By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Jay Rosen on NewAssignment.Net

Jay Rosen expects his latest idea, New Assignment.Net, to fail. Launched several months ago with the idea of promoting open-source journalism (that is, collaborative efforts between professional journalists and unpaid citizen activists), the project will most likely fizzle out after two or three years, Rosen said yesterday at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“I see this as a temporary burst of energy and innovation designed to be imitated,” Rosen said. “Our idea is to steal this book — steal this project.” And: “It’s not going to be the next startup sold for $1.5 billion.”

Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, is one of the leading thinkers in how the Internet will change — and is changing — the way journalism is practiced, and the way it’s perceived by the public. His Press Think blog is a must-read, and NewAssignment.Net has attracted funding from Reuters and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. I brought my Journalism of the Web students to Berkman so that they could see and hear the latest about where online journalism may be headed.

Rosen said NewAssignment.Net has three missions:

  • To “spark innovation in open-source reporting.”
  • To determine whether the “pro-am” model — that is, having professional journalists and citizen volunteers collaborate on projects — can actually work.
  • To “figure out whether there can be a ‘gift economy’ for news.” There is a whole philosophy behind the idea of the gift economy, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. But if you’re thinking it means that people don’t get paid, well, that’s certainly part of it.

Open-source journalism is already working in a limited way. The Sunlight Foundation, for instance, has tapped the power of volunteers to expose such things as pork-laden earmarks that have been tucked into the federal budget.

What I find most interesting about Rosen’s idea is that he wants to figure out how to add professional journalists to the mix. Given the current economic decline of the news business, getting this right strikes me as essential both for preserving journalism’s public-service mission and, frankly, for helping the next generation of journalists find jobs. Indeed, Rosen welcomes help from journalism students.

Rosen said yesterday that NewAssignment.Net is already working on projects with and the BBC. In 2008, he hopes to put together a collaboration with to do an in-depth project on polling places.

The idea with all of these is that large numbers of volunteers would be asked to gather certain types of specific information to create a database that’s bigger and more comprehensive than a news organization could afford to assemble on its own. Then professional journalists would try to make sense of what the volunteers found.

Is this nebulous? Yes. I asked Rosen whether he thought such projects might lead to the creation of new types of jobs for professional journalists, rather than simply having journalists swoop in near the end to write and broadcast stories based on the data collected by volunteers.

His answer: Maybe. One of the lessons that may come out of NewAssignment.Net, he said, is that it may help journalists figure out how to make use of online “smart mobs” so that they can be better beat reporters. For example, a reporter whose beat is a particular company could assemble an online community of employees, former employees, spouses, suppliers and the like, and then make use of that community’s collective knowledge. But, as an attendee sitting next to me noted, developing sources is what we already do. (Although surely the Net makes it easier to build the kind of community Rosen envisions.)

I also asked about a news organization’s obvious need for exclusivity, as with the proposed project. What, I asked, would prevent another news organization from making use of the data before the Post got around to reporting on it? Rosen had two answers: It wouldn’t happen; but certain things might be “kept secret for the sake of the project” when necessary.

“I think people who have a lot of ideas don’t worry about their ideas being stolen,” he said.

It’s hardly a surprise that Rosen’s answers to my questions weren’t entirely satisfying. The whole point of NewAssignment.Net is to find answers. This is a project that will be well worth following closely.

Update: The Berkman Center has posted video of Rosen’s presentation here.

Credit: Photo of Jay Rosen taken by Laughing Squid on June 24, 2006, and licensed under the Creative Commons (cc) system. Some rights reserved. Full details here.

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  1. Anonymous

    Sounds like an honorable effort. My knee-jerk predictions with something like this: 1.) the “volunteers” will end up consisting of agenda-driven individuals with axes to grind and scores to settle (there’s a lot that in the news biz right now); and 2.) News companies will see this as an opportunity to reduce staff, not add it. Like I said, none of this sounds horrible, but there still has to be a line, you know? You don’t go to McDonald’s for dinner and get behind the counter to work the frialator.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    I share both of your concerns.Here’s what Rosen says to #1: If the information-gathering task is designed properly, then it won’t matter whether any particular volunteer has an agenda or not. He has some interesting ideas about having a “verification” person on board.As for #2, some will, the better ones won’t.

  3. Anonymous

    I’m not a journalist so maybe I’m missing something. But this whole concept gives me the creeps.Seriously.Isn’t mainstream jouralism already amateurish enough these days? Haven’t journalists always enlisted the aid of volunteers – quoting them as *sources*?

  4. Lisa

    Dude, was he at your class yesterday? I hereby charge you with publishing your class schedule and recording a few podcasts. Thwick, thwick! That’s that blog whip cracking 🙂

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Lisa: No, like I said, he was at Berkman. But I’m pleased to say that about two-thirds of his audience consisted of my students. The video is now online, so enjoy.

  6. Peter Porcupine

    Mr. Kennedy – I would call Glenn Reynold’s effort on Instapundit called ‘Pork Busters’ even more successful, because it cam from conservatives. That is where the Bridge to NoWhere was first reported, for instance. I tagged Bill Delahunt for $75,000 for a statue of JFK in Hyannis, which had a successful fundraising effort behind it already. It was removed from te final budget.Also, be sure to introduce your students to Pajamas Media, an effort which seems similar to this, to this almost a year old.

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