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Laura Paull

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Glock n' Spiel

Posted: 09/02/11 06:49 PM ET

How two citizen journalists uncovered a bizarre GOP fundraiser.

Arizona resident Dawn Teo was perusing her daily emails when an item on a standard Pima County Republican Party newsletter caught her eye. The Pima County Republican Party was selling raffle tickets for a Get Out the Vote fundraiser. The item being raffled? A Glock handgun, complete with three 12-round magazines, grip and a case -- the same general gun type that Jared Loughner used in January to shoot Arizona Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords, who survived, and six other people, who didn't.

Are they kidding? she thought, and forwarded the item to me, an editor for citizen journalism at the Huffington Post.

If you are reading this, you've probably already heard the story.

That's because Dawn's tip went to Alex Brant-Zawadzki, a University of San Francisco graduate student who, like Dawn, occasionally reports and writes articles for the Huffington Post's Off the Bus project, a platform for citizen contributions to our political coverage during the campaign season.

Alex, 31, who was a student reporter at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and has worked in social media, knows a newsworthy item when he sees one. He reported and wrote the story in a couple of hours and we published it the same day. By the time he woke up the next morning it was being discussed everywhere in the media landscape. Why this particular piece of information was so catchy is the subject of another discussion. But from political blogs to mainstream TV news and back to the newspapers of Arizona, the item was reposted and discussed by people and pundits alike.

One citizen journalist put a topic on the table of the day's news.

Alex says he relishes the ability to bring to the Huffington Post's substantial readership facts that he's researched or found in the field. Throughout the day he was able to interact with Huffington Post commenters who either did or didn't "get" what was so notable about the Arizona gun raffle and illuminated its social implications. One reader offered the additional irony that the official Arizona state gun is actually a Colt, not a Glock, a fact Alex wished he'd found out himself.

Dawn Teo, 40, a communications consultant who has been contributing pieces to Off the Bus since 2008, says she has never taken a journalism course in her life. She is, however, an excellent writer with fantastic news instincts.

"The people who do the best in this sort of thing are those who are busy and successful in other aspects of life, and who write because they want to, or just think it's important," she says.

The only reason she didn't write the Pima County Glock story herself was because she was busy with personal things. But she was still on the ball, and had the presence of mind to pass on the tip to this Off the Bus editor.

"What I do when I learn about something that's happened that hasn't yet been reported, is try to imagine what the headline for this information would be," Dawn offers. "Then I ask myself, 'Would I click on this headline to read this?' And if my answer is yes, then I write it up, or pass the tip along."

And that's what we'd like more of you out there to do as the 2012 campaign season heats up. Information and newsworthy items come in all sizes and packages -- words, pictures, videos. If your instinct tells you that something is newsworthy, it probably is. If you don't have time to write it, send us the basic data and contact information. If you think you'd like to write it, but aren't sure if you can -- reach out to me at editor@offthebus.org. Or take a minute to sign up just to indicate your general interest in contributing, at offthebus.org

"There is no other place with [Huffington Post's] level of traffic where I know that if I write a good story there it will get placed where people can see it, even sometimes on the front page," Dawn said. "The Huffington Post treats us according to what we write, not who we are. That's why I do it.'

And sometimes, as with all good journalism, a writer can actually have the satisfaction of seeing results. Yesterday, in response to all the hullabaloo raised about the Glock, the Arizona Democratic Party Chairman issued a public statement, citing "an unfortunate lapse in judgment from the Pima County Republican Party in their choice to raffle off a gun similar to that used in the Tucson massacre."

Some Arizona Republicans, including the immediate past chair of the Pima County Republican Party, Brian Miller, have also criticized the gun raffle.

We're still waiting to hear from the current chair, Mike Shaw.

But that's another story, perhaps for another citizen journalist.