At the end of March, I told you about the exciting new citizen journalism project Huffington Post is launching in partnership with NYU professor Jay Rosen and his experimental site, NewAssignment.Net. (If you missed it, read about it here and here).
It's time for an update. For starters, the project now has a name and an expected birth date.
We're calling it Off The Bus (OffTheBus.Net), a name that captures the essence of what we're looking to accomplish. Our disparate mix of citizen reporters won't be part of the mainstream pack covering the campaigns -- and will come at it from a wide range of different angles and perspectives, adding a new dimension to campaign journalism. Click here to sign up to become one of them.
In my travels, I've heard so many people express dissatisfaction with the way campaigns are covered -- especially with the obsession with the horse-race aspect of modern politics. Instead of looking at which candidate has made the most interesting national security proposal or who the candidates surround themselves with as advisers, we get endless discussions of who's up, who's down, who's gaining traction, and who's losing it. In short, the majority of today's political coverage has become a dissection of the latest polls. Reporters have become every bit as poll-driven as candidates.
With so much dissatisfaction with political coverage-as-usual, we're betting ordinary people will want to get involved and participate in making it better. And OffTheBus' strength-in-numbers approach can help get us there.
OffTheBus.Net is set to launch in the middle of July. And Jay and I, protective parents that we are, have spent the last few months looking for the people who are going to raise our creative offspring. After a lot of interviews, we believe we have found the perfect pair: Amanda Michel and Zack Exley.
Amanda will be the OffTheBus Project Director, overseeing day-to-day operations, while Zack will serve as the project's Senior Advisor, consulting on all aspects of its development and working as an OffTheBus roving correspondent.
Both have extensive backgrounds in Internet politics. Zack worked as the director of online communications and organizing for the Kerry campaign in 2004 and also directed the online efforts of Tony Blair's British Labor Party during its 2005 campaign. And Amanda worked on the Internet teams of Howard Dean and Kerry-Edwards in 2004, before becoming involved with NewAssignment.Net.
They both would have been warmly welcomed by any top presidential campaign, so we are thrilled that they recognized the promise of OffTheBus and decided to join us. Of all the people we talked to and interviewed for this project, Zack and Amanda were the ones who really understood what we are trying to accomplish. They are prime examples of a new breed of young people who get politics, get the Internet, get journalism -- and see how citizen journalism can completely change the dynamics of the game.
Even this early in the process, we've already seen example after example of what happens when reporters hop on board the same bus -- and the Conventional Wisdom gets passed around like a joint at a Grateful Dead concert. And we've also seen far-too-much coverage in which it becomes hard to tell where the campaigns' agendas leave off and the journalists' reporting kicks in.
For instance, what were we to make of the New York Times' recent kabuki-dance coverage of the Clinton campaign's fundraising efforts? The Times published a major story based on a leaked memo that was, according to the paper, "provided to The New York Times by an uncommitted Democrat who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign." The story also said that "the Clinton campaign said the document was authentic, and declined to say how it got out, or even if the campaign had leaked the information as a way to set fund-raising expectations." How cloak-and-dagger! And how insufferably lame. It was clear that the Clinton camp wanted the memo made public and was thrilled to have a story in the Times with lines like "Mrs. Clinton is poised to raise more than her first-quarter total -- perhaps considerably more" and favorable quotes like this one from Clinton spokesperson Howard Wolfson: "We are on target to have the largest second-quarter fund-raising total in Democratic history."
Patrick Healy, who wrote the story, is a very good reporter, but that didn't stop him from acting as a stenographer to the campaign. A stenographer with a very high-profile platform.
This is not a new problem. This is what Tim Crouse wrote in 1972 in The Boys on the Bus: "Everybody denounces pack journalism, including the men who form the pack. After awhile, they begin to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories."
It's a seductive vortex as I found out earlier this month hanging out in the bar of the Radisson hotel in New Hampshire after the presidential debates discussing the '08 race with all the other people covering the '08 race. And that's the little closed universe you can easily find yourself living in when following a candidate. Surrounded by the people on the bus, all talking to each other and subtly reinforcing the conventional wisdom of the moment.
That's why our new project will stay OffTheBus, and bring in a bunch of fresh voices, a bunch of fresh eyes and a new kind of campaign coverage.
We have many great people who have signed on to be part of this exciting effort. And we are looking for more. We are especially looking for:
a) people who want to be part of our blog network and, as bloggers, correspondents, and critics follow a candidate, develop a beat or stake out some original territory.
b) people who want to join our mailing list and be notified about special projects and investigations they can help with.
c) people who have a special expertise, technical skill, or knowledge of campaigns or politics that our bloggers and staff could call on from time to time for advice and input.
So send your name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you are interested in.
Even OffTheBus, it's going be an amazing ride.