WASHINGTON -- Let me introduce you aspiring citizen journalists out there to Tyler Kingkade, who is 23 and just graduated from Iowa State, where he studied journalism and politics.
Now that the GOP presidential race is starting in earnest (there is a debate in Ames next Thursday and a party-run straw poll there two days later) Tyler has some advice for Iowans (and anyone else in other states) who might want to volunteer for do-it-yourself journalism as part of the Huffington Post's Off the Bus 2012 project.
(If you are interested, and we hope you are, visit OffTheBus.org and sign up.)
Tyler volunteered for the 2010 version of the project, so he knows what he's talking about.
- Attend the small political gatherings at the local restaurants in your town. In Iowa, he said, they tend to be at a chain called Pizza Ranch. Your own town or state has its own equivalent. "In a small groups, people are willing to say more," Tyler said. "You learn more about what people are thinking and what they care about. There is no filter, and that is good."
- Get out of the big city. "In Iowa everybody thinks the action is in Des Moines, but that isn't true," said Kingkade -- who is from Des Moines. "In the Iowa caucuses, what happens in small towns and counties really matters a lot, and the national press corps tends not to know them or visit them."
- Talk to local groups -- real local groups. "There are national groups that come in to try to influence things," he said, "but in Iowa the local grassroots groups that are from the state have a lot of credibility and influence." On the conservative side in Iowa, he said, one of them is a group called Everyday America, founded by Iowa state legislators. On the other side politically is Citizens for Community Involvement -- a group that will become important next year, when, in the general election, Iowa will once again be a swing state.
- Keep track of the TV ads: who's advertising what, and on what shows, and listen to local talk radio. Again, it's not the national blowtorch of Rush Limbaugh who matters, but the local stations the national reporters don't hear or care about.
- Look for things the "pack" doesn't notice: things that only a local, and an amateur, would see and appreciate. That could be a conversation in the neighborhood, a flier or email, a meeting that draws more voters -- or far fewer -- than expected.
For Iowans, the role of citizen journalist has special potential. The caucus voting system there is a true over-the-back-fence exercise. One voter or friend influences another, and the smallest conversation can lead to the biggest results. In 2008, the Obama campaign made a science out of targeting high school cliques in search of Alpha males and females. It evidently worked.
But the other primary states are equally personal and ground level. Indeed, to a greater extent than the networks and national types realize, elections are still -- thank the Lord -- a local exercise.
That is where you come in, if you want to. So far, more than 700 readers have expressed interest in doing journalism of, by and for the people. We hope and expect that thousands more will do so.
Again, the website is OffTheBus.org. See you in Iowa, or elsewhere down the road.
Follow Howard Fineman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/howardfineman