There are some exciting new experiments being launched to improve the quality of journalism, and not a moment too soon. As many others have noted, the economics of the traditional news businesses aren’t especially good. Producing high quality enterprise and investigative journalism–real, in-depth, original reporting–is a fairly labor intensive undertaking, and that in many ways isn’t financially rewarding: If I spend two years unearthing something and publish it, the news itself can be picked up by the Associated Press and other wire services, published in other newspapers, broadcast on television and radio, and linked by and excerpted onto multiple blogs. If the Philadelphia Inquirer (where I once worked) devotes countless man hours, salary and expenses to breaking a story, readers don’t have to buy that paper (let alone subscribe to it) to get the news — the economic awards, such as they are, are as often as not realized elsewhere. It’s a great system for the public, but the for-profit media companies that pay the salaries of reporters, editors and photographers who do the grunt work digging out the story have shown themselves to be less and less willing to foot the bill.
Jay Rosen of PressThink is launching NewAssignment.net, which will try to bring together participatory news audiences (people who, as Rosen puts it, already are "online regularly and accustomed to informing themselves"), funders and professional journalists in an effort to do "stories the regular news media doesn’t do, can’t do, wouldn’t do, or already screwed up." Jay notes that there are predecessors to this effort (including another organization I used to work for), but what makes his approach interesting is its attempt to combine open source methods with professional journalists. I think that will be one of the more interesting aspects of his endeavor to keep track of. How will it change journalism if the assignment is proposed and refined online, in public, rather than in the cozy confines of a newsroom, with decidedly fewer perspectives and inputs into the process? I think you might end up with more three-dimensional coverage of issues, better capturing and explaining the complexities of our age.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on whether transparency will work in more traditional news organizations. One of the winners of the 2006 Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism (all of which, by the way, are worth checking out), the Spokane Spokesman-Review, has ambitiously experimented with openness in newsgathering, launching both a Daily Briefing to explain its editorial coverage and Webcasts of its two daily editorial meetings–where the paper’s editors decide what will go where in the next day’s edition.
But after reading about Jay Rosen’s initiative, I was a little disappointed by their reader blog, The News is a Conversation, which seemed focused for more on yesterday’s paper than on tomorrow’s (which is the important one). Reader criticism, of course, is important to news organizations, but moving beyond the divide of media and audience to a truly citizen journalism (or a networked journalism, if you prefer) is a more interesting question. Dan Gilmor, the director of the Center for Citizen Media, is hosting an "unconference" in Cambridge, Mass., on August 7 to do just that as part of the International Wikimedia Conference. It should be an interesting discussion.