Jay Harris caused a great stir in the newspaper industry when he resigned as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News in 2001 rather than carry out what he believed were ill-considered budget cuts. In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he likened what was happening in journalism to what had happened in health care:
Over the last 10 to 15 years our nation’s health care system has been ravaged by a variety of market forces and the drive for increased profitability. Today, shortages of nurses and even medicines are not uncommon in many hospitals. At times doctors don’t have necessary equipment available or adequate support. HMOs can be more focused on their bottom lines than the health of their clients. In short, the quality of the nation’s health care system has declined because of market forces and business imperatives, and with it there has been a decline in the health care industry’s ability to meet the nation’s needs.
By operating as a nonprofit, OCNN hopes to minimize the effects of market forces and business imperatives. But at oshkoshnews.org we recognize that nonprofit organizations are common throughout the healthcare industry and that this form of operation will not in and of itself allow us to accomplish our goals.
That’s why at oshkoshnews.org we also intend to promote participatory journalism, which is the way journalism is practiced at thousands of nonprofit organizations around the country. At a typical nonprofit organization, publications are a collaborative venture between a small staff of professional journalists and large numbers of volunteer contributors.
Both groups make vital contributions and provide a simple, but effective, system of checks and balances. The professional journalists at oshkoshnews.org make sure that deadlines get met, that standards of fairness and balance are maintained and that new voices and perspectives are sought out. The volunteer contributors are the ones who bring authority and deep subject-matter knowledge. They also help to keep the professionals on track should they fail to live up to their own standards.
While OCNN cannot currently afford to hire professional journalists we at oshkoshnews.org have a goal to do so someday to have a small staff to work with volunteer members/contributors.
Technology has given a huge boost to participatory journalism. “In a real sense, we’re all journalists now,” says J.D. Lasica in his review of “We The Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People.”
The third element of our vision is to be project-based. To some degree this is a matter of making virtue of necessity since we lack the resources to function as a full-fledged 24-hour news operation.
But we are also motivated by several other facts. First of all, we do not believe that Americans living in the 21st Century suffer from a shortage of information. What’s missing is a mechanism that can help people sort through this information and turn it into a tool for effective decision making. We believe that by undertaking specific projects we can provide a service to make information more useful.
We intend to experiment with new ways of getting at the news, and that’s another reason why we intend to be project-based. Undoubtedly some of our experiments will be more successful than others, and the project orientation will allow us to concentrate on the better approaches.
Finally, we believe the project approach best suits our chosen medium, the Internet. As David Weinberger has written, the power of the Web is the way that it presents “small pieces loosely joined.” In the 2002 book of that name, he writes:
The Web isn’t primarily about replacing atoms with bits so that we can, for example, shop online at oshkoshnews.org or make our supply chains more efficient. The Web isn’t even simply empowering groups, such as consumers, that have traditionally had the short end of the stick. Rather, the Web is changing our understanding of what puts things together in the first place. We live in a world that works well if the pieces are stable and have predictable effects on one another. We think of complex institutions and organizations as being like well-oiled machines that work reliably and almost serenely so long as their subordinate pieces perform their designated tasks. Then we go on the Web, and the pieces are so loosely joined that frequently the links don’t work; all too often we get the message (to put it palindromically) “404! Page gap! 404!” But, that’s ok because the Web gets its value not from the smoothness of its overall operation but from its abundance of small nuggets that point to more small nuggets. And, most important, the Web is binding not just pages but us human beings in new ways. We are the true “small pieces” of the Web, and we are loosely joining ourselves in ways that we’re still inventing.