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.
By the fall of 2008, OffTheBus readers could choose from a broad and motley assortment of stories and features. Dawn Teo, a graduate student in statistics, and Diane Tucker uncovered one of the keys to the Obama campaign’s fundraising juggernaut: selling merchandise. Students contributed reports from battleground states. Our Grassroots Correspondents, a group of volunteers primarily in the Obama campaign, filed weekly journals detailing, among other things, gender dynamics and economic fallout along the campaign trail. Volunteers recorded the Obama and McCain campaign conference calls, and made the audio available to the public as part of our Listening Posts project. Ron Levitt, a retired journalist living in Miami, hammered out AP-style stories about Florida politics. Photos of various campaign headquarters around the country were embedded in a nationwide map, which Google then turned into one of its featured election maps.
In a review of media coverage of the campaign for the American Journalism Review, Paul Farhi, a Washington Post reporter, described OffTheBus as “journalistically uneven.” I agree. One reason why was simple: good writers are scarce and OTB wasn’t a paying gig. Our editorial focus wasn’t providing the Big Picture, as outlets like the Post and The New York Times attempt to do; it was correcting that picture with ground-level details that might be messier but are also closer to an election’s beating heart.
OTB writers like Bryan Bissell, Mayhill Fowler, Daniel Nichanian, Diane Tucker, and Dawn Teo may be new to the media, but they have long been participants in America’s greatest tradition—volunteerism and citizen engagement. Now that this tradition has begun to blossom in yet one more venue, the sphere of public information, journalism should take heed and pick up where campaigns and nonprofits have left off. The pro-am model is part of this equation. What OTB did was just a start, but we proved that it is viable and desirable. Implementation and refinement of our methods also will deepen relationships with viewers and readers—the public. A stronger rapport with the public won’t solve journalism’s crisis by itself, but it could be a central component of the solution.
The integration of strands of the pro-am strategy into the journalism mainstream will be bumpy. It will require, among other things, a shift in journalism’s traditional ethical matrix. Transparency and disclosure, rather than neutrality—often tainted if not patently false—must become critical fourth-estate virtues. The pros must commit to figuring out how to harness, cooperate with, and assimilate citizen journalists into the future of their craft. In other words, more professional journalists should take their offline skills—such as interviewing sources—online, and learn to build and manage networks of sources to produce accurate information.
For new media, the reverse is true. While they can quickly aggregate and grow the ranks of citizen journalists, they must take much more seriously the professional side of the equation—the reporting and editing and verification. It would be just as difficult for The Huffington Post to adopt pro-am strategies as it would be for The New York Times.