Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jay Rosen and NewAssignment.net

Say what you will about Jay Rosen, he remains one of the only people (outside of the citizen’s journalism movement) doing more than complain about the state of journalism in the United States. For decades, now, he has been trying to move the journalism profession in new, potentially fruitful directions. In the 1990s, he was involved (as an outsider) with Knight Ridder’s attempts to develop a new model for community/journalism interactions sometimes called “civic journalism” or “public journalism.” This was an attempt to bridge the growing gap between the public and those bringing it the news—and even the gap between the business side of the paper and the editorial.

Fellow journalism professor Philip Meyer describes the reactions to this attempt to create a movement in his book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age (Columbia, MO: The University of Missouri Press, 2004), stating that it was:
denounced by critics as a ploy by publishers to make more money. (One unintended effect of the historic separation of news and business sides has been to give some news people the odd notion that making money is bad.) The concept was introduced into newspaper companies from the top down. In a business so conservative that anything that seems new can set off alarm bells, top-down innovation can create a problem. Nevertheless, it was really a good idea.[…] Civic journalism was a way to use a newspaper’s influence to build a stronger polity, and it benefited both the community and the paper. (72)

Meyer is right: it was a good idea—and it still is.

Thanks to the Internet, however, we live in a different media age from that of a decade ago, and Rosen has had to move on from “public journalism” to a new model that includes both the present impact of the web and its possibilities.

Ironically, the alarm bells today, in response to his “NewAssignment.net,” seem to be coming from citizens and not from journalists—but for at least one parallel reason. Many, including me, worry that Rosen is again trying to work from the top down rather than from the bottom up—which is what those of us involved in “citizen’s journalism” aspire to. However, as in the case of similar criticism of “public journalism,” this doesn’t mean that the concept itself does not contain positive possibilities—simply that, from our point of view, it could easily fall into the category of “same old, same old” (ultimately enforcing the divide between journalist and citizen rather than bridging it) instead of moving journalism into a new and more productive direction.

To be fair, and as Rosen himself constantly points out, NewAssignment.net has yet to assume its final structure. It’s a work in progress, and Rosen (I assume) is putting the concept forward now so that he can gather reactions and fine-tune it in light of them.

One of Rosen’s more interesting comments concerning NewAssignment.net is that he feels it could be “journalism without the media.” What he means by that, I suspect, is that the focus would be on the product and not on the means of transmittal that has become so much the center of the journalistic world. He also stresses that his NewAssignment.net editors could “hire anyone they want,” regardless of professional credentials.

He also stresses (as I have done, though from a different perspective, here and here) that “professional,” in journalism, need not mean more than that the person is paid. Rosen claims that there can be no board certification for journalism due to First Amendment concerns (I’m not so sure about that), but he makes it clear that he is not interested solely in people who:
have jumped through this or that imaginary hoop, or those who have "Northwestern U. approved me" stamped on their foreheads. The most important qualification for a New Assignment editor or reporter will be the ability to work in the open style.

That’s an important distinction.

Rosen also makes clear that he is not trying to move in on either professional journalism or citizen’s journalism. He writes:
My suggestion is that we need all three types:
• Citizen journalism, roll your own, no pros.
• Hybrid forms like NewAssignment.Net, which seek advantages in a mixed model. (Actual mix to be determined by what works in practice.)
• And professional operations, in which citizens can talk back and interact but the pros run the show.

One of my worries about NewAssignment.net was that it was an attempt to enfold citizen’s journalism within professional journalism—something I would vigorously oppose. I am still concerned that this could be the end result of the success of the NewAssignment.net model—were citizen journalists to embrace it and, for whatever reasons, abandon their independent projects. I’m also unsure whether or not a middle route is needed—though I do recognize that a way for professionals and amateurs to work successfully together could benefit both.

My major concern about NewAssignment.net is that I don’t see incorporation of protection of the amateur. From experience running a volunteer organization, I know that it is easy for the paid staff to take over, “running” the volunteers instead of letting the volunteers provide the energy behind the projects. Perhaps, were Rosen to include amateurs even on the money side of NewAssignment.net, there could be a bit more protection. Or he could design a Board of Directors composed in equal parts amateurs and professionals, a Board with direct concern for the hiring of the professional editors and reporters who would be working with the volunteers. A third possibility would be insistence that no professional be involved on a full-time, permanent basis—that this be a secondary job for them. That way, the professionals would be much less likely to dominate.

Whatever Rosen does, we citizen journalists will be watching with interest. As always, we will be ready with our criticism—but we will also be appreciative of his efforts on behalf of a field that we, too, are attempting to change (though from a different direction). Rosen, like us, is trying to do more than simply wring his hands at the horrible state for affairs in journalism today. And that is worthy of our praise.

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