i-265338ac66aaba7411a37ef0bb98526c-Jay Rosen at BloggerCon IV.jpg
Robert Parry, an investigative reporter who broke stories about the Iran-Contra scandal in the ’80s, wrote about the importance of investigative journalism for his ConsortiumNews.com site:

Investigative reporting is to journalism what theoretical research is to science, having the potential to present new realities and shatter old paradigms — how people see and understand the world around them — which, in turn, can transform politics. That is why investigative journalism is so important to the health of a democracy.

But the health of investigative journalism is in danger. The best investigative pieces are filed by newspaper and magazine reporters. Readership of newspapers and news magazines are in decline as people migrate to new media such as the Internet. Corporate owners of these publications see no boost to the bottom line by investigative reports that require months and perhaps years of work with little financial payoff at the end.

But perhaps the Internet can help solve the problem it has created. Perhaps there’s a way to harness the power of the easy, powerful connections we can make online to do a new kind of investigative journalism, with a more open collaborative method that involves citizen journalists and the public at large.

That’s the hope of the folks who are planning to launch NewAssignment.net, a non-profit site that would take donations and audience input to decide which investigative stories to pursue, and then hire professional reporters and editors to shepherd the projects to completion. The site is the brainchild of New York University associate professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen (pictured above), who says he has some funding from the MacArthur Foundation and from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

Rosen has launched the idea before he’s launched the site. He posted a Q&A with himself about NewAssignment at his blog. Here’s how he explains the idea:

In simplest terms, [NewAssignment is] a way to fund high-quality, original reporting, in any medium, through donations to a non-profit. The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up. There are accountability and reputation systems built in that should make the system reliable. The betting is that (some) people will donate to works they can see are going to be great because the open source methods allow for that glimpse ahead.

In this sense it’s not like donating to your local NPR station, because your local NPR station says, ‘thank you very much, our professionals will take it from here.’ And they do that very well. NewAssignment says: here’s the story so far. We’ve collected a lot of good information. Add your knowledge and make it better. Add money and make it happen. Work with us if you know things we don’t.

Rosen then gets into some details about how the site might work. The donations could help support the career of independent editors/bloggers who join up at the site. Each story would have a price tag, and when that price is met with donations, the story goes forward. No money, no story — though editors might have “reserve funds” just in case. Some of the reports could run on mainstream media outlets.

In Part 2 of the Q&A, posted today to his blog, Rosen tackles some of the problems people have raised with the idea. The biggest problem people in the media brought up was that donors would expect a particular outcome for an investigative piece; if the outcome wasn’t what they expected, they would be angry and demand a refund. Rosen’s solution: good editors.

“Editors are the barrier between donors and journalists, the guarantors of NewAssignment’s independence, the guardians of quality,” he writes. “End of system. Not unlike a traditional newsroom. Guidelines at New Assignment will make it clear what is and is not kosher in accepting donations. But mostly it would be common sense. If you take money from someone who knows what the story is — before the reporting — and who only wants validation…expect problems.”

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of open source investigative journalism, and have discussed the possibilities with author and blogger Dan Gillmor as well as Rosen in the past. I always wondered whether it would be possible to have people bid on the assignments that I would take and report. How would I credit them? Would they be happy with my work? (Note that Rosen has asked me to be an advisor with NewAssignment.)

I thought it was bold of Rosen to post these Q&As about his project before they had even hatched a placeholder website for NewAssignment. Wasn’t there a danger to putting this all out in the open before it had even started? So far, he says he’s pleased with the unveiling and that reactions have been good. Here’s Rosen’s explanation to me via email for why he released the idea in this way:

I borrowed the idea for doing it this way from [open source software advocate] Eric Raymond’s Release Early, Release Often. I’m aware that this approach has sometimes worked and sometimes flopped in the tech industry. It got oversold as a method there, I’m told. But I thought it might work well here because, frankly, NewAssignment isn’t in good enough shape to work yet.

It needs examination, discussion, and way more thought by people who know a lot more than I do about… (take your pick) reputation systems, social software, investigative reporting, micropayments, online fundraising, swarm sites, wiki use, open source history, and the range of initiatives that have gone before this one but resemble parts of it… I am expert in none of those things.

People who know a lot more than I do have to look at it, take the thing apart, add their knowledge, ask their puzzled questions. My scheme just isn’t good enough yet to work. What’s the best way to improve it? The Q&A at PressThink seemed the best way. Maybe some kid in Finland will read about it on Techmeme and start fooling around with a piece of the puzzle that later proves critical. The purpose of NewAssignment is not to ‘own’ its leading ideas (which mostly come from the Net anyway.) The purpose is to spark innovation.

The one possible weakness in this idea is the reliance on paid editors. If NewAssignment wants to capture the “wisdom of crowds,” it will have to tread lightly on the issue of paid vs. free contributors. Rosen would do well to follow the recent brouhaha over Netscape paying social bookmarkers from Digg and Reddit. Can a two-tier method of compensation work, with editors being paid and contributors donating time and money to help? Perhaps.

And of course Digg is not about collaborative investigative reporting, so these are different styles of sites. But still, any project that aims to harness the power of collaborative work online should consider the delicate balancing act of paying some people and not others.

What do you think? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the NewAssignment collaborative system for investigative reports? What reports would you like to see there when it launches? Which would you actually pay for or report on? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Photo of Jay Rosen from BloggerCon IV by Scott Beale.]