February 27, 2013

An Invitation to Journalists

newspaper template

Newsdesk.org is a shared platform for journalists who need baseline infrastructure for their public-interest reporting, including 501(c)(3) status, hosted technology services, personal-branding options and more.

  • Our intent is to provide the DIY framework you need to fundraise, produce, publish and promote your reporting. Read our FAQ for details.


Newsdesk had a previous incarnation as an active, general-interest news website. It was the roll-out partner for Spot.Us, a 2009 SPJ SDX award recipient, a grantee of the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and publisher of the pioneering aggregation and analysis service News You Might Have Missed.

Some of the crowd-funded reporting projects we've hosted include Bernice Yeung's "Smarter On Crime" news blog, Kim Komenich and Kwan Booth's "Toxic Tour: West Oakland," Jasmin Lopez's "All Roads Lead to Boyle Heights," and others.

Journalism economics being what they are, Newsdesk was unable to sustain itself as a commercial-free, general interest news outlet on the Internet, and ceased publishing in 2010.

Rather than let all that content and the URL evaporate, we would like to take a cue from the sharing, hackerspace and open-source movements, and open up Newsdesk.org to productive use by independent news producers of all sorts.

The site is fully functional, with 501(c)(3) status and a suite of hosted online publishing services. There is no publisher or editor, and no cost for participation. Journalists are free to use the site as they see fit for their public-interest work. Users essentially share ownership of this site with their peers, and should work collaboratively to make leadership decisions.

Rules of Engagement

Any journalist, producer, photojournalist or news coder who wants to make use of the site should hew to these three guidelines:

  • Excellence. Commit to excellence and vision in your work as a journalist. Collaborate generously, respect boundaries, and cherish and care for the shared resource that this site aspires to be. This includes sharing in quality-control duties.
  • Do-ocracy. If you want it done, do it yourself! You do not need permission to publish, or to experiment with content, form, medium or practice.
  • Consensus. If something you want to do adds up to major changes to the site, including its design, character and quality, ask your peer what they think. Anything major like that would most likely require peer consensus.

Each has a myriad implications and conditions, but rather than create vast rule sets to deal with anticipated issues, Newsdesk users should deal with any issues as they arise.

So wait, there's no editor?
What benefits and services does the site offer?
How would peer-led, collaborative news production really work?
Dude, your site is dead as a doornail; this will never work!
Can you be specific about the technical and publishing resources?
Does it cost anything to participate?
Can we please update the logo and site design?
Am I eligible to participate?
What topics can I cover?
What sorts of fundraising can I do?
Who are you guys anyway, and why are you doing this?

More Information
Legal status
Thesis: Social Innovation & "New Forms of Organization"
Proposed timeline

So wait, there's no editor?
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That is correct. Newsdesk.org is a platform only. It has no editor, no publisher, no copy desk, and no IT, development and marketing staff; participants must address their own needs for these services, and are encouraged to do so collaboratively as well.

In the hackerspace spirit, there are no leaders. Project governance is by consensus, within a practical framework of independence, mutuality and excellence in one's work and peer relations.

Also, in that spirit, everything on this site should be considered a work in progress, fully open to comment, critique and meaningful editing by peers interested in doing so.

What benefits and services does the site offer?
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Participants have access to a fully operational, hosted, nonprofit news platform, with an associated suite of communications and publishing resources, and a record of publishing quality public-interest journalism from 2000 to 2010.

Newsdesk.org comes with beneficial professional relationships that require care and attention. The site is a member of the Investigative News Network, won an SPJ Sigma Delta Chi award, and has been previously funded by the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Harnisch Foundation.

The website runs on the Investigative News Network's open-source Project Largo theme and plugins, and is hosted and supported by INN. It also includes free Google Apps usage (including custom @newsdesk.org email addresses), Twitter and Facebook accounts, customizable subdomains, etc.

How would peer-led, collaborative news production really work?
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Probably much the same way you help out your colleagues every day — do some spot proofreading, pitch in on a critique session, mentor an intern — except without a publisher or managing editor telling you to get back to work on that Justin Bieber profile.

But seriously. Collaborative/open/shared production models work brilliantly in other productive and creative sectors — such as software and design — so why not for journalism as well?

With the freedom of a peer-to-peer production community comes responsibility as well:

  • Participating journalists must do their own fundraising, quality control and promotions beyond what the platform may already offer.
  • Relationships with partner organizations (such as the Investigative News Network) require care and attention.
  • Participants must agree on a functioning set of site-management and quality-control protocols.
  • Newsdesk as a collaborative website would benefit from participants who want to volunteer for peer-support activities, similar to volunteering for membership on the board of your local SPJ chapter.

Dude, your site is dead as a doornail. It'll never work!
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In our experience, the more Newsdesk.org is used to publish quality, engaging journalism, the more site traffic increases and the greater degree of engagement via article comments and social media.

For example, when the site is regularly updated, it gets indexed by Google News, which greatly increases traffic. If you use Newsdesk.org well, it will flourish as a home for your work.

Given the dire straits of the news industry, our hope is that a successful co-curation process can open the door for a massively scaled up level of participation.

Hosting and technical upkeep of a high-functionality, high-traffic website is inexpensive as infrastructure investments go, creating a lot of practical opportunity for participants.

So, it'll never work if no one uses it. If people do, they will find it a powerful publishing platform and a great home for their work.

What specific technical and publishing resources would I have access to?
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Newsdesk offers a wide variety of resources to participants in support of their work, including:

  • A personal publishing account on Newsdesk.org, including front-page privileges, and a public page with an image, professional bio and bibliography of content on the site (e.g. newsdesk.org/author/jasminmara/).
  • Google Apps (nonprofit version), including a private @newsdesk.org email address running on Gmail, with IMAP, POP and webmail access; access to site stats, mailgroups, cloud-based document storage (Google Docs/Google Drive), forms, presentations, etc.; access to the site's Google Analytics account
  • Use of Newsdesk.org's social media (Facebook and Twitter) and email newsletter, News You Might Have Missed.
  • Private subdomains (yourlabelhere.newsdesk.org) to develop topics, regional coverage, to stage technology experiments, etc.
  • Optional fiscal sponsorship under Newsdesk's 501(c)(3) nonprofit parent, for grant seeking and soliciting deductible donations from individuals, and to provide an institutional affiliation for independent producers.

Does it cost anything to participate?
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No. There are no mandatory membership dues or fees for service.

The sole, optional exception to this is for nonprofit fiscal sponsorship, which, again, is strictly optional, and not required for full participation.

Can we please update the logo and site design?
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Sure. Right now Newsdesk.org is sitting on a very basic design and logo template. Participants who want to get involved in such design issues should do so.

Again, everything on this site should be considered a work in progress, fully open to comment, critique and meaningful editing by engaged peers.

Am I eligible to participate?
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  • At this time, in order to participate, you must be invited by someone already using the site. If you'd like to be invited and don't know any current users, please drop us a line.
  • Participants can be individuals, teams and organizations doing important work that doesn't have a home in commercial and institutional mass media.
  • Participants are encouraged to collaborate in setting standards and intake protocols for individuals and organizations.
  • There are no membership dues or fees for service. Participants have the option to use Newsdesk's fiscal sponsorship services to support their fundraising activities, which applies a 7% administrative fee to all deductible funds received.

What topics can I cover?
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Newsdesk has historically covered "important but overlooked news and underserved communities," from the local to the global. This has included investigations, enterprise and serial reporting, hard news, news features, photojournalism and aggregation. Essays and commentary remain a frontier.

Coverage is organized into three categories that define a very broad and very deep public-interest framework: Democracy & Human Rights, Culture & Economy, and The Sciences. All other topics are identified by tags under these three categories.

  • Suggestion: Newsdesk.org's sole ideological commitment should be to ethical journalism practice to advance transparency, accountability, open inquiry, civil discourse and informed participation in our democracy.
  • Constraint: As a 501(c)(3), Newsdesk.org cannot endorse or oppose legislation or candidates for elected office. The limited exception to this rule involves legislation that directly affects Newsdesk's interests as a nonprofit publisher.

What sorts of fundraising can I do?
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  • Participants are free to fundraise for their work via any legal manner at their disposal.
  • Optional fiscal sponsorship under Newsdesk's 501(c)(3) parent, Independent Arts & Media (IAM), enables participants to apply for grants, cultivate individual donors, and do tax-deductible crowdfunding Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, etc.
  • Fiscal sponsorship with IAM includes a 7% administrative fee to cover IRS compliance, bookkeeping and CPA costs.
  • IndieGoGo has partnered with IAM to offer discounts and promotional services for deductible crowdfunding campaigns by its fiscally sponsored affiliates.
  • Participants are encourage to fundraise individually for their own work, or collaborate with peers on larger projects.

Who are you guys, and why are you doing this?

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Newsdesk.org was founded in 2000 as a home for nonprofit, commercial-free journalism. The site published new content weekly and daily through 2010, with a focus on "important but overlooked news and underserved communities." This included the pioneering aggregation and analysis service, News You Might Have Missed.

Newsdesk.org had a wonderful ten-year run, worked with a wide variety of diversely talented writers and news producers, built an audience, raised money (we were in fact the roll-out partners for Spot.Us), and even won a fancy award.

It has been an honor! But the funding available for ad-free, public-interest journalism is greatly exceeded by the need for such coverage. Newsdesk.org lost its grant the same week it won the SPJ SDX award, and has essentially been lying fallow since then.

Given the site's rich publishing history — and considering the unusual opportunities of "post-industrial journalism" (see below) — we are exploring this "hackerspace experiment" as an alternative to archiving Newsdesk.org's coverage and selling the URL to the highest bidder.

If this project does not succeed, Newsdesk.org will be donated to a nonprofit, public-interest news publisher, a university, or some other entity engaged in education and/or advocacy for public-journalism.

What's the project's legal status?
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The Newsdesk.org URL is held in trust by Independent Arts & Media (IAM, artsandmedia.net), a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2000. IAM has a mission to support people and projects that use media and the arts to build community and increase participation; fiscal sponsorship is the primary vehicle for activating media/arts productive capacity in and for underserved communities. Since 2010, IAM has received and managed more than $1 million in deductible funding for more than two dozen community-focused media/arts programs.

Thesis: Social Innovation, Post-Industrial Journalism & "New Forms of Organization"
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"Post-Industrial Journalism" isn't just an academic thesis — it's our lived experience. For us and tens of thousands of journalists nationwide there is indeed "no such thing as the journalism industry anymore."

The thesis authors, Clay Shirky, Emily Bell and C.W. Anderson, also call for "new forms of organization" to take advantage of "new opportunities for journalism."

Let's take that as a dare — a call for social innovation in the practice of journalism, and in particular for work serving the public interest.

The open-source and D.I.Y. movements have demonstrated that shared, non-hierarchical production platforms and processes can serve public need, nuture high quality work, and even change the world.

Maybe journalists can do that too.

Internet is a radically open and egalitarian medium, literally built upon peer-to-peer relationships — but this has not yet translated into real opportunity for professional journalists on a mass scale. It's arguable that even musicians in the MP3 era are doing better than reporters, given the abundance of fan communities and promotional services for independent songwriters and bands.

The Mozilla Foundation may provide an intriguing precedent, demonstrating great success in facilitating, advocating for and preserving the integrity of open-source media technology. The question is if and how that can be translated over to journalism practice.

Should this experiment succeed, it could model a new type of stewardship mechanism for basic public-media infrastructure in the Internet era.

Project Timeline
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Q1-Q2 2013:

  • Finalize site conversion to Project Largo. ACHIEVED
  • Finalize initial project documentation and spec sheets. Create a project FAQ for reporters and the general public. ACHIEVED
  • Create a "design wiki" for participants to contribute to. CANCELED — TOO MUCH NON-RELEVANT SPAM
  • Conduct initial outreach and invitations to potential participants. ONGOING

Q3-Q4 2013:

  • Site fully open for self-publishing and related uses by participants.
  • With regular postings by participants, get site indexed by Google News.
  • Convene regular discussion groups for participants/site users using conference calls, Google Hangouts, in-person if possible.
  • Grant seeking and fund development as appropriate.

Q1-Q2 2014

  • Consensus vote by initial participants on a charter, site-management protocols, or other founding document.
  • Formal project launch and promotion to journalism community.
  • Marketing and promotion of Newsdesk.org site to general public.

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