07/23/2007 11:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Hair Beat, the Politics of No Politics, and the Mystery Driver for OffTheBus

Frank Sennett is a columnist and writes two blogs for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, one of my favorite local newspapers run by one of my favorite editors, Steve Smith, pioneer of the transparent newsroom. Now Blogspotter ("making sense of the blog world so you don't have to") and Hard 7 ("the culture of politics and the politics of culture") are both Sennett spaces. And he does a weekly podcast on the alternative press. OffTheBus, my new venture in election coverage with the Huffington Post, was a natural for him.

Here's the column he wrote for dead tree eaters-- I mean readers. And here's the fuller interview, including his attempt to quiz me on the politics of OffTheBus and my attempt to quiz him on the politics of his "mainstream" newsroom.

Frank Sennett: Do you have an exact launch date? If so, what is it?

Jay Rosen: We're kind of rolling into it. The three component parts are blog posts, campaign news aggregated from other sources, and special projects we're running. Our first features hundreds of people digging into the July 15th FEC filings by the campaigns. Nothing to report... yet.

(Updating a bit... OffTheBus did cover the first YouTube debate with the candidates, so we're off and running. Go here and here for starters. We had a team in Charleston, one at headquarters in New York, and one distributed.)

Sennett: How many blogs have signed on so far?

Rosen: Not blogs yet--- people. Our list of people who want to help with the project is over 1,000 and we're just starting to organize it and begin to engage them. It's going to take most of the summer to efficiently organize the people who want to do this, and learn to work with the list. But we learned a lot from Assignment Zero and Amanda Michel, project director, already knew a lot about working with lists--which really means organizing people by means of their interests and the low costs of connecting people to projects on the Net.

A portion of that group will be bloggers-- writers, reporters, correspondents. We're starting to identify them from our larger group. Soon we will start featuring them on the front page. And we'll roll into it by naming more and more bloggers.

I'm from the just get rolling theory of site launch. A lot of people who know more about the Web than I do recommended it to me. A next step will be to identify from our big group some people who want to do beats. I am working on that now.

Sennett: Are you taking all comers or are some folks screened out? If the latter, what are the criteria?

Rosen: We're screening and spotting talent at this point. I think you take all comers when you have some clearly defined standards the comers can aim at, and you need an intelligent filter that works. We're gearing all that up in stages. Right now, looking for people who can write well, and understand the meaning of the phrase, "add new information."

Sennett: How big is the staff of OffTheBus?

Rosen: About two and a half people. Plus an intern.

Sennett: In addition to collecting and filtering blog coverage of the candidates, will OffTheBus editors be attempting to guide the coverage at all by suggesting story ideas or group investigations, etc.?

Rosen: Yes. It helps to understand how we see the parts of the project fitting together. There are three ways to participate. You can join in one, two or possibly all three. (Sign up here.)

First, there's the alert list. If you contacted us about contributing to OffTheBus that means you're on The List. We contact you by email about special reporting projects that require groups of people working together. If you want to get involved, there's stuff to do. If you just want to remain in the loop this is a good way. We already have more than 1,000 people on our alert list, so a community is starting to form.

Second: the OffTheBus reporting corps, divided into two categories of bloggers: general reporting and beats.

Third part: Experts on call. We want to develop a separate list of people with special expertise or unusually deep knowledge who can help our contributors by being on call if their advice, consultation or feedback is needed.

So.... If the diggers on the list make juicy discoveries then OffTheBus bloggers will have original material to write about. Meanwhile bloggers tracking stories will develop good ideas for the people on the list to tackle. Experts on call swivel around to help both groups. When all three parts are working together OffTheBus starts to roll.

Sennett: What, if any, other services will OffTheBus provide? Will it help get bloggers credentialed, hook them up with sources, or even foster the creation of new blogs?

Rosen: All those things are hopes and dreams. We don't know exactly how much we will be able to do, and when it will be up and running. But it is our intention not just to "have" bloggers who (he said, hopefully) write great posts. We also have to give them good tools, good ideas, a decent-sized community of fellow posters, training (especially training, if we can swing it) some but not stifling direction if they need it, posting freedom if they don't. Ways to get noticed (small.) Ways to get noticed (big.) Bring their best work to public attention, make it part of the campaign conversation, get people talking about it, maybe people will make great stuff. I think it can work.

I can tell you this much with confidence. If we get someone to do "hair" as a campaign 2008 beat, and really take it on and do it right, they will get the opportunity to shine in the coverage, and that includes doing video and television that people like watching because it's fun and because, politically speaking, hair matters! Through the hair beat: what a great way to get your campaign news. Of course I have chosen the gaudiest example. There are many other ways to cut the data.

Sennett: Any concerns about having a partisan outlet such as HuffPo as a partner in terms of having the legitimacy of the coverage presentation questioned?

Rosen: That will be up to others to judge. Legitimacy is earned, I would think. But I have taken the "partisan" question on in various posts I have written.

When I decided to join forces with Arianna and Huffington Post and do my "open platform campaign bureau" idea this way, I certainly knew that the very clear political identity of that site--liberal-leaning commentary and news aggregator, plus a platform for Arianna herself--would be part of the DNA of OffTheBus.

I decided I was fine with that. I saw lots of happy advantages, and very few negatives. Arianna and I saw things the same way. Let people apply whatever discount rate they want. To you we're liberal journalists? Fine. Liberal journalists can break news, and they can break ground in use of the Internet. (So can conservatives.) They can try to enforce on themselves high standards for accuracy.

They can be fair, though they can't claim to be politically homeless. Arianna and I are the co-publishers. The site's editorial philosophy devolves from us, like in any newspaper or magazine. She used to be a conservative, and a Republican. I never was.

But that only goes so far. When you have hundreds of writers on your platform the site's editorial stamp also rises up from them.

You don't have to use this of course, but let me ask you something, Frank: do you and your colleagues in the newsroom have any concerns that by continuing to insist you have "no politics" you may lose credibility online, where people tend to trust you more if they know we're your coming from?

Sennett: I don't know where you got that I insist I have "no politics." That's definitely not the case. The other column and blog I write for the paper, Hard 7, comes from what I think you'd fairly term a progressive political standpoint. So does my Alternative Source public radio show and podcast. I do not think working journalists should donate to political causes and work on campaigns, however, because that amounts to a conflict of interest. I also don't think financial reporters should have a stake in the companies they report on. I've been very clear in making that distinction when I've addressed it, such as on the S-R's News Is a Conversation blog. I don't think the conflict of interest issue is a distinction without a difference, as some folks seem to. Does that answer your question adequately?

Rosen: Yes, very clear for Frank. I meant the news operation. Does it have a political profile?

Sennett: I can't speak for the operation, but I honestly don't discern an ideological underpinning to the reportage. I know the publisher doesn't dictate news coverage, nor does the editorial page. I think Steve Smith has been very transparent about where he's coming from, but again I don't see some kind of party line for the news operation. Clearly each human being in a reporting capacity inevitably brings a different perspective to the table, but I also don't see the news reportage being particularly agenda-driven at that shop. Nor do I believe advocacy journalism with a partisan perspective is a bad thing as long as people are transparent about it. I just don't see partisan concerns driving the day-to-day coverage at the S-R.

Rosen: Mind if I use that in my post?

Sennett: Sure thing.

What kind of impact are you hoping the OffTheBus effort will make? What will constitute success in your estimation?

Rosen: A flow of original news and information that people following politics have to check in with because it's timely, lively, reliable: good. That's success. Essentially, a good product that people in the market for it use.

I want to see if there are advantages in opening up campaign journalism to participation by many-- just many different people with many different interests. Can an open platform campaign bureau work? That's the mystery driver for OffTheBus.