Big news today: ProPublica is delving into the world of pro-am journalism. Amanda Michel, who formerly directed OffTheBus, The Huffington Post’s pro-am journalism project (which Michel wrote about for the March/April issue of the magazine), will join the investigative outfit as its editor of distributed reporting.
What that role will entail in particular remains to be seen; Michel hasn’t yet started the job—the creation of which represents something of a leap for an investigative newsroom—and the ProPublica model for distributed reporting, as most such models tend to, will initially skew toward the experimental. But it will certainly be an extension of the highly organized brand of pro-am journalism Michel developed for The Huffington Post: a model that assembled citizen journalists, tracked their reporting and participation, and worked the information they gathered into cohesive narratives. At OffTheBus, “the idea was: what are the new tools, and how can we use them to tell new kinds of stories?” Michel says. Above all, “it’s an organizing model for journalism.”
Michel—whose background, prior to editorial roles at OffTheBus and, before that, NewAssignment.net, is in campaign organization (she started at Generation Dean, with Zephyr Teachout as a mentor)—will be applying that organizational model to individual stories and larger projects, and guiding ProPublica’s other journalists in their own crowdsourcing efforts. (Per ProPublica’s general approach, its distributed reporting efforts will also involve partnering with papers and other news outlets—WNYC, for one—for discrete projects.)
At first, ProPublica’s pro-am reporting will focus on the stimulus package. “Obviously, it’s a very broad and deep story—so it lends itself to this model,” Michel says.
Over time, though, the general goal will be to build up a stable of citizen journalists (the large database whose development Michel oversaw for OffTheBus will remain with the HuffPost) to work with Michel and other ProPublica reporters. Eric Umansky, the senior editor who will supervise Michel’s work at ProPublica (Umansky is also a contributing editor to CJR), describes ProPublica’s crowdsourcing venture as fitting in with the other journalistic vehicles the outlet uses for fulfilling its mission: producing accountability journalism. Already, the outlet publishes long-form, deeply reported articles; iterative stories that gain momentum over time; and databases and similarly raw resources—“the hacker journalism model”—that can serve as informational building blocks. Crowdsourcing will simply be an additional weapon in ProPublica’s arsenal—one that has, Umansky notes, “enormous potential.”
Take, again, the stimulus. “It’s this massive thing that’s happening everywhere around the country,” Umansky says, “with literally tens of thousands of projects—and, obviously, hundreds of millions of dollars—being spent by thousands of different spending authorities, and on and on and on. That’s a problem of scale in some sense. Not a lot of places have full-time reporters assigned to the stimulus. We happen to.”
And yet the resources currently being devoted to reporting the stimulus package and its effects, Umansky says, are “a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be covered. As a traditional news organization, it’s difficult to scale to cover such a massive, sprawling story.” It’s not that individual reporters aren’t adding value, he notes; “it’s just that there aren’t enough of them.”
Enter citizen journalists—and Michel herself. “Amanda has shown with OffTheBus,” Umansky says, “that there are creative things you can do to have a kind of force-multiplier effect.”
What amateur reporters will be doing for ProPublica—and how, in particular, they’ll expand the outlet’s newsroom into a crowded digital world—remain to be seen. “I’m largely going to figure it out over the first few months,” Michel says. But the model will broadly aim to do what pro-am journalism does at its best: marry the wisdom of crowds to traditional journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, and compelling narrative.
It will also be to challenge some of the assumptions professional newsrooms hold when it comes to reporting—even, yes, distributed reporting. “I think the impulse is sometimes to build the network and then wait until a story appears,” Michel says. “And I actually do the opposite: jump on opportunities to report and build a network around those opportunities.”
The approach itself—which relies on the Web, as Michel puts it, to “move the newsroom further online”—may be new; but then, she notes, “the standards are not. And the goal isn’t, either.” The pro-am model “was never meant to be a substitute for what traditional journalists do well.” It is meant, rather, “to add to the journalistic repertoire at large”—and to expand journalists’ storytelling capabilities. “That skill of storytelling is absolutely essential to building out new forms of journalism,” Michel says. “That will never go away. That’s its core.”Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.