But unlike most citizen-journalism efforts, in which the focus of the participants is on throwing in their proverbial two cents, OTB was about collaborative reporting, and as such it contained the seeds of something that might be useful. It took twelve thousand volunteers—doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, etc.—and coordinated their various skill sets to gather and analyze information that writers then turned into articles. It was like the Time Inc. model of journalism writ large. And it worked, if unevenly, breaking some stories but more important, adding narratives and perspectives to the campaign discourse that we didn’t get from the professional press. The editors at OffTheBus—the professionals in this pro-am equation—supplied the editorial judgment and set the priorities, deciding which stories to pursue and then enlisting legions of volunteers to help them report those stories. But they also listened to their members and let the information that came from the ground up shape their editorial judgment—just as the best editors listen to their reporters in the field.
Of course, this all happened around the most dynamic presidential election in decades, and so it would be easy to dismiss it as something impossible to replicate, in an ongoing way, in a professional newsroom. And it would be difficult to replicate, but not impossible. OTB’s success—and more important, the ways it succeeded—challenges the debilitating notion that the public has nothing but disdain for the press, and is largely uninterested in quality news and information.
It demonstrated that there are thousands of people (at least) in this country, of various political leanings, who have a genuine interest not in becoming journalists, necessarily, but in improving journalism—in gathering news and perspectives from beyond the Beltway, beyond Wall Street, beyond officialdom at all levels. Michel says that what became clear over time was that, for many of OTB’s volunteers, the interest in improving journalism ran deeper than their role in the campaign. “The mainstream media narratives are very powerful, and early on many of our volunteers emulated the style and approach of the MSM,” she told me. “But the longer they participated in the project, the more they pushed back against those narratives.”
There are significant managerial differences, of course, between leading a group of trained reporters on a big story and leading packs of amateurs, however smart and motivated they are. But the potential upside is hard to deny. In a time of shrinking resources, such a press-public network could extend the newsroom in significant ways.
By definition, for instance, it would alter the top-down flow of news, countering—at least a bit—the press’s over-reliance on official sources. As a result, it would help to broaden and diversify the coverage. The perspectives of nurses, for example, are largely excluded from press coverage of the health-care debate, as the writer Suzanne Gordon has documented and expounded on over the past twenty years. This is true despite the fact that nurses, much more so than doctors, are the ones most closely connected to the patients’ (and news consumers’) experience. “When reporters cover the latest developments in experimental cancer treatment,” Gordon wrote in The Nation in 1999, “they will routinely question the doctors on the impact such treatments have on cancer cells, but never the nurses who can talk about their impact on patients’ lives.”
The opportunities here seem limited only by our imagination. Michel, who now works at ProPublica, said that, while OffTheBus didn’t specifically track the demographics of its volunteers, her sense is that they skewed toward middle-class professionals. But she also said that it would be possible, over time, to “really target your demographic.” Think of how difficult it is for the press to cover the poor or the working class in sustained and meaningful ways—ways that get beyond single dimensions and the middle-class assumptions that dominate our newsrooms. Imagine how different the coverage of the economy in this country could have been over the last thirty years if more of the press narratives had been coming from the ground up, rather than the top down.
The promise of the OTB experiment is not only that it could help extend the reach of the emaciated American newsroom, but that it could create an alliance between the public and the press. So that when a news outlet concludes that some important mass-transit ideas are not being addressed by the leadership in Congress or the White House, for instance, it would have twelve thousand—or one hundred thousand—engaged citizens (née consumers) adding to its crusade with e-mails and Tweets and phone calls and Facebook pages of their own. Such a scenario has the potential to radically change the decision-making dynamic at the federal, state, or local level.