Avoiding the “Monet School of Journalism”

OffTheBus was an alternative journalism project designed to cover last year’s US presidential campaign in a way that conventional journalists could not.

Based at huffingtonpost.com, OffTheBus recruited 12,000 citizen journalists, guided by a handful of professional editors.

Sometimes the amateurs were able to venture into events that were officially closed to the media. And that’s where they hit paydirt when Mayhill Fowler captured Barack Obama’s headline-making comments about rural Pennsylvania voters clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy for people who aren’t like them.”

In the latest Columbia Journalism Review, Amanda Michel, director of OffTheBus, reviews the project’s evolution and the challenges of creating a credible, citizen-powered, chronicle of the campaign:

The ideal of a citizen journalist bequeathed to us by new-media evangelists both inspired and got in the way. Incoming writers had great expectations, like beating The Associated Press to a scoop. They raced to put out copy only to realize the story already sat on HuffPost’s homepage. Ultimately, many more felt comfortable being impressionistic, profiling their and their friends’ experiences around the campaign. They resisted hard leads. We risked becoming the Monet School of Journalism. This forced us to redouble our efforts to nudge and teach writers how to produce the sort of reliably reported coverage we desired. We had to create and sustain a strong reporting culture, and that meant slower growth to start, and lots of editing.

Opinions are a dime a dozen. Facts are usually more difficult, and expensive, to come by.