Today we open the blogging platform at OffTheBus. Here are some basic guidelines for those who decide to blog with us. Expect them to be revised as we go.
Offer an alternative. It all starts with the name, OffTheBus. We're trying to offer an alternative to the campaign coverage we've grown accustomed to from the traditional, on-the-bus press. Not to displace or duplicate what the press corps does but to take a different, more varied--and hopefully more interesting--approach.
No favored genre, no official style. OffTheBus welcomes news reports presented in "just the facts" style. It welcomes extremely articulate rants. It values informational blogging and opinion blogging. An eyewitness account is good, an interpretation of other accounts is also good. We do not elevate one genre or style over others. We're open to all forms of reporting and commentary that meet our standards and obey these guidelines. (Oh and data is good, too.)
Free-form blogging, filtered by OffTheBus. Generally speaking, we don't tell you what to write about or comment upon, or how to use your OffTheBus blog. (Though we may make suggestions.) We don't normally edit or censor your work. But we do reserve the right to look at posts and check for violations of our rules before they go up. The front page of OffTheBus, the items featured there, plus section pages and candidate feeds we will later develop, are edited products. That means we filter for quality, relevance and timeliness. We will try to be as clear as we can about our editorial priorities, but ultimately we are applying our judgment, which is subjective.
No single starting point. In campaign coverage as we've come to know it, a single master narrative tends to dominate. Sometimes called "the horse race," this is not a story but a device for generating lots of stories. In the horse race narrative the overarching question is always, "who's gonna win?" and the day-to-day question is, "who's ahead?" New developments are interpreted for how they affect the likely answers to those questions.
The appeal of the horse race is obvious: it's easy to understand, durable from election-to-election, and it turns reporters into savvy interpreters of the candidates' moves. Perhaps a subtler reason is that it limits competition: if there's a consensus narrative then everyone on the bus can compete with each other within known bounds. At OffTheBus, we don't want to copy the consensus narrative or replace it with our own "master"; instead we think no single frame should prevail. Diversity of perspective is better. Lots of ideas for what constitutes a good campaign story. Lots of different starting points.
Don't run away from traditional approaches. There's nothing wrong with a sharp "who's ahead?" analysis but it should not be the lens through which the whole campaign is viewed. There's no reason to avoid events that interest the press pack, as long as we can provide a different perspective. We're not seeking to eradicate from our coverage all signs of traditional journalism because that isn't necessary for what we are trying to do: provide a compelling and practical alternative.
Original content is prized. OffTheBus offers original content. Never present someone else's work as your own; that's cheating and grounds for being banned. We place a premium on news that hasn't been reported yet and material that cannot be found elsewhere, because it was created specifically for OffTheBus.
We urge you to specialize, and claim a beat. OffTheBus will be most effective if our bloggers develop specialties and stick with them through the campaign. That could mean specializing in a particular candidate, or an issue that cuts across candidates (poverty, tax rates) or an aspect of campaigning that interests you (Internet fundraising.) There are many other possibilities. Later this summer, we'll be announcing our beat blogging project, in which we formalize the assignment of beats and assist bloggers who want to develop their own beats. Claiming a beat is not required, not does having a beat preclude you from occasional posts on other topics. We just think there is a lot of potential in network of campaign bloggers with individualized beats.
Principles of pro-am journalism. Dan Gillmor, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News, now director of the Center for Citizen Media, recently set down some universal principles for journalists, whether amateur or professional. We adopt them as our own. "The media creator who wants to tell other people small or large things about the world in any remotely journalistic way, should recognize [these] principles," he writes.
Thoroughness. Reporters try to learn as much as they can about a topic. It's better to know much more than you publish than to leave big holes in your story. The best reporters always want to make one more call, check with one more source.
Accuracy. Accuracy is the starting point for all good journalism. Get your facts right, then check them again. Know where to look to verify claims or to separate fact from fiction.
Fairness. Whether you are presenting a balanced story or arguing from a point of view, your readers will feel cheated if you slant the facts or present opposing opinions disingenuously.
Independence. Being independent can mean many things, but independence of thought may be most important. Professional journalists can be relatively independent of conflicts of interest, but sometimes they're so beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent at all.
Transparency. Simply, if you have a horse in the race, say so. Reveal -- if relevant to what you're talking about -- your motives, your background, your financial interests.
Tell us where you're coming from! Gillmor's last principle is critically important. It's vital for OffTheBus bloggers to understand the connection between transparency and trust. We're not trying to keep out of our system anyone who may have an investment in the campaign, or a rooting interest in one of the candidates. For example, it you gave money to a candidate that's enough to get you in trouble in a lot of newsrooms but it does not disqualify you from having a blog at OffTheBus. However, you must disclose (at your blog) any interest, stake, investment or involvement that might be relevant to users of our service as they evaluate your report and decide how much weight to give it. If we discover that you failed to disclose a meaningful connection that is grounds for being banned.
Tell us who you are. Related to transparency is your OffTheBus biography. It helps enormously to know who you are, what you have done in life, where you have lived, how you have earned a living, as well as any special skills and interests you may have. We're not asking OffTheBus bloggers to be "above" or "outside" politics, so the more you can tell us about your political perspective, the better. Please put some time into your bio; it's important.
OffTheBus, NYU and the Huffington Post. OffTheBus is a collaboration between NewAssignment.Net, a non-profit pilot project based at New York University's Department of Journalism, and the Huffington Post, a for-profit news and information site. Bloggers on our platform are not employees of the Huffington Post or NYU, and should not claim to represent either one of those institutions. If you are gathering information for use in an OffTheBus post, you should tell people that's what you are doing, and send them to your blog and bio if they wish to know more. (You can also send them to these guidelines.) Thus: "I work for the Huffington Post" is not a true statement. "I'm with the NYU Journalism Department" is not a true statement. "I'm an independent blogger for OffTheBus, a campaign news site affiliated with Huffington Post and NYU..."-- that's a true statement.
No party line, no favored candidates. OffTheBus covers the entire campaign for president, and candidates in both parties. The site does not endorse candidates, or favor one over others. There is no official ideology. There is no party line.