Publicly selected and funded investigative reporting: Can it work?

Meet Jay Rosen. If you've frequented the inner circles of journalism, joined a public conversation about the media, or paid any attention to the so-called "a-listers" of the blogosphere, then chances are you've encountered the New York University-based professor of journalism, or at least his media/journalism watchdog blog at PressThink.

Meet Jay Rosen. If you've frequented the inner circles of journalism, joined a public conversation about the media, or paid any attention to the so-called "a-listers" of the blogosphere, then chances are you've encountered the New York University-based professor of journalism, or at least his media/journalism watchdog blog at  After more than 19 years as a critic of the American press, Rosen was one of the first (if not the first) from the halls of journalism academia in early 2005 to say that the distinction between bloggers and journalists is one that's no longer worth drawing (in his essay Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over). Wrote Rosen in that post:

And so we know [that blogs are] journalism-- sometimes. They're even capable, at times, and perhaps only in special circumstances, of beating Big Journalism at its own game. [The New York Times' John] Schwartz said so. The tsunami story is the biggest humanitarian disaster ever in the lifetimes of most career journalists and the blogs were somehow right there with them.

Today, some 18 months later, such special circumstances are melting into the bytework of the blogosphere as its bloggers routinely scoop the established media with a raw voice that smacks of unvarnished truth, particularly when compared to the sugar coated versions from the so-called pros that taste great but are often less filling. In an affirmation of Rosen's proclamation, Apple earlier this month gave up its court battle to force certain enthusiast sites to unmask the internal sources at the Cupertino-based company who surreptitiously furnished the "new media" with the iPod maker's trade secrets. Said a three judge panel in a ruling that afforded the Web reporters the protection of California's journalist shield law:

We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes 'legitimate journalism...' 

Today, the special circumstances that Rosen spoke of in his original essay no longer seem to be the case as ordinary citizens equipped with their own tools of the trade -- Web 2.0-based printing presses (aka blogs), digital cameras, video cameras, and audio recorders -- routinely beat the established media at their own game.  Even worse for the established media, a growing amount of the limited consumption time that people spend with content is being redirected to this new breed of journalism, eating away at the old guard's coveted audience numbers and ultimately, their revenues.

Now, after watching the media as it appears to be reinventing itself right before his very eyes, Rosen has decided to insert himself right into the heart of the beast as he looks to be a change agent who will test the readiness of the public to all at once become a virtual assignment editor, an army of fact checkers and gatherers, and the financier of no possible strings attached (there's no advertising) investigative reporting.

Today, Rosen announced an experiment he is calling NewAssignment.Net.  Although the domain is not yet active, the basic idea behind NewAssignment.Net is for the public to not only play assignment editor by collaboratively deciding what stories require the devoted attention of an investigative reporter, but also to help furnish that reporter with whatever information, facts, evidence, funding, and other resources that may be necessary to tell a complete and truthful story. 

The idea of such community-driven investigative reporting --- where the groundwork may be distributed but the final result is assembled by one or a handful of people -- reminds me very much of how Groklaw has operated over the years with respect to SCO v. IBM.  Groklaw essentially became the place for poeple who were motivated by the truth to provide whatever material information they could, even if the effort commanded a certain amount of their own time or personal resources. 

Perhaps the best example of this was when certain members of the Groklaw community not only unearthed a license agreement  for Unix between AT&T and The Regents of the University of California that was thought to be permanently sealed from public viewing, they also scanned that paper document into a PDF file and transcribed the text of it as best as they could (some parts were illegible) onto the Web. Not only did the revelation help to demonstrate the weaknesses of some of SCO's claims against IBM, it shows a degree of media transparency in action as Groklaw editor/publisher Pamela "PJ" Jones published both the PDF scan and the transcription of it simultaneously (in the event that anybody reading the "official Groklaw transcription" doubted its content). 

The order of events on Groklaw certainly sets a precedent for what NewAssignment.Net is looking to do. Prior to gaining access to the agreement, Groklaw's PJ routinely summoned her community of readers and participants to dig it up if they could.  In other words, the community got to decide first whether the effort was worth any investment of its time or resources.  Then, the community made that investment, and got the results it was looking for.   According to Rosen, NewAssignment will operate on nearly the same principles where the community backs the editorial operation. 

If you're a listener of the publicly funded NPR, then you're probably wondering why this is any different? In my podcast interview of Rosen (downloadable, streamable with the built-in player above, or, of you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it will automatically get downloaded to your computer and/or MP3 player),  I asked Rosen that very question and here's what he said [at 12:40 into the interview]:

The way it raises money is very different from NPR.  At NPR, they say "thank you very much for your contribution. Our professionals will take over the work from here." And, what we say is, "We have a story, we think. And we've collected a lot of good information. But there's a lot we don't know. Here's how to add your knowledge.  Here's how to make it happen with your dollars.  With NPR, the assumption is that you trust the professionals.  They know how to do it and they'll come back with something that satisfies you.  At NewAssignment, you're in the middle of it.

Indeed, the process and the business model may be different from those of NPR. But, with a dependence on funding from contributors that want the best reporting possible, I couldn't help but wonder whether or not, at the very least, NewAssignment.Net could end up competing for the limited number of disposable dollars that Americans have to contribute to non-commercial news production.  During the interview, not only did I ask Rosen about that, I also asked Craig Newmark (also on the line) what he thought.  Newmark participated in the interview as a concerned citizen who, in his words, believes that the Constitution is in crises (thereby warranting better press).  But he's also the founder of the ever popular online classified ad service CraigsList. With $10,000 from his personal bank account, Newmark is providing the initial round of funding for NewAssignment.Net's first project.

To hear more about the plan that Rosen is hatching and what Newmark had to say about whether he was reallocating dollars that were earmarked for NPR, or whether he was digging deeper for new money to fund NewAssignment.Net, check out the podcast.