Ground-up meets top-down on HuffPost spinoff

Late last year we told you about the Networked Journalism Summit, a smattering of industry influencers stewing over a functional juxtaposition of citizen and traditional journalism.

The Huffington Post has spawned just that with a new election-season special, Off The Bus, a mash-up digest of feature articles, opinion pieces, polls and videos solicited from a gamut of trad-pub newsies, grassroots bloggers and distributive data journalists. Since its September launch, Off The Bus has been among the most comprehensive pools of election fodder available on the Web, sifting hundreds of daily submissions for insightful “ground-level coverage,” as they describe it, of the 2008 campaign season.

It’s much more than an aggregator, and this side project has a few notable spin-offs of its own. The Polling Project digs behind the numbers blindly guiding our spoon-fed MSM election coverage, encouraging pollees to spill the beans on that dinnertime courtesy call. Also on deck: an interactive map plotting campaign contributions by race and zip code, and an insider exit-poll forum hoping to woo staffers of losing campaigns.

We sat down with Off The Bus editorial coordinator and USC Annenberg professor Marc Cooper to learn more about those projects, and how the offshoot has panned out since its launch.

OJR: How did you envision Off The Bus and these side projects working when they started out a few months ago?

Marc Cooper: Well, it was originally envisioned by Jay Rosen at New York University. He formed a partnership with Ariana Huffington to create Off The Bus. So Off The Bus is hosted at Huffington Post, and it’s called HuffPost’s Off The Bus, but it’s actually a non-profit organization,, that’s legally based at NYU. It started in September, and I think the idea of it was to see what kind of ideas you could have. That is, it didn’t have a rigid and dogmatic formula. The idea was, how could you use the net and what’s been learned so far about online journalism to further the notion of citizen journalism as applied to campaign ’08.

And that meant a couple things: We knew that we wanted to create a publishing platform that would be, in a sense, an online journal of reporting about the campaign, in which there would be space for individual voices to emerge; reporting done by people who weren’t on the campaign bus. Which is a very broad category, because only a few people are on the bus. So it’s almost everybody else available. And that also meant to explore to what degree we could utilize these emerging methods of distributive reporting, or as some people like to call it, posse journalism. And those of us who are on staff really went into this with an open mind to see what that meant. We still don’t know. We’re still experimenting every day. And we’re learning a lot.

OJR: What have you learned so far?

MC: What we’ve learned is that in order to create this new type of citizen journalism, to make it work, you really have to combine the best of the old and new media. They overlap. At Off The Bus, unlike certain blogs, we believe in the traditional standards of journalism that are taught, for example, at Annenberg. But we also believe in the empowerment of individuals and select groups that the Net provides. So I think, modestly, we’ve been fairly successful in our first couple months in achieving some of that balance.

OJR: But it’s not an open forum.

MC: No, it is absolutely not an open forum.

OJR: How do you get the word out there about Off The Bus and encourage people to submit?

MC: Well that’s easy, because we’re connected to the Huffington Post. So whenever we want, Arianna can put a call out on the front page of the Huffington Post and hundreds of thousands of people will read it. So when the first call was put out, we got something like 1500 people who said “I want to do something.”

Now, what happens is implicit in your question. A lot of people assume, “well, you can just blog.” Well, you can go to if you just want to start a blog. Starting a blog is something you can do in 10 minutes. So we’re not an open forum. We are a hybrid of the the traditional editorial hierarchies with the bottom-up element of the new media.

OJR: So how do you screen the submissions?

MC: There’s really a few categories of people. There’s individuals who emerge from that initial stew of 15 hundred people who are either undiscovered; they’re just people who do not make their living from writing but who have always kind of wanted to be journalists, and are out doing journalism, simply put. Not many. Because journalism is a lot harder than it looks. So a lot of people would like to do it, but they don’t know how. And they can’t learn.

The most common submission we get are kind of bloggy opinion pieces. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what we do. I mean, we do run pieces that are opinionated, and we do run some pieces that are really kind of opinion pieces, but high quality. But the most common reflex among most people is, “oh yeah, I know how to do this. I’ll just sit down and write a long screed about why I love this candidate or hate another.”

OJR: And those, by and large, are from the people who have no professional journalistic affiliations?

MC: No, they’re not professional writers. Those are not of great interest to us. But there’s a handful of individuals who have emerged out of nowhere who have turned out to be great citizen reporters. I’ll refer you to one you can look up: Mayhill Fowler. I don’t know Mayhill personally. I believe she has aspirations of being a fiction writer, but she’s not a journalist. But she’s a good citizen journalist. Her individual reporting has been great.

Then there’s a sub-category of folks who know how to write, but they’re not journalists. They may be professors or lawyers, and they’re kind of experts in their fields and have been able to apply their expertise as kind of analysts of what’s happening politically, with some reporting.

The next category of people that we’ve recruited as individuals comes from the realization that while we’re a project of citizen journalism, we didn’t invent that. Citizen journalism in some form has been around for about 10 years now, along with the Internet. So we learned early on that it would be good to recruit people who were already doing this, but weren’t getting much notice. So we’ve had some success in that realm. Very specific cases out of Iowa and New Hampshire; people who already have their own websites.

They come from diverse backgrounds. One of them is actually a former journalist. Some of them I have no idea what they do, but they do these political blogs, and we’ve kind of adopted them. And we’re either cross-posting with them or they’re writing for us. That’s the second category, and that’s been very interesting.

The third category is real, live distributive journalism, where we have found that while a lot of people can’t really be reporters — they don’t have the time or the skill — distributive research does work. So for the last two months, we’ve done maybe six or eight pieces that were very complicated to do in which 30 or 40 people participated. A couple of those pieces we did in collaboration with WNYC in New York, who helped us put out the call and recruit people out of their audience. We did a story that was kind of a snapshot of the Obama campaign from across the country on one weekend. Twenty-four people participated in it. We did another one that was an analysis of the ground organizing capacity of the Edwards campaign. We did another piece last week that tried to answer whether the fatigue of George Bush would lead to a big wave of voter turnout of Democrats in the caucuses in Iowa. So sometimes we have these teams of people who are analyzing data, and sometimes they’re actually being reporters. They make phone calls and compile their 50 interviews.

Then our process is that the grassroots people, if you will, do the initial work, then it goes to a second level; to people on our staff or contracted individuals who have some higher level of expertise. The kind of collate and edit the material. And then that’s handed off to a writer who has more experience. And those writers are still kind of citizen journalists. In one case, we had a piece written by a young guy who runs a website called the Iowa Independent who’s on some sort of stipend from a foundation to learn this stuff. So he’s doing this kind of daily journalism, even though it’s at a citizen level. We had another piece that was written by a grad journalism student at Yale who is the editor of some publication there.

OJR: And do you recruit those people as well, or do they kind of come forward on their own?

MC: It comes both ways. We’ve had both.

And then for the Polling Project, there’s about a dozen major co-sponsors who are cross-ideological. Some are conservatives, some are liberals. We have the Concord Monitor, we have InstaPundit, which is on the right, Talking Points Memo, which is on the liberal side, et cetera. With their help we put out a coordinated call out into the ether, asking as many people as possible to click on the common form.

OJR: Is that the form that’s on the site now?

MC: Yep. And ask them a half-dozen questions about polling. And I think we had 300,000 hits on the page. We didn’t have 300,000 responses, but I think we got a couple hundred responses. And we’re in the middle of that. We’re going to put out another call in the next week, and then see how much data comes back. On this second call, I think we’re going to look for people who have had specific contact with push polling. We’ve gotten some responses from people who have been push-polled. Now we’re going to try to take it to another level and see if we get more on push polling. And as part of our partnerships with these co-sponsors, we’ve agreed to share the data with them.

OJR: And what do you do with that data once it’s compiled?

MC: To be perfectly frank with you, we haven’t even crossed the bridge yet of what we’re gonna do with the data. I don’t know that Off The Bus will do anything with the data. We may share it with other folks and let them use it the way they want. Or we may turn some stories out of it. We’ll have to see what’s there first. We don’t know what kind of end product we’re gonna end up with; that’s what makes this fun.

OJR: What have you learned so far?

MC: What we’ve learned is that both sides of the debate over old and new media have been right, and you have to find the right hybrid. Anybody who believe that this is just a platform that can be used like any other platform is wrong, because it has its own characteristics. And the distributive aspect works. We’ve seen it. So we know that you can multiply, or amplify, your resources and amplify your power of reporting and researching through the use of the internet in a way that was not possible before it was invented. On the other hand, it is true that you cannot produce good journalism without people who understand reporting and writing and news judgment and editing and all that kid of stuff. So it’s a very interesting

OJR: For the Polling Project, are you going in with some sort of hypothesis?

MC: No. I will tell you straight-up that we have no hypothesis, and we’ve had no preconceptions. We just know that people are being polled, and we assume there are some stories there. We don’t know. We don’t have an agenda.

OJR: So the outcome will determine what you do with the data.

MC: Absolutely. Like when the Federal Contribution Reports came out, we didn’t know what we were gonna find. We put these data teams on it and we found all kinds of things.

OJR: You mentioned that some other Off The Bus projects are in the works?

MC: Yeah, right now we’re working on a story that we’ll call The Color Of Money, which is going to be an ongoing project. We haven’t even built the page for it yet, but we want to do an interactive map that will break down fundraising or contributions by zip code and by race. So you can see really kind of the racial breakdown; from where money is raised and from what zip codes. And that will be an Off The Bus project.

So we have the Polling Project, we have that one, and then there’s actually three stories that are being worked on by distributive teams right now about Iowa. We don’t want to say what they are, but we’re working on them. But at any one moment we have a core group of 25 or 30 people who are always ready. People like it, because it only requires an hour to an hour and a half of their time during the week, and they feel like they’re really contributing something. And they are. Everybody’s putting together a little piece of the puzzle, and it’s kind of fun to see the picture come together.

OJR: When you put the calls out for the Polling Project, are you noticing significant traffic spikes right away?

MC: Yeah, the traffic spiked pretty quickly. Let’s see, it’s been 21 days since we launched it. We got about 100,000 hits in the first week, I think. And it’s still running at about 5 to 8,000 a day.

OJR: Any idea where those hits are coming from?

MC: No, it’s pretty viral. It’s on several sites, so I can’t tell you the number of referrals from each site. But it’s coming from everywhere.

OJR: So you said this next phase of the Polling Project will focus on push polling. Will you alter the survey that’s currently up?

MC: We might. We’re going to figure that out in the next couple days. We might alter the survey a little bit, and the call will also ask for that. We’ll probably have Arianna do the call. She has a big audience. We’re going to do the Polling Project for another week or two. We intended it to run about a month, so it will run until about the middle of January, and then we’ll see where we’re at. But we don’t know, you know? One thing leads to another.

For future projects, we’re also thinking about an “exit page” for next year. Not too long from now—probably about February—we’ll know who the two candidates are. So all the other campaigns will have shut down. So there’s gonna be a lot of laid-off campaign workers. We want to start collecting those stories. We want to give them a place to give the pillow-talk, inside stories.

And we’re also thinking of doing a big national project—like the Polling Project, one with lots of partners—on, whoever the candidates turn out to be, kind of a “did-you-go-to-school-with?” And it will be a little harder to do that, of course. But did you go to school with Hillary Clinton, or whoever the candidate is? You know, “do you know this person, and what can you tell us?” So we’re thinking of doing that, as well.

Specialized journalism, a partisan press, online journalism students and cheap laptops: More stuff to argue about

Here are my bloggy thoughts for this weekend. Please feel welcomed to use the comments function below, or your own blog, to argue with me:

Not that many years ago, we in journalism schools taught students to be generalists in what they cover, and specialists in how they cover it. We trained reporters to cover multiple beats for a single medium, usually newspapers or TV.

Today, the highly competitive publishing market on the Internet demands that we flip our approach. We need journalists who have devoted the time to develop a specialist’s knowledge on their beat, while covering that beat using multiple media.

* * *

In my commentary on the closure of Steve Outing’s grassroots media company, the Enthusiast Group, I cited two examples of individual journalists’ online start-ups that worked commercially: Talking Points Memo and DailyKos. The fact that both these sites cover U.S. government and politics is not spurious. Glenn Greenwald this week published a damning report that illustrates why so many readers are looking for an alternative to the political coverage they find in mainstream news publications.

And it’s not a desire for partisanship. It’s a desire to see someone, anyone, call B.S. on people who are demonstrably full of it. That same desire’s fueling the success of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, too (IMHO, of course).

Makes me wonder if some newspaper publishers won’t decide to release the hounds, rather than continue to sit idly while their market share crumbles. If your reporting points you to take someone or something down… do it. And without diluting the piece with out-of-proportion qualifiers like the New York Times did with its attempted dress-down of the Rudy Giuliani campaign this morning.

Fairness and balance are appropriate goals for journalists. But being fair to sources and providing balance among them should not outweigh the need to be fair to the readers, and to the facts. And balance should not be reduced to giving various points of view equal time or space in a story. It ought to mean that truth gets treated like truth and lies get treated like lies.

If you’re going to lose audience anyway, why not take a stand for something on the way down? Maybe that’ll inspire some more readers to stick around, too. Or even to take a fresh look at their local paper again.

* * *

History provides the context for our reporting. I just finished Edward J. Larson’s insightful history of the 1800 U.S. Presidential campaign, “A Magnificent Catastrophe.” I think that other reporters, and journalism students, would find Larson’s work valuable as they try to make sense of this year’s campaign.

One more thought, inspired by Larson: Many folks in our industry like to think that the Founding Fathers wanted to protect objective news reporting with the First Amendment. But Larson’s history illustrates the partisan newspapers of Jefferson’s time looked a lot more like today’s DailyKos than today’s Washington Post. So maybe a more aggressive, even partisan, press isn’t such a radical idea, after all.

(And before anyone accuses me of longing for more organizations like Fox News, let me be clear that I think people ought to let their discovery of the truth drive their partisanship — and not, as Fox News does, let their partisanship drive their discovery for the truth.)

* * *

Last year, I asked Anthony Moor, then of the Orlando Sentinel and now with the Dallas Morning News, to write a piece for us urging j-students to take classes and get experience in online journalism. Yet every year, I get more calls and e-mails from hiring editors in dot-coms seeking online journalism students than we have students to refer them. Why is it that students will devote so many of their free hours to Facebook, MMORPGs, blogs, iTunes and YouTube, but cleave to “old media” print and broadcast production classes when it’s time to declare a specialty? How many more high-paying, big-city jobs do we have to offer to get more students to switch to our side? Are other online journalism educators seeing the same thing at their schools?

* * *

I just bought my kids a laptop from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) for a Christmas present. These are the “$100 laptops” (actually $199) for Third World students about which you might have read. Through Dec. 31, OLPC is selling the laptops to people at U.S. and Canadian addresses under the following deal: You pay $399 for two laptops — one goes to you, and the other goes to OLPC for distribution in the Third World.

I’ve been looking for a good, inexpensive, reliable laptop for my kids to do homework and play with, and folks whose tech expertise I respect greatly have recommended the OLPC’s XO laptop. It’s based on the Linux OS and includes a Web browser, text, music, photo and video composition and editing applications — even an introduction to Python coding. The only problem I foresee with the machine is that my kids might not be able to pry it away from me.

Take a look. If you don’t know kid who could use one, I’ll bet you a local public school would.

* * *

So… what’s on your mind this Friday?

New voices complete the news from Pakistan

Last month we saw citizen journalists in Myanmar take on a media quarantine with cell phones and laptops, feeding reports of riots and police violence on the ground to snubbed news organizations abroad.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has implemented some censorship to complement his state-of-emergency declaration. With the lines cut on several of Pakistan’s independent news outlets, many citizens have only the state-controlled media to keep them current on the increasingly tenuous resistance unfolding on their streets. And outside Pakistan’s borders, the communication pipelines feeding Western audiences are often muddled by the U.S.’s ambiguous allegiance to Musharraf.

As it did in Myanmar, Web journalism here fills an important void. Bloggers’ as-of-yet unregulated capacity to disseminate alternate perspectives and additional reporting offers hope for greater comprehension of the situation on the ground in Pakistan.

Sure, The Los Angeles Times had the story on Musharraf/Bhutto rival Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan yesterday. But no mention of the neo-Taliban suicide bombs that took 30 lives in Rawalpindi, the third such attack in as many months. And good luck grasping the ever-tangling nuances of Pakistan’s election landscape from quick reports on cable news channels.

For those angles, Pakistani citizens, international journalists and foreign politicians alike have bookmarked sites such as The Pakistan Policy Blog for reliable, all-things-Pakistan dispatches. OJR caught up with PPB editor Arif Rafiq for his take on covering Pakistan and the role of non-MSM outlets in the fray.

Online Journalism Review: Can you start by telling me a little about your site, The Pakistan Policy Blog? How long have you been live, and what was your founding vision for the site?

Arif Rafiq: The Pakistan Policy Blog went live in August 2007. The site serves as a dedicated source of analysis and commentary on Pakistan’s politics and in doing so, it fills a major void.

I came to the understanding in August that Pakistan would be going through a critical period of change into at least January 2008. These changes would not only shape Pakistan’s future immensely, but they would also be of great interest to Western—particularly American—observers. It would serve the interests of publics and policy communities in the U.S. and Pakistan to have a more informed and engaged discourse. And that’s what I seek to do with the site.

OJR: Who are your readers, and how has site traffic behaved since Musharraf’s “state-of-emergency” declaration?

AR: Our readers seem to come from four major segments: 1) Educated and concerned Pakistani expatriates living in the the West or Gulf; 2) Government officials in Pakistan, the United States and other Western countries, and India; 3) Western journalists covering Pakistan or U.S. foreign policy; 4) Foreign policy bloggers.

Site traffic has increased considerably since Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency and has remained relatively high.

OJR: What cultural and political background is missing from the coverage the Western audience gets from the U.S. mainstream media? Where can they find it? Who is covering it well?

AR: Most U.S. MSM journalists covering Pakistan don’t have the requisite language skills, i.e. they can’t speak and understand Urdu, and they also haven’t covered Pakistan for long. That puts a greater burden on their local stringers and sources. Coverage of Pakistan has been traditionally weak, but due to the sustained focus on the country in recent weeks, that weakness has declined considerably. The requisite skepticism and knowledge of Pakistan’s cyclical political history seems to have been achieved by many of them.

Fortunately, Pakistan is not like Iraq and so you don’t the equivalent of American journalists writing from the Green Zone or embedded with coalition forces. They are largely free to move and benefit from the sizable English-speaking population there (as stringers, sources, etc.

Television coverage in the U.S. has been weak. That’s probably due to the nature of the medium. American television is one of the last places, I believe, where one should look for an accurate and informative outlook on the world.

OJR: To what extent are you in touch with the Pakistani media outlets? Bloggers and citizen journalists? Any prominent bloggers doing a particularly good job of disseminating information outside Pakistan’s borders?

AR: I haven’t had considerable interaction with Pakistani media outlets, bloggers or citizen journalists. Many sites have come out as a result of the emergency rule, but I would say the better ones (such as All Things Pakistan) have been around before that. There are many blogs made by young Pakistanis, such as The Emergency Times, that provide an important on-the-ground perspective. Their emergence reflects the sort of spontaneous rising of Pakistani civil society immediately after the imposition of emergency rule; but I would say Pakistanis would also be served well by more standardized or ‘professional’ blogs.

Another site,, is particularly notable as it has been providing video of Pakistani public affairs TV programs. Its utility has declined however since Musharraf pulled the plug on the two leading private news channels.

OJR: Any sense of how they’re dealing with Musharraf’s independent-media crackdown on the ground there?

AR: Bloggers haven’t been targeted by the media crackdown, but it is conceivable that the government could begin banning certain websites. At this point, the government’s major focus as been the private print and television media. A major target has been the Jang Group, which operates two leading newspapers (The News in English and Jang in Urdu) and a television network, including GEO.

OJR: You link to live Pakistani TV from stations Aaj TV, TV One and Hum TV. Why those particular stations? How have the media restrictions in Pakistan affected traffic to that section? Any particular reason you went with JumpTV for that feature?

AR: I link to those stations because, at the time, they were among the few channels that were provided for free over the Internet legally. JumpTV was their chosen provider. One of the channels, AAJ, isn’t available via cable or satellite in North America. And I found its public affairs programming more appealing than some of the other Pakistani channels. Unfortunately, after governmental pressure, AAJ has suspended those programs (Live with Talat and Bolta Pakistan).