Standing before a fawning crowd at a private fundraiser in San Francisco last April, Senator Barack Obama’s usually finely calibrated rhetoric loosened up. He characterized the electoral mood among working-class voters in the key battleground of rural Pennsylvania, saying, “It’s not surprising then they get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy for people who aren’t like them.” Mayhill Fowler, a Bay Area blogger who had given money to the Obama campaign, was among the three hundred people present. She was taken aback by the senator’s comment, and wrote about it on The Huffington Post on April 11. Her piece ignited a media firestorm whose flames rose right up to the walls of Obama headquarters.
None of this was supposed to happen. Fowler was not a professional journalist. The sixty-two-year-old woman had—in her own words—“worked a bit as a teacher, editor, and writer, but mostly raised two daughters.” The fundraiser was closed to the press but Fowler—known to campaign staff—was admitted as a donor. Armed with a recorder and knowledge of the Obama operation, she also attended as a citizen journalist.
If none of this was supposed to happen in the world of professional journalism, it was precisely the type of story we aimed to produce at OffTheBus, where Fowler was one of our leading contributors. OffTheBus (OTB) was a citizen-powered campaign news site co-sponsored by The Huffington Post and Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment, at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Inspired by Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, which chronicled a campaign’s ability to manipulate the press, we instructed our citizen journalists to steer clear of the horse race and the top-down coverage that dominates the mainstream press. We didn’t try to replicate what traditional journalists do well. Instead, we focused on what traditional journalists couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do: cover the grass roots, and let those roots guide our coverage. Digital technology had broken the monopoly on the production of journalism, and we exploited that reality by organizing thousands of “ordinary” (more often extraordinary) people to cover what was possibly the most important election of our lifetime.
We built our newsroom across a virtual no man’s land—that gaping chasm between the decentralized and often personal political blogosphere, which can overheat when it encounters ineptitude or corruption, and the mainstream press, which focuses on scoop reporting and looks at politics mostly from the top down. We aimed the citizen journalists of OffTheBus between the two, and they delivered a range of information and perspective that is often ignored by, or inaccessible to, the press. And we did it in an organized and centralized fashion, and with respect for journalistic standards of reporting and judgment.
OffTheBus discovered a niche market. Our market was defined by our access to on-the-ground information that other news outlets lacked, and collaborative, crowd-powered methods of newsgathering that made some traditional journalists uncomfortable. Private fundraisers, official campaign conference calls, volunteer meetings, and rallies—where mainstream reporters found themselves stuck in pens—were our specialty. We wanted to tell stories inaccessible to the national press. This required replacing objectivity with an ethic of transparency—we would never have broken Bittergate if we had not.
Collectively, we could do what a single reporter or traditional news organization could not. We dispatched people to report on dozens of events happening simultaneously around the country. We distributed research tasks among hundreds of volunteers, instead of a handful of paid reporters working full-time for weeks. Ground-level access, networked intelligence, and distributed labor became our editorial mainstays. More than twelve thousand people eventually signed up to participate in one way or another, including seventeen hundred writers. With such numbers, Mayhill Fowler’s Bittergate story—or something like it—was almost inevitable.