Huffington Post crowdsources its analysis of the stimulus package

The text of H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, is 647 pages long. The draft version of the bill currently making its way through the Senate is 736 pages long. Each document contains thousands of separate provisions, the result of multiple amendments, and each of those, in turn, is written in a pidgin form of legalese so dense and convoluted that it’s easy to forget that the language the package is meant to be written in is, ostensibly, English.

Given all that—and given, as well, the fact that there are twenty-four hours in a day, and that caffeine can do only so much to increase the ratio of hours spent alert to those spent otherwise—how are journalists to fulfill their responsibility: distilling the bill, and filtering its most important components, for their readers?

The Huffington Post, for one, is turning to a method with which many other news organizations have already experimented: outsourcing. In this case, to their readers. In a January 24 post, the HuffPost’s senior Congressional correspondent, Ryan Grim, linked to a copy of the bill, writing:

Please take a look through the bill and let us know if you find anything noteworthy or surprising. Specifically, search for anything a little out of the ordinary, such as the section on page 14 that makes sure no money goes directly to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. That provision was introduced earlier as an amendment and it has made it into the final bill.

Or read through the oversight sections and the authority (and money) given to Government Accountability Office. Is it real oversight or are there wide loopholes?

It’s the Talking Points Memo model of crowdsourcing—assigning readers to parse through textual information (what Josh Marshall refers to as a “document dump”)—adopted by the outlet that some have dubbed “the newspaper of the future.” And, in many ways, it’s a strategy that has worked as well for the HuffPost as it has for its fellow experimenters in citizen journalism. Nearly 400 people signed up to participate in the project (signing up gets an email from “HuffPost Citizen Journalism,” entitled “Taking on the Senate stimulus bill,” which thanks the recipient “for joining our stimulus package research team” and provides instructions for reading through an assigned portion—about a fifth, or 100 pages—of the bill). And those volunteers’ efforts led to hundreds of tips to Grim and his fellow reporters, in the form of individual emails and of comments on the HuffPost’s article pages.

“We have readers who are highly intelligent, a lot of them are highly accomplished,” Grim notes. And, while not all of the tips panned out—several readers assumed nefarious intent in the omission of references to in the Senate version of the bill (it turned out that the Web address “was stricken on the advice of legislative counsel, who advised that specifying a specific url wasn’t appropriate in a piece of legislation,” Grim notes) —occasionally, their contributions bore fruit.

Tim Dickinson, a politics reporter for Rolling Stone, “found that the Senate had increased funding for STD prevention to $400 million,” Grim writes. “(Senate Republicans found that appalling and have succeeded in stripping it from the bill.)” And Timothy Jost, a law professor and health care author, “noticed that the Senate had removed the House provision that would allow people 55 and over who are laid off to continue COBRA coverage until they’re 65 and eligible for Medicare. The House version also made folks who were laid off temporarily eligible for Medicaid; the Senate version strips that out, Jost found. Every one percent increase in unemployment throws more than a million people into the ranks of the uninsured.” There are many more where those came from.

It makes perfect sense to have readers help out—with the stimulus package, in particular, whose content is as significant as it is dense. “People want to see these things come to light,” says Matt Palevsky, who coordinates distributed reporting for the HuffPost, and worked on the stimulus project. “It’s a feeling of interest,” he says—the content of the package will affect all of us both profoundly and directly—“and also one of responsibility.” There’s also that fact that “playing the investigator is fun for a lot of people—it certainly is for me.”

Soliciting and taking advantage of that help is nothing new, either—and not just for the HuffPost (the stimulus project is a direct outgrowth of OffTheBus, the outlet’s popular—and, by most accounts, highly successful—citizen journalism project), but also for journalism in general. Crowdsourcing in this respect “is just an extension of what’s always been done in the media world,” Grim says. “People have always called into newspapers or network news shows with tips—and that’s all this is.”

While the Web may allow easy access to the text of the bill, beyond that bit of technological facilitation, the work the HuffPost’s readers have been doing is a species of the kind of reader participation that has been a mainstay of hometown newspapers since the advent of contemporary journalism. It’s now simply happening en masse, and at warp speed.

And in a way that turns the traditional structure of journalism—top-down—on its side, and that shifts the reporter/reader relationship from a vertical orientation to a horizontal one. “It’s a two-way street,” Arianna Huffington says. “We provide assignments—but we also listen to our community and see what they would like to report on, and follow up on what they send us.”

And, though the stimulus bill is a logical choice for reader participation, the HuffPost’s efforts at crowdsourcing aren’t limited to legislative analysis. “We are doing it across all the verticals,” Huffington says. “And we are finding that every day, there are more and more opportunities to use the wisdom of the crowd, to use our community—which is so large and active at the moment—to report stories.”

Still, combing through nearly 1,400 pages of dense text is a long and often thankless task—which is why professional journalists get paid to do it. Volunteer reporters, for all their eagerness and their admirable sense of civic responsibility, lack the accountability that comes with a paycheck. “It’s a running experiment,” Grim says of the project—and one of the more interesting factors being tested in that experiment is the extent that intellectual interest, emotional investment, a sense of community, or some combination thereof, will yield valuable journalism.

Compare the HuffPost’s crowdsourcing approach to The New York Times’s combing of the stimulus package. Reading through the bill “is my job,” says David Herszenhorn, the Times’s Congressional correspondent. “I’m supposed to do that for the readers, not the other way around.” While Herszenhorn shares Grim’s respect for readers—”often our readers are smarter than we are about a given subject,” he says, “so we’re certainly paying attention” when a reader writes in with a comment or a tip—at the same time, “we’re not going to count on them to do the scrutiny of the bill.”

Instead, Herszenhorn and his fellow Times reporters are engaging in what he calls “a loosely coordinated, newspaper-wide effort” when it comes to parsing the stimulus package—”with some of us responsible for the whole thing from top to bottom, but then lots of different parts of the paper having particular interests in different aspects of it”: Robert Pear is focusing on the health care provisions in the package, Sam Dillon is focusing on education, etc. They share tips among each other, and also use external resources—floor debates, press releases from lawmakers and interest groups—to help navigate through the most significant (which often means the most controversial) aspects of the package.

Like the HuffPost’s approach, it’s not perfect. Even experts—whether paid to pore through the bill, or volunteering to do so—may miss things. But what matters, when it comes to the stimulus package, is the aggregate of our knowledge about it. The ability to share news across the superficial divide of outlet title and brand name means that information, in cases like these, matters more than any single organization. And quantity breeds quality: the more people we have to read the through that text, regardless of whom they’re working for, the better off we all are. The HuffPost may catch something the Times didn’t, and vice versa. As far as the public is concerned, the only thing that matters is that someone’s there to do the catching.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.