An experiment in open-source reporting

Developments with New Assignment, Aug. 20-Sep. 9

Posted by Jay Rosen on September 9, 2006

* Hey… new funder!

On September 7th, PressThink announced that NewAssignment.Net has received $10,000 in underwriting support from the Sunlight Foundation, matching the gift from Craig Newmark that got us started. Ellen Miller, the Executive Director of the Foundation, said at her blog on the Sunlight site: “I feel like Jay’s project is on the cusp of making some very big waves.”

We appreciate her support. We’re going to try small waves first. Like Newmark, Sunlight is underwriting the test project we plan to undertake in 2006. Meanwhile, we’ll be raising other money and building the site in stages, hoping for an early 2007 launch. I have been consulting with my advisers about how to go about the test project for which we now have $20,000. There’s nothing to announce yet, but I hope to have news on that soon.

* On the air: “Show us the Money”

Bob Garfield of NPR’s On the Media interviewed me about NewAssignment.Net. You can listen here. I think it turned out pretty well.

* Suggestion capture

Mark Glaser, who writes the Media Shift blog for, asked his readers what they would like to see investigated by projects like NewAssignment.Net:

Whether it’s the Iraq War, the events of 9/11 or the Department of Homeland Security, government conduct (or misconduct) is what you’d like to see investigated most. I asked a very open-ended question to you last week, “What investigative report would you like to see done?” Your answers included many bread-and-butter issues such as health care, education and real estate. But the overriding issue was government conduct…

One of the suggestions Glaser got was from Russ Walker, an editor at Walker wrote:

There was much consternation about electronic voting in some quarters after the 2004 election. Were the results manipulated? Do the machines record votes properly? Can someone hack into the machines and change results later? What voting machinery you use depends on where you live, by and large. Local governments generally have the final say on what type of machine you will use. After the 2000 election mess, Congress approved billions to help states and local governments acquire updated machines. So here’s the project: Let’s build a database to identify what voting machines are in use in every precinct in the nation. That will be our baseline data set, from which we can attempt specific reporting projects after the 2006 midterm elections.

Glaser adds: “Perhaps could help in such an effort?”

* Your Local Temple of Democracy: A Polling Places Project (Sketch)

I told Mark Glaser that “I could imagine a polling place project that tries to gather good information about every place Americans vote — who runs it, how it is equipped, who works there, how the votes are collected.” And I could certainly imagine partners.

Here’s a quick sketch of a possible “new” assignment. We’re not ready to do this for 2006, but it’s worth describing anyway.

The polling places project: Information about every place in the U.S. where Americans vote for Congress.

Meaning lots of information, collected by our increasingly able network, which contributes to an increasingly robust data base. Starts with the actual places where we vote, the street address, and builds outward to take in more and more from actual politics.

Who actually runs these places where our sovereignty is transacted? How are they staffed? What do they look like? (Photos from users.) What’s the scene likely to be when I go there to vote? What is the ballot going to look like when I go to vote?

What equipment will be used that day, how was it bought, how is it secured and controlled, who gets it there? What happens to our votes on election night, and what is the route they have to take to get counted? Precinct by precinct, the project can tell you, with increasing accuracy and plenitude.

Possible add-ons:

Securing the vote. Networked journalism about the state of the art in ballot protection, worldwide, compared to practices in the US, vs. protections in use at your polling place.

Capture the air war. Help us capture the ads that “land” on the heads of the people who vote in YOUR precinct so we have them online and anyone can examine them. You paid for these ads if you’re a contributor. Or someone else paid to reach you. Here you can examine the bombardment your district has experienced from the air in the race for Congress. (Political data from the receivers point of view. The ads that have landed on your head, where you live. Big networked journalism project just to get the stuff and have it available online.)

Dirty tricks in my district. Election news, “black arts” division. Networks of voters and users try to report on elusive scams we know happen in every election like “push polls,” phone jams, and other shadow tactics that (some) campaigns will have conducted for them at one or two removes. Of course the same networks would be in a position to find out about new or previously unreported tactics in the black arts division of the campaign.

The Boss files The way we figure it, if you’re in charge of my polling place I need to know a thing or two about you. Who controls these places on election day? NewAssignment.Net wants to talk to the people who operate the ballot boxes– not the machine, but the person. You can help. See what basic facts NewAssignment.Net has on the officials in charge in your precinct. If nothing, what are you waiting for? Volunteer to find out. We’ll show you how. Or… Go see the person-in-charge yourself. Do an interview and write about it as a concerned voter.

Day of the vote: Help us report to your friends and neighbors about what happens at the polling place. We’ll keep track of any irregularities and help you check them out yourself. It’s networked journalism done in real time on election day, users-know-more-than-we-do reporting gone live.

And like that….

* Reserve army

From the comments at the previous post comes this from Allan Macleese:

The key thing to me, a retired newspaperperson, is that there are, I would guess, hundreds of us our there that would dearly love to be turned loose on a good honest project. We were what could be called pros, and we are sitting here, idle, dinking about with this and that, and want to return to the action. So we used to be in the MSM, but don’t discount us, we will work for nothing, as many of us agreed, in esence,to do when we went to work on newspapers in the first instance.

He’s right. We definitely have to figure out how retired journalists like Macleese can be returned to action by NewAssignment.Net. In fact, there’s gotta be at least one retired journalist in every election district, right?


15 Responses to “Developments with New Assignment, Aug. 20-Sep. 9”

  1. Jan said

    Your update gives me shivers and grins. “New Assignment” is the first good thing to happen in America since its discovery by Europeans.

  2. Jan said

    I’m not seeing an RSS feed for this site, Jay.

  3. Jay Rosen said

    I fixed that. Feed for this site.

    Thanks for the shivers and grins.

  4. Anna said

    Yes. This is a very, very good idea.

    And we could enlist the League of Women Voters as cit-j contributors.

    Why aren’t we ready to do it for 2006? Sure we can’t do it for all counties and precincts, but we could do it for some, as a trial run.

    Some perhaps-prematurely-concrete questions: where is a writeup, laying out “industry standards” for election security?
    (is it standard practice for pollworkers to take ballots home with them? for absentee ballot envelopes to have the voter’s name visible on the outside?)
    If a county decides to do an internal audit of voting security practices, are the results of that audit typically accessible to the public?

  5. Amanda said

    Definitely do a pilot version in this election. There is nothing like learning by doing. Only a quick and dirty attempt will show you how to do it better next time. And “next time” might be quite soon — who is having a special election soon? When are the next primaries?

    I’d set up a quick link from this page, with an easy form to enter data (Zip code, county, municipality, office up for election, date of upcoming election….) and source.

    Put out a two-paragraph press release (heck, why don’t you already have a link here to allow for self-sign-up for a mailing list?) asking for support. Get the MoveOn/BoingBoing crowd to pitch in. In 18 hours you’ll have a list, and some volunteers.

  6. Delia said


    The thing looks a bit scattered to me (I think it needs to get a lot more focused). Who are all the people that would be interested in this and what kind of problems do *they* see? Why not have some sort of an *informal* meet-up with interested people in NYC, for instance?

    Something in the line of: Anybody who would possibly consider this meet me at this or that coffee shop and let’s talk about it! (I’d make sure most of the NYU journalism students could attend – the meeting would not be at the time they would be in class for a mandatory course or something…; if you end-up having a huge turn-out you may have to head over to some big classroom somewhere).

    I think people would respond a lot better face to face than over the internet. Especially at the beginning, you want some sort of social interaction going (I think….). If they like the meeting (and I think most would), they would likely tell their friends etc. (so you get some word of mouth going on). I think a whole lot more people would be posting comments and getting involved as a result.


    P.S. Oh… I wouldn’t be telling people: “What are you waiting for?” I know you didn’t mean it that way, but it can come across as not very respectful… I think it’s good to keep in mind that none of these people *have* to do any of this stuff… (and most of them are not just sitting around waiting for something to do to turn up…) So in some way they need to be shown that their efforts would be acknowledged (as basically a sacrifice on their part) and made clear that NewAssignment would really appreciate them.

    P.P.S. I like Amanda’s suggestion too (getting a list of volunteers through other non-profits if possible). I’d still try to informally meet up to the extent that I could.

  7. Jay Rosen said

    About “What are you waiting for?” Perhaps a sketch of a possible future project at a pre-launch blog is not a good indication of what NewAssignment.Net would be telling would-be volunteers when it does decide actively to solicit their help. I’m not calling a meeting of anyone until I know what I want from that meeting, and right now I don’t. NewAssignment.Net is not operating yet. It’s in a pre-launch, idea-gathering stage. And it doesn’t have the resources (yet) to operate properly. You can’t take people’s names to volunteer unless you are set up to do something with their efforts; and we’re not… yet. Also, you vastly over-estimate the interests of journalism students in initiatives like this.

  8. Delia said


    I think the beginning of a project is very important: it’s like making a first impresion. This is all would-be volunteers can *see* (at this point… right! but you have good publicity… *now*… so I suspect quite a few potential volunteers have been looking at this stuff). People get a gut reaction of what the project would be like from what you tell them now…

    Yeah… having a “huge turnout” was the (maybe overly) optimistic way to look at it, but even if you just get 5 people talking about it (and none of them journalism students), I see no harm in trying. I still think you might be surprised what a face to face would do (both in terms of turnout and in terms of the quality of the discussion and positive externalities following from that).

    But I maybe wrong, of course… All I’m saying is that… *I* would give it a try…


  9. Jay Rosen said

    Comment ported over from the other thread.

    We are definitely going to make wikis and their use integral to the way we operate. I think that is going to prove essential. ‘Course, it’s easy to say: Let’s use wikis. Figuring out how to use them journalistically and with particular user communities (found or made) is where the learning is. NewAssignment.Net is going to go there.

    Thanks to all who have expressed a desire to participate, contribute. It’s… inspiring. I am going to ask for your patience as we get ourselves together. We’re doing things one at a time. The rest of 2006 is going to be a building, testing and planning period, an exercise in self-definition, if you will. We’re in the pre-launch phase. I am getting organized, raising money, pulling together people to advise and help, getting started on the site, which we will bring online in stages in 2007. This isn’t it. This is just a blog we have as a starter site.

    In reply to others in this thread, we will certainly consider organizing NewAssignment.Net investigations internationally. Once we figure out exactly how we are going to operate, something that is far from settled. That’s why discussions like this thread are very worthwhile.

    I’m not sure anyone has done the kind of pro-am, open source, “distributed” reporting that I had in mind when I introduced New Assignment. But mine is just one view of how it would or could work. My advisers have been steadily modifying my ideas. Many people have brought to my attention similar or related efforts, and that has changed what NewAssignment.Net “is.” Future users will tell us a great deal; whatever community develops at the site will powerfully affect what NewAssignment.Net becomes. Volunteers, as well as donors will vote with their voices, dollars, feet… mouse clicks. There’s a lot of crucial information to come.

    I’m also planning a series of essays fleshing out NewAssignment’s principles of operation, as I see them now, pre-launch. PressThink is the right place for that, but I will also publish them here.

    For now–and I know how frustrating this is–NewAssignment.Net is still an idea (our ambition to have a site like the one I described in this post) with $20,000 in the bank, and a blog for discussing the idea. So far that is all I have to offer you. But under the surface things are moving, and there is more to come.

  10. Just saw a post about Citizenbay over at Techcrunch. Fyi. I don’t know anything else about it. It says users are paid according to their reader-generated rating. Disappointing.


  11. almost interested said

    Thanks, Crazyfinger. I was almost interested until I read your comment. Definitely sticking to freelancing.

  12. Got a suggestion for your polling project.

    Ask Arizonans if they believe the government interrogations of terrorists have gained useful information.

    Ask them also if they agree with Sen. McCain that the interrogations should be stopped.

    Ask them if they agree with Sen. McCain that these terrorists should be given the protections of our constitution.

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