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October 4, 2006

My Interview with Readers of Slashdot

They did the Q's, I did the A's. "What's open to the wisdom of the crowd is vulnerable to the actions of the mob. Wanting to be helpful, the volunteer may slant reports without realizing it. Through the portals marked 'citizen' the paid operative can easily go. How do you prevent all of that?"

Slashdot is the world’s most famous online gathering place for geeks. The site’s reader interviews solicit questions from users; the moderator—Robin Miller—rates them all and sends the interviewee the best ones. The original Q and A is here. (“Citizen Journalism Expert Jay Rosen Answers Your Questions…”) Used with Slashdot’s permission.

1) Where do you see newspapers’ role in this? by Stick_Fig

First off, my credentials: I’m the former employee of an experimental newspaper, Bluffton Today, located in Bluffton, South Carolina. It’s an exciting place, let me tell you. The focus has been on reverse publishing but at the same time tempering blogs with traditional journalism. The staff still writes articles; they still edit heavily. They use the web only to the degree where it doesn’t dip into libel and slander and builds on its strengths.
My question to you is, do you think Bluffton is on the right track? It felt like, in the 15 months I was there, they definitely were, but I’m a biased party. I left thinking, “If only newspapers did more of this…” I know what I’m betting the farm on in my career, and it isn’t tired, boring, traditional journalism. It isn’t the straight and narrow of blogs, either. Rather, I feel that it’s important to look at both sides and find how they can work together, because God knows there’s some 60-year-old editor somewhere who won’t look at Bluffton as anything more than a gimmick. I’m gonna be that guy in the newsroom fighting the good fight to get more untraditional voices into the the paper in more places than the editorial page.

Jay Rosen: Bluffton Today (Bluffton, SC is near Hilton Head Island) did several things that were important to try in 2005. They said the editorial engine would be the online edition; it would “produce” the printed paper. This is the opposite of how newspapers did things for the first ten years of their Web lives. They just re-purposed the content from the print edition, and called that an “online newspaper.”

By reversing what’s primary in production you change head sets in the newsroom because a professional newsroom engineers everything—including the talents of its employees—around the production ordeal. The “daily miracle” it was once called, because making the newspaper required such a fantastic act of just-in-time coordination. Many things had to be routinized for the miracle to occur. (Including ideas about journalism and the user’s place in it.)

Steve Yelvington of Morris Digital Works, who worked on the Bluffton Today site, called it an “inversion” because content would flow from the Web to print rather than vice versa. The editorial engine should be the more interactive one, in which more of the community can participate. The goal was a virtuous circle. “Community conversation feeds professional journalism. Journalism feeds conversation. And around, and around.” I think there is something to that idea.

How well it works is for people in Bluffton to address. I like that Bluffton Today tried to go Lessig on the news industry. It ditched the read only platform and re-built on read/write. Yelvington said at the launch: “Everyone gets a blog. Not just staffers, but everyone in the community. LeMonde (France) and the Mail and Guardian (South Africa) are doing this, too.” Give everyone a blog may be an obvious idea. But it’s a different track. “Everyone gets a photo gallery. Everyone can contribute events to a shared public community calendar….” The site was built on Drupal technology. It had free classifieds. It was different.

If the experience of doing Bluffton Today has tempered some of that initial boldness, that’s as it should be. I’m not surprised that the staff still writes articles; they still edit heavily. A web-to-print, highly-interactive, low barrier to entry, read-write, everyone-contributes newspaper is still a daily production headache. Articles, photos, headlines, ads have to come together. Unedited, the site would have almost no value, although it can have unedited parts with high value.

“It isn’t tired, boring, traditional journalism. It isn’t the straight and narrow of blogs, either. It’s important to look at both sides…” I agree with that, Stick. My new adventure, NewAssignment.Net, is a hybrid site for that reason. (Pros and amateurs collaborate on reporting projects.) In January of 2005 I wrote Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over for the same reason.

Bluffton today was a first wave attempt at innovation. Today initiatives like that face some second wave facts. Bringing capacity online does not itself create activity, so if you’re counting on user activity, you better come with more than nifty new capacity. Create more writers and suddenly you may need more editors. “The conversation feeds journalism, journalism feeds the conversation” is a powerful idea, but we are several steps away from knowing how it works to create a live, intelligent filter in the newsroom.

There’s just a long way to go. But yeah, you were on the right track working for those guys. Deeply so.

2) How to Get More Respect (by NewYorkCountryLawyer.)

I am convinced that online media have made a huge contribution to getting out the truth when the corporate media are seeking to suppress the truth. While there are a growing number of people aware of this phenomenon, reports in the ‘blogosphere’ just do not get the same respect and currency received by reports in the ‘major’ or ‘corporate’ media. What do we, as a community, need to do to enhance the respect internet journalists receive in the world at large?

Jay Rosen: Well, “suppressing” the truth is not how I see the failures of modern journalism, or of our current press. I think it’s bigger than that.

Bob Woodward, who is in the news this week, is at the top of the reporting game, an industry unto himself. In two books, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, he failed to tell the truth about the Bush White House because his methods were not up to the obstacle they met: an Administration that had broken through all the reality checks normally placed on a president and his closest aides. One by one these measures came under abnormal stress. The policy-making process used by presidents got subverted. The normal channels for sounding out opinion were just disowned. The intelligence community came under extreme stress when asked to supply facts for a decision already made.

A Congress controlled by the same party was expected to go along, which meant accepting the president’s definition of reality. Oversight got evacuated. The normal tensions with the press were driven deeper: keep them back, keep them out, tell them nothing, tear them down. If someone does break a story from inside you immediately punish and isolate anyone who spoke to the reporter. You make them disown their words. You make them repent.

This is the story Woodward missed because he got inside it, so to speak. Ron Suskind, one of the few in Washington who did not miss that story, called it “the retreat from empiricism.” To me, it’s the big narrative yet to come out about the Bush White House. Attack Without a Plan was too crazy to be credible to Woodward. So he wrote Plan of Attack instead. I haven’t read his new book yet, just the reviews and excerpts. But from early accounts, State of Denial is his attempt to get back the ground he lost, despite having the best access.

Woodward didn’t “suppress” the story. Rather, he couldn’t imagine it. Those are the kinds of failures that interest me. Sometimes things are suppressed. Often, the truth eludes professional journalism because no one thought to look for it. I welcome your question, What do we, as a community, need to do to enhance the respect internet journalists receive in the world at large? My first answer is: we have to look for it.

We should major in transparency; the “major” media will take a minor in that. Diversity of outlook in the reporters ultimately improves the reporting. The blogosphere has advantages there, especially as it does more reporting.

I think we have to accept that Big Media, which isn’t going anywhere, is society’s default legitimacy-distribution machine. But that doesn’t mean it works well. The machine itself can lose legitimacy without exactly falling apart. If you’re an upstart publisher of news and you suck at it, Big Media will try to ignore you. If you’re an upstart publisher of news and you’re really good at it, Big Media will try to ignore you. Then when you assume the shape of a writes-itself story—first bloggers to go the political conventions!—Big Media will over-cover you, spreading a small bit of understanding over lots and lots of stories. Six months later it’s time to debunk the trend they missed, then over-hyped and finally misdescribed. It’s not personal. It’s protective. It’s also cheaper than figuring out what’s going on.

We can win a lot of points for Net journalism just by being the opposite of that.

3) What about mob-rule journalism? (by Chas)

What sort of safeguards are in place to do fact-checking and prevent false/obviously slanted mob-rule style reports from being propagated as fact?

Jay Rosen: People hear phrases like “an experiment in open source reporting” and they see it immediately: What’s open to the wisdom of the crowd is vulnerable to the actions of the mob. Wanting to be helpful, the volunteer may slant reports without realizing it. Through the portals marked “citizen” the paid operative can go. How do you prevent all of that?

To me this is a puzzle with many pieces. It won’t have one solution; it will take many overlapping systems working together. I can’t tell you—yet—how we’re going to build a fact-checking and verification system into NewAssignment.Net. But I can tell you that the site will fail without one, so we’ll have to try to figure it out, with help from a lot of people. To simply pass along unchecked reports received from strangers over the Net would be fantastically dumb. To discount the possibility of people trying to game the system would be dumb, too; the more successful the site is, the more probable the gaming is. Not to mention spam, duplication, all kinds of junk.

What sort of safeguards are in place? Here are my answers so far. You tell me what is missing or cracked in this foundation.

One: The editors are full time on it. Assignments flow through editors several times before they are published by NewAssignment.Net. That’s the pro-am way. It’s an editor’s job not to be gamed, not to publish bum facts. Everything that goes out has the editor’s name on it. It’s not an answer to everything—this reliance on “good editors”—but it’s a proven system, a simple one, and a start.

Two: Users Self-Police. I’m not sure “community” is the right word for the eventual users of New Assignment. People use that term too loosely, in my opinion. But if NewAssignment.Net develops a base of active, loyal and intelligent users, it’s not unreasonable that they can help police the site, especially if they understand that verifiying information and preventing fraud are basic to everything we’re trying to do. And so a second answer, after editors, is a culture among users: catch errors, catch mistakes, catch fraud and manipulation. A mob mentality has to be met by something stronger; if you attract the right kind of users, that can happen. It would be foolish to think it will just because you’re counting on it.

Three: Given enough eyeballs, all facts can be checked. I think there is every chance of developing a special subgroup of users who are effective fact checkers of the larger base of contributors, including new and casual contributors. One thing we are definitely going to do is see whether retired journalists and ex-journalists will volunteer to work with other natural born sticklers and operate our fact-checking system, which not only has to work, but eventually be better than industry standard. I don’t know yet what that system will look like, or how systematic it will be. One of my advisers is interested in this puzzle and working on some ideas, assisted by a professional fact checker who emailed me offering to help. That’s how we are going to solve this. Social scientists call it “muddling through.”

Four: The site itself has to make verification easy. I mean in the way it is built and meant to operate. For example, editors have to be able to sort the raw from the initially verified from the double checked. This is one of the challenges for the developers of the New Assignment site, which will be Chapter Three. It’s a new partnership—here’s an about page for them—formed by Zack Rosen, who is my nephew, one of the originators of Dean Space and the co-founder of CivicSpace on the Drupal platform; and Josh Koenig, a co-founder of DeanSpace who started Music for America, a non-profit. They are both Drupal developers active in that community. The third partner is Matt Cheney, who is trained as a librarian and worked as a researcher at National Center for SuperComputing Applications.

They’re going to build the site with open source tools. Josh Koenig has a post up about the New Assignment project. It promises an Open Practice model: “posting tutorials, video screen casts, interviews, and write ups as our own work progresses and as we research others.” Verification and fact-checking have to become open practices themselves. The developers understand that.

Five: The one percent rule.. Experience sugggests a small slice of users will do most of the volunteer work. According to the one percent rule in social media, which is more of a tendency than a law, “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.” This bears on the verification puzzle because we’re not talking about “checking” vast hordes of people. If regular contributors provide most of the contributions, their reputations for reliability can accumulate at the site. In a well-designed system that will happen.

Six: How have others solved the problem? You tell me: has creating a reliable system of volunteer contributors ever been faced before on the Web? Did it prove unsolvable? I would expect NewAssignment.Net to look at prior cases first and find the key lessons.

4) Money (by truthsearch)

Do you believe that as money flows into civic journalism that it’ll change the equation? Obviously there are some people who’s primary goal is to become famous and/or make money through more open journalism. Will the large community of contributors flush out those with less altruistic intentions? I guess I’m really asking will civic journalism be self-correcting as it gets bigger? Or is there a way it may become just as corrupted as much of the current mainstream professional journalism?

Jay Rosen: I doubt there’s any incorruptible system, just different kinds of pressures, with greater and lesser freedoms for the journalists involved. We can certainly hope for a self-correcting system, but it’s not likely to happen on its own.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking recognition for great work. People who want to be become famous or make a salary through the more open forms in Net journalism aren’t the enemy. Not at all. But they are going to have to work with users under conditions that build trust and permit collaboration. It’s hard for me to see how the bad actors will succeed at that, but I am not discounting it, either.

Here’s a site called Sportingo. It says it’s a “new type of sports media company,” which is “focused on telling the story from the fans’ perspective.” Users can write articles, which will be “professionally edited.” They can rate and comment on articles written by peers.

Sportingo will own all the content published on the site. There are no plans to pay contributors. The company is for-profit. Tal Rozow, the marketing manager, told me that that “Sportingo authors aiming for a professional writing career will be able to benefit from having by-lines appearing on our website.” He said he’s confident that a strong network of independent sports writers will emerge at the site, and maybe that will happen. But I’m not sure it’s a system designed to build trust among all the players involved.

Everyone I have consulted about open source projects of any kind has stressed one thing over and over: the importance of understanding what would motivate people to contribute to the gift economy of the project. You have to get that right, they say. Ultimately I believe a non—profit foundation is more secure one. If there are profits and they are extracted by the owners, not distributed to co-creators; that’s a problem. If there are profits and they go into doing more and better journalism, that’s different.

5) What’s wrong with other extant examples? (by crush)

I’m assuming that you evaluated and rejected some of the other high-profile citizen journalism outfits that predate the founding of your own project. Off my head I can think of:

What was it that you found lacking in the above and why did you decide to start a new project instead of reforming and adapting one of the above? Do you think that your decision to accept corporate sponsorship (which is rejected by the Pacifica Network) will see your organization’s focus inevitably drift toward the anodyne ineffectiveness of e.g. NPR?

(And of course, how could I forget WikiNews?)

Jay Rosen: There’s nothing “wrong” with these prior examples. I admire them all. I was especially pleased to see that the New Standard met its do-or-die fundraising goal last week. That site is an experiment with reader-supported, totally independent, strenuously-factual reporting. High standards of verification are meant to prevail. I think the New Standard has a lot in common with professional journalism, except it rejects the political economy of commercial news media entirely. It’s run as a collective among those who do the work. I am thrilled that it will remain around, because we need to try lots of solutions to how to fund serious reporting. Just as I’m thrilled that Independent Media Center and its collectives around the world keep humming. I agree with Chris Anderson that what blogging begat—citizen journalism—Indy Media begat too.

I didn’t “evaluate and reject” the New Standard, Indy Media, Pacifica and Wiki News. Nor is it my place to decide they need fixing. They don’t. The people who founded those organizations deserve a lot of credit for creating something new and daring— and genuinely alternative. They inspired me. So did lots of others. (New West, for example, or NewAssignment.Net is really about a single proposition: that if journalists and networks of users can report stuff together that neither could easily do alone, the public sphere will benefit and the site will build trust. I think there’s room for that.

My decision to accept $100,000 from Reuters means we’ll have an editor who can test the possibilities in networked journalism, as Jeff Jarvis calls it. My job is to make sure that Reuters has no influence on that person. The company has said it will have no editorial control, and no claim on the content. I agree: it won’t. I think we can persuade users that it works as advertised. But people are free to draw their own conclusions about what the gift means, and I’m sure they will.

6) Plagiarism and Ethics? (by goombah99)

Lately there’s been a few incidents of Plagiarism in the news, not to mention some wholesale ethical breaches of faked stories (e.g. Blair at the NY times and “a million Little pieces”). But the thing is, the reason those are news is that they are both exceptional and something that is specifically drummed in to any professional journalist not to do. Indeed, breaking this taboo is probably even more of a sin to the the fellow journalists than to the general public because of this entrenched ethic.

Yet we know that on college campuses, where we can measure the phenomenon, plagiarism is comparatively rampant. So evidently the common man cannot restrain himself.

It seems to me this is a serious issue for any new journalism form with a low barrier to entry and a high degree of anonymity for the author. How does this ethos get enforced in such a realm?

A related question is the ethical division of commentary and news. We know that’s become a problem in the media for some outlets where management has a thumb on the content. But the traditional news organs, especially newspapers, still refrain for the most part. Indeed, the NY times just went so far as to remove the typset justification from any article that comtained any sort of analysis or opinion, reserving the justified typsetting for only traditional factual journalism stories so the difference is apparent to the reader from the start. How do we reinforce that ethos in the untrained journalist?

Jay Rosen: When people plagiarize they do it for a particular self-interested reason: to meet a deadline, get an unwanted task out of the way, get their full time salary with limited work. These motivations will probably be rarer in the New Assignment model. Why volunteer for a project only to cheat at it?

“The common man cannot restrain himself.” Sorry, I don’t trust that kind of language. Beyond that making stuff up is not a way to develop a base of users on the Web; people aren’t that dumb! You speak of a “low barrier to entry and a high degree of anonymity for the author.” But for most users the higher the anonymity factor for the author, the higher the barrier of trust.

What some people can’t seem to get over is that other people can say any damn thing they want on the Internet! How can you trust any of it? is their natural reaction to all open systems. Closed systems—and professional journalism is one—develop trust in one way. Open systems have to do it a much different way. Expecting one to look like the other is unreasonable.

We aren’t going to learn much about this puzzle by asking how the “common man” can be trained to imitate his betters in the news media. I refer you to sociologist Raymond Williams, who once said, “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” It is these ways of seeing that are retrograde. But they show up in the most surprising places.

7) Scale

First, I’ll admit that I haven’t read much about citizen jounalism other than Jeff Jarvis’ [], but as a non-blogger thinking of getting in to it, I was wondering:

Much of the discussion seems to be about getting out from under the control of “gatekeepers” like publishers and media owners. Yet, while the internet is less concerned with money, it has its own form of currency: popularity, in the form of the link.

Doesn’t this just turn the highest-traffic sites into new gatekeepers? Especially as the number of blogs increases, the gap between “rich” and “poor” expands?

I suppose what I’m really asking is, it’s hard enough to get noticed today- how will someone just starting out get noticed ten years from now?

Jay Rosen: Ten years from now? Jeez, I have no idea what the world of media access will be like then. But anyone who is just starting out in self-publishing should consult Clay Shirky’s Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality, so as not to become prematurely disillusioned by discovering its truths later on.

Certainly there are new gatekeepers. (Slashdot itself is one. But does it work the same way the old system did?) Traffic-wise, there’s still rich and poor. (But is this list as static as that one?) Hierarchies have not gone away. (And who said they would?) Inequality has not disappeared. (But did you really think it could?)

You still have to fight to be noticed, good work can still go unnoticed. Life online is not entirely fair, or completely different. There’s a new attention economy to replace the old. The sooner we reconcile ourselves to these common sense conclusions, the easier it will be to see what is actually different today.

Here are some things that stand out for me: Amateurs have joined professionals and they own a part of “the press.” An audience that was once connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other is now connected both ways. The cost for like-minded people to locate each other and collaborate has fallen dramatically. The tools of media production have been widely distributed, and broad distribution of content is no longer impossible for small, upstart producers.

For professionals, they’re not required to affiliate with Big Media in order to operate as a journalist, though most will. They can be stand alones and independents. The people formerly known as the audience (as I call them) are now a producer force to be reckoned with, and Big Media has just started that reckoning. The Net has new ways of distributing attention, which have taken their place alongside the old.

Still, there’s a long way to go before we can say that our media system has been made more democratic, responsive and responsible.

8) What impact would this have on national elections? (by StressGuy)

The Electoral process seems to be more of a “marketing contest” and marketing takes bags and bags of money. There’s commercial time, signs, billboards, radio, etc. Let’s face it, a commercial is, at most 90 seconds to tell me why I should vote for you - hardly enough time. So, all we see are glittering generalities or, all to often, “don’t vote for the other guy” spots.

If “Citizen Jounalism” takes off, do you see this as a way that candidates without the massive financial resources normally required to sustain a traditional campaign could actually compete? Could this make the “third party candidates” a credible threat? Could this actually serve to “level the playing field”?

Jay Rosen: We should be cautious here. I think the most we can say is that a system that was almost entirely closed and self-sustaining—in which a handful of people raised the money, took the polls, handled the candidates, made the ads, narrated the campaign and talked about the candidates on TV—has been disrupted. The people who ran it are not as confident as they once were in their ability to manage things and get the outcomes they want. Their party has been crashed, but it’s not “over.” Nor is it “ours.”

It’s possible that insurgent candidacies—not backed by current players in the system—will have an easier time of it in the years ahead, just as insurgent news providers have more of an opening now. That’s as far as I would go on the leveled field.

9) Dilution of Protection (by ObsessiveMathsFreak)

How long before corporations and wealthy individuals start employing goons, lawyers and wiretaps, a la HP, to threaten and intimidate citizen journalists with no real legal recourse? If faced with this, should a citizen journalist just back off and let the guilty win? How can the protections now enjoyed by the fourth estate be extended to citizen journalism without diluting them?

Jay Rosen: As a matter of law and public policy, I think “fourth estate” protections should focus on significant acts of journalism, not people in pre-fab categories or the kind of organization that surrounds the giver of news. All those who are engaged in the act of informing a broader public of what’s going on deserve to be under the First Amendment umbrella that protects the press. The press itself is composed of amateur and professional wings.

But that’s no answer to goons with lawyers who threaten to sue. Citizen journalists are definitely vulnerable there, which makes you realize why we have big media organizations in the first place. We have to be more creative. Robert Cox, head of the Media Bloggers Association (I am a founding member of the group) has shown that “an orchestrated campaign by bloggers to defend a fellow blogger in what appears to be a frivolous lawsuit” can work. That’s encouraging but not a complete answer, either. Legal intimidation will happen, and I’m sure there will be times when the bad guys will win.

10) Blogging (by From A Far Away Land)

When asking a primary source for information, I find that telling them I’m doing so to create a report on my blog tends to make them clam up, or continue to be unwilling to provide information that ought to be publicly available. What technique or phrases should I use to convince the interviewee that I both have a legitimate use for their information, and the right to obtain it?

Jay Rosen: Sometimes you have a right to obtain information from a primary source. Sometimes it’s not a matter of your rights but their decision to recognize you and cooperate. If search costs are high for making an informed decision about whether to trust a blogger who shows up with questions, sources will seek to reduce costs by using reputation and even stereotype (bloggers: ugh) as proxies.

I don’t think there’s a proper technique or a magic phrase that will solve this problem. There’s only one solution I can see. Send the guy the url to the “about” section of your site. That page ought to persuade potential sources that legitimate use will be made of their information. It should tell them what you are up to, and why. The site itself, the reporting and commentary there, is the best reason any source has to cooperate. Ah, but how do you convince them to take the time and look?

There’s at least one way. Break a story so that the source’s world is talking about it and next time around the source will speak to you— and go to your About page. I asked Dean Wright of Reuters what the biggest obstacle for NewAssignment.Net will be when it launches. “The same one that the more minor players in the mainstream media have: getting your calls returned,” he said. “Then when you complete a project and publish, you may find that other media outlets are reluctant to pick up your stories.” The only answer to that is “do some compelling projects that cannot be ignored.”

NewAssignment.Net will try to take that advice. It will do stories developed by users into assignments that are given to journalists. It could also do stories developed by journalists and divided into parts for users to assign themselves. (Mechanical Turk meets the Center for Public Integrity.) I hope it will do stories where teams of users and journalists figure out the division of labor together.

Sometimes the network will be the knowledge producer, the journalist the enabler. Other times the journalist will be the producer, and the network the enabler. Pro-am journalism is not inherently better than am-pro. Amateur users could in some cases do it all themselves, with editors watching and giving the green light in stages. Different combinations beg to be tried. It’s unwise to say in advance that we know how it will work, or that it can’t.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 4, 2006 11:54 AM