J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Journalism Without the Media? The Norg Notion Goes One Step Further

Posted by chanders on July 26, 2006

So, it appears that at least a few of the rumblings in the online journalism world I was hearing a couple weeks ago have actually turned into a new, experimental, institutionally funded model for how to take the NORG concept to the next step. Jay Rosen calls it New Assignment, and it has the potential to be revolutionary. Or fail completely. But its exciting, no matter what happens.

Basically, the outline is this, though I encourage everyone to read the Press Think entry on this to get the full scoop. There’s a lot I’m leaving out:

In simplest terms, a way to fund high-quality, original reporting, in any medium, through donations to a non-profit called NewAssignment.Net.

The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up. There are accountability and reputation systems built in that should make the system reliable. The betting is that (some) people will donate to works they can see are going to be great because the open source methods allow for that glimpse ahead.

In short, rather than mashing up the funder, citizen, and journalist all in one person (as the Internet has been doing, by and large) New Assignment  separates them again but networks them: the funder supplies the capital; the citizens do the early, often time-consuming legwork that a journalist couldn’t do alone; and the journalist "does the story," with help from the audience.

The usual crew has been responding to this, and quickly too! Rather than link them here I’d encourage you, once again, to check out the "Aftermater" on the Press Think blog, which sums up the discussion so far, as well as the comments. Surprisingly, at least to me, there have been a lot of doubters so far, too.

I have a few of my own questions too, a few on the practical end, the more interesting ones on the theoretical end:

– How "open" is open source? I.e., will the results of the journalistic investigations be available to everyone? Or in other words, will the people who made the capital investment get any freebies, either early access, permanent, restricted access, etc? I especially think the last set up would be a pretty serious violation of the spirit of the web, which is why I can’t see it happening. Nevertheless, the question of who would get the final product, and how, was left somewhat nebulous in the original write-up?

–How would this translate to the local level? (some of the Philly NORGS folks are asking this too.) In other words, for hyper-local but still politically relevant stories, would there be a large enough donor base to make the concept fly, or would you need to depend on a more geographically dispersed "community of interest? Will Bunch rephrased my question: "Who would you investigate for $10,000?"

–Costs. Will funding these types of projects be out of reach for the people whose needs and views are most often ignored by the press today, that is, poor people? Will these be different pricing tiers, will foundations, politicians, and universities have to pay more, etc?

–But probably my biggest question is this: after the reporter is hired and the story is green-lighted, what is the role of the community then? Jay mentions a few times that reporters or editors "also continue to collaborate with the network that birthed; the piece. Then they report back to the people who started the ball rolling, with answers to their questions and a lot more they uncovered."

How open source, then, is the actual reporting process itself? Or are there just some reportorial tasks that can’t be open-sourced? Are we giving up the idea that "everyone can be a journalist," and replacing it with "everyone can be an assignment editor?" Don’t get me wrong: I still think that’s a major step forward, and anyone who has spent a few hours in a newspaper editorial meeting nows how key this role actually is. But the plan still is, as Jay himself admits multiple times, a fairly traditional one. Andrew Cline at Rhetorica nails it, I think, when he writes that "today marks the official separation, or distinction, of two terms (now two concepts): citizen journalism and networked journalism… Whereas networked journalism is a collaboration between citizens and professionals, citizen journalism is, or should now be considered, those efforts by the public to create their own journalism." Are these ideas really distinguishable? How? Normatively, is one more "valuable" than the other?

A reader in the Attytood blog asks something similar: "Will, your approach is top-down and typical of large media thinking. Much of the best research and activism in the blogsphere is spontaneous, in response to events, rather than being a result of someone setting out to find something."

One or two more random thoughts. First, I wonder how much of this idea grew out of the sad failure of Dan Gilmor’s Bayosphere project. That was, arguably, a new journalistic model that was purer than the model we see here. Are we starting to learn from our mistakes, what works and what doesn’t?

Finally, its interesting to see how much parts of this project– in spirit if not in form– resemble the original, in-person notion of "public journalism" as it was developed in the late 1980′s.  Public journalists argued  journalism had a special responsibility towards the public sphere, a responsibility that required viewing citizens as active members of civil society rather than as simply passive consumers of news, a responsibility that often involved, in practice, facilitating local “citizen dialogs” in order to better integrate this active citizenship perspective into the daily reporting of this news. To paraphrase Michael Schudson, the traditional PJ model still viewed journalists as the key actors in the entire affair: they sought the public’s advice, but the ultimate journalistic act was still theirs.

Its going to be exciting to watch this experiement develop. Ah, the Internet. How does one write about it? Everytime you rest for just a moment, the whole thing changes…

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