Introducing NewAssignment.Net

by Jay Rosen, PressThink

Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t. They raise the money too. Q and A explains. There's $10,000 to test it, courtesy of Craig Newmark.

Alright, what is it?

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 this sense it’s not like donating to your local NPR station, because your local NPR station says, “thank you very much, our professionals will take it from here.” And they do that very well. New Assignment says: here’s the story so far. We’ve collected a lot of good information. Add your knowledge and make it better. Add money and make it happen. Work with us if you know things we don’t.

But I should add: NewAssignment.Net doesn’t exist yet. I’m starting with the idea.

For whom would the site exist? Who are the customers?

People who are interested in the news, online regularly and accustomed to informing themselves. They would come because New Assignment does stories the regular news media doesn’t do, can’t do, wouldn’t do, or already screwed up. And it allows for participation that is effective.

A sub-group of “customer” would be donors, wherever they are found. One of the major unknowns is whether such donors exist.

Finally, professional journalists with the required skills and a commitment to truth. They would be there looking for contract work.

For what kind of work?

Well, the site gives out real assignments— paid gigs with a chance to practice the craft of reporting at a high level. Because they’re getting paid, the journalists who contract with New Assignment have the time—and obligation—to do things well. That means working with the smart mobs who gave rise to the assignment and handed it over to an editor and correspondent with the story part-of-the-way there.

Is this about unleashing open source journalism, or hiring reporters to get the story?

Rather than proclaim one over the other, give us the advantages of both. I think this is what people listening to the conversation about citizens media want to see. And they’re right to want that. They are also saying: stop with the proclamations, on with the demonstrations. Let’s see the work. What can networked journalism, as Jeff Jarvis now calls it (“professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story”) actually do?

Where would the results of New Assignment investigations be seen?

At www.newassignment.net, or they will be presented by partners, or syndicated to clients.

Big Media sites could be a destination for New Assignment stories? Is that your hope?

That would be fine. I’m not expecting it. My hope is that open source methods can work when sensibly adapted. I think we’re a long way from knowing how that is done, or if it can be done. New Assignment is an attempt to find out. Parts of this puzzle are scattered all about: in the news business, blogger empires, on the political Web in several places, on the air— and indeed around the world. My scheme isn’t advanced enough yet to go live. It’s in the development stage, quite unfinished. I’m hoping to improve it by a lot. This Q and A is the start. And the comment threads, of course.

And if it works?

If I can improve it, get the funding, find people who know how to operate in the more open style, NewAssignment.Net would be a case of journalism without the media. That’s the beauty part. Reporter + smart mob + editor with a fund get the story the press pack wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t.

And if it works really well, the site could eventually support people— the careers of the editors and reporters who give and get the assignments.

That’s in the distance. A more likely payoff is that, properly configured, journalists and volunteer networks of users can do some things better together than either could alone. NewAssignment.Net is a test of that proposition. It should be possible for the site to discover things that would be hard to discover any other way, certainly by an individual reporter, unaided. So when I say original I mean that too. Of course, maybe my premises are cracked and what “should” work won’t. We’ll see.

Okay, but we’ve heard a lot about “tapping” the powers of the Net. That’s no help. To what problem in journalism is NewAssignment any kind of answer?

A big problem, actually. It’s probably the one heard more than any other around the industry water cooler, Romenesko. Where’s the money going to come from to support real reporting in this brave new media world we’re building? Anyone with half opened ears knows this is the deepest anxiety in the news business. It’s always there at conferences and roundtables where journalists talk about their future. More than once I’ve seen a senior executive or pundit in the news business, contemplating how hard it is to make money on the Internet, turn to bloggers and say: guys, where’s the money going to come from?

Like we knew!

NewAssignment.Net is not “the” answer, by any stretch. But there can’t be one best way in the new political economy of newsgathering. We’re better off with many people trying many schemes, including some that sound crazy. Mine is no solution at all to how the press funds its Moscow bureaus, or how to keep the metropolitan newspaper together. I have answers to none of that.

I just think journalism without the media is at this point a practical idea, worth testing. By raising money and “raising” great stories that are worth the money, NewAssignment.Net makes it possible for the people formerly known as the audience (I’ve been writing about them lately) to originate outstanding work. The design assumes no antagonism at all between “citizen” users and “professional” journalists. The assumption is we need both, and ways for them to work in tandem. A journalist who can’t work with people and tell them the truth isn’t right for New Assignment. Visitors who cannot accept an account at odds with prior belief will not be happy participants, and they certainly won’t donate.

How did you get started on this idea?

By thinking about what happened to Chris Allbritton, the former AP reporter who got a blog and used it to cover the war in Iraq as the United States forces descended on that country in 2003. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking and patriotic hype. That was the assignment. It was new because it didn’t involve the media at all, but it was real journalism: war correspondence with an intimate feel.

Allbritton needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and found the war) a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, enough cash to move around, keep fed and buy his way out of trouble. He went as an independent, representing only his readers, his backers, himself. He never asked permission to be in the country. He just went. The law was changing hands anyway.

On March 27, 2003 his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site, Back to Iraq. That was NewAssignment.Net in improvised form, because the journalist and a “paying” public got together and pulled it off. The people formerly known as the audience could, in a sense, hire their own journalist. Allbritton showed that it was possible; and I wrote about what he did in Columbia Journalism Review.

But I kept thinking about that episode because the implications were large. Alert publics hire their own correspondents and share the results with the world, cutting “the media” out entirely. This had promise. Meanwhile, Chris started stringing for Time magazine, and eventually became a Middle East Correspondent based in Beirut. Michael Yon, who is more sympathetic to the President’s aims in Iraq, has shown that Allbritton’s idea wasn’t a total fluke: he’s raised money from users to report independently from Iraq on the Net. The people who rely on Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo have funded expansions in his operation, including a Muckraking Fund that led to a new site.

They’re all journalism without the media, in my book.

Is that the “new” part then, cutting out the middle man? And why is it called New Assignment?

Several reasons. Two are most important: First, all assignments emerge from open source (we could also say collaborative) methods. They bring into investigative journalism what Net-based social networks can know. Our hunch is you can break stories that way if you don’t try to control it too much. Or too little! Second, the money is raised, and the journalism is completed after that “open” stage has been run. The site seeks funding for assignments that have been well-defined, vigorously discussed and are part-of-the-way there because they were open-sourced successfully (failures having fallen away).

“Successfully” means what?

Take a relatively simple example: “Why does Zorflexe Costs So Much?” It’s a drug-pricing story (I made up the brand name Zorflexe) that attempts to establish what a commonly-needed Arthritis drug costs in North America and around the world, including information from every zip code in the US, and then tries to explain the variations in price by sending journalists out to investigate what the network returned as data. I am not saying this is an earth-shattering story, or that none like it has ever been told. It’s just a simplified example to show network effects.

The users help find out what a drug costs “everywhere.” It would be hard for a reporter to do that alone. Journalists are hired to get answers to questions developed by users, filtered through editors, who in turn enforce a certain standard of excellence, fairness and transparency that is indistinguishable from New Assignment’s reputation.

Successful assignments emerge when lots of participants show interest in the early stages to contribute knowledge and help refine the story to the point where it is assignable and (the editors believe) fundable. And if not that then affordable.

So what’s different is: the site does professional quality, but (very) amateur-friendly reporting, it’s journalism without the media, it runs all assignments through an open source gauntlet, it requires the participation of a smart mob for a story to lift off and become an Assignment, capital A. What did I leave out?

The correspondent doesn’t “take over” until work is well along. The early stages are done in the open. The money for the reporting isn’t raised until the story is outlined and partially developed. Which means you can see where it’s going. Don’t like it? Don’t contribute! The evidence for why there’s a story there can be examined by anyone who is interested. When you go to the site itself, www.newassignment.net, assignments are in motion, from bubbling up to rolling out, sort of like projects at a studio.

These are relatively new methods for doing journalism with the Net. Thus: NewAssignment.Net.

So this is the wisdom of the many, rather than the few, which we’ve heard so very much about?

No. It’s journalism by the many and the few, who try to redeem the promise of the original assignment by creating great journalism with it. They 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. This is how the site builds reputation.

To be clear, I said users get answers to the assignment’s questions. That does not mean they get the answers they want or anticipate.

We’ll go into that more in part two of this Q and A. What happens after an assignment is developed online?

Well, by then the assignment “sheet”—a content-rich web page of our own design—has a one-word slug (Zorflexe) a title Why Zorflexe Costs So Much, And So Little, a one paragraph summary (100 words or less) the key questions the account has to answer, a why section where it’s explained why we need these answers, call lists with sources who should be consulted or have agreed in advance to talk, links for the critical background material, the prior journalism on which this act should build, and assorted leads, hints, suggestions, data and resources the eventual correspondent can pick up and use to create great work. A wiki-fied roadmap to a story of high public interest.

But the roadmap is also supposed to interest potential supporters by allowing them to judge for themselves the likelihood of success. Suppose in our Zorflexe example we’re getting wild variations in prices and we can already see they follow some patterns. That content-rich web page of our own design has to show all this. It will be a lot of work to get it right.

The assignment, if things click, is also the enticement. We get that. But how does it get before donors’ eyes?

An editor decides when an assignment gels. At that point the story moves to the front page of NewAssignment.Net. It’s officially ready to get talked about and seek greenlight status. A time window is chosen and it’s “out there” to attract support.

If open sourcing really works, and the assignment page is strong, it should generate excitement about the investigation yet to be done, a sense that “someone has to do this story.” The people who worked on the open stage have an investment in seeing the rest happen. But will it happen? Yes, if the site and its editors can find the money. This creates suspense for those who care.

Yeah, but why would people care? I mean care enough to want to help you out in your data collection schemes, or give you money. You’re not assuming most people would be interested in that, are you?

No, we’re not. Some people. In some cases a very few people. But if you’re a middle-aged man in Minnesota with elderly parents and one takes Zorflexe and you can’t believe how much it costs, especially compared to prices in Canada… well, you might very well be willing to join in, especially if we make it easy for you to see that your efforts could add up to some big discoveries.

The betting is: if you give a lot of people an investment in the early stages some of them—-of course it could be just one-—will step forward and make it happen. Others contribute knowledge only, no money. They in turn are a tiny percentage of the readership. An assignment can have one funder, or several hundred, even thousands once the micropayment puzzle is solved. Maybe we sell NewAssignment.Net memberships for $50.00 a year and you can apportion those dollars in micro-amounts over 12 months. That would be cool.

Some back-of-the-envelope math: If 3,000 users decide to commit $3 of their $50 fund because they got excited about a story, that’s enough to place a reporter on the trail of that story full time for, say, a month. Don’t hold me to those numbers.

But you don’t have to donate to participate in NewAssignment.Net, right?

Not a dime. But then you are a donor if you contribute what you know or found out, if it’s reliable information.

You said “only if editors can get the money.” How much would you be trying to raise for each story?

Each assignment would have a price tag, which is simply a realistic budget—- the amount that has to be raised to get the right people and do a very good job. NewAssignment.Net is a non-profit because it’s just about the journalism. Delivering audiences to advertisers isn’t the mission. The budget reflects the actual cost of doing the work, plus overhead for sustaining the site, plus whatever tax we decide to impose to carry New Assignment ahead.

If the money is raised, the project moves to the next stage: a reporter is hired, a deadline is set, work begins, editors oversee, journalists operate in traditional and open source fashion to answer the assignment’s questions, with a brief to go beyond that when necessary. Of course for some stories more than one pair of hands is needed, which means more money has to be raised.

What if the money is not raised?

That is one failed assignment. There will be those. This is one of the Darwinian moments built in.

Is that the end of it, then?

Might be. Not necessarily. The assignment may be dropped, written off as a dud. Or, an editor can decide to fund it out of precious special projects fund that editor controls. That would be a gamble. An editor can also decide that the money can be raised after-the-fact, a bigger gamble.

Special projects fund? And where does that money come from?

In the beginning from the initial funding NewAssignment.Net gets from people who believe it might work. Start-up funds.

So you plan to raise money for this?

Yes. Enough to try it out. And if you’re reading this and want to help with funding, e-mail me at PressThink. I will be in San Francisco soon for a week.

Editors have to develop reputations or they’re sunk. In order to do that, they have to be able to fund extremely promising or urgent ideas that for one reason or another are not a “hit” in the online fundraising stage.

It wouldn’t make sense to do kick-ass open sourcing and then “lose” it to the vagaries of Paypal. Even though online donations may work well much of the time, we cannot make good ideas hostage to that. So the editors have reserve funds. It creates flexibility for funders too because you can fund an editor directly.

So you’re not only talking about fundraising story-by-story, with click and contribute?

Right. NewAssignment.Net has no dogma about how the money comes in. It’s a charity and will raise funds for high quality journalism any way it can figure out that’s wise, that works and maintains the site’s independence and reputation. It may be that very good editors can raise a lot money for their special funds by developing a track record, knowing their donors, finding sponsors who want to be associated with the work, or buyers in the media who will pay the costs. New Assignment syndicates to Big Media and gets paid that way. Or it could accept sponsorships. We’ll see.

No matter where the money comes from, all assignments have to be open-sourced and developed online, and brought to the “completed roadmap” stage.

In that sense the users have veto rights, correct?

In the same way that users of Slashdot and Kuro5hin “veto” the things they are not interested in, yes. Stories aren’t limited by the wisdom of the crowd. But they aren’t NewAssignent.Net stories unless they get a suitable response online.

The challenge is to develop the art of collaboratively-reported stories, which is waiting to be proven viable. I wrote about it recently as Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism. I said it’s about time we found out if the idea works. I also did a BloggerCon session (the MP3 is here) with the same theme. I think this kind of thing can work, but no one really knows.

Can it challenge the major news organizations?

In the sense of doing what they do every day? No way. New Assignment is like a “boutique” firm. Not a major producer, an irregular and niche one, with no obligations to carry a full line or be omniscient in newsland. We’re not putting the world under surveillance, just doing our thing.

You’ve referred to the editors several times, like we know them. Who are they and what do they do?

Editors at New Assignment do a great many things, some of which differ not at all from traditional section editing at a newspaper or magazine, while others have no parallel to prior work. New Assignment editors hire writers, supervise their reporting, edit the work that comes back, and prepare it for publication—all traditional tasks.

But they also blog in their area of interest to generate story ideas and attract knowledgeable people to their area of the site. They work with users as assignments come together online. They decide when an assignment is far enough along to be packaged and sent out to seek its fortune. They set budgets; negotiate contracts; develop and nurture new writers; raise money for their special funds; cultivate a network of reliable supporters; find new patrons; participate with other editors in the approval of story ideas; “place” finished work with media outlets in syndicated fashion; and—much the most important thing—they uphold the site’s standards and practices. They also drum up excitement for the work they are doing by being visible, clued-in and articulate persons on the scene.

That’s putting a lot on the editors isn’t it?

Yes, and I’m not done yet— there’s more we’re expecting. Editors are the key people in every way. They drive things. The biggest expense will be to employ them. If the site is ever successful it will be because of particular editors who learn how create journalism—-and get people to fund it—using open source methods. Putting it together, as Sondheim said. That’s what editors have to be most skilled in.

That doesn’t sound like “new media.” Remember how bloggers celebrated their freedom from editors when they burst on the scene? If I have you right, nothing gets through unfiltered, and editors have a very traditional role, not like blogging at all.

Exactly right. NewAssignment is all about the editors. Except: They are editors who have sworn on a stack of Dan Gillmor’s: My readers really do know more than I do… sometimes! The trick is to know when. It’s not a mantra, it’s a method. They also know that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web so that people could easily collaborate. But you’re right. The editors are czars, gatekeepers even. All very traditional.

Could you take an example through all the steps you have described so far?

After Katrina, we all knew that a huge flow of money would be headed to the Gulf and New Orleans. (In 2005, Americans donated $5 billion to Hurricane Relief. And there has been good watchdog work about it.) If New Assignment was up and running then, you might go there and find that Gina, our Follow the Money editor, has opened a thread for “tracking the billions after Katrina.”

You have some ideas of how that might be done. Your brother-in-law has better ideas because he rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew. Saw lots of scams; and you know he’s online. So you shoot him an e-mail about the thread. Then you visit Gina’s blog and she tells you what’s going on, how to participate, what kind of ideas have been floated so far for following the money after Katrina, and where to add your bits to the project.

At the top right of Gina’s homepage and blog is a dollar figure (let’s say it stands at $35,000) which represents how much she has in her venture fund for Follow the Money stuff. That means she can greenlight an idea herself, if the right one emerges, but in practice the money is rarely used. It’s there to let visitors know that if they participate in the coming together of a great idea, it can happen. Therefore there’s nothing abstract or pie-in-the-sky about the discussion at Gina’s site. This makes it different than an ordinary political blog.

You watch the story develop. Six likely scams to check into, and where to look for evidence of each. Plus assorted tips and background. One day you go to visit the thread and it’s closed, with a pointer to the front page of NewsAssignment.Net where the stories that are successfully open sourced and ready to seek angels are found in a rotation. Your idea has “graduated” to the next stage.

Now there’s a dollar sign attached to it, and a deadline for raising that much. A counter shows progress to getting the greenlight. But the key thing is the editor’s “pitch,” a blog post that explains the story: what’s known, what’s not and what’s at stake. Users can follow along and “root,” or contribute themselves and help make it happen. Donors names are listed as they come on board. Influential donors may cause movement toward a project they commit to. Meanwhile editors are on the phone, or in e-mail, matching stories to patrons. They have many choices during the limited period when the assignment is out.

How long is that period?

Don’t know. But it lasts for a certain interval, the exact length of which we determine later. At any one time, the front page features a limited number of assignments that are “open” and compiling contributors. Each is well developed, and promising enough to warrant precious promotional space. If the money is raised from small contributions, or a special sponsor is found, or an editor chooses to support the work from a venture fund, or a syndication client agrees to buy, then the greenlight is given. The front page shows the projects that are “in the field.” It promotes the latest NewAssignment journalism, and the hot topics from which the next story might come.

Okay. I’m starting to see that. How do correspondents get matched to assignments?

Editors. Of course would be-writers are watching the board, too, and will nominate themselves for projects that are moving forward successfully. NewAssignment.Net will have to have a reputation system for journalists, which reflects how well they complete their assignments, according to users, editors, and funders. By signing on to a project, the reporters at the top of the reputation system help make it happen. Stars could emerge, and make money by doing great work.

So if a correspondent builds up a track record, and gets assignments based on it, where does that leave the newcomer who has no record yet?

Editors, again. They give new people a try in various ways, maybe as second correspondent on a two-person team. It’s partly a talent development job— not unlike what magazine editors commonly do now. Since NewAssignment specializes in collaboration, there are ways for newcomers to start slowly and get the hang of it. Just as new bloggers have emerged from comment threads, new journalists will probably emerge from the user base. Editors can hire anyone they want. If they think you can do the job, you may get the assignment.

What happens after the assignment gets the green light and the correspondents are on board?

The next few steps proceed as they would in a traditional freelance assignment, except that reporters better know how to tap into the instant knowledge networks that collect at the site when it’s cooking. When the work returns it is edited in compliance with NewAssignment.Net protocol. The questions asked in the beginning are supposed to be answered; the reporter is de-briefed online. The reporters and editors who have a feel for the pro-am and open source styles will be the ones who succeed.

In my example Gina’s reserve fund is $35,000, a pretty modest sum. Suppose, for the sake of argument, it was ten times that: $350,000. That would be one decently powerful editor, wouldn’t it?

I guess it would. Any luck yet in finding funders and supporters?

Some, yes. I have a grant from the MacArthur Foundation (their John Bracken helped a lot) to support my work in this area over the next year— writing, speaking, finding partners, refining the idea at PressThink and in other forums, raising money to try it out.

And we have our first partners. First was Daylife, a start-up based in New York and set to launch later this year with a product that will gather, analyze, organize, and create a new platform for following the world’s news. NewAssignment.Net will specialize in stories the rest of the world’s news organizations aren’t covering; Daylife can help track that. They will be providing technical help and some distribution.

You may have heard something about Daylife because Jeff Jarvis is involved in it, and because one the company’s angel investors, Craig Newmark of craigslist, has been talking about it. NewAssignment.net and Daylife are working together now on a pilot project that would test some of these ideas.

Then yesterday I got word from Craig Newmark that he’ll give $10,000 for an initial test. It’s coming from the Craig Newmark Foundation, his personal charity, not the company. That means we can hire an editor and a reporter and actually do some networked journalism with users. It’s our first reserve fund.

Cool. One more question and that will be the end of part one. Why would anyone come to this site in the first place? You speak of NewAssignment.Net users, but what makes you think you will have users?

Have you ever looked up from the news and said to yourself, why doesn’t someone in the media try to find out how it could possibly happen that… Pretty common experience, right? New Assignment is where you would take it. The money available for real journalism would pull people in too. A lot of users would have no interest in open source methods; they would just come for the stories we do.

I be

article originally published at http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2006/07/25/nadn_qa.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey