J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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As NewAssignment.net Rides High, Questions About Localism

Posted by chanders on September 23, 2006

First, the good news: some big-time money is flowing into NewAssignment.net. Of course, "big-time money" is a relative term; compared to the budgets of most media organizations,
$10,000 from the Sunlight Foundation and even $100,000 from Reuters is mere chump change. But as far as experimental online journalism projects go, its pretty good. As always, Jay has the complete round-up at his blog. It’s also worth reading the announcement straight from the mouths of Reuters themselves, over at Huffington Post (his opening line seems a little late: "Without corrective action, we are in danger of the public losing faith in the fourth estate." Umm … hello??? "in danger of losing??" Methinks the horse has flown the coop on this one.)

So regardless of the eventual success or failure of NewAssignment, it seems that the initial idea has gotten a lot of people in the industry excited. Of course, Rosen would be the first to note that NewAssignment is a niche website, at least for now. It can’t– and won’t– do everything.

One of the things I wonder if it will do, and I think it will not do, is cover what used to be called "local news." Most of the ideas about initial NA.net projects are national in scope– "how family-friendly are America‚Äôs companies, really?" is one of story ideas, for example. National stories, of course, are a perfect way to make use of "network effects," i.e., the relatively easy ability of dispersed groups of people to get a handle on large-scale social phenomena by pooling their resources. But although I’m reassured by the fact that I know that NewAssignment.net isn’t trying to do everything, I’m a little worried that the movement of the excitement and the money in such a national direction. After all, while journalism generally sucks everywhere, it sucks less on a national level than it does locally, if one can make such a blanket statement. I’d hate to see the energy of the online journalism world go only towards creating NewAssignment.net as the New York Times of the networked journalism world (though it would be great if NA became the New York Times of the networked journalism world, just as long as other things got a chance to grow as well.)

This is partly why I’m happy to see signs of stirring over on the Philly-NORG scene. A couple good emails have passed back and forth over on the (now public) Yahoo Group, and there are the early stages of both a wiki and a website, too.

I want to be clear, for what it’s worth– this post isn’t an attempt to create some "us versus them" type scenario … either we go local or we go national, we go NORG or we go N.A. Thats just dumb, especially considering that neither group is really trying to replicate the other (and of course that there are overlapping participants working within each group). I am trying to push the question of what models– financial, journalistic, philosophical– might work locally. What can NORGS, and other local journalistic projects, take from the NewAssignment experiment? And what will they have to leave behind? I think these are interesting questions, and tossing some ideas up against the rubber that is the quickly congealing NewAssignent model might be one way to ponder them.

OK, so a little more on localism while I’m on the subject. Check out the really informative conversation going on about hyperlocal media in the comments section of my posts on Typologies of Online Journalism. Kpaul from Indiana makes a point that I think relates to my previous bit, above: "don’t count out the regional independents yet, though. A lot of us realize the need to do more serious journalism. We know that takes money, though. The trick is going to be in raising money through the existing sites (with our bake sale stories) while building a bond with the community. At some point (at least in my plan) there will be paid reporters, stringers, photogs, etc."

How to raise the money?  … Another way in which comparison with NewAssignment (what from their model applies? What doesn’t) might be useful.

4 Responses to “As NewAssignment.net Rides High, Questions About Localism”

  1. Jay Rosen said

    Hi Chris. I have no idea if NewAssignment.Net (preferred abbrevation is NAN) will work at all. But all it takes for it to work locally is a local editor with a mini-site focused on local issues, a local user base, some local donors.

    The pool of participants is smaller, true, but other than that there is no barrier. Everything invented to work for national stories would work for local stories. Local groups formed online could have an easier time of it because they can meet up if they need to. Illustrations used to vivify how the site would work have been national, yes, but that’s an artifact of this early stage.

  2. Jay wrote: “The pool of participants is smaller, true, but other than that there is no barrier. Everything invented to work for national stories would work for local stories. Local groups formed online could have an easier time of it because they can meet up if they need to. Illustrations used to vivify how the site would work have been national, yes, but that’s an artifact of this early stage.”

    but isn’t that just circling back to a sort of Indymedia?

  3. Chris said

    Hi Bryan, and Jay,

    Not speaking for Jay, but my guess is that the difference would be that it would sort of be like “Indymedia with adults in the room” … local professional journalists would be involved and would bring their professionalism to the project, both in terms of what they know as professionals, but also, maybe even more importantly, their professional “cultural capital” in terms of trust, etc.

    (As a side note, some IMC projects actually already DO have professionals, or at least ex-professionals, involved; in NYC we have at least one ex mainstream newspaper / University of Missouri grad as well as an ex-Timesman, both of whom devote a lot of work to the project. This then raises, once again, the whole question of “what is a professional in the first place?”)

    The idea of Indymedia + adults also brings back some possible objections to the entire NAN concept … but they’re objections that Jay has already addressed in some of his responses to the critics, albeit in a more general way. But thinking about them this way raises them anew in maybe some interesting / provocative ways.

    My main point, however, remains, at least in part. That is, I see NAN as more than just the semi-reprofessionalization of amateur journalism; its also a great way to leverage network affects, that is, it can get widely dispersed smart mobs of interested amateurs to gather widely dispersed information in a way that would take months over the old journalism model. But do we need to utilize network affects in the same way on a local scale? Granted, I can see ways in which it would be useful (tracking down all the votes made by a local councilperson, for instance) but the need seems less pressing.

    But … there’s the $$$ / donor issue, too, in which case the NAN model seems to offer a whole lot more.

  4. That’s really part of the key, I think – having ‘professional/trained’ journalists. That’s one of the reasons I think Back Fence is growing so slowly. (Slower than they could be with 3 million?)

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Google and Microsoft and other late 20th century tech companies. A common theme is that they hire the best people and give them freedom. (Along with Craig’s idea of customer service being of the utmost importance, I’m going to latch onto that idea…)

    I’m hoping to hire some interns next year. Gannett (last I heard) doesn’t pay them locally (or if they do, not very well), and I really think I can grab some of the best talent coming out of BSU.

    Anyway, there are still lots of questions of what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, but I’m excited to be a part of it.

    -kpaul

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