Thursday, March 5, 2009

Exploit the new reality that audience is an ally, OffTheBus director exhorts journalists

Amanda Michel authors a crackerjack piece in the latest Columbia Journalism Review chronicling the success of OffTheBus, the "citizen-powered campaign news site" which saw a 27-fold increase in contributors during its 17 months of existence ending November of 2008.

Set up to cover the American presidential campaigns, OffTheBus was joint-sponsored by The Huffington Post and NewAssignment, and hosted by NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. It was the biggest citizen journalism experiment of its kind.

Ms. Michel, "not a journalist by training," directed OffTheBus. Her must-read story is available here. An extract:
OffTheBus discovered a niche market. Our market was defined by our access to on-the-ground information that other news outlets lacked, and collaborative, crowd-powered methods of newsgathering that made some traditional journalists uncomfortable. Private fundraisers, official campaign conference calls, volunteer meetings, and rallies—where mainstream reporters found themselves stuck in pens—were our specialty. We wanted to tell stories inaccessible to the national press. This required replacing objectivity with an ethic of transparency—we would never have broken Bittergate if we had not. ["Bittergate" refers to candidate Obama's guns-or-religion comment reported by San Francisco blogger Mayhill Fowler.]

Collectively, we could do what a single reporter or traditional news organization could not. We dispatched people to report on dozens of events happening simultaneously around the country. We distributed research tasks among hundreds of volunteers, instead of a handful of paid reporters working full-time for weeks. Ground-level access, networked intelligence, and distributed labor became our editorial mainstays. More than twelve thousand people eventually signed up to participate in one way or another, including seventeen hundred writers. With such numbers, Mayhill Fowler’s Bittergate story—or something like it—was almost inevitable.

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