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article imageCitizen Media Leaders: Pursuing the Niche Political Story

By David Silverberg     Oct 15, 2008 in Internet
In a four-part series, Digital Journal is profiling innovative journalists, editors and institutions that are redrawing the map of citizen media. Find out how these bold men and women are impacting their corner of the media landscape.
Digital Journal — Presidential campaigns are inundating even for the most hardened journalists. The mainstream press does its best in covering the hot-button issues, but some coverage falls through the cracks. But like a media superhero, OffTheBus has pounced on the opportunity to track the big and small stories impacting the presidential race. Its citizen journalists are dedicated to writing thorough articles from their corner of the constituency.
As a sub-site of the The Huffington Post, a well-known political news site, OffTheBus carries a pro-Obama sentiment, a fact the site doesn't attempt to hide. OTB’s strengths rely on the volunteer reporters who pen posts from their communities, offering on-the-ground reports on fundraisers, stump speeches, and exclusive interviews. Launched in June 2007, Arianna Huffington introduced her readers to OTB to “bring in a bunch of fresh voices, a bunch of fresh eyes and a new kind of campaign coverage.”
OTB’s approach is also strong on relationships. Staffers and editors work closely with fledgling reporters on assigning stories, finding relevant photos, editing copy and interviewing appropriate subjects. “That’s why we’re different than other citizen journalism sites,” says Amanda Michel, director of OffTheBus. “This is what happens when a news organization works closely with the public to report on politics.”
For instance, OTB assigned a superdelegate project that asked writers to submit profiles of each individual who played such a critical role in the primaries. Michel mentored writers to help profile more than 300 of the 400 Democratic DNC at-large superdelegates. The project generated more than 20 stories for OTB.
Michel isn’t shy about emailing Special Ops assignments to the more adventurous citizen journalists on the site. One task asked writers to attend Women for McCain meetings across the country, filing reports based on Michel’s list of guiding questions. She likes to help reporters through every stage of the writing process, she says, because she understands the time commitment and efforts needed to post something intriguing.
“It’s easy to get through to OTB editors,” she says. “My phone number is always available.” Michel says the site publishes on average 150 articles a week, and membership hovers around 12,000.
OTB has also attracted the attention of Web celebs like Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. In October alone, he posted four articles, ranging from grassroots digital networks to voting registration websites. Newmark also contributed some DNC coverage to OTB.
But celebs aside, OTB has netted some major scoops. One of the site’s most investigate reporters, Mayhill Fowler, has won recognition for her Bill Clinton bombshell: in June 2008, she interviewed Clinton about a Vanity Fair reporter who wrote about Hillary Clinton. Bill tore into the reporter, calling him a “scumbag” and “sleazy.” The article even prompted a Bill Clinton spokesperson to say “the language today was inappropriate and he wishes he had not used it.”
Fowler also attended a San Francisco fundraiser for Barack Obama that had been closed to the press. She was one of the few reporters to describe Obama’s sentiments about working-class culture, an article that attracted more than 6,000 comments. “We want to open a category of political coverage that should be public,” Michel notes.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, OTB has started a project to allow their grassroots correspondents to journal their campaign experiences. Canvassers and campaign volunteers post more than 100 entries per week to OTB’s Campaign Journals.
OTB also launched what it’s calling a “citizen think-tank” — a series of discussions focused on various topics, all entries compiled from reader submissions. One question might ask what you want your ideal Administration to resemble and another might wonder which three issues the incoming administration should address.
Also, Michel says OTB is gearing up for a flurry of articles soon to descend on the site: more than 100 correspondents across the country will be posting articles about the election two weeks prior to Nov. 4. “Our citizen journalism model works well when writers are passionate about the topic,” she says. “This allows smaller community reporters to offer a more nuanced view on an issue.”
But what about the criticism about OTB’s pro-Obama slant? “I don’t believe in false neutrality,” Michel admits. “I think transparency is a much more credible method for us.”
This is the final profile in our four-part Citizen Media Leader series. Want to interview another pioneer in citizen journalism? Got an idea? Let us know in the comments section.

Citizen Media Leader Series

See below for the other profiles in the series:
The Journalist with a Business Edge
: Dan Gillmor is a citizen journalist's best friend, penning books on grassroots media and offering advice on blending user-generated content and entrepreneurship.
Opening Closed Governments: The Sunlight Foundation exposes the inner working of the U.S. government to reveal facts and stats ideal for any intrepid citizen journalist.
The Mentoring Journalism School:
The Institute of Citizen Journalism envisions a healthier media, where everyday writers and photographers find stories on everything from Colombian refugees to the environmental impact of the Albertan tar sands.
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