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August 27, 2006

Exploding By-Lines: Update on NewAssignment.Net

There's now a placeholder site. Design Observer joins in. The Economist weighs in. "Creating capacity does not create activity." I have an assignment for someone who wants to help out. And I need ideas for a test run.

1. There’s now a NewAssignment.Net site, a simple Wordpress blog. This is a temporary space while we get our act together. Jake Jarvis, son of Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis, donated the set-up work. (Thanks, Jake.) Jeff is a key adviser to NewAssignment.Net.

2. The Exposing Earmarks project (see my Aug. 15 post about it) continues to operate as a case study in networked journalism. This was the assignment, as explained in 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.

Pretty simple system. A user at Josh Marshall’s TPM Cafe, mrs panstreppon, took up the challenge and found that $1,175,000 requested for the Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation would go to a non-profit created by a Washington healthcare lobbyist, S. J. “Bud” Grant, in 1999.

Grant earns close to $400,000 annually overseeing an operation with less than $5 million in revenue, mrs panstreppon found. That’s not the great tradition of American philanthropy for which tax exemptions are given. She also explained at the Sunlight Foundation’s site how she discovered this.

Those are two different donations: verifiable facts about the Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation, and her tips for others: Taking Earmark Research To The Next Level.

How do we put a value on those donations and represent them? And what if your member profile at NewAssignment.Net listed all the donations you’ve made to getting stories done— the money you gave, the knowledge you provided (and to what stories) the tutorials you wrote for others…

3. Design Observer is probably the leading design blog out there. It was co-founded by William Drentell, who designed the look and logo of PressThink in 2003. He recently wrote…

Design Observer, inspired by Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.Net, is looking for a design story of national or international importance where our network of readers can provide sources, data, information, journalism. Send ideas to william @

I’ll let you know if they come up with something. In the meantime, here’s a design challenge for Drentell and his gang. One of the keys to whether networked jouralism works is going to be ease of use: making it easy to participate, to donate knowledge, and to see how your piece fits into a larger picture. When mrs panstreppon came forward with her facts about the Glaucoma Caucus Foundation it would have been better for the project if she could easily see how many earmarks in her area remained unidentified, and how many recipients of Federal money have yet to be checked out.

4. The Economist wrote about NewAssignment.Net in its cover package on the future of newspapers. (“Newspapers are making progress with the internet, but most are still too timid, defensive or high-minded.”) It’s only a matter of time before some papers start shutting down, the magazine argued.

“The usefulness of the press goes much wider than investigating abuses or even spreading general news; it lies in holding governments to account— trying them in the court of public opinion,” said a companion essay. “The internet has expanded this court.”

For hard-news reporting—as opposed to comment—the results of net journalism have admittedly been limited. Most bloggers operate from their armchairs, not the frontline, and citizen journalists tend to stick to local matters. But it is still early days. New online models will spring up as papers retreat. One non-profit group, NewAssignment.Net, plans to combine the work of amateurs and professionals to produce investigative stories on the internet. Aptly, $10,000 of cash for the project has come from Craig Newmark, of Craigslist, a group of free classified-advertisement websites that has probably done more than anything to destroy newspapers’ income.

In future, argues Carnegie, some high-quality journalism will also be backed by non-profit organisations. Already, a few respected news organisations sustain themselves that way—including the Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. An elite group of serious newspapers available everywhere online, independent journalism backed by charities, thousands of fired-up bloggers and well-informed citizen journalists: there is every sign that Arthur Miller’s national conversation will be louder than ever.

The Carnegie report on non-profit approaches is here: “When newsgathering isn’t tied into company profits, does journalism—and the public—benefit?” Non-profit makes sense for NewAssignment for a multitude of reasons, the most important of which was stated by Dan Gillmor: “It bears repeating that a business model can’t say, “You do all the work and we’ll take all the money, thank you very much.’”

5. The Washington Post reported on Robert Greenwald’s success in raising money over the Net for his documentary on war profiteering in Iraq. He’s a political filmmaker and the director of “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” and “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” Greenwald “tapped a new funding source: the audience,” the Post wrote. The article tells the story of Jim Gilliam, 28, who persuaded Greenwald to give it a try.

The usual bankers of political documentaries — left-leaning organizations and high-roller liberal donors — weren’t rushing to write Greenwald any checks. Greenwald doesn’t know why. “Maybe I’m a lousy fundraiser,” he says.

Then Gilliam had his idea. Robert, why not go on the Internet and just ask for the money? “I thought he was crazy,” Greenwald says. “I thought this would never work.”

But it did work. Gilliam sent out a mass of e-mails to thousands of people who had bought DVDs of Greenwald’s films or expressed interest in his work. They raised $267,892 in 10 days. “It is my dream to pull this off,” Gilliam told the Post. “To figure out how to fund movies out of the control of corporations. Our goal is to fund and distribute any movie we want to make completely outside of the system.” That’s what I meant when I said that if NewAssignment.Net worked it would be a case of “journalism without the media.”

From the pitch Gilliam used in his e-mails:

To start shooting, we need money. Overall, the film will cost $750,000. We can expect about $450,000 to be offset by DVD sales, selling foreign rights, and an advance from our retail store distributor, but we still need $300,000. A generous donor just stepped up and will contribute $100,000 if we can match it with $200,000 from someone else. That someone else is you! 4000 people giving $50 each. We’ll put everyone’s name in the credits.”

There’s another design challenge for NewAssignment.Net: putting everyone’s name in the credits. The site will have to explode the whole notion of a by-line.

6. Solana Larsen, an editor for the London-based “Now, I agree Jay Rosen’s (NYU) website is a really good idea. But shouldn’t we wait and see what they come up with before everybody starts raving about it. There is nothing on the site yet!”

I agree completely, Solana. Thanks for saying that. Keeping expectations in line with reality is going to be extremely important for this project. For starters, I need to state clearly—and keep saying it—that NewAssignment.Net is not a citizen journalism site, and it does not propose to put users in charge in some ultimate sense. It’s a pro-am site that puts editors in charge. Editors, in turn, have to be open (well, very open) to users and the vital contributions they make.

7. So will it work? My attitude is not all that different from Mathew Ingram’s (he writes geekwatch for The Globe and Mail): “As an old-media hack who thinks there is a whole lot that could be improved about the way that journalism works — including opening it up to just about any blogger or vlogger who feels like taking a crack at it — Jay’s idea has everything going for it. Except that I’m not sure it’s going to work. Other than that it’s a great idea.”

I’m not sure either. I’ll let you know when that feeling changes.

Ingram asks why I think New Assignment will get any more traction than Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere. Excellent question, one that many have asked me. One answer is that I have Dan’s lessons learned post, a masterful self-examination. He didn’t have that when he started. (See Ingram’s failure is educational. Also Tim Porter: making new mistakes.)

This part in particular seems crucial. Dan writes: “Citizen journalists need and deserve active collaboration and assistance. They want some direction and a framework, including a clear understanding of what the site’s purpose is and what tasks are required. (I didn’t do nearly a good enough job in this area.)”

Hmmm. Suppose you came to NewAssignment.Net and actually got an assignment? (“Check out the earmarks for your state and then call your congressman…” is a pretty clear assignment. “Taking Earmark Research To The Next Level” is pretty good assistance.) The other answer I have for Mathew Ingram is PressThink’s number one law of citizen journalism: Creating Net capacity (even if it’s amazing and innovative) does not create civic activity. A site that does wonderful things isn’t a reason to do wonderful things with it. NewAssignment.Net “knows” this. It is trying to learn the lessons of that law.

8. Anyone want to help out with the launch of NewAssignment.Net? Go to this site, and carefully examine it— how it works, whether it works, what does and doesn’t work, and why… Be sure to look at what’s been written and said about it, too. Then write a post capturing the key lessons for NewAssignment.Net. Publish it at your blog—like mrs panstreppon did—and I will link to it, mentioning your name and giving thanks. Or put it in the comments here, or send it to me. (If you’re taking this on do let me know.)

9. I need PressThink readers to help me out by thinking about stories that would be right for a New Assignment test run later this fall. By “right” for a NewAssignment.Net test I mean something that:

It’s the second bullet, the lends itself to “distributed reporting” part that seems to be the trickiest. Many readers of my blog and a good number who wrote to me after the first wave of publicity for New Assignment suggested stories that were under-covered and possibly newsworthy, but had no distributed reporting dimension to them at all.

In my introduction I used the example of prescription drug pricing, which was originally Gillmor’s idea. A network of users tells us what a critically important drug costs all over the U.S. (or the world for that matter.) Another suggestion I got (from Amy Gahran) was “having thousands of eyes on the chemical-transport-by-rail safety issue, a huge hole in the whole homeland security thing.” Not bad.

What are your ideas for a good test story?

10. Post-script: Danny Glover of National Journal’s Beltway Blogroll suggests an assignment in the comments. “It has been a decade since the enactment of the welfare reform law. Very little has been written about the impact of the law, especially not within given communities. It would be a great project for citizen journalists to dig into and cover region by region.”

That’s one we’ll take under advisement. Danny: can you phrase it as a question? The one the networks would be trying to answer.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

The blog swarm works: The ‘Secret Holder’ Is Sen. Ted Stevens. Paul Kiel of TPM Muckraker has more.

In case it matters, I’ll be in San Francisco Sep. 14-15 for meetings about NewAssignment.Net. And I will speaking at the News & Record in Greensboro, NC Oct. 4 at 4:30.

The Blog Reader did a profile of PressThink. It’s by Alex Dziadosz. Begins: “Nothing about Jay Rosen’s blog PressThink is simple.” I’ll take it!

I also recommend the Blog Reader’s profile on Paul Graham. And Graham’s essay: The Power of the Marginal. Here’s an interview with Graham.

David Weinberger reports on a foo-camp session on the future of news where NewAssignment.Net came up.

“I found today. First glance, First thought - how is this different from wikinews?” The rest.

Wired News asks readers to help edit an article:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to do the job of a Wired News editor and whip it into shape. Don’t change the quotes, but feel free to reorganize it, make cuts, smooth the prose or add links — whatever it takes to make it a lively, engaging news piece.

Mathew Ingram says it won’t work.

For a solid preview of the newsroom reactionary’s response to NewAssignment.Net see this post by Patrick Ross at the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog. (Ross says he’s an ex-journalist and a defender of Old Media.) “I’d like to place a bet here - the first story that is pitched and funded at NewAssignment will be an expose on George W. Bush, with the imaginative premise that his ties to the oil industry led us into Iraq. That will trigger the pitching and funding of a second story, one that seeks to document Hillary Clinton as a politician to the left of Vladimir Lenin.”

Andrew Cline: NewAssignment “should tell a different story about politics: the story of citizens’ experience with policy and governance more than the story of politicians’ political wrangling.”

Andy Carvin has a new job, “senior product manager for online communities” for NPR in Washington. “I’ll be spending a lot of time analyzing the Web 2.0 universe, with particular interest towards things like online social networks, citizen journalism and networked journalism. I can’t predict where all of this will lead, but I’m very excited that NPR has asked me to help them blaze new trails with them.” He told me he’s excited about NewAssignment.Net and will be studying it carefully. So maybe down the road there could be collaborations with NPR online, which would be cool.

Len Witt says… Jeff Jarvis: Don’t kill off citizen journalism!

Kitchen Democracy looks interesting: simple and effective. The husband-and-wife founders e-mailed me when they found out about NewAssignment. The idea is to make it possible to participate in the decisions at city hall when you can’t make the meetings. They have an excellent FAQ page. Here’s an article from the Berkeley Daily Planet. The key to it, I think, will be officeholders. If they start listening, then the site has power. Bears watching.

Ellen Foley, an editor at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, comments at Buzzmachine on the Economist’s “Who killed the Newspaper?” cover story:

It’s 6 p.m. Friday after a long week of threatened tornadoes and hail the size of grapefruit. I am surprised that of all of you, I, an editor at a medium-sized paper with visions of cost cuts dancing in my head, is the upbeat one. I do have to say that when you work in a lively newsroom such as ours, the future doesn’t seem as bleak. We are looking at the great fun and opportunity we are going to have. We spent all week talking about how to reorganize so we can truly be open to the changes around us. I know many other editors of newspapers and newspaper websites who embrace my optimism and are having fun blogging and creating the community conversations our readers/users deserve.


Agoravox, the French citizen journalism site that seems to be pretty successful (the name means voice of the public square, roughly) is starting an English-language edition. Commenting at the NewAssignment.Net site, Didier Toussaint says:

Unlike yours, it does not seek funds and contributors are volunteers. Surprisingly, the level of contributions is rather high and it is a great opportunity for debate.

Now, it is also true that most articles are more opinion-oriented than informative because no one will dedicate time or money to investigate. However, some specialists have things to say that the public would not find out by itself.

Here’s an Agoravox entry on NewAssignment.Net

Also from the comments at NewAssignment.Net comes this from Allan Macleese:

The key thing to me, a retired newspaperperson, is that there are, I would guess, hundreds of us our there that would dearly love to be turned loose on a good honest project. We were what could be called pros, and we are sitting here, idle, dinking about with this and that, and want to return to the action. So we used to be in the MSM, but don’t discount us, we will work for nothing, as many of us agreed, in esence,to do when we went to work on newspapers in the first instance.

He’s right. We definitely have to consider how retired journalists like Macleese can be returned to action.

Web 2.0 Newspapers is a new blog about “the changing role of newspapers, their adaptations to Web 2.0 and the ways in which newspapers present content in both print and online media.” It covers a lot of topics I’m interested in, and seems professionally done.

But there’s something odd. All the items are written by “staff.” The blog is a commercial venture by a Canadian firm, Really Big Networks, which says it’s “a Web 2.0 marketing company.” Then there’s logic behind its blog network, explained thusly: “Original, professional niche content produced around the latest SEO best practices and developed according to sophisticated keyword analysis, RBN blogs combine the credibility of the blogosphere with the sophistication of the latest Web CRM and targeting techniques.” Odd because my understanding of credibility in the blogosphere is that it’s built around people and what they make. Search engine optimization, which is mostly a bogus field to begin with, doesn’t make for trusted content. Neither does “staff.”

UPDATE, Aug. 29: Jonathan Rothman “comes out” as the author of Web 2.0 Newspapers. “You’re right: I should have identified myself from the start,” he says in the comments. “Let me assure you I am human, and have some ‘cred’ related to the job I’m doing. To that end, I’ve taken the hint and expanded on who I am and who I work for in a more direct way on the blog. I’m not sure why I chose to keep quiet at first, but no longer.” Here’s his bio, which is up now at the site.

That’s a start. More here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 27, 2006 12:15 AM