07/16/2007 04:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

First project: Eyes on the money

Campaigns filed their campaign finance reports yesterday, July 15. These reports document a campaign's every contribution and expenditure; just like our own bank statements, they show where the money is coming from and what the campaigns are spending it on. More so than any other single document these reports tell us about the candidates' priorities and, of course, who's profiting from the business of the '08 campaign (and it is a very big business.)

News coverage of the quarterly filings tends to focus on fundraising totals and perhaps a few striking expenses, like John Edwards' $400 haircuts.

For two weeks following the public release of this year's 1st quarter reports, the "on the bus" press touted Obama's and Mitt Romney's fundraising successes, and the close competition between Obama and Hillary. In mid-April stories emerged documenting the high giving rates of those on Wall Street (and hedge fund folks) and John Edwards' expensive haircuts. On May 15, more than six weeks after publication, documented campaign expenditures in Iowa.

OffTheBus wants to take a closer look at how the campaigns are using the money they raise. The July 15 reports present us with an opportunity to put this project on the map, and test our premise that lots of people working together via the Net have advantages over slower-footed news organizations. Depending on what we find, we might also break some news stories.

You game? Send an email to campaigntrail AT with "first project volunteer" in the subject line.

You won't be alone in this endeavor. Huffington Post reporters will be working on this project and we'll decide together how we should take these reports apart.

The key to this project is to identify what we can do that a traditional news organization cannot and will not. According to Tom Edsall, former political editor at the Washington Post and currently the Huffington Post's political editor, "citizen journalists can make inroads" by finding unusual or unexplained expenditures and by applying local knowledge the national press may not have to figure out where the money is actually going, and why.

That's only the half of it. Some of what we can learn isn't immediately newsworthy, but valuable information we'll need as we go. For example, we'll know how many staffers are employed by each campaign, who they are, and in what states they work.

We realize that examining the FEC reports is a big task, but we also think it's the perfect way to get this project going. We have high and serious aspirations for OffTheBus, and we want to demonstrate that the project will take a hard look at what's happening in American politics.