle. My suggestion is that we need all three types:
- Citizen journalism, roll your own, no pros.
- Hybrid forms like NewAssignment.Net, which seek advantages in a mixed model. (Actual mix to be determined by what works in practice.)
- And professional operations, in which citizens can talk back and interact but the pros run the show.
I’ll have more to say in reply to this criticism later, but I am guessing that my friends at ePluribus Media, being themselves pluralists, (and pragmatists…) would agree that these models have strengths and weaknesses. They express different truths about media, reporting, and the use of the Web for public interest.
In New Assignment (one project in a busy landscape) I’m trying out the mixed model— networked journalism. You guys are doing citizen journalism in its more original form. The Wall Street Journal is doing professional journalism in its classic form. They differ by who is included and where sovereignty lies. All need to make wise use of the Web. All need to treat users as citizens, and engage respectfully with people or the people won’t come back.
- wanderindiana from ePluribus corrects me. He didn’t say NewAssignment won’t work, but that it is doomed to “limited success.” I stand corrected, shouldn’t have made that mistake.
(Limited because “in your plan, the common folk aren’t getting a seat at the table - they are carrying water to you. Yet these are the people upon which the plan depends.”)
More here and another post here.
Aug. 17: I e-mailed Mark Tapscott, Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Examiner, for an update on what kind of response the paper has gotten to its editorial inviting participation in the Earmarks project. I received this reply:
We’ve received a dozen emails in response to our launch editorial, with half being reports on what they were told by their congressmen and the others being thank yous/other suggestions. Several look like promising leads, but we will of course verify independently any information we receive from readers. I feel disappointed but am not sure that’s actually the most appropriate way to look at the first couple of days.
It’s August and lots of people are on vacation, so everybody’s traffic numbers are down, plus Congress is on recess, so public and MSM attention are less focused on events here than would otherwise be the case. There was a good bit of discussion before this week among the coalition members about when to release the database. Some of us argued that we should wait till September when Congress returned, while others, notably Sunlight, wanted to move now while Members are back home in their districts and thus presumably easier to reach. Bottomline - I think it’s too early to tell whether the response is encouraging, discouraging, merely incomplete or the result of poor timing.
The Examiner will be reporting from time to time, either in editorials or news articles that identify sponsoring Members and/or otherwise advance information about receipients and their relationships to the sponsor. We will also update the database on Examiner.com to reflect the sponsor identities as they are confirmed.
I think that qualifies as a slow start.
Scott Rosenberg of Salon in the comments:
Why am I not surprised that the conservative Anschutz papers are looking at the earmarks in a social services appropriations bill? I’m sure there’s plenty to find there, it’s not a worthless effort, but… the unfolding details of the Cunningham saga, as in the eye-opening confessions of Brent Wilkes in the Times, suggest that the most outrageous earmarking (a k a “bribery”) is happening in the military appropriations area. Let’s see Anschutz go after that.
Mitch Ratcliffe (see my earlier post on his criticisms of NewAssignment.Net) adds: “I agree that this is a bracing example of what can be done, but Scott’s point underscores the concern I’ve raised about how funders drive the agenda. Ad hoc examples of networked or civic journalism are relatively easy to find, but making a system of journalism work without this kind of influence over what gets covered and when, that’s hard.”
Zephyr Teachout of the Sunlight Foundation replies:
This is not the last bill, but the first — which is an important point. This is the first draft of a process we want to make routine: citizen engagement in legislative review. And at Sunlight we’d like to make it better next time, so any advice is useful. How can we make this better?
This is, actually Scott, a nonpartisan project, brought together as a very very loose coalition that made this possible will probably change over time, though as with earmarks its always important to look at who is behind what. Though the people involved may have different motives, there seems to be a shared belief that we need to know where appropriations come from, and whether there are conflicts of interest in the process. At Sunlight, that’s our core goal — getting out from behind the veil of secrecy.
Its quite possible that most of the items in the bill are benign, but the problem is that there’s no review and no accountability.
Susie Madrak replies to that at Suburban Guerilla:
We have a war in Iraq that’s an outright boondoggle, with barely-concealed fraud and war profiteering on all fronts. We also have a poor economy, stagnant wages, massive underemployment and an administration which declines to enforce the few pro-labor laws somehow left on the books - and this “non-partisan” group decides their first big splashy project should be….
Congressional funding of labor and social services.
Bill Allison of Sunlight on some of the early returns. More here and here.
Ellen Miller, Executive Director of Sunlight, says at the Foundation’s site that some have questioned: why do this with a Labor and Health and Human Services bill and not a defense appropriations bill?
The answer is quite simple — we started with the opportunity that presented itself, believing strongly that the principle of openness and accountability in earmarks is universal. That said, we recognize that this isn’t yet a truly across-the-political-spectrum coalition and we want to make sure that it grows into that. No doubt, if someone hands us the earmark list in the next defense bill, that may attract instant interest and energy from watchdog groups on the left, which would be great. We would hope that folks on the right side of the spectrum would be just as interested in digging into those earmarks too! A larger, and truly politically diverse coalition banding together, encouraging citizens to demand accountability to expose the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on in Congress — until we can pressure Congress to do be more open on their own — could truly be revolutionary.
(Aug. 18) Mark Tapscott replies to this post and its comment thread: Was Earmarks Project a Conservative Conspiracy to Undermine Social Services Spending?
John Bracken of MacArthur Foundation (I have a grant from them) checked out the earmarks going to Chicago and Philly:
Chicago’s cut of the federal pie seems pretty legit: funding for hospitals, housing assistance for homeless families, and education. The map for Philly lists a couple of projects that raise questions, but overall, I can’t complain about well regarded workforce training programs and health care. So, pork pickings are slim in two of the cities with with worst reputations for waste. Coincidence– or is there less pork than was feared?
National Journal’s Blogometer:
Perhaps it’s due to the GOP’s recent electoral success, but the right side of the ‘sphere continues to focus less on campaigns and elections and more on other (still political) projects. 8/16 is yet another example of the trend as a broad coalition of conservative bloggers and other established institutions join forces to promote an anti-pork spending project that, since the GOP’s in power, ought to bring embarrassment to GOP lawmakers in the midst of a tough cycle. With their current belief in partisanship at all costs (see CT SEN), would lefty bloggers ever put forward such an effort that had the potential to hurt so many Dems?
Instapundit has more on Blogometer’s observation.
Craig Newmark: “This has significance beyond exposing a little corruption, it’s a next step in a process where professional and citizen journalists work together to expose bad guys.”
Bill Hobbs is doing his part: “Already, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s press rep has responded and promised to get me the information tomorrow. Let’s hope he does. This is not a partisan project - and it isn’t really about spending so much as it is about accountability.”
Professional debunker Nicholas Carr debunks me (though not viciously) in The Great Unread. It’s elegant.
Chris Anderson, who’s in the PhD program at Columbia J-School, writes of the new focus on “expertise” in that school’s new two-year Master’s program:
So, is all this focus on a “new expertise” inherently conservative? Not necessarily, although, at first blush, it certainly is an attempt by a threatened profession to maintain its knowledge-boundary, which has conservative connotations. But as NewAssignment.net and other “networked” journalism projects have shown us, its possible to combine the expertise of the individual and the expertise of the group, at least in theory. The real question, in my mind, is how Columbia’s new MA students are being taught to regard “the expertise of the network.” Are they being taught that they, the “real experts” are a special caste, or, rather, are they learning that there exists such a thing as networked knowledge? These are empirical questions, and I hope to investigate some of them in the years ahead.
I’m chuckling because I’m pretty sure I know the answers to those questions, but I will await Anderson’s review. My suggestion to him is to look at the work of Malcolm Gladwell, and ask: what is he an expert in?
Posted by Jay Rosen at August 15, 2006 1:17 PM
Jeez, that National Journal blurb has more crap in a single paragraph than I've seen all year.
"...the right side of the 'sphere continues to focus less on campaigns and elections..."
On what do they base that? The GOP has been escalating their campaign activities all over the country. With special elections in Ohio and California, the PA senatorial primary (featuring the Club For Growth's president, Pat Toomey), the races of Santorum, Chaffey, Allen, and record-breaking fundraising, hardly suggests less focus.
"...a broad coalition of conservative bloggers and other established institutions join forces to promote an anti-pork spending project..."
A broad coalition? If they are all conservative bloggers (of which I only see one, btw) and primarily right-wing institutions, how can they call that broad?
"...an anti-pork spending project that...ought to bring embarrassment to GOP lawmakers..."
Never mind that hard right Repubs like Mike Pence (Human Events 2005 Man of the Year) and John McCain have been pushing the anti-pork agenda for years. It didn't start in this election cycle.
"With their current belief in partisanship at all costs (see CT SEN)..."
This nonesense is directed at Democrats? How is a primary challenge of an 18 year incumbent an example of partisanship? And to extend this non-example to encompass a broader "current belief", again without basis, is just absurd.
"...would lefty bloggers ever put forward such an effort that had the potential to hurt so many Dems?"
Actually that's something lefties do all too well, and far too often.
Sure, a project that uncovers legislative pork is likely to reflect poorly on the party in power. But the far right has never been shy on this subject. In fact, they believe that the pork enablers in their party are the reason for their current polling woes. And as was said earlier, by focusing on the Labor bill, they will likely snare more Dems in their trap.
I'm all for greater transparency in legislation and am anxious to see projects develop that produce it. But I really don't see how the National Review's statement brings anything but confusion to this discussion.
I appreciate that, Aaron. And I am mostly in agreement with you.
I don't think token participation has even the slightest chance of working in something like this. People will sense it instantly, and they won't want to be involved.
But look, most everything in how NewAssignment will actually operate isn't even close to being settled yet. It's just a concept at this point. I have drawn in only the outlines. I ask for a little patience. Or at least hold your fire until you see how we do things.
Just to be clear, I didn't use the term "citizen journalism" in my introduction to NewAssignment. To me this project is not a case of that. I said it was a case of networked journalism, "professionals and amateurs working together."
I understand why people bristle at the notion of the pros "taking over" something that is theirs. I also understand why professional journalists bristle at the notion that something that was theirs can be done by others.
Here are some passages I would like to underline for you, simply as a reminder that I meant them quite as seriously as some other passages that might have set of some alarms.
* "NewAssignment.Net doesn’t exist yet. I’m starting with the idea."
* "Is this about unleashing open source journalism, or hiring reporters to get the story? Rather than proclaim one over the other, give us the advantages of both."
* "My scheme isn’t advanced enough yet to go live. It’s in the development stage, quite unfinished. I’m hoping to improve it by a lot."
* "If I can improve it, get the funding, find people who know how to operate in the more open style, NewAssignment.Net would be a case of journalism without the media."
* "A more likely payoff is that, properly configured, journalists and volunteer networks of users can do some things better together than either could alone."
* "There can’t be one best way in the new political economy of newsgathering. We’re better off with many people trying many schemes, including some that sound crazy."
* "The design assumes no antagonism at all between 'citizen' users and 'professional' journalists. The assumption is we need both, and ways for them to work in tandem."
* "So if a correspondent builds up a track record, and gets assignments based on it, where does that leave the newcomer who has no record yet? Editors, again. They give new people a try in various ways, maybe as second correspondent on a two-person team. It’s partly a talent development job— not unlike what magazine editors commonly do now. Since NewAssignment specializes in collaboration, there are ways for newcomers to start slowly and get the hang of it. Just as new bloggers have emerged from comment threads, new journalists will probably emerge from the user base. Editors can hire anyone they want. If they think you can do the job, you may get the assignment."
* "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." (From my third explanation.)
Maybe you do. And if you do, then you should go ahead and keep developing it, and hopefully it will shine. I have no expectations whatsoever that those who are sold on the "no pros" style will want to invest time and energy in NewAssignment. I rather think they wouldn't, but then what's wrong with that?
You do your thing, I will do mine. I'm sure the sites will learn from each other.
I do want to clarify one thing: What I mean by "pros" or "professional" journalists (and I want you to ponder this...) is simply smart dedicated and skilled people who are getting paid, and so they can devote themselves more fully to the work. (Which isn't to say others cannot be dedicated to the work.) That's it. Having experience will help but it won't be required or enough.
What I don't mean by "professional" is board certified (of course there is no such board for journalism because it would violate the First Amendment) or people have jumped through this or that imaginary hoop, or those who have "Northwestern U. approved me" stamped on their foreheads. The most important qualification for a New Assignment editor or reporter will be the ability to work in the open style.
Thanks, again, Aaron.
Just read that discussion over at the ilx thread that you gave link to. Though the response to Ronan's query, and hence to the NADN, is skeptical at best, it is nothing out of the ordinary. Somewhere along the way in this long discussion thread, the basic purpose of NADN got all cluttered, without anybody's fault. I like that you parlayed the NewAssignment.net idea ahead of its materialization but I am not sure if you are getting anything concrete, anything usable, from this discussion.
If my own limited experience is of any relevance here, I believe until that next concrete step is taken and announced (by you I guess), it is harder to add anything more substantive.
Bear with me on this rough cut analogy: imagine you are living in a world before the Monalisa painting existed. Now you just announced to people of your plans for painting Monalisa, how it would look like, and what kind of creative process you are going to employ to bring this masterpiece to existence, how wonderful it'd be in the eyes of the beholders and how the world for them is going to be different forever. People would still, trust me, question the validity of your proposition, the relevance of such a painting, and the very need for such a painting. They would not be wrong, because they haven't seen Monalisa painting yet. And all they need is just a glimpse and all these questions seem suddenly resolved.
Anyway, my point is, first, it helps to keep the focus front and center: What problem are you trying to solve with NADN? Second: all you need is a demonstration of the first "case." You don't need the buy-in of the entire world, you just need one, that first success. Then the world changes, new questions will be asked and you rinse and repeat:-)
I'd say keep on trucking and you may like what you read here, a narrative of a silicon valley guy's experience, that may resonate with your current experience.
No problem… Well, I don’t want to stress you out even more than you probably are :)… but I believe that you will win/lose the citizens journalists/volunteers on the concrete model you present after Labor Day. I’d make it as generous possible AND *mean* it… (it *needs* to be bottom-up).
And it doesn’t need to be something that can be implemented right away: I think people would understand that it might take some time to get there – they just need to know that the train they would be getting on is going in the right direction... So… no, there will be no community to speak of come Labor Day (your model is just going to have a place holder for it).
I think the relevant community (from the model’s point of view) is made-up of those who would do the work, use the site, provide funding or a combination of those. Ultimately, it *is* a community of belief (those who believe that worthy stories that mainstream media doesn’t cover *should* be covered) – I just think that from the *practical* point of view it makes a lot of sense to organize it geographically (the way Craigslist is).
I’d start with NY, of course, and make that geographic community work. I’d first see if I could get enough volunteers (professional or amateurs) to do one (not terribly hard to cover) story – something they, as a community, *want* to do. If people wouldn’t be rushing…I’d see if I could talk the NYU journalism students into participating (at least doing one easy project and see how it turns-out). And build-up from there. At the point where the community would want to pursue a “complicated story” and couldn’t (because they would be missing some critical skill), I’d go out and hire someone who could do the job *and* teach them.
If I remember right, Jimmy Wales observed that there was a certain size of a Wikipedia community where serious problems start happening (intimate social interaction usually keeps problems under control as long as the size of the community is small). You will probably find-out that something similar would happen with your communities. It’s hard to tell when that will happen, but you’ll probably know it when you see it…
At that point, I’d just split the community in half (for the same geographic area) – maybe have a politics branch and an economics branch (if that would suit them well). Of course, you would need to present this to the community and have their *approval*. The two new communities could of course collaborate if they wished but they would be two separate units.
Once NY would take off, I’d set my sights on Washington, DC… I think you see where I’m going :)….
P.S. If you’d like my opinion once you get the concrete thing together, feel free to email.