An organized network can sketch a story into relief within days. In collaboration with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show in November 2007, we asked listeners to help us figure out former President Bill Clinton’s financial impact on Senator Clinton’s campaign. Kerri Glover, a former Clinton administration staffer, dug up names from Clinton’s ’92 and ’96 campaign fundraisers. Our network of researchers generated a list of guests who had overnighted in the Lincoln Bedroom during the ’90s. Before long, we had a roadmap. No fewer than five people with accounting experience calculated the net contributions to Senator Clinton’s campaign from Bill Clinton’s former staffers and from his book-signing tours. “Usually an untrained intern would check figures like this,” Marc Cooper quipped. “We’ve got dueling accountants.” Such redundancy is a network fact-checking tool. Daniel Nichanian, a senior at Yale University, and I analyzed the final data and he wrote the story, “Bill Clinton: Hillary’s Rainmaker,” which illustrated the benefits of running for office with a former president at your side.
We discovered that politically involved people make great sources, especially en masse. They almost always disclosed more information, because they knew more. It was the loyal Democrats, for instance, who told us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was typically the first item removed from the party’s platform during the DNC’s grassroots platform meetings in July 2008. They told us who voted for what, and why. Even when reporting on politicians they supported, they believed strongly in a public airing of important information.
Despite the tremendous growth of our network—from three hundred in July 2007 to more than eight thousand by summer 2008—we still faced publishing challenges heading into June of last year. The problem wasn’t getting content; hundreds of submissions came in daily. But the scope of our collaborative-reporting assignments frequently outstripped our writers’ capacity to turn all those data into cogent stories. In the pro-am equation, it’s easier for the amateur side to collect and analyze information than it is to hone the final narrative. Yet our growing ambition demanded bigger, more complex stories. So we introduced another collaborative strategy: generative features.
“Eyes and Ears,” as we called this new feature, which we joked was OffTheBus’s version of the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” asked readers to submit fifty- to one-hundred-word anecdotes. We published the best, and regularly culled through the growing pile of those we didn’t publish for story ideas and tips. Everything went into a database that was sortable by zip code.
Wende Marshall, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, confessed in her “Eyes and Ears” submission that her “blood pressure had been higher than normal.” Her doctor, she said, “recommended that we [African-American women] double our dose of hypertension meds until Obama wins.” Minutes after Annie Shreffler, OTB’s “Eyes and Ears” editor, pointed out Marshall’s submission, I assigned the story to Diane Tucker, a former journalist living in Washington, D.C. Tucker’s story, Pre-Election Anxiety Squeezes African-American Women, was one of the most popular on The Huffington Post in the last week of October 2008.
Unlike Wikipedia, OffTheBus was not an open platform. Anyone could sign up, but publishing accounts were administered by the staff and only content that met our editorial standards was published. Still, OffTheBus and Wikipedia operated from the same editorial principle: quantity can become quality, if you do it right.
Our network included doctors, lawyers, professors, students, data crunchers, and so on, and the skill sets available to us—when it came to gathering and analyzing information—could match or surpass those found in many newsrooms. Yet good pieces of journalism still happened one at a time. Most of our writers looked inward. They documented their hours working phone banks, or their experiences at rallies. We called this ground-level coverage—what a presidential campaign looks like to participants outside the media circus—and it allowed us to evolve from Monet journalism to pointillism. Several impressionistic pieces are just that—pieces. When many of them are published, sometimes a broader image emerges. We didn’t master the pointillist method, but the glimpses we got were promising.