Get Off the Bus

The future of pro-am journalism

Standing before a fawning crowd at a private fundraiser in San Francisco last April, Senator Barack Obama’s usually finely calibrated rhetoric loosened up. He characterized the electoral mood among working-class voters in the key battleground of rural Pennsylvania, saying, “It’s not surprising then they get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy for people who aren’t like them.” Mayhill Fowler, a Bay Area blogger who had given money to the Obama campaign, was among the three hundred people present. She was taken aback by the senator’s comment, and wrote about it on The Huffington Post on April 11. Her piece ignited a media firestorm whose flames rose right up to the walls of Obama headquarters.

None of this was supposed to happen. Fowler was not a professional journalist. The sixty-two-year-old woman had—in her own words—“worked a bit as a teacher, editor, and writer, but mostly raised two daughters.” The fundraiser was closed to the press but Fowler—known to campaign staff—was admitted as a donor. Armed with a recorder and knowledge of the Obama operation, she also attended as a citizen journalist.

If none of this was supposed to happen in the world of professional journalism, it was precisely the type of story we aimed to produce at OffTheBus, where Fowler was one of our leading contributors. OffTheBus (OTB) was a citizen-powered campaign news site co-sponsored by The Huffington Post and Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment, at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Inspired by Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, which chronicled a campaign’s ability to manipulate the press, we instructed our citizen journalists to steer clear of the horse race and the top-down coverage that dominates the mainstream press. We didn’t try to replicate what traditional journalists do well. Instead, we focused on what traditional journalists couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do: cover the grass roots, and let those roots guide our coverage. Digital technology had broken the monopoly on the production of journalism, and we exploited that reality by organizing thousands of “ordinary” (more often extraordinary) people to cover what was possibly the most important election of our lifetime.

We built our newsroom across a virtual no man’s land—that gaping chasm between the decentralized and often personal political blogosphere, which can overheat when it encounters ineptitude or corruption, and the mainstream press, which focuses on scoop reporting and looks at politics mostly from the top down. We aimed the citizen journalists of OffTheBus between the two, and they delivered a range of information and perspective that is often ignored by, or inaccessible to, the press. And we did it in an organized and centralized fashion, and with respect for journalistic standards of reporting and judgment.

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.

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.

It sounds impressive: twelve thousand people. But the challenge was not persuading them to sign up. It was figuring out what they were willing and able to do after that, and then cost-effectively coordinating their efforts so that they added up to real journalism. By Election Day, we had solved enough of that puzzle that I can now say to professional journalists: we found a viable pro-am model for advancing stories both around the globe and in your backyards, and you should take a serious look at it. Our experience with OffTheBus demonstrates that what Clay Shirky calls the “mass amateurization” of journalism can provide real breakthroughs—not only in the democratization of news and information but also in bolstering the role of the media as a pillar of democracy. What we did won’t replace what traditional newsrooms do, but if taken seriously and used properly, this pro-am model has the potential to radically extend the reach and effectiveness of professional journalism. And it won’t break the bank. More than five million people read OTB’s coverage in October 2008, and our tab for sixteen months of nationwide collaborative journalism was just $250,000.

Here’s what we did and how we did it.

Mayhill Fowler had been managed and edited for almost a year by the staff at OffTheBus before she broke Bittergate. Though we were working with several hundred writers, we could give reporters like Fowler personal attention because OTB did not operate like a traditional newsroom. Pro-am journalism demands a new kind of management.

I’m not a journalist by training and I directed the project using the online organizing tactics I learned on the campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry. Unlike traditional organizers, Web organizers communicate and organize using online tools. They operate asynchronously. An e-mail they send out at 5 p.m. may not get read until 9 p.m., or 1 a.m. Or maybe never. They must deal effectively with fast, exponential membership growth. They set aside a greater percentage of their time and budget for initiatives that capitalize on unforeseen circumstances. A good online organizer knows that most people join an organization after they take an action on its behalf, like donating $5 to fight cancer.

OTB was the fourth organization I had launched, and I had become a working existentialist: you are what you do. Rather than write manifestos or abstract guidelines, I focused our membership on immediate goals and challenges. Our projects built a culture based on journalistic standards that drew heavily, but not exclusively, from so-called Old Media. We sent back pieces for rewrites and subjected our contributors to different degrees of editing. Deadlines and assignments weren’t just practical necessities; they were our best marketing tools. OffTheBus experienced its highest growth when we launched high-profile projects, like our Superdelegate Investigation that engaged 227 contributors to find out everything they could about this handpicked group of potential kingmakers.

Stories, not technology, were our best organizing tools. They gave information greater cohesion and structure than a wiki or a blog. They invoked a shared purpose. They also worked equally well from the ground up or from the top down. Let’s try to figure out which way the evangelical vote will swing in Iowa, wrote Dan Treul, the editor of The Saint, the campus newspaper at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to fellow OTBers in December 2008. And people signed up. Our best assignment e-mails drew participants by posing questions to members: How is the convention impacting Denver? Will Reagan Democrats vote Obama or McCain? Much as the Obama campaign successfully tapped into a yearning for engagement, OffTheBus spoke to thousands of citizens who wanted to help gather and report the news, not just consume it. There was a palpable joy among participants who transcended the role of spectator and created new narratives beyond those they were seeing in their daily newspapers day after day. This genuine interest in quality journalism is perhaps the most important lesson in all of this for the professional press.

But it wasn’t just fun. Metrics were essential to make sure work got done. I tracked people’s participation, and noted when they dropped out of a project. We knew which of our writers got published more frequently. The number of people who opened our e-mails and then took action told me our conversion rates. Our membership was approximately 60 percent Democrat. Women were the majority; their participation on reporting projects never fell below 50 percent. After Bittergate, retired journalists joined OTB in droves.

Each OffTheBus staff member—the professional component of our pro-am formula—also played a specific role. Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen were our publishers. Marc Cooper, a veteran journalist and a member of the faculty at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, was our editorial adviser. From August 2007 until April 2008, Neil Nagraj coordinated writers and edited copy. Later, editor John Tomasic took his place. In September 2008, we hired Hanna Ingber Win to oversee our features.

As OTB grew, it required the staff to continually restructure and consciously blur that pro-am divide. We invited those who passed an editing test to become op-ed editors.

Citizen journalists, using primarily Twitter, gained worldwide praise for providing the initial bursts of information during the terror attacks last year in Mumbai. But almost a year earlier, in December 2007, Bryan Bissell, an OffTheBus member and a substitute teacher, created a breakthrough moment for OTB and for pro-am reporting broadly.

Minutes after news broke on November 30, 2007, that several staff members in Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign office in Rochester, New Hampshire, had been taken hostage, I tapped our database to find our contributor nearest to the scene. It was Bissell. Two hours later, when school let out, he raced over to the headquarters. By then, Fox News had named Troy Alan Stanley as the hostage-taker. The police had cordoned off downtown Rochester, and reporters were camped outside the campaign office. We found Stanley’s home address and sent Bissell to his neighborhood.

When Bissell arrived at Stanley’s building, there were no police and the super’s wife insisted that Stanley was innocent. “Stanley walked into his apartment not two minutes ago,” she told him. Bissell then talked to Stanley, who said he had only just learned of the hostage situation. Less than two minutes before we published our story, Fox News issued a correction. Bissell not only demonstrated how HuffPost could do much more than aggregate existing news reports, he also did what citizen journalists in Mumbai did not—advanced a story beyond the Web’s organic happenings.

It was an important early milestone in helping us understand what we could do with OTB. Initially, we had two main strategies for producing our journalism: we recruited and mentored citizen journalists who could independently write and report, and took on stories using collaborative-reporting methodologies in which a network, not an individual reporter, breaks news. This is both revolutionary and not. Major metro dailies like The New York Times often publish stories that draw from reporting by a half dozen or so reporters and stringers around the country. OTB stories were like that approach on steroids, with twelve thousand reporters and stringers, albeit unpaid volunteers, to draw from.

The first strategy—recruiting and mentoring citizen journalists—was by far the most time-consuming, costly, and risky. We struggled for months to build a cadre of committed writers who could carry the publication. We invested most of our editorial resources in fact-checking, editing, reworking leads, and providing guidance. The ideal of a citizen journalist bequeathed to us by new-media evangelists both inspired and got in the way. Incoming writers had great expectations, like beating The Associated Press to a scoop. They raced to put out copy only to realize the story already sat on HuffPost’s homepage. Ultimately, many more felt comfortable being impressionistic, profiling their and their friends’ experiences around the campaign. They resisted hard leads. We risked becoming the Monet School of Journalism. This forced us to redouble our efforts to nudge and teach writers how to produce the sort of reliably reported coverage we desired. We had to create and sustain a strong reporting culture, and that meant slower growth to start, and lots of editing.

In the meantime, collaborative reporting made it possible to produce high-quality stories and, we think, to occasionally out-report the MSM. In the fall of 2007, for example, Obama’s campaign promised to unleash thousands of supporters with a strong antiwar message into the streets for a weekend-long “Canvass for Change.” Was Obama’s message a game-changer? wondered the pundits and the press. We dispatched two dozen members to find out, going door to door with Obama’s canvassers. Reporting from sixteen cities and towns, they all independently told us that people were more concerned with domestic issues than with the war. Drawing on this blanket of ground-level reporting for a piece titled, Reporting the Obama Campaign Coast-to-Coast, Mayhill Fowler suggested that it was issues such as health care, not the war in Iraq (as the Obama campaign and the punditocracy assumed), that would decide the election. Only some months later did that conclusion finally seep into the conventional wisdom on display in the mainstream press.

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.

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.

Across the country, news budgets and newsrooms are shrinking. Newspapers are going out of business. Meanwhile, the government is propping up Wall Street with a massive bailout that will cost the public billions, and planning to invest billions more in infrastructure, green jobs, health care reform, sustainable energy, etc. In all this, there are many opportunities for critical collaborative-reporting projects that will engage thousands of people who want to make themselves useful to the press. The Obama administration may have thirteen million e-mail addresses, but together the media—both old and new—have more. The timing for a new social contract between the press and the public could not be better. There will be no reason to mourn the loss of its audience if the press fully understands and exploits the new reality that its audience can now be its ally.

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Amanda Michel directed OffTheBus, and is now the editor of distributed reporting for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet based in New York.