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.
The vast majority of Americans, of course, won’t want to participate in such an alliance. But let’s say instead of twelve thousand, The Washington Post or The New York Times got twelve hundred volunteers around the country from a broad range of backgrounds. They could be organized into reporting teams around issues, or specific stories. There could be journalistic boot camps akin to Camp Obama, or an expansion of programs like the Savannah Morning News’s now dormant Neighborhood Newsroom program, which identified citizens from underserved communities and trained them to be neighborhood correspondents.
Such pro-am collaboration is under way in other professions, notably scientific research. Galaxy Zoo, for instance, used unpaid volunteers to classify images of galaxies into various types, in an effort to help astronomers understand how galaxies evolve.
It would be crucial that the professionals not simply view their citizen partners as free labor—twelve thousand interns there to do what they’re told. They would need to embrace the entire public as potential colleagues and fellow citizens.
In other words, journalism would need to begin to change the narrative about itself. It is a narrative that has been created by the press’s own failures, its arrogance and shortsightedness, but also by a forty-year campaign by segments of the political right to vilify the press as a “liberal” cabal, and a more recent and less coordinated effort by elements on the left to portray it as a corporate stooge. Changing this narrative will not be easy. There is considerable hostility and distrust toward the mainstream news media, but some of it is the result of ignorance about what the press does and why. The partisan press-haters will always be with us, but the nascent News Literacy movement is attempting to rectify the pervasive ignorance about the values and methods of journalism—to instill in young citizens the importance of the best kinds of journalism, and how to distinguish it from the less-reliable, less-intellectually honest stuff that floods our information environment each day. Early News Literacy efforts are centered on the classroom, but, as Megan Garber suggested in our July/August issue, an obvious next step is to invest in a broader public-education campaign on how good journalism affects our individual and collective lives, and what our communities would be like without that journalism. It’s baffling that the press has never really attempted to make its case to the public. Now it can’t afford not to.
Toward a New Critical Culture