NewAssignment.net and ‘The Future of News’

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By: David Hirschman

I can never decide how useful it is to attend panels and conferences about “the future of news.” I’ve been to a few this year, and for the most part they seem to hit pretty much the same notes. But, beyond all the talk, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen is about to to put one bold new idea into action.

First, here’s a little summary of what I’ve learned, and learned again, from panels so far:

— The future of news is online and the old media companies that evolve the fastest and build the best online business models will be the best-placed to survive and thrive.

— All previous assumptions about the way news is monetized should be reconsidered now that online competitors have become so agile at biting into revenue staples like classified advertising. Google seems like a terrifying monolith, and it’s unclear whether to compete against it or try to find synergies to share in its success, but eventually some compromise will be developed.

— Newspapers, magazines, and other print publications are simply too much a part of our society to disappear, so media companies will simply have to find a way to monetize them — even if they come out in a different form than we’re used to, and even if print publications end up being bought up by billionaire private owners who are doing it “for the public good” (in addition to feeding their egos).

— Blogs, while growing in importance, can’t replace the work traditionally done by reporters, because many types of stories simply cannot be covered without the resources and talent that big media companies enjoy. Moreover, high-quality newspaper journalism provides the basis for the vast majority of bloggers’ commentary.

Sitting on such a panel at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in New York last week, former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll tried to sound optimistic about the changes in news, but he also warned that newspapers and other old media were in “a fight for survival,” and said that it was quite possible that many “will not make it.”

“The economics of the digital age are attacking the old media, not just from one place or two places, but from many places and all around,” said Carroll. “It is taking the package of news and graphics and photographs that we so lovingly put together, and is ripping it apart rudely and redistributing it as a commodity that makes so little money that it can’t even cover your costs.”

Yet Carroll urged that large journalism institutions not give way to legions of small-scale news operations: “Much as we like the idea of a lone individual blogger standing up to government and doing these important things, it happens we live a nation that has developed very very big institutions. Government is big, business is big, and we need big journalism institutions to stand up to them … Even though the blogosphere is adding a tremendous amount to our national discussion, we still need these old behemoths. We can’t allow journalism to devolve into a cottage industry because it will be hopelessly outgunned.”

As a counterpoint, BuzzMachine blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis used the panel to extol the virtues of “citizen journalism” (or, “network journalism,” as he now calls it, to de-emphasize the importance of the person doing the actual reporting). He said, as he has before, that “anyone can perform an act of journalism” and then disseminate their information easily online. Thus, he thinks, the future of news is in collaborative projects between “professional” journalists and “smart mob” contributors who gather information voluntarily in order to enhance the accuracy of reporting.

“Together we can commit greater acts of reporting, covering more of society than was ever possible before,” said Jarvis, who singled out Rosen’s soon-to-launch project, NewAssignment.net, as an example of a way that these collaborations may take place in the coming years.

NewAssignment.net will field assignments and ideas from the public, and allow them to share information with one another at minimal cost. The site plans to organize investigations of specific issues with an editor assigning and coordinating the work of amateur and professional journalists. Essentially, someone will come up with a idea, and will offer to help support probing into it, and then the site will farm out the investigation virtually — some parts to public participants making up a “smart mob,” and some to pre-vetted journalists who will be paid for their work.

I spoke to Rosen last week about the project, which he says is coming along well. He has received a few much-publicized contributions from the likes of Reuters (which donated $100,000), as well as Craig’s List founder Craig Newmark and the Sunshine Foundation (who both donated $10,000), though he says he will need to raise about $1.5 million to run the project for two years, but he has been gratified by the amount of volunteer help he is getting from established journalists who are just interested in seeing what will result.

The site is already up, with a regularly updated blog populated by contributors’ posts and edited by David Cohn. Rosen also says he has hired Amanda Michel, a former Howard Dean campaign staffer, to be “director of participation” for the site. He says he will likely hire an editor for the site by next month, and then officially launch sometime between February and April.

NewAssignment.net’s first project — a sort of test — will be a collaborative investigation with Wired.com, Rosen said. After that, he anticipates putting together four large-scale investigations per year, including mini-projects that can be broken away from the main story. Rosen hopes the site will include many aspects of the kind of journalism that has existed until now, with editors critiquing writers’ work and the regular “ritual production” of content and reporting toward deadlines.

Whether Rosen’s project will revolutionize journalism the way Jarvis expects remains to be seen, but, at a time when many are struggling to adapt older models of how news gets produced, it’s refreshing that someone is trying to totally rethink the entire process of how the public service function of the news business might be salvaged.

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