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Campaign coverage moves off the bus, onto the Web

Frank Sennett The Spokesman-Review

A campaign reporter’s career is linked to the fortunes of his candidate. … If he can hang on to a winner through the primaries, he will probably be assigned to follow him through the fall election — perhaps all the way to the White House.”

— Timothy Crouse, “The Boys on the Bus”

Thirty-five years after a Rolling Stone correspondent wrote that sausage-making account of how the media cover presidential races, another progressive publication is aiming to provide a blog-fueled, off-the-bus take on the 2008 campaign.

The Huffington Post, in collaboration with open-source journalism site NewAssignment.net, last week launched OffTheBus.net. It’s such a work in progress that NewAssignment’s Jay Rosen, a noted press critic and NYU journalism prof, redirected the URL to the project’s new Huffington Post home Wednesday during our online Q&A.

“I’m from the ‘just get rolling’ theory of site launch,” Rosen said.

The first few days brought a list of usual-suspects politics blogs, links to campaign stories from traditional outlets and introductory entries by participants ranging from a university’s debate director to an 18-year-old “political junkie.”

More interestingly, OffTheBus enlisted the thousand-plus members of its “alert list” to dig into the July 15 Federal Election Commission finance reports filed by the presidential campaigns.

This many-hands-generate- quick-scoops research model was used to good effect by Talking Points Memo earlier this year when TPM’s readers sifted through documents related to the U.S. attorney firing controversy as fast as the House Judiciary Committee could post them.

With a paid staff of “about two and a half people, plus an intern,” as Rosen put it, OffTheBus will polish any news nuggets mined by its volunteer diggers and share them with the world via the Huffington Post megaphone.

In addition to group projects, OffTheBus is developing a pool of expert sources contributors can call on. It also plans to harness the reporting and analytical power of a cadre of blog correspondents.

The list of potential specialized coverage areas is virtually limitless, but Rosen chose to illustrate the concept with “the gaudiest example” – candidate hairstyles. “Politically speaking, hair matters!” he said.

Ideally, all types of contributors will begin feeding off each other. “If the diggers on the list make juicy discoveries then OffTheBus bloggers will have original material to write about,” Rosen said. “Meanwhile bloggers tracking stories will develop good ideas for the people on the list to tackle. Experts on call (will) swivel around to help both groups. When all three parts are working together OffTheBus starts to roll.”

One potential roadblock to acceptance remains the initiative’s partisan DNA. In addition to the Huffington Post connection, OffTheBus Project Director Amanda Michel and consultant Zack Exley both worked on Democratic campaigns in 2004.

“Let people apply whatever discount rate they want,” Rosen said. “Liberal journalists can break news. … (So can conservatives.) They can try to enforce on themselves high standards for accuracy. They can be fair, though they can’t claim to be politically homeless.”

As blogs from TPM to Little Green Footballs have proved, solid reporting tends to get picked up regardless of an outlet’s political leanings.

Similarly, Rosen said his “open platform campaign bureau” will be successful if it delivers “a flow of original news and information that people following politics have to check in with because it’s timely, lively, reliable: good.”

It’ll be interesting to see if OffTheBus can consistently deliver high-octane scoops.

Meet me at the Blogathon

I’ll be blogging 24 straight hours for the Muscular Dystrophy Association starting at 6 a.m. Saturday. If you’d like to make a Blogathon pledge, please visit the Blogspotter blog for details. I’ll be typing away from 6 a.m. to noon at The Shop, 924 S. Perry St.; and from noon to 2 a.m. at Prago Argentine Café, 201 W. Riverside Ave. Stop by and say hello.

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