Margaret Simons writes:

“Where’s the money going to come from to support real
reporting in this brave new media world we’re building? Anyone with
half opened ears knows this is the deepest anxiety in the news business.”

So writes New York University
journalism academic Jay Rosen on his PressThink blog.
Rosen has been one of the most important thinkers about the problems and future
of journalism for at least a decade. Now he has announced a project which I
think will provide one of the answers to the question.

Rosen has launched NewAssignment.net – a
project that relies on the insight that journalism and media are not the same
thing. Media is the business of
delivering eyeballs to advertisers. Journalism
is enmeshed with and supported by the media, but has an older and more
important purpose.

The idea is an internet-based organisation
which solicits money from the public to commission and fund journalists to
research story ideas developed and informed by the readers of the site.

The idea grows out of the
experience of Chris
Allbritton
, a former AP reporter who raised $14,500 from 342
readers of his blog, and used the money to go to Iraq and provide
them with original reporting of the war.
Rosen has previously remarked that this is similar to one of the early
newspaper business models, in which wealthy merchants grouped together to
commission correspondents to send back news from the countries where they had
business interests.

NewAssignment.net aims to combine the
strengths of citizen journalism, grounded in the principle that the audience
knows more than the journalist, with the rigour, skills and editorial standards
of the traditional newsroom.

Significantly, the development of NewAssignment.net is to be funded by a US$10,000 grant from Craig Newmark, the
man behind the free classified advertising site Craigslist. Newmark has clearly been stung into action by
claims that his business model will destroy the viability of newspapers and the
journalism they carry.

NewAssignment.net depends on an article
of faith: that there are sufficient people who care about being well informed
to fund journalism without the subsidies built in to the traditional
advertising supported media model.

The interesting thing, assuming the
idea works at all, will be to see what kind of journalism people actually want. The media can be trusted to provide celebrity
gossip, sport, and “snack” up-to-the-minute news. They can also be
trusted to provide a diet of entertainment suffused with commercial messages.

But when it comes to commissioning in-depth
research, what will people want to know about? My guess is that the
internal machinations between Howard and Costello
won’t attract much funding. Politics as
spectator sport won’t get there. Politics as the issues that affect
people’s lives may well do so. Another question is whether the market
in Australia is big enough to support a local equivalent of Rosen’s
idea.
Even Rosen, an eternal optimist, does
not pretend that NewAssignment.net will be the whole of the answer to
the
question of how to support journalism in the future. It will be a
boutique
solution, or perhaps a series of boutique solutions. But he has the
funding both from Newmark and
elsewhere to develop the idea.

This is an important development. Join the debate and contribute ideas on the
ground floor at PressThink.

Peter Fray

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