Elizabeth Gotsdiner got Joe Biden’s errant spittle in her mouth. Shantel Middleton got to ride on a Ron Paul blimp. Mayhill Fowler was following Obama canvassers and ended up helping them carry brochures for the candidate.
Each of these folks represents a new class of semi-pro journalist tasked with covering the U.S. presidential election in innovative, more personal ways. Gotsdiner is one of five citizen journalists doing reality-TV style video reports for PurpleStates.tv; Middleton is one of 51 mobile journalists on MTV’s Street Team ’08; and Fowler is one of 1,800 people who have helped out on Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project.
Each of these projects provides an alternative to mainstream media coverage, combining the ground work of average citizens or inexperienced journalists with editorial and production expertise of professional journalists. Rather than being lone citizen journalists, these semi-pros are given the tools and direction to craft personal reports that cover topics not typically explored in campaign reporting — whether it’s the minutae of political canvassing or how rural areas are overlooked by campaigns. PurpleStates.tv and MTV’s Street Team pay their citizen contributors a stipend for their work, while Off the Bus’ers are volunteers supported by a small paid editorial staff.
While these projects represent an interesting model for fusing professional and citizen journalism, they have a ways to go before becoming truly valuable information resources. Their websites are overloaded with material, making it frustrating for visitors trying to find the best videos or blog posts. And there’s also the issue of getting untrained journalists to do good journalism.
“Where we’ve had the biggest problem is assuming that untrained citizen reporters can quickly and adequately replace professional and trained reporters,” said Marc Cooper, editorial coordinator of Off the Bus, and a lecturer at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. “We do ourselves a lot of damage if we underestimate the training and professional rigors of journalism. I’m talking about the standards and training that go into building a journalist. Journalists don’t just come off the shelf.”
Off the Bus has better success doing “distributed journalism” projects, where large groups of people collect data that can then be analyzed by reporters or the public. One recent example is the Superdelegate Investigation, which helped create a more detailed picture of the leanings and background of Democratic superdelegates. And that project has led to more than a dozen stories on Off the Bus, including one about Hillary Clinton changing her strategy on wooing superdelegates in the face of a string of Obama primary wins.
After talking with people involved with all three projects — including editors, producers and the semi-pro journalists — I’ve put together this guide, highlighting the good, the bad and what’s to come from these efforts. Think of it as a mid-term report because they all have time to improve by the general election in November.
Huffington Post’s Off the Bus
Overview: Off the Bus is a collaboration between Arriana Huffington’s Huffington Post group blog and Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net experimental platform for pro-am (professional-amateur) journalism. Since Rosen first described Off the Bus on MediaShift as a way to have dozens of people cover each candidate, the site has shifted gears to become a series of distributed journalism projects as well as reports from volunteer bloggers in various locales around the country.
Crew: According to Off the Bus project director Amanda Michel, the site has had 1,800 people working on it, with just three paid staffers. “We work on a project basis and people sign up for projects,” she told me. “People who are active on the superdelegate project might not be active on [another] project.” Michel also said that while many of the contributors might be amateur reporters, they are also professional doctors, teachers and lawyers — with the latter group proving to be excellent interviewers.
Distribution: Off the Bus reports are generally on the Huffington Post website, though there have been collaborations with WNYC public radio and SourceWatch.org that has helped raise the project’s profile somewhat. Plus, a couple stories have had wider distribution through newspaper syndication.
> Superdelegate Investigation: Helping track the biographies of all the Democratic superdelegates, linked to a clickable U.S. map.
> Obama Canvassing Project: Sent out 18 people to follow Obama canvassers last fall, and learned very early on that the Iraq war was not going to be the key issue in the election.
> Evangelical Power Vastly Diminished Headed Into Super Tuesday: Thirty-plus people interviewed religious clergy and analysts to find that the evangelical voting bloc was unimpressed by the GOP field of candidates.
Misses: The biggest problem with Off the Bus is the site’s navigation, which emphasizes recent news, and leaves older, but still relevant projects in never-never land. Plus, relying on an army of unpaid volunteers may not be sustainable long-term; Off the Bus contributor Mayhill Fowler wondered to me, “Can this kind of reportage continue without paying the reporters?”
Future Plans: Michel says the site will be redesigned in six weeks with more tools for volunteers to organize their work online. At the moment, Michel directs the large number of contributors largely through email messages, along with wikis and chat rooms for collaboration. “Some of the tools we have tried we’re going to build into our site navigation, so our site will be a publication and a workspace,” she said.
“The real problem is getting the two ends to meet in the middle. It’s getting the citizen journalists to come up to the minimum standard that you need to make their reporting valuable. I’m always asked the wrong question about this: ‘How can you trust the information you get from them?’ That’s a ridiculous question…You have to build a relationship of trust. Can you be gamed or deceived? Of course you can. The real question is how do you get people who are motivated to do this up to the minimum standard to provide you with enough valuable material to make it useful.” — Marc Cooper, Off the Bus editorial coordinator and USC lecturer
“For all the heat it takes for bias, the mainstream national print media does a good job of covering stories dispassionately. But there is no such standard in Internet media. There’s nobody out there telling me not to slant a story for the candidate I favor. So I’m always checking myself to see if I’m being fair. The harder temptation, by the way, is donning rose-colored glasses.” — Mayhill Fowler, Off the Bus contributor
MTV’s Street Team ’08
Overview: The Street Team ’08 project is part of MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign to get young people politically active. MTV received a $700,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to hire a “mobile youth journalist” in every state and the District of Columbia to cover the 2008 elections. While the initial intent was to have the semi-pros shoot video reports for mobile phones, project director Ian Rowe, MTV’s vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs, said he can’t rely solely on cell phones as the main platform. Instead, each contributor has their own profile page, which acts as a repository for videos, audio, photos and text reports from each state.
Crew: Rowe says the 51 contributors went through an exhaustive application procedure that included writing a news story, producing a video report, and conducting an interview. “Some are more seasoned journalists,” he told me. “There are liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, it’s a diverse mix. But they’re all bound together by this passion of telling stories that are uncovered and of deep interest to young people.” Each submission is fact-checked by MTV News editors before going live online.
Distribution: MTV has made a deal with the Associated Press Online Video Network to run the best video reports from the Street Team. Plus, the best content is featured on the home page of MTV.com and on Think.MTV.com. Rowe says they will start running a “best of” the Street Team reports on various MTV broadcast outlets.
> Live streaming video reports from mobile phones during the Super Tuesday primaries in February. Here’s a roundup of some of the best moments of the live feed from Tennesee.
> “Hatin’ on Hillary” video tracing various sexist attacks on the candidate (see below).
> South Carolina Street Team member Shantel Middleton, 23, rides the Ron Paul blimp, but still doesn’t understand why Paul is such a phenomenon with younger voters.
Misses: Many of the videos follow a certain MTV editing style of sound bites from interviews over a soundtrack of hip-hop beats. It would be nice if some pieces broke out from that style and delved deeper into topics. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” has already run a spoof with its TDS Sreet Team ’08 report. Also, the project’s site is difficult to navigate, as it includes profiles of Think MTV members, causes and celebrity posts.
You would expect online video reports to be timely but there’s often long lag times. For instance, the video below ran as the spotlight report from Mississippi after the primary was decided, but was mainly about a Bill Clinton appearance that happened last Friday. California Street Team member Carl Brown said MTV should put some of the videos up at YouTube in order to get more notice for the project and build traffic — something highly doubtful with MTV owner Viacom’s current $1 billion lawsuit against the video-sharing site.
Future Plans: Rowe says the one-year project will live on in some form into the future, helping MTV understand a more collaborative structure with semi-pro journalists. “This is going through the November election but there’s no way this won’t inform our news coverage going forward,” he said. “It’s hard to conceive how there wouldn’t be a component to having our audience contribute to news generation.”
“Our overall goal is to get more young people engaged in the election. Sometimes it might be covering the horse race, but other times it might be about a more narrow specific story about a scandal with the mayor. If that’s what it takes to get a young person registered and voting, then that’s what we’ll do. Most young people aren’t watching ’60 Minutes’ or the nightly news. So the question is whether using new distribution platforms and content that’s more relevant to young people produced by their peers will help to get more people engaged, register and vote.” — Ian Rowe, MTV exec overseeing Street Team ’08
“I try to identify characters for each story that viewers can connect with. I try to frame it as their story. Because we’ve been given a lot of freedom, I don’t worry about each story having all sides, but over the long term of the project, I’ll try to do that. With immigration, I’ve done some things on people who are more lax on immigration, and we’re also going to do something with the Minutemen in San Diego. “ — Carl Brown, filmmaker and Street Team member from California
[Full disclosure: The Knight Foundation has given a grant to the MediaShift blog and is the underwriter for the Idea Lab blog, where Ian Rowe blogs about the Street Team ’08 project.]
Overview: PurpleStates.tv is a startup founded by Cynthia Farrar, who teaches political science at Yale University and has worked on the By the People project for PBS’ NewsHour. Her idea was to create a kind of online reality TV show taking five “regular folks” who are not politically active, but who represent the country geographically and politically, and have them meet the candidates and cover the campaigns on the ground. The five semi-pro journalists —who are paid a stipend — had teams of professional producers set up some interviews and film them with high-production equipment, but they also shoot their own videoblog posts.
Crew:The five folks come from different parts of the country, including a young woman, Elizabeth Gotsdiner, in Iowa and an older gentleman, Alex Ritchie, in California. While Farrar said they used a survey research firm to find the participants, and wanted them to represent the country demographically and politically, three of the five are more liberal in their politics. “I would have liked to see one other person that was my age, and we had Tanya who was our Republican. But three of us were left-leaning,” said Gotsdiner.
Distribution: The videos have been picked up by NYTimes.com’s Opinion video section, and Farrar is currently looking for a television partner to run the shows in serial or documentary form. She told me she raised $350,000 in funding for the project, which, “if you’re talking about an hour’s worth of television, that’s nothing. If you’re talking about online video, that’s a lot.”
> A nice roundup of Religion in Politics down in the “buckle of the Bible Belt” in South Carolina ahead of the primary there.
> A look at the Latino voters in Texas and Florida, and how they view various candidates.
> Entertaining roundup of the various encounters the PurpleStates.tv team had with candidates.
Misses: As with the other sites, PurpleStates.tv does a poor job highlighting the best content, and doesn’t include any kind of ranking on the most watched or highest rated videos. Plus, the online conversations are tied to the candidates and issues rather than to specific videos or episodes of PurpleStates.tv. That makes it more difficult to watch a show and then try to discuss it online with others. It’s difficult to find or make comments on the blog posts from contributors as well.
Future Plans: Farrar says she is trying to get a TV distribution partner but is struggling because the series doesn’t neatly fit as a reality entertainment show or news show, but is more of a hybrid. There are no plans to shutter the effort after the elections. “We will continue this after the election, because the idea is to have people experience politics themselves,” Farrar said. “We will transition in January and the correspondents will continue to cover the policy-making process.”
“I want it to be on television, because the ambition is to get a conversation going across the various divisions, including the digital divide. If you think about television stations the way they used to be in the old days, if you got your news, you got it from the same place everybody else did. We’ve lost that. The fragmentation is the other side of the mobilizing effect of the Internet. I didn’t just want to live in the niches, but get close to recreating the big tent and getting to the places where people watch, giving them shared content.” — Cynthia Farrar, founder of PurpleStates.tv
“Joe Biden, I met him and he was so spastic and eccentric. He spit in my mouth, and I was like, yuck. But when he dropped out, it hurt. You realize that these people, no matter who supports them, they are putting themselves on the line, and after being in the spotlight, their dream is gone. They drop out. I cried a few times, like when Mitt Romney dropped out. I’m not a fan of his at all, but I was surprised when he dropped out and was sad.” — Elizabeth Gotsdiner, PurpleStates.tv citizen reporter
What do you think about these semi-pro journalism efforts to cover the election in new ways? Do you think they break new ground or cover the same tired issues? Share your thoughts in the comments below.