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September 7, 2006

Sunlight Gives $10K to NewAssignment.Net

I'm announcing today that NewAssignment.Net has received $10,000 in underwriting support from the Sunlight Foundation, matching the gift by Craig Newmark that got us started. Like Newmark, Sunlight is underwriting the test project we plan to undertake in 2006.

Meanwhile, we’ll be raising other money and building the site in stages, hoping for an early 2007 launch. I have been consulting with my advisers about how to go about the test project for which we now have $20,000. There’s nothing to announce yet, but I hope to have news on that soon.

I asked Ellen Miller, Executive Director of Sunlight, to explain how NewAssignment.Net fit into the Foundation’s agenda. She said:

When the idea of creating Sunlight Foundation was initially discussed – almost a year ago — the question on the table was how to create more solid investigative reporting on Congress, how to change the relationship between citizens and their representatives by improving access to vital information, and how to put more information into the hands of both citizens and journalists that would inform and educate and activate them.

As we came to understand the open source journalism world we began to see how its practice might likely achieve those goals more effectively than the traditional media. Citizens as journalists? What could be a better way to involve them in the practice of democracy? Citizens as funders of journalism? They’ll get what they want, when they want and need it.

Miller also said that other work Sunlight is funding and initiating will “provide fuel and ideas for the kind of work envisioned by NewAssignment.Net.” That was certainly the case with the Exposing Earmarks project, which involved Sunlight, Porkbusters and other partners. It was a kind of demo for reporting that relies on citizen volunteers. (Volunteers like Mrs Panstreppon, a good example of a citizen reporter, whom I wrote about in my last post.)

One of Sunlight’s first grants was $234,713 to OMB Watch to create a searchable database of government grants and contracts and put it online. (Congress has proposed doing the same thing, and says it would cost $9 million to get going.) That could figure in future New Assignment projects.

Miller says things on Capital Hill might change with “thousands of citizen journalists suggesting story ideas, providing research, analysis, reporting and muckraking.” An “all too cozy relationship” between lawmakers and the traditional press could be disrupted from outside. “Look at what bloggers – and their readers — have unearthed to date: unmasking anonymous holds on legislation; engaging citizens in uncovering earmarks; making lawmakers and candidates for office explain where they stand on issues like Social Security.”

Yes. And look at what the Sacramento Bee wrote about it Tuesday. “A week or so ago, we were grumbling about the arcane practice that allows a single member of the U.S. Senate to sidetrack legislation he or she doesn’t like,” said the Bee’s editorial page. “At the time, there was a mystery about who was holding up a bill to make government more transparent. Now it has been solved, courtesy of the blogosphere.”

I like the division of labor. The Bee was grumbling about it; bloggers and their readers were the ones who found out.

Is this going to change business-as-usual in Washington? According to Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor, something is already happening. “House and Senate leaders say they will change the rules of both bodies to require disclosure of all member projects and their sponsors,” she reported today. If they are true to their word that means no more secret earmarks slipped in without debate.

“One way or another, we will address this issue,” House majority leader John Boehner said as Congress went back to work Tuesday. Of course it wasn’t an issue until Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham was found to be trading earmarks for big bribes (partly through the investigative journalism of Copley Newspapers, we should note.) It wasn’t an issue until the current campaigns for more openness began.

Databases available online and searchable by anyone mean that lots more people can practice database journalism. You don’t need tens of thousands; hundreds can make a difference. (See the one percent rule and Jarvis on it: “The definition of critical mass has shrunk.”) Less-than legitimate practices that lived on only because the public couldn’t find out about them or do anything to stop them may fall, but only if members of the public actually do the finding out, and bring the facts to light.

It’s important to realize that when Senators Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd were found to be the ones who put a secret hold on a transparency bill both claimed to have good reasons. But Stevens and Byrd promptly removed their holds after admitting that they were the ones responsible. If their reasons were good why would they have done that? (Ahem… It looks like the holds are back. UPDATE: The transparency bill passed the Senate.)

Micah Sifry, who has been consulting on technology for Sunlight and is also advising me on NewAssignment.Net, explained the connection between the two this way:

NADN and Sunlight are born out of a common sensibility, which for the sake of brevity I’ll summarize thus: The old system is broken; commercial and political pressures have turned the Fourth Estate away from its vital mission of informing the public and holding power accountable.

But the rise of what Yochai Benkler calls the “networked public sphere” offers hope of repairing our democracy; emergent social practices made possible and efficacious by the Internet may help foster a “Fifth Estate” where the public acts as its own watchdog.

I think the old system is broken. But I wouldn’t say the press has turned away from its mission. It simply hasn’t found a way to innovate and keep the news engines turning.

Can the public really be its own watchdog? It’s not impossible. Nor is the idea I mentioned in PressThink a year ago: a blog-organized, red-blue, 50-state coalition of citizen volunteers who would read and decipher (for purposes of public understanding) every word of every bill Congress votes on and passes in a given year. That in itself is not a story, but think of the stories that could come out of such a project.

Zephyr Teachout, Sunlight’s National Director, was Director of Online Organizing for the Howard Dean campaign in 2003-4. She says:

In the 1920s, 5 percent of all Americans were Presidents of some local voluntary association, since then, we’ve seen a gradual decrease in the number of opportunities for creative, imaginative societal engagement and leadership, but the decline in those opportunities doesn’t mean the human urge to be creative, engaged, and contribute to society with our own particular talents has decreased.

The internet, and the platforms it provides, has revealed a much richer, more imaginative, eccentric, and curious populace than popular culture portrays. Some people like collecting Santa Clause dolls from Ebay, some people like political gossip, some people like mashing music together, some people like writing code. And some of the millions of people who one might have thought just liked to watch CSI want to engage in their own investigations, from a mix of social commitment, curiousity, and the delight of the adventure in collectively uncovering untold stories.

The delight is not just in uncovering who put the secret hold on the transparency bill. It’s also in telling the world.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

In a good article on the expansion of government oversight made possible by networked journalism on the Net, Richard Wolf of USA Today found out who Mrs. Panstreppon is (Sep. 11):

The amateur investigators are people such as Jamie Peppard, an accountant from Long Island, N.Y., and serial blogger who writes under the name “Mrs. Panstreppon.” She researched groups such as the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation, which stands to receive nearly $1.2 million to screen patients in New York, Texas and the Virgin Islands. She unearthed tax forms showing the foundation pays several six-figure salaries.

“I’m an ordinary citizen who does not have to answer to shareholders or anyone else,” Peppard told Wolf. “I also have the luxury of spending as much time on a particular project as I want to.”

See Mark Tapscott on what ought to come next.

Ellen Miller at her blog on the Sunlight site: “I feel like Jay’s project is on the cusp of making some very big waves.”

Sunlight announced another grant today to Dan Gillmor’s Center for Citizen Media for an election year project that overlaps with NewAssignment.Net:

$25,000 to the Center for Citizen Media to develop an Election Year Demonstration Project for citizen journalism in one Congressional district. CCM will oversee the creation of a website that will seek to cover everything that can possibly be reported on a Congressional election, with an emphasis on drawing on the talents and ideas of local citizen reporters. The site will include in-depth biographical and political information on candidates, audio and video archives, campaign finance profiles, first-person reports, links to articles, etc. This project is designed to serve as a model for possible nationwide implementation in hundreds of districts in 2008.

Emphasis added. A second post gives more details on what Gillmor is calling a Political Transparency Project. (He’s also an adviser to New Assignment.)

The working title of this initiative is “Political transparency by the people, for the people,” and the goals are several-fold.

First: In a competitive congressional district — namely California’s 11th district — we hope to create an online repository of every scrap of information about the candidates, issues and campaign.

Second: We will pick an element of this data collection — the advertising — and add value through further reporting and analysis.

Third, and most important: We will use what we learn to create a template for the 2008 election and beyond.

Also key is this part:

The site will be designed, built and initially maintained by the students in an online journalism class (J298) this fall at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley. Assisting the students will be co-instructors Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, and Bill Gannon, editorial director at Yahoo!, as well as Scot Hacker, webmaster at the journalism school.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s On the Media interviews me about New Assignment. Listen here. It turned out pretty well.

Developments with New Assignment, Aug. 20-Sep. 9, a new post at the New Assignment blog, including a brief sketch of Your Local Temple of Democracy: A Polling Places Project. Outline of one possible initiative in 2007.

Jeff Jarvis offers a definition of networked news. Part of it says:

Journalism will become collaborative not only on this pro-am level but also pro-to-pro (we need not and cannot afford to send our own reporters to some stories just for the sake of byline ego but we can link to and bring our readers — and help support — the best reporting from other outlets).

Andrew Kantor in a column for USA Today: Technology empowers amateur journalism — for better or worse.

Bloggers and other amateur journalists have some of the same problems any amateurs do: They make up the rules as they go, and they run the risk of screwing up and hurting someone. But because blogging isn’t their day job, they have little risk — they aren’t going to be fired

Professionals are constrained; they can’t just do as they please. If I want to upgrade the electrical service in my house, I can do it myself or call a pro. If I do it myself, I can do what I like and hope it’s good enough. If a pro comes, though, he has to follow detailed building codes — he’s constrained, but the end result is likely better.

Lowes and Home Depot have given amateurs the ability to do work that was once the province of pros, and inexpensive digital technology has given amateurs the ability ‘do’ journalism. But just as amateur with a set of power tools can do great work or build a deathtrap, amateur journalists can do the same.

Having the tools and using them wisely are two different things.

Mark Glaser at Media Shift asked his readers what they would like to see investigated by projects like NewAssignment.Net:

Whether it’s the Iraq War, the events of 9/11 or the Department of Homeland Security, government conduct (or misconduct) is what you’d like to see investigated most. I asked a very open-ended question to you last week, “What investigative report would you like to see done?” Your answers included many bread-and-butter issues such as health care, education and real estate. But the overriding issue was government conduct…

Amy Gahran at Poynter’s E-media blog: Senate Leader Credits Citizen Journalists for Law’s Passage.

Ryan Sholin—Net-savvy young journalist who is a PressThink reader—has just about graduated from J-School, and so has his blog, which used to be called Ryan Sholin’s J-School Blog. Now it’s called Invisible Inkling and it’s worth reading. The news business needs a lot more people like him.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 7, 2006 1:33 AM