Since its arrival on the scene, the citizen journalist revolution that is so often heralded as the dawning of a new age has faced one serious and nagging problem.
Blogging, in and of itself, is not hard. It is a fairly simple equation of software plus a little time plus, probably, a bit of attitude – with maybe a smattering of reporting thrown in for good measure.
But reporting and writing a cohesive news story take time. Time is money. And while blogging can be fun, interesting, and cathartic – except for a few superstars such as Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com and Josh Marshall of Talkingpointsmemo.com – it's not exactly the road to riches.
Thus the great Catch 22 of the citizen journalist revolution: You can get around the mainstream media in terms of publishing or air time, but unless you work for a media company, it's probably hard to put a lot of effort into your work.
In other words, yes, anyone can be a journalist, but who has the time?
What someone needs to do is find a way to harness the power of all those citizen journalists and unite them into their own media organization that exists outside the mainstream world. That's exactly what Jay Rosen has in mind.
Mr. Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and author of the pressthink.com blog, has come up with an idea called NewAssignment.net. The idea is still in the formative stages, but Rosen was given $10,000 by Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.org, to give it a try, and he's written extensively about it on his pressthink blog.
NewAssignment is simple and complicated at the same time. Rosen envisions that "smart mobs" of Web users would gather tips and information. When a critical mass of data and reportage is reached, a story would be assigned to a reporter/writer who has a contract with NewAssignment. That reporter would be paid for his work, and since he's being paid, would be expected to do a thorough and professional job churning out a piece that would be posted on NewAssignment's website or websites of other clients.
The reporter's pay would come from donations on a story-by-story basis. So if you really want that piece about Wal-Mart to be done, you can fund it yourself.
Rosen acknowledges he is nowhere near a real launch date. There are still a few kinks to work out, but what about the idea as a whole?
On first consideration, the idea calls to mind the image of a bunch of villagers gathering in the town square to raise money for kerosene before paying a visit to Frankenstein. But then again, why not? Why should only mainstream media people get to decide which monster to target? Perhaps the townspeople know about a monster the town's reporters do not or will not write about.
The bigger question though – and it's one Rosen acknowledges he has to work through – is how to know when someone is being paid to lead the townspeople toward or away from a particular monster's door. The Internet is already full of false postings meant to discredit people or organizations. What's to stop an anonymous someone working for, say, Dunkin' Donuts, from posting a bunch of rumors or half-truths about Krispy Kreme in the hope of generating a nasty piece?
And if NewAssignment takes off, one can only imagine it would spawn a host of imitators – on both the political right and left – that would largely be wholly owned subsidiaries of the two major political parties, much like the old partisan press of the 1800s.
None of that means it's a bad idea, just that – like most ideas – it almost certainly will go in directions other than those intended.
What may be most interesting, though, is what the proposal says in a larger sense about the direction of journalism. While NewAssignment relies on those great democratic levelers, the Internet and citizen journalists, it actually proposes a less democratic vision of the blogosphere. Rosen says his idea is "journalism without the media," but it's actually journalism functioning within the idea of a new kind of Media – with a capital M.
After all, there will be editors. As his site says repeatedly – and correctly – Rosen thinks good editors are essential for his idea to work. And if citizen journalists agree, that in itself will be an interesting development in the changing media landscape.
It will mean that even those who decry the big media recognize there is something to the way those organizations are structured. And the new citizen journalist media age may look less like a revolution than the next step in evolution.
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at: Dante Chinni.