Story location:

September 20, 2006

Editing Horizontally: Thanks to Reuters, NewAssignment.Net Can Hire Someone

They're giving us $100,000. That will underwrite the costs of hiring our first editor, which is going to be a fun job.

Today I am announcing at Comment is Free and PressThink that Reuters is giving $100,000 to NewAssignment.Net. That’s the experiment I plan to launch next year with others who think there is something to the idea of open source journalism, where people collaborate peer-to-peer in the production of editorial goods.

The money from Reuters will underwrite the costs of hiring our first editor, who will start in early 2007. (Here’s the press release. I introduced the idea of New Assignment here. A summary, with blog and press reactions, is here.)

The pro-am part

It’s going to be a fun job: editing horizontally amid journalism gone pro-am. The idea is to draw “smart crowds”—groups of people configured to share intelligence—into collaboration at NewAssignment.Net and get stories done that way that aren’t getting done now. By pooling their intelligence and dividing up the work, a network of volunteer users can find things out that the larger public needs to know. I think that’s most likely to happen in collaboration with editors and reporters who are paid to meet deadines, and to set a consistent standard. Which is the “pro-am” part.

NewAssignment.Net is a not a plan for a company; in fact, it’s closer to a charity, an editorial engine anchored in civil society itself, rather than the media industry or journalism profession. As today’s announcement shows, New Assignment can be on friendly terms with Big Media, which it is is not trying to destroy or supplant.

An outstanding fact of the Net era is that the costs for like-minded people to find each other and work together are falling rapidly. Someone has to figure out what the consequences of that fact are for original reportage. This is what NewAssignment plans to experiment with if it can find a few more supporters like Reuters and a lot more participants like Jamie Peppard, an accountant from Long Island, N.Y. who writes under the name “Mrs. Panstreppon” at TPM Cafe, the kind of blog-inspired place where smart crowds hang out, milling around the news. Her story is told in this account from last week’s USA Today: “When watchdog groups that monitor federal spending wanted more information on 1,800 ‘pork barrel’ projects buried in a House appropriations bill, they listed them on the Internet and asked readers to dig deeper.”

A gift economy for reporting projects

Jamie Peppard did some digging 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, she discovered. Then she explained to others how she learned all this. Peppard, a Democrat herself, ended up investigating dubious spending that “involves just about every Democratic member of Congress in metropolitan New York,” she wrote.

Whether the gift economy can support original reporting on the Web is not clearly known. But it’s worth a try at a time when the market economy is forcing newspapers to cut staff and bring expenses in line with falling revenues. By “gift” I don’t mean only big gifts like Reuters gave, in cash. (Oh, and thank you, people of Reuters.) NewAssignment will try to raise money for its projects on the Internet, including a click-and-contribute-small-amounts button.

Aside from the money pro-am journalism can work only if people are persuaded to give their time, lend their knowledge, pool their intelligence and share their sources, like Peppard did. Those are donations too. Often they are more critical than money. They will happen if the work is fun and the results rewarding; if the finished journalism holds up under criticism; if users can gravitate toward their interests and declare their priorities; if the site we build for them works with a minimum of fuss. And if editors listen well: horizontally, as it were.

Emily McKhann, an adviser to NewAssignment.Net who is starting her own site on motherhood, gave me an example of a story she thought right for its methods: how family-friendly are America’s companies, really? Now a magazine like Forbes might assign a feature like that to a reporter who could work for several months interviewing experts, talking with different companies, and visiting a few as cases-in-point. If NewAssignment.Net works the way I hope it will, we’ll ask many hundreds of people who work in those companies to tell us what’s up. They’ll testify themselves and direct us to other people who know. They will send in documents and help confirm facts. Some of them will write accounts that NewAssignment will end up using.

The collaboration medium

James Surowiecki, who wrote a book on the subject, says that “in smart crowds, people cooperate and work together even when it’s more rational for them to let others do the work.” What professional journalism says to its audience, at least in the U.S., is you haven’t the time or inclination to hang around the halls of government or go where news is happening. It’s more rational to let us, the press, do that for you. Go out there and live your life, we’ll keep you informed.

Except it doesn’t always work that way, does it?

NewAssignment.Net is counting on a different kind of rationality: let’s build something that’s really cool and if it’s great other people will use it. This possibility—which gave rise to open source software—was encoded into the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor. “I designed it for a social effect,” he said in his book, Weaving the Web, “to help people work together.” When something’s “on the Web” you can share it with anyone else who’s conected to the Internet. But in the way things turned out the Web grew more quickly as a publishing medium and became �less of a collaboration medium,� Berners-Lee wrote.

He thought the Web would be just as useful for a two-person collaboration (husband and wife with a Google calendar) as one that involved, say, 200 people (like the research centers Berners-Lee worked at) or even 2,000. Which is what it might take for one of my dream projects: a cross-partisan, 50-state coalition of citizen volunteers who would read and decipher—for purposes of public understanding—every word of every bill the United States Congress votes on and passes in a given year. No one reads our laws now. The someone who can is likely to be a network. Right now we don’t know how to do projects like that. But maybe some day we will.

A middle path

NewAssignment.Net will use the Web as both a “collaboration medium,” the way Berners-Lee intended, and a publishing tool, which he also intended. The site will begin as a niche producer that tries to do one kind of work only: open source reporting projects in the pro-am style. It will follow a middle path between good old fashioned we-bring-you-the-world journalism and the new forms that have exploded on the World Wide Web: blogging, citizen journalism, and what the Neterati call social media. (Social because they connect people horizontally to one another, not vertically to The Media.)

“We need to support good journalistic ideas, encourage broader public participation in the reporting process, and explore different newsgathering business models,” writes Chris Ahearn, president of Reuters Media, in a piece at Huffington Post today. He explains why Reuters is supporting New Assignment, and connects the gift to its earlier support for Global Voices Online, “the largest and most successful international bridge for bloggers.” (See the Boston Globe on it. Global Voices just won the Grand Prize in the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism.)

Reuters, with annual revenues of £2.4 billion ($4.4 billion) in 2005, sells news and financial information around the world. It competes with the AP, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg, the BBC and other large providers, although it only recently started offering news directly to what it calls consumers. (Compare and Different strategies.)

And what does Reuters get for helping with NewAssignment.Net? I’m sure people will have their own answers to that as word gets around about this grant. “Supporting new and varied networks of creators with different perspectives is good for both journalism and business” is Chris Ahearn’s answer.

“Ultimately, journalism is about the story and the pursuit of truth; it is not about the news industry, a j-school or a traditional newsroom structure,” he writes. “By building bridges and finding new ways to augment and accelerate the creation of quality journalism, we believe that ultimately the public will benefit and perhaps change their minds about the noble profession of journalism.”

“Our audiences have already moved on.”

Part of the background to the gift is a speech given March 2nd 2006 by Reuters CEO Tom Glocer to the Online Publishing Association. It was called “The Two-Way Pipe.” Glocer said the news industry “faces a profound challenge from home-created content-� everything from blogging and citizen journalism to video mash-ups.”

In 2005 he and his colleagues were worried about a shift in power they saw coming, but “it was about the consumer as editor,” Glocer said. “You get the news you want when you want it, either pulled by something like an RSS feed or a Tivo box or pushed by the media company.” This was a legitimate demand. And while companies like his are still catching up with that demand “our audiences have already moved on-� now they are consuming, creating, sharing and publishing.” Consumers as producers! That’s a power shift more confounding than the explosion of choice.

His puzzle: “If users want to be both author and editor, and technology is enabling this, what will be the role of the media company in the second decade of this century?” As Scott Karp pointed out (his blog is about the next era in publishing) Glocer’s answers to that question weren’t very revolutionary.

But some of his observations were keen. “On the day the Tsunami struck, Reuters had 2,300 journalists positioned around the world, mercifully none were on those beaches,” he said. “On that fateful day we also had 1,000 stringers around the globe � but none of them were there either.” The only way to get the story was from amateurs to whom the tools of media production had been re-distributed. His conclusion: “You have to be open to both amateur and professional to tell the story completely.”

The voice of god is over in news

Maybe that had something to do with Chris Ahearn’s email to me shortly after my first post on NewAssignment.Net ran, July 24. He said he agreed that something like this was needed and we should meet to discuss it. So we did. He and I worked out the terms of the gift with Dean Wright, senior vice president and managing editor for Reuters online, mobile, and interactive TV services. (Wright is formerly editor-in-chief and managing editor for news at I asked him to explain to Comment is Free and PressThink readers what his interest in this project was.

What are you seeing in the evolution of the Internet—and in the development of Reuters consumer services—that persuades you the time is right for initiatives like this?

Dean Wright: I believe it’s clear that the days of the mainstream media being the “voice of God” are over. The Internet has brought about a new mainstream in which the boundaries between consumers of content and creators of content have virtually disappeared, along with the old news cycle. There is a wide world of newsgathering resources and global conversations that we in the old mainstream media ignore at our peril. Reuters, because of our worldwide presence and our editorial strength, has an important role to play in facilitating these global conversations. Our support for Global Voices Online and our use of Global Voices content in our coverage of major news events is one example of what we’re doing. So an initiative like NewAssignment.Net, which brings together citizen contributors and journalists, is very much in line with our thinking.

NewAssignment.Net proposes a pro-am model for Internet journalism, in which citizen contributors will work closely with journalists on reporting projects. Obviously you believe this “mixed” approach has some promise, or you wouldn’t be supporting it. What’s the potential?

Dean Wright: In this model it’s clear that quality journalism matters. That’s very important to me. By having citizen contributors, it’s a bit like having an army of stringers and sources at your disposal, generating tips and story ideas and then taking another step: gathering information in a volume and across geographies that a traditional news organization would find very difficult, if not impossible.

You’re an experienced editor and news executive. NewAssignment.Net is a newcomer, with no brand name, no track record. It’s not a part of any news organization. And yet it’s proposing to do reporting projects, not blogging or opinion journalism. What do you think is going to be the hardest part for this initiative, the biggest obstacles it will have to overcome?

Dean Wright: The biggest initial problem will probably be the same one that the more minor players in the mainstream media have: getting your calls returned. Then when you complete a project and publish, you may find that other media outlets are reluctant to pick up your stories. So it’s important to do some compelling projects that cannot be ignored. Ultimately, it’s all about the journalism.

Ultimately it is. But not the journalism that grew up on the old platform. That was one way communication, in a one-to-many pattern. Production was strictly for pros, and the platform itself was “read only,” as Lawrence Lessig says. The Net is two-way and it favors a many-to-many pattern. It’s read-write and perfect for pro-am production. When reporting adapts itself to those conditions what will it look like? My hope is that we’re about to find out.

To the networks, journalists

I agree with Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker (also the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism) who in a much-discussed essay—Jeff Jarvis called it a papal bull—on journalism without journalists said “the Internet is not unfriendly to reporting; potentially, it is the best reporting medium ever invented.” He was skeptical of the results so far. I say when the art of network formation comes fully into it we’ll see how good Web journalism can be.

Now that I have an editor I want a second person and I won’t launch without it. Editors in my scheme have to figure out what a good smart mob story is and how to configure production when you have hundreds of Mrs. Panstreppons. Big job. Someone else, a second hire, has to configure the networks, draw in volunteers and worry about openness, participation, making it fun and meaningful for people. The first assignment I will give the new hire is to read Weaving the Web. Which is the basic job description: web weaving for the purpose of finding stuff out and telling the public.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

This post also ran at the Guardian’s Comment is free.

Mark Glaser at Media Shift makes The Case for Citizen Ownership of the Los Angeles Times. It includes “reading public contributes money, intelligence, fact-checking,” which he says is “complicated but doable.” Glaser is an (unpaid) adviser to NewAssignment.Net.

Angela Gunn, USA Today’s Tech Space blogger, covers the announcement:

It’s heartening to see one of the old-line news organizations put up some funding for this thing. Believe me, all but the most head-in-sand among us journalist types know our industry’s got to change. A lot of us are looking forward to it — it’s an exciting time to be telling the news and the possibilities are invigorating, if you’re not scared to death (and sometimes even if you are). But journalism, like too many other industries, is in many respects too hidebound to generate revolutionary change from within, particularly when most big companies have a layer of folks of top who still suspect this Interweb stuff is a passing annoyance. If can blaze trails, I think many of us hope to follow, whether inside or outside the traditional media-industry structures. In any case, it bids to be one heck of a show.

Jason Boog at The Publishing Spot: “In the surprise marriage of the year, a big time newswire just hooked up with a band of citizen journalism upstarts….”

“Without corrective action, we are in danger of the public losing faith in the fourth estate,” writes Chris Ahearn, president of Reuters Media, at Huffington Post. “Even reporters have a gloomy take on their profession. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a mere 15 percent of national print reporters cited journalism’s traditional watchdog role as something the profession did well.”

From Editor & Publisher’s coverage:

Reuters says it will have no editorial control over the site’s projects, and it will not hold right of first refusal for any of the stories that the site is covering.

We felt it was best to keep it clean.

Ian Delaney, a journalist based in London who follows Web 2.0 developments, has quite an intelligent reaction. See his Man Bites Mainstream Media:

So the editor needs to be a maven. S/he develops a cult of personality around what they do, strong enough to win the trust and support of large numbers of readers. NewAssignment editors will also have financial backing from sponsors and so won�t need to pass the cup around their readers.

Instead, the readers suggest topics for investigation, and help provide data. Presumably, the editors then use their discretion to choose the non-nutty options. So this is a news site that might cover the plight of illegal torrent sites one day, dental amalgam the next and Panda Baiting the day after. And at the same time, despite flipping from subject to subject, the editor is developing a cult following.

No. That wouldn�t work. You�d have a number of sites. Each of them would only investigate subjects around one quite narrow area, an area the editor is already passionate and knowledgeable about.

Basically that’s right. The news is we have funding for one editor. The plan is that if NewAssignment ever grew into a news organization it would be organized around many editors, each a maven with a mini-site. That’s why I have sometimes called a NewAssignment editor a “blogger with a war chest.”

My favorite part of Delaney’s response is something simple and rare. He read the damn posts. “Rosen has already thought through and answered a lot of the immediate objections that might spring to mind (interest groups manipulating stories, sponsors balking at �inconvenient truths� & local stories, volunteers will be nutjobs with an agenda).”

It’s remarkable but I am used to it by now: the many people who seem to assume that I wouldn’t think of the same problems it took them ten seconds to think of. A weird, unlikely, and counter-intuitive assumption… yet it happens all the time. But not with Delaney.

Richard Sambrook of the BBC at his blog, Sacred Facts: “Smart move by Reuters— they seem to have seedcorn capital to keep themselves across the cutting edge of participation and social networks on the web.”

Josh Shear seems to get what I’m doing. “I think it will be easy to get volunteers to suggest story ideas, because NewAssignment.Net is going to hire freelancers to pick up the story at some point. So, if you’ve got a good idea and a decent head on your shoulders, it may very well be you who gets paid to finish things up.”


Reacting to the news, a Dutch blogger, Hester van de Kaa, says, “Horizontal journalism will play a large role in the future of professional journalism.” (Translation by Babel Fish.)

Doug McGill (an adviser to NewAssignment.Net): Eight Reasons to Trust ‘Amateur’ Journalists.

Ross Dawson, a future-of-business consultant who speaks the language of megatrends, says about New Assignment: “The space in which it is playing, of bringing together the resources and capabilities of amateurs and professionals, is where much of the action will be moving forward in the world of media.”

Bruce Kesler at The Democracy Project says the first assignment should be “detailing of the backgrounds of the thousands of stringers employed by the major media around the world. There are, at least, three fundamental questions to be answered: Is the world�s media being manipulated, by whom, and how much?”

Colin Brayton: “Reuters Announces $100,000 Grant for and I�m offering $50 to the first person to uncover a Gannon � or flack under contract to Reuters � pursuing an undislcosed agenda through the project under the guise of ‘citizen journalism.’”

“This is an effort news junkies of all political stripes should be watching. Conservatives especially should look for ways to participate,” says Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s Media Blog. “If there’s a way to improve the press that’s better than the current tug-of-war over ‘objectivity,’ we could be seeing its beginnings.”

Dean Wright tells the Washington Square News. “�When NewAssignment.Net launches in the spring, we will be watching closely to see what we can learn about the �professional-amateur� model of newsgathering.”

How interesting that on the same day the $100,0000 gift from Reuters was announced, Columbia J-School announced a new Center for Investigative Reporting endowed with a $5 million gift. Traditional investigative reporting, of course. Which is more needed than ever. Still, I could do this entire project for $1 million over two years.

Rebecca MacKinnon, ex-CNN’er and one of the founders of Global Voices, emails PressThink about the Reuters connection:

Reuters top management clearly understands that news organizations need to re-think themselves. On one hand, the principles of good journalism are timeless: good journalism should provide the information - accurate, timely, and with the necessary context and background - that we as individuals require in order to conduct our lives in our own best interest. But while the point of journalism remains the same, the accepted methods of achieving these aim are now broken or badly discredited.

The challenge is: How do you do good journalism while at the same time participating in a give-and-take, a conversation about events, which in turn helps to inform your journalistic work? Reuters realizes the answer is not as simple as getting some of their journalists to blog. In fact that may not be the answer at all. What’s more important is to help journalists figure out how to interact with the blogosphere— that big global, interactive, viral conversation about the things that matter to people. How do you interact with these conversations in a way that makes your journalism more relevant, more useful - and more true to the point of journalism in the first place?

Unfortunately, news organizations today are so stripped-down and budgets are so tight, journalists barely have time to cover their beats properly, let alone learn new things about the internet, figure out ways to innovate, or learn about RSS readers and trackback pings. There is very little R & D happening in news organizations today - and usually it’s being done by the tech people, not the reporters, photographers, writers, and editors. Ironically, information media innovation is not being driven by professional journalists who are actually paid full-time salaries to create media. The innovation is coming from citizen media creators: the people who blog, who podcast, who use YouTube, who edit Wikipedia, and who write open source code in their spare time.

Roy Greenslade at his Guardian blog reports from a European conference of newspaper publishers on the re-launch of the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, “the weekly broadsheet that has just reinvented itself in a full-colour Berliner format.”

To achieve its transformation, the paper spent 17 months of planning, creating a multi-media open-space office and retraining its journalists (how very Daily Telegraph). It has also listened to its readers. Balsemao attributed its success to his staff having “come down from Mount Olympus” to learn from the people. They now help to provide content and therefore, he says, “shine light into corners of society that we often don’t reach.” This giant army of stringers “bring news in”, he says. But editors “filter it” because “they know what is important.”

Sounds familiar.

If you’re interested in NewAssignment.Net, it’s worth following the arguments about Citzendium, “an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance.” It’s the idea of Larry Sanger, who helped found Wikipedia. See Clay Shirky’s post at Many-to-Many arguing that it won’t work and Sanger’s reply. (Shirky: “It won’t work, because Sanger overestimates the native level of deference possible in open environments and underestimates the cost of governance.”) More here.

Paul Krugman in his blog at TimesSelect:

So from now on I�m going to post sources for the numbers in each column on TimesSelect, with links where possible (it usually is.) Basically, this is the same thing I do when filing my columns; I always provide sources and links to my copy editors.

A good example of how trust is generated differently in the Net era.

Mark Glaser (we heard from him earlier) reports on a joint project of Global Voices Online and, the human rights reporting project founded by Peter Gabriel.

What if you could take videos shot by citizens of human rights violations, such as police brutality or torture, and got them to go viral, bringing more attention to the crimes?

That�s the hope of a pilot Human Rights Video Hub run as a joint venture of Witness and the Global Voices international blog aggregator.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 20, 2006 6:55 AM