As long as citizen journalism proponents have been pumping its merits, skeptics have been bothered by one question: Where will the funds come from? NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen thinks he has an answer, and is launching a website to test it. He tells Bob how NewAssignment.net will attempt to harness the experience of ordinary people to mount investigative projects that mainstream media just aren’t up to.
BOB GARFIELD: We spoke about TV. Another realm where old and new media have been duking it out is the world of journalism. But is it possible that both have valuable, even crucial lessons to learn from each other? NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen thinks so, and is launching an experiment to test his theory. It's called NewAssignment.net, and it works like this. Editors for the website will each host blogs where ideas for new reporting projects are shaped, with the help of reader input. Editors shepherd the brainstorming and dispatch participants to do preliminary reporting. If the story idea is popular, editors will solicit donations to fund more in-depth reporting, and if they're successful, will assign reporters to finish the job. That's the short version. Here to flesh it out is Professor Jay Rosen. Jay, welcome back to the show.
JAY ROSEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me basically, you know, using some sort of hypothetical story -
JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - how this all would work.
JAY ROSEN: Well, a simple example would be what are our schools actually doing with computers in sixth-grade classrooms? NewAssignment.net tries to find out. What's the best way to find that out? Well, we could ask the schools, but probably a better way would be to ask actual parents and kids who are in those classrooms, as well as lots of teachers. And if such an assignment caught enough imagination online from users, we might fashion it into a project and enlist volunteers and begin coming up with new knowledge about this subject, which we happen to know is of interest because lots of people told us.
BOB GARFIELD: What kind of money are we talking about? It's very expensive to mount a journalistic enterprise.
JAY ROSEN: It is. If you have to send a reporter to Bangalore to find that factory and write about it so that you understand something going on at home, that costs money. So NewAssignment.net is actually going to try everything you can think of to try, which would include sponsorships and advertising and memberships and underwriting and all forms of donation, including click here and contribute.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about “click here and contribute,” because one of the recurring criticisms of the mainstream media is that the corporate ownership thereof and the presumption therefore that the reporters and editors in the process are somehow answerable to "the man," and that that informs their coverage. But I know you've given some thought to the "he who pays the piper calls the tune" problem. And doesn't it strike you that the pressures on a reporter to fulfill the expectations of the people who are sponsoring his or her story will make the influence of "the man" seem trivial?
JAY ROSEN: That is definitely something we have to watch out for, and we're just going to have to look at that problem and figure out how it is solved. The first layer of protection is going to be an editor, which is somebody who's going to stand between donors and journalists in that most basic way. But the site will also have to have very tight controls and editorial standards. So I think that people might try and sort of influence the process somehow through their donations, but it's not going to be successful if we do this right.
BOB GARFIELD: One thing I've observed, watching bloggers over the last few years, is that they are, you know, as a body, aggressive and fearless and tireless. But what strikes me as being missing from many, many blogs is, you know, some measure of, if not objectivity, at least intellectual rigor in presenting a story.
JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it your idea to make clear to participants that what we're talking about is journalism and not ideology?
JAY ROSEN: Well, NewAssignment.net is definitely about producing journalism, yes, but it doesn't say that only ideology-free people can do that. And that certainly is going to be one of the things that separates it from the mainstream press. So maybe we'll have very fiercely point-of-view journalists doing assignments, and we'll learn how to include in them a right of reply, and we'll balance ourselves that way. Or we'll do the same problem from one perspective and then another, and see who wins. We have a lot of options available to us, and we're not going to be hemmed in by existing notions of what's professional or credible, because I think the whole challenge here is to figure out how you build trusted content online through interaction with the people who are going to trust it.
BOB GARFIELD: You're not going to be held to traditional concepts of what is credible? Isn't credibility the very heart, the blood or the, I don't know, whatever, the core of journalism?
JAY ROSEN: We're not going to try and go about building trust online in the same way that a mainstream news organization goes about it. We'll have other ways. For example, NewAssignment.net will probably practice a form of fact-checking that exceeds what you would find in a daily newspaper. And we'll organize networks of people to do that. The Internet is different in one very powerful respect, which is it doesn't only connect members of the audience up vertically to NPR and the White House. It also connects them horizontally to each other. And what we need to figure out is how is this newfound ability for people to share information horizontally, going to affect the vertical synthesizing of information that professional journalism has been totally dedicated to? In the end, if NewAssignment.net succeeds, and even where it fails, it's going to be good for major news organizations, because the news media will be able to see what's in these methods.
BOB GARFIELD: Jay, thank you very much. Good luck with the project.
JAY ROSEN: Okay. Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University. He blogs at pressthink.org.