20 June 2007

OffTheBus Already on the Wrong Track

UPDATE: Patrick Ruffini joins the conversation and thanks for the link Jay!

Jay Rosen and Arianna Huffington have announced their new hires for their OffTheBus project: Amanda Michel and Zack Exley.

There's a brief conversation in PressThink's comments about "... how it looks to hire two liberal Democratic political operatives to run a journalism project?"

Jay responds by emphasizing he is less concerned with how it looks than how it works. He also gives us a preview of how it will work in his post:

...The majority of contributors will probably lean [liberal], 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....
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.

I'm skeptical that the partnering between PressThink and Huffington Post has anything to do with limiting their hires to two liberal political operatives. I think Jay conflates organizations with individuals. Jay makes no mention of reaching out to Patrick Ruffini, David All or Mike Turk. He only discounts partnering with TownHall or National Review because:
In a practical vein, once I had the Huffington Post as a partner with its reputation the only way to offset that for purposes of reputation would be to bring in an equally large red state partner like TownHall.com or National Review. We considered that. In the end we concluded that we would also have to split decision-making evenly and that the chances of that structure being nimble enough to improvise and turn on the fly, as one must in this practice area, were virtually nil.
Will it work? Depends on how you define success and what metrics you use. Here are Jay's:
Four: One of the things I like about this project is the simple metrics. If I want to know how OffTheBus is doing it's going to be real easy. I just go to OffTheBus.Net and look at that page. If I see there fresh, arresting, original, informational reporting and commentary on the 08 election, and it is different kind of coverage than the boys on the bus have always produced, then I am not going to be alarmed very much if I how I got there didn't wind through J-school or city room.
Fine, but will the fresh, arresting, original, informational reporting and commentary (if there is any) come from a "wise crowd"?
"Wise crowds" need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge.
Where Jay fails to mention the "wisdom of the crowds," Arianna addresses it directly:
In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argued that, given the right circumstances, large groups of people are smarter than an elite few. According to Surowiecki, three of the key elements that make a crowd (ie any group of people focused on a collective endeavor) smart are: independence, decentralization, and diversity.

Our citizen journalists will be independent -- focused on their piece of the puzzle, and not what everyone around them thinks. They will be decentralized -- spread across the country, with no one on high giving them their marching orders. And they will be as diverse as possible -- a mix of campaign insiders devoted to their candidates, neutral outsiders, passionate partisans and steely-eyed observers. The mosaic of their perspectives will add a varied portrait to the traditional coverage of the candidates and their campaigns.
If OffTheBus is really going to succeed, it will need to reach out to non-participants in order to get the diversity they currently lack. It will need to inspire online conversation with conservative bloggers through links and blog comments because they've already created an atmosphere where conservatives feel they aren't wanted as participants.

Or not.

Their "fresh, arresting, original, informational reporting and commentary" (if there is any) can be a success solely within the liberal sphere. It can have an impact (a traditional measure of success) on the primaries of both parties with Yearrrrrgh!!! and macaca videos.

An early measure of success for OffTheBus is the lack of interest displayed at memeorandum. It will be interesting to watch if/how the lack of diversity at OffTheBus plays out. I certainly agree with Jay on this:
Fifth. Do we want to say that people representing a portion of the political community cannot produce news and information for the entire political community? I wouldn't want to say that in advance, although I might conclude it after the experiment.

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