WASHINGTON -- If you are like most people, you don't much like the way the "national media" cover politics. As a long-time member of the Washington press corps, I agree with you. We can be trivial, shortsighted, credulous, ideologically blinkered and timid -- on a good day.
But here at The Huffington Post, we have a proposition for you. If you don't like the way we professionals cover politics, we invite you to do it yourself -- and we will show your work to the world.
Today we are re-launching OffTheBus, our open-source, citizen-based reporting project. In 2008, HuffPost helped champion this form of grassroots journalism. For 2012, our goal is to do it bigger and better in every way. (In June of 2007, when OffTheBus launched, we had 11 million unique visitors a month. In the last 30 days we had 93 million.) You can sign up to take part at OffTheBus.org.
In 2008, some 12,000 OTBers generated coverage of, by and for themselves and for the rest of us: monitoring campaign advertising and robocalls, for example, or writing individual or group reports presented on HuffPost.
One OffTheBus post became famous: Mayhill Fowler's account of then-Sen. Barack Obama waxing sociological at a San Francisco fundraiser. People in Pennsylvania, he observed, felt pressured by the economy and therefore tended to "cling to guns and religion." It was one of the most talked-about quotes of the campaign.
For 2012, we hope more citizens will sign up and hope they will dig even more deeply into the issues and operation of the contest.
We call it OffTheBus to make a point about what we -- you, really -- will be up to. In 1973, Timothy Crouse wrote a path-breaking book about political journalism called The Boys on the Bus. The national press, he explained, had become a story, if not THE story, and the paradoxically insulated world they inhabited on the campaign trail wasn't always the best place to get the real story.
The criticism wasn't entirely fair. Then, as now, professional reporters can and do get off the Bus. But, arguably, no one can see America better than the people who never get on the vehicle in the first place -- in other words, all of you.
The idea is simply to offer a vehicle for Americans (and anyone else) to take part in the process of covering politics -- as an act of citizenship, if they view it that way; for fun, if they view it that way; as a means for joining forces with other like-minded people to shed light on the 2012 campaign in ways other forms of reporting can't.
There is nothing really new about "citizen journalism." The Athenians were practicing it in the marketplace thousands of years ago, gossiping and reporting to each other about political events long before Herodotus -- the first journalist and historian -- tried to be systematic about it.
What is new, of course, is technology. The digital age allows us to link to each other -- to the whole planet -- in ways more powerful than human comprehension itself. The Internet allows tasks to be shared. And while software can foster centralization, it can also generate diversity: for every Microsoft or Apple, there is a Linux.
In a world of "distributed computing" and open-source code, why not encourage "distributed reporting" and open-source journalism? At HuffPost -- home to a unique blend of professional reporting and user-generated commentary -- the obvious answer is that there is no reason.
We want to do this because it is good for the country and good for journalism -- and because it will give you a chance to help both. This is YOUR enterprise; we will act as facilitators of it.
We will be offering professional help of the highest level. John Ness, our new Director of Integration, whose experience includes stints at Aol, Newsweek and NBC, will be in charge. Mandy Jenkins, who has worked for TBD.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer on social media outreach, will be in charge of keeping track of the citizen journalists who decide to participate and the materials they submit. Laura Paull, an experienced editor who recently ran the journalism program at Modesto Junior College, will help ensure that individuals or groups get to publish the projects they want to do.
Some tasks, it turns out, are best done by distributed reporting. When members of Parliament were enmeshed in an expense account scandal, The Guardian of London put hundreds of thousands of spending reports and receipts online and let its readers have at them. Readers unearthed details that otherwise may never have been uncovered. And that's just one example.
Some people -- some of whom I admire greatly -- scoff at citizen journalism. One of them is Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post in the Watergate days. If you have a heart attack, he said, you don't call for a "citizen surgeon." He's right about that.
But when the body politic is sick -- and who could argue that it is not -- citizen journalists may be just what the doctor ordered.