It sounds impressive: twelve thousand people. But the challenge was not persuading them to sign up. It was figuring out what they were willing and able to do after that, and then cost-effectively coordinating their efforts so that they added up to real journalism. By Election Day, we had solved enough of that puzzle that I can now say to professional journalists: we found a viable pro-am model for advancing stories both around the globe and in your backyards, and you should take a serious look at it. Our experience with OffTheBus demonstrates that what Clay Shirky calls the “mass amateurization” of journalism can provide real breakthroughs—not only in the democratization of news and information but also in bolstering the role of the media as a pillar of democracy. What we did won’t replace what traditional newsrooms do, but if taken seriously and used properly, this pro-am model has the potential to radically extend the reach and effectiveness of professional journalism. And it won’t break the bank. More than five million people read OTB’s coverage in October 2008, and our tab for sixteen months of nationwide collaborative journalism was just $250,000.
Here’s what we did and how we did it.
Mayhill Fowler had been managed and edited for almost a year by the staff at OffTheBus before she broke Bittergate. Though we were working with several hundred writers, we could give reporters like Fowler personal attention because OTB did not operate like a traditional newsroom. Pro-am journalism demands a new kind of management.
I’m not a journalist by training and I directed the project using the online organizing tactics I learned on the campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry. Unlike traditional organizers, Web organizers communicate and organize using online tools. They operate asynchronously. An e-mail they send out at 5 p.m. may not get read until 9 p.m., or 1 a.m. Or maybe never. They must deal effectively with fast, exponential membership growth. They set aside a greater percentage of their time and budget for initiatives that capitalize on unforeseen circumstances. A good online organizer knows that most people join an organization after they take an action on its behalf, like donating $5 to fight cancer.
OTB was the fourth organization I had launched, and I had become a working existentialist: you are what you do. Rather than write manifestos or abstract guidelines, I focused our membership on immediate goals and challenges. Our projects built a culture based on journalistic standards that drew heavily, but not exclusively, from so-called Old Media. We sent back pieces for rewrites and subjected our contributors to different degrees of editing. Deadlines and assignments weren’t just practical necessities; they were our best marketing tools. OffTheBus experienced its highest growth when we launched high-profile projects, like our Superdelegate Investigation that engaged 227 contributors to find out everything they could about this handpicked group of potential kingmakers.
Stories, not technology, were our best organizing tools. They gave information greater cohesion and structure than a wiki or a blog. They invoked a shared purpose. They also worked equally well from the ground up or from the top down. Let’s try to figure out which way the evangelical vote will swing in Iowa, wrote Dan Treul, the editor of The Saint, the campus newspaper at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to fellow OTBers in December 2008. And people signed up. Our best assignment e-mails drew participants by posing questions to members: How is the convention impacting Denver? Will Reagan Democrats vote Obama or McCain? Much as the Obama campaign successfully tapped into a yearning for engagement, OffTheBus spoke to thousands of citizens who wanted to help gather and report the news, not just consume it. There was a palpable joy among participants who transcended the role of spectator and created new narratives beyond those they were seeing in their daily newspapers day after day. This genuine interest in quality journalism is perhaps the most important lesson in all of this for the professional press.
But it wasn’t just fun. Metrics were essential to make sure work got done. I tracked people’s participation, and noted when they dropped out of a project. We knew which of our writers got published more frequently. The number of people who opened our e-mails and then took action told me our conversion rates. Our membership was approximately 60 percent Democrat. Women were the majority; their participation on reporting projects never fell below 50 percent. After Bittergate, retired journalists joined OTB in droves.