Obama Town HallWith the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November, AOL Huffington Post Media Group has announced the relaunch of its citizen journalism initiative, OffTheBus. The project, designed to be non-partisan, was initially launched by The Huffington Post in 2008 to provide coverage of that year’s presidential campaign, and has boasted more than 12,000 participants.

When AOL purchased HuffPo earlier this year, Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group, said, “We will have thousands and thousands of people covering the election. Covering the Republicans. Covering the Democrats. Just being transparent about it.”

Now under the AOL umbrella, HuffPo will join forces with its sister site, Patch, to expand the program. Patch, a network of more than 800 hyperlocal sites throughout the U.S., recently expanded to include 33 sites in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, since those will be the first three states to hold a caucus or primary this year. OffTheBus will also take advantage of Patch’s existing community outreach programs, such as PatchU, which focuses on college students.

Huffington said about the additions to OffTheBus, “With its hyperlocal focus, Patch has the ability to be the eyes and ears for what is happening at the grassroots level all across the country. By expanding to key primary states, Patch positions itself squarely on the front lines of the presidential campaign and will be able to deliver a real-time snapshot of how pivotal communities are reacting to candidates — as well as immediate feedback on whether the issues that matter most to these towns are being addressed.”

Howard Fineman, editorial director of AOL Huffington Post Media Group, writes in his HuffPo blog,

If you are like most people, you don’t much like the way the ‘national media’ cover politics. As a long-time member of the Washington press corps, I agree with you. We can be trivial, shortsighted, credulous, ideologically blinkered and timid — on a good day.

But here at The Huffington Post, we have a proposition for you. If you don’t like the way we professionals cover politics, we invite you to do it yourself — and we will show your work to the world.

One of the most touted outcomes of the 2008 OffTheBus incarnation is contributor Mayhill Fowler’s scoop from then-Senator Barack Obama about people in Pennsylvania feeling pressured by the economy and how it had made them “cling to guns and religion.” She also scooped negative feedback from President Bill Clinton about a Vanity Fair article that Fowler described as a “hatchet job.”

About her lucky break, Fowler said, “Of course [Pres. Clinton] had no idea I was a journalist. He just thought we were all average, ordinary Americans who had come out to see him. And, of course, in one sense, that is what I am.”

Both Finneman’s blog post and the OffTheBus press release brag about Fowler’s success, yet both fail to mention that Fowler has become one of the more vocal critics of HuffPo‘s use of unpaid, crowdsourced reporting. The Terms of Service for the updated OffTheBus program make it clear right up front that contributors should not expect any wages or compensation for their work.

OffTheBus has a dedicated URL, OffTheBus.org. Right now, the URL just redirects to a sign-up form for those interested in participating in the grassroots journalism program.

The advisory board for OffTheBus, comprised of experts from the journalism industry, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian; Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; Jon Meacham, executive editor and executive vice president at Random House and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Newsweek editor; Teresa Rodriguez, award-winning Univision correspondent; Shelby Coffey, trustee of the Newseum and former editor of the Los Angeles Times; and Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief, CEO and president of ProPublica.

Source: “The Huffington Post’s ‘OffTheBus’ Citizen Journalism Initiative To Relaunch for 2012 Election with Expanded Reach, Greater Coverage and More Engaged Platform,” press release via Yahoo! Finance, 07/07/11
Source: “HuffPost Launches OffTheBus Citizen Journalism Project Ahead of 2012 Elections,” The Huffington Post, 0/07/11
Source: “How Mayhill Fowler got online scoops on Obama and Bill Clinton,” Los Angeles Times, 06/07/08
Image by nmfbihop (Matthew Reichbach), used under its Creative Commons license.

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