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June 19, 2007

OffTheBus Hires Two People Who Know How to Organize 200: Amanda Michel and Zack Exley

Michel will be Project Director. Exley, senior adviser and featured correspondent. Both could have worked for candidates in '08. Instead they chose to take what they learned from organizing campaigns on the Net and adapt it to political journalism in the open style.

Some big news today for OffTheBus.Net, the joint venture in campaign journalism I have undertaken with Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post.

The Project Director, and the one responsible for day-to-day management, will be Amanda Michel, most recently our Director of Participation for Assignment Zero. She worked for the Dean and the Kerry-Edwards campaigns in 2004.

Joining her will be Zack Exley, who was Director of Online Organizing and Communications for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004. He directed the online campaign for the British Labor Party’s 2005 re-election. Before that he worked for and before that he was a union organizer. He will serve as Senior Adviser and traveling correspondent for OffTheBus, reporting from overlooked vantage points on the campaign trail.

(See the Press Release for more.)

Michel and Exley have worked together before. They were both sent to Ohio in 2004 when Amanda was on the Kerry campaign’s Internet team. They are co-founders (with others) of the New Organizing Institute, which trains young techies and political organizers in the essentials of the online world.

“Of all the people we talked to and interviewed for this project, Zack and Amanda were the ones who really understood what we are trying to accomplish,” says Arianna in her post today.

They convinced me to modify my original plan and turn OffTheBus into a more open blogging platform, where anyone can sign up and get a blog on our system by filling out a profile and meeting some simple disclosure requirements.

Zack Exley at his post today, Time to get off the bus:

When thousands of us get together to investigate how the campaigns are operating in all of our communities, we can piece together a moving picture of American politics that’s more complete than anything the mainstream news has ever been able to consider.

The design we’re planning to go with for our mid-July launch (subject to change, of course) features…

There won’t be any elaborate chain of command as there is in a newsroom, just page editors filtering for quality, bloggers who publish what they choose, and the list from which people volunteer for big projects. The controls come in what we decide to promote to the front page and send out as daily feeds, in how we design our special initiatives.

The way it’s developing, then, OffTheBus.Net will look a little like a campaign (because it involves organizing people) something like a news organization (which can hopefully break news) sorta like a specialized blogging platform (which we will try to equip with better and better tools in response to user demand) and even a bit like Assignment Zero at times (in that lots of people are helping to tackle one big story lasting 16 months.)

Realistically, with Michel and Exley and their background working for Democratic candidates, with the Huffington Post and its liberal leaning profile in the online world, with Arianna (from L.A.) and Rosen (from the heartland of Manhattan) as publishers, this is going to be seen as a project originating on the “blue” side of red-blue politics. The majority of contributors will probably lean that way, as well, with a healthy number of independents and a few conservatives. (That’s what our recruiting shows so far.)

This makes it way more of a challenge to cover the Republican candidates accurately and well, but we think it can be done. Certainly we won’t be crowing about the inherent “objectivity” of our coverage, or the professional distance our participants keep from politics. We won’t require people to pledge that they haven’t a single dog in any political fight. Those are virtues without much vitality in this kind of journalism, which is is participatory and indeed somewhat chaotic. But as we said in the news announcement: “Page editors as filters will apply the same standards of quality, accuracy and truthfulness to all posts and all candidates.”

When I introduced the idea for OffTheBus at my blog, PressThink, I invited people within range to participate in politics by covering the campaign. Now we have gone a step further, hiring organizers who know how to work with volunteers, use the Net efficiently, and hold down coordination costs, trusting they can more easily learn the journalism part than journalists could learn what Exley and Michel know about the human factor in open systems.

They both understand that the falling costs for like-minded people to find each other, share information and collaborate on good works (as well as works of evil….) probably means we can do new and exciting things in political journalism, but it is still very hard to do those things because our knowledge of how to organize scattered people with limited time and definite interest is still primitive.

I do know this: Open platforms do not resemble and cannot be made to run like closed systems such as a professional newsroom presents. They are different animals. They have different advantages, different costs. They require different skills to operate. I don’t think OffTheBus is going to blow horse race journalism out of the water. And I don’t think it’s going to be easy to realize gains from the open style in campaign reporting. There’s a long way to go before we know how to do it.

But I’d bet on these two to puzzle it out in public. Anyway, Arianna and I just did.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Hail, citizen person! Wanna join up with OffTheBus? From Arianna’s post:

We are especially looking for:

a) people who want to be part of our blog network and, as bloggers, correspondents, and critics follow a candidate, develop a beat or stake out some original territory.

b) people who want to join our mailing list and be notified about special projects and investigations they can help with.

c) people who have a special expertise, technical skill, or knowledge of campaigns or politics that our bloggers and staff could call on from time to time for advice and input.

So send in your name, contact info, location and zip code, plus a bit about your own interests in campaign coverage. How? Email us.

Zack Exley’s advice to campaigns: Donít hire an Internet person.

The Flack wonders:

Personally, I’m enthralled by the prospect of a presumably richer portrait of those who aspire to lead this nation. At least we’ll get past the recycled sound bites that appear in the finite news holes of the mainstream media (but not necessarily their sister websites.)

From a PR perspective, however, I wonder about the scalability of the credentialing process, and more specifically, who gets them and who doesn’t. By laying down the gauntlet early, do Jay and Arianna hope their now-branded band of bloggers will be given access to the hallowed halls traversed by campaign insiders? (The bet is they don’t need it.)

Not worried about it at all. If they give us credentials and someone from OffTheBus attends, fine. If they don’t, better. The creativity and originality we’re looking for are more likely to come from people outside the hallowed halls.

Rob Bluey of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy is skeptical.

Tim Schmoyer thinks we blew it: OffTheBus Already on the Wrong Track. “Sounds like the intellectual diversity of a typical newsroom already, doesn’t it? In fact, I’d argue the decisions made by Jay and Arianna have limited the organizing outreach of OffTheBus.”

Patrick Ruffini, who has had positions analogous to Zack Exley’s in the Republican sphere, asks: Is OffTheBus a Rigged Deal?

This is the blogosphere, so there is no warranty of objectivity or balance. The Huffington Post can hire anyone they want, as far as Iím concerned. But by bringing in Rosen, one of the nationís preeminent media critics, they clearly wanted this to look like a respectable journalistic enterprise, and not a partisan left-wing one. That raises the bar for them a bit.

Itís eerily similar to other recent nonpartisan efforts in the world of online politics that purport to be bipartisan, but by design or in practice work out to be less than that. Take the questions about Facebookís playing favorites with Obama. Or Lawrence Lessigís letter to the RNC about freeing the debates, which was heavily stacked with left-leaning signatories until Mike Turk and David All worked to round up more Republicans. (Iíll cop to not being ready to sign when first approached, but eventually doing so.)

Are conservatives just perennially late to the party here? Or are the social circles in which the Rosens and Huffingtons run dictating personnel decisions about cool projects and thus perceptions of who is up and down online?

As far as I know, I haven’t imported or purported anything about “bipartisanship” as the spirit of the thing. I have said we’re making political news for everyone. We’re going to cover candidates in both races and try to do it well, and in filtering to the front page apply the same quality standards to all candidates and all posts. I have also said that it’s an open platform. Anyone can fill out the forms and claim an OffTheBus blog.

Bipartisan? To me that is a miserable standard for diversity, just as balance is a bad guarantor of truth. I prefer multiple perspectives to “bi” ones. If “bipartisan” means “no party line to hold up,” then, yes, I’m strongly for that. If a single perspective were to prevail at OffTheBus that would definitely suck. It would be bad service. I agree with Tim that independence, decentralization, and diversity are key to making the mix of bloggers work.

Extra: Ruffini agrees wuth Exley. Don’t hire an internet person.

Howard Kurtz says it sounds like fun. “Fresh voices, undoubtedly many young voices, without the blinders of being tied to a big media institution or suffocating inside the campaign bubble. It could be a welcome breeze in a field notorious for so much hot air.” But…

An effort run by two people who worked for Democratic presidential candidates? Wouldn’t this cause GOP candidates to think that Off the Bus is going to throw them under the bus?

I will take this Bus ride with interest and stand ready to be proven wrong.

News flash for those who know the blog and the writing: Digby is a girl!

After ten years of authorship and activism about copyright insanity and the Creative Commons solution, Larry Lessig hangs it up. His new beat: political corruption. This is someone I respect and admire a great deal, and more so after his decision to execute this turn in his studies. (About corruption: “I am beginner.”) My favorite lines in his farewell, copyright post. “I am 99.9% confident that the problem I turn to will continue exist when this 10 year term is over. But the certainty of failure is sometimes a reason to try.”

From the Official Announcement: When fully launched, the site will feature:

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 19, 2007 11:59 AM