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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 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?

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:

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.

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 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 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