An October 1 editorial from Arianna Huffington announced The Huffington Post’s latest development in user engagement: Firsthand. Developed using a reporting platform called Ushahidi, Firsthand invites users to contribute words, images, or video to show how issues track across geographical areas. For its first month, Firsthand is appealing to the Huffington Post community for stories on mortgage refinancing and foreclosures.

HuffPost executive business editor Peter Goodman said he conceived of the idea a year ago as a way to write about everyday events that don’t have news value but were connected to issues of wider importance, like the upcoming election and the job market.

“Firsthand is like the corkboard that you have on your fridge,” Goodman said. “It should be messy and unplanned but reflect what’s going on.”

Goodman said that the rollout across devices including the iPad, iPhone and Android mean that in the future, Firsthand has the potential to be a forum for breaking news. “If we had this in place when Occupy was happening, it would have been really interesting to see what people gave us,” he said.

Kristen Taylor, a senior community editor at HuffPost, noted the way that ideas about user-generated journalism have changed since the last election. “Citizen journalism looks very different in 2012 to how it did in 2008,” she said. “Not everyone wants to identify themselves as a citizen journalist. But there are really different ways for people to contribute. We’re trying to get people to tell us what’s happening and then look at people also talking about the same issue in another area.”

Taylor said that she hopes that Firsthand will provide a forum for a new type of comment on HuffPost. “I wanted to think about this whole section as a way to tell stories a bit differently,” she said. “We don’t currently organize comments on the site via geographical area. I wanted to geolocate the stories into the areas where they actually happened. That way, people realize that we all have these problems together.”

For HuffPost editors, Firsthand is a way of canvassing data to inform the direction of their reportage as much as it is a forum for users to share their personal stories.

“We’re going to learn about things that we otherwise would not know about if we embrace the community,” Goodman said. “We’re using the community to supplement what we do.”

 

 

Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.