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Newsdesk building peer-to-peer news network

News organizations continue to take new forms and shapes in the digital world. Some new enterprises merely attempt to replicate traditional structures online, but the most exciting new ventures break the mold and try to do something completely different.

Newsdesk.org is one of those. Recently, the site was awarded with a prestigious SPJ Sigma Delta Chi award for its coverage of pollution in West Oakland. You see, the site / service does global news coverage, but on a local level. For the Oakland coverage, Spot.Us provided the crowdfunding that supported the journalism. It’s a whole new model, one that is worth a look for news publishers of every stripe.

I asked Newsdesk founder and publisher Josh Wilson for more details. Here’s what he told me via email.

How/when did the site get started?

It was back in 1999/2000. I was working at SFGate.com on the entertainment section. It was heaps of fun and paid well, but I began to experience serious limits there. I was trying to start a public-health page, to alleviate the boredom of making funny headlines about Brittney Spears (or whatever the pop flavor of the moment was) day in and day out. Also because, really, my career interest was not to promote pop-cultural trivia, but to develop and publish news about things that impacted people’s lives in significant ways.

I couldn’t get any traction for the public-health page. So I started Newsdesk.org, raised some money from friends and family, and got started. We covered cancer issues in the Bay Area. We covered international human rights. We covered the energy industry. We covered elections. It was heaps of fun, we learned a lot, we broke ground on numerous issues (such as Alien Tort Claims Act lawsuits against ExxonMobil in Indonesia and ChevronTexaco in Nigeria).

We also started a newsletter, News You Might Have Missed, rounding up “important but overlooked news from around the world.” NYMHM has been providing aggregation and analysis from local/regional news sources since 2002, and is grant funded by Ethics & Excellence in Journalism.

At the heart of the project is a vision to develop a new network of independent, decentralized, news outlets — be they blogs, individual producers or multi-person newsrooms — that work work autonomously, but share resources and standards, and aggregate content to multiply impacts and earn revenue as a competitive newswire.

What makes this project unique is that peer-to-peer network vision — a horizontal structure to support the work of independent professionals — plus our methodological focus on “important but overlooked issues and underserved communities.” I don’t see anyone else approaching that. There are new network ideas, there are new aggregation projects, but none of them are talking about peer networks, and none of them can break out of the straightjacket of the standard mass-media news menu.

How is it growing? Are you adding writers / content / audience? If so, do you have some numbers to share?

It’s been a wild ride. Yes, we’re adding staff. We hired George Shirk — founding news director of SFGate.com, former editor-in-chief of Wired News, and one of the guys who helped build the Examiner.com network. He has incredible vision for what Newsdesk.org can do as a network. He brought in some interns, and is adding more. Under his guidance we’ve gone daily, and plan on rolling out an expanded freelancer budget and new fellowship program later this summer.

Our main-menu topics are “democracy, economy, environment, public health, nation, world.” Each one of those can have numerous drop-downs under each menu item; George is actively recruiting news-bloggers and freelancers who can go deep on various subtopics, and really own their beats.

Numbers-wise, it’s been a wild ride. Newsdesk.org peaked in 2008 at 30,000 uniques per month. We went into a fallow period of publishing only once per week (funding woes), and bottomed out at 10,000 uniques. George is rebuilding our traffic brick by brick, and we’re up to about 15,000 right now. I expect that to continue to grow as he expands our programming. Our goals are way more ambitious, naturally. We want hundreds of thousands of email subscribers and millions of uniques per day. We’ll get there.

How is it playing on a local level? What are the goals for Newsdesk and local?

Our big network vision is in fact called “Your Local Newsdesk.” The idea is to put professionals to work locally covering the overlooked issues and underserved communities where they live — and then look for patterns of coverage across communities and aggregate from there.

To that degree, Newsdesk.org is defined by its ability to look at local, serve local, and never lose sight of global. Most anything that’s commanding the front page had its start as a local news story — or affects localities across oceans and continents.

One thing I love about the peer-to-peer model is its massive flexibility. A goodly sized network can address issues and serve communities from the very local all the way up to the furthest reach of its membership. In so doing, it provides a new circuit for ideas, provides daylight for issues that would be lost until the proverbial MSM looks down and notices. That’s the true power of the Internet as a decentralized medium.

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