Following up on my recent post on what magazines should do online ("do the best magazine you can possibly do and - using the online tools - do it together with your readers"): there is a new project in "hybrid journalism" out there and it's picking up speed. Announced in August, it's called NewAssignment and is the brainchild of Jay Rosen, the head of NYU's Department of Journalism and one of the best minds currently applied to the future of media.
NewAssignment defines itself "an experiment in open-source reporting" and aims at exploring whether "open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust", and how this can be funded.
"Pros and amateurs cooperate to produce work that neither could manage alone", Rosen states. The costs for "like-minded people to locate each other, share information and work together" is falling, and that's the leverage that NewAssignment wants to exploit.
But it's not only the work (reporting, fact-checking, writing, producing) that will be pro-am: the assignment itself, in this approach, will be defined cooperatively. The model of NewAssignment obviously has significant potential for large-scale reporting projects, where "large" is not necessarily intended geographically, but is meant also as a measure of the quantity and quality of information that needs to be found, organized, checked and made sense of. Someone suggested for example to report collectively on electronic voting machines, which in the US are creating an indescribably chaotic situation in the run-up to the mid-term elections next month, by mobilizing journalists, retired journalists, and citizens in every election district and polling place - something no media organization could possibly do (nor finance) alone. (Check out this assignment outline by Rosen). Using distributed volunteers on reporting projects of course raises a series of questions most notably about the reliability of the information, and those are also questions that NewAssignment wants to answer.
NewAssignment got some seed funding from Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Reuters and the Sunlight Foundation, and said that the first assignment will probably be announced early 2007. It will almost certainly be a US-wide assignment, and given the current political situation there, it is likely to be politics-related.
NewAssignment epitomizes the search for a "hybrid" model (or "network" model) of journalism: it's no longer just the professionals observing reality from their separate vantage point; it's not pure "user-generated content" and "collective intelligence". The first model is outdated; the second overhyped. The real thing is a mix of the two, using the tools of the Internet: everyone contributes "with some slight editing", as Eric Sundelof says; “Citizen journalists need and deserve active collaboration and assistance. They want some direction and a framework, including a clear understanding of what the site’s purpose is and what tasks are required", adds Dan Gillmor. I'm amazed for example at the fact that (according to a recent Pew study) while 65% of bloggers do not consider their blog a form of journalism, 57% do include links to original sources and 56% check their facts (hence, they engage in practices generally associated with journalism).
Hybridization is the sea change in media and knowledge creation and dissemination, and it's popping up everywhere in many fields that are not neccessarily journalism-related. Just consider some recent announcements: Citizendium, started by one of the Wikipedia founders, Larry Sanger, to try to correct the problems that plague the big open-source encyclopedia by engaging experts to maintain standards and accuracy over what the crowd creates; the project by the curators of New York's Museum of Modern Art to display amateur-produced videoart selected on YouTube; the book project "We are smarter than Me", a study on the impact of social networks on traditional business functions that will be authored by a large crowd of "ams" coordinated by the "pros" of MIT, Wharton Biz School, and others.
I've been thinking for a while whether a project like NewAssignment could work in Europe. There have been many attempts in recent years to co-opt "readers" as content providers, soliciting ideas, pictures (think of the London 2005 subway bombings pictures), etc, but real pro-am work is still very seldom. Nova, a tech supplement to the Italian daily IlSole-24Ore, has a section called openNova where they publish stories written by young readers, mostly university students and researchers, after they are checked by the editorial staff. The Financial Times has a column, which is edited by star columnist Lucy Kellaway, where every week a question is asked, and the following week the answers, comments and advice offered by the readers are published.
Those are interesting hybrid approaches, but nowhere near the ambitions of NewAssignment. S-Korea's OhMyNews is a much-quoted success in getting citizen contributors and editors to work together. Another, less-known case - I am reluctant to bring it up because I do contribute to the magazine - is maybe that of L'Hebdo in Switzerland, a French-language newsweekly: they have an annual "Gaspi d'Or" award ("The Golden Waste") and they started this year a "Kafka d'Or" ("The Golden Kafka"), where they engage the readers, along with their journalists, in reporting, respectively, the most wasteful public policies and projects, and the most "kafkaesque" - absurdly bureaucratic and convoluted - procedures. The "Kafka" is too young to judge whether it can have any impact, but the "Golden Waste" has been instrumental for example in stopping a highway tunnel project.
PS: It turns out that while I was writing this, David Cohn at NewAssignment was commenting on my earlier post on magazines online: "journalism is a give and take relationship".