What’s Next In Citizen Journalism: 4 Questions For ProPublica’s Amanda Michel

Newspapers are dying, magazines are closing and more journalists are finding themselves without paying gigs every day. Everyone is wondering: what does the future hold for the media? We brought the questions to the front lines, asking leaders in the field to tell us: what’s next?

Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting at nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica.org, has helped shape the emerging world of citizen journalism with her work at The Huffington Post’s Off The Bus project. Off The Bus became an integral part of the election season’s news and helped break a number of important stories about the candidates and their campaigns. Now Michel is working on a project for ProPublica that tracks the stimulus money and where its being used and whether promises made by government officials hold water.

FishbowlNY: Why did you decide to use citizen journalists for some of ProPublica’s projects?

Amanda Michel: We believe that the better the relationship we have with the public the better we can do our work. By working closely with your readers you can expand access to information. There are also ways in which you can serve the public. For example, you can show them to look at things critically or give them the tools to do that.

FBNY: You recently launched a project tracking the stimulus money and how it is being used, asking members of the public to join ProPublica’s Reporting Network and “Adopt a Stimulus Project.” Can you explain more about the project and how it is going?

AM: It’s a symbiotic relationship between a network of people who are reviewing people on the ground and the investigative reporters that we have here. We are very much in the beginning stages, because we launched a little bit over a month ago. But already about 1,000 people are involved. Right now I’m running small scale assignments so that we can understand what information we can easily get a hold of and what’s more difficult to get. Whenever I start projects, I have a beta period like this. We’re basically putting tools on the site over the course of the next 2 months that will make it much easier for people to collaborate and publish information and communicate with each other.

FBNY: How did was your work at Off The Bus different from what you are doing at ProPublica?

AM: I left Off The Bus really excited about the idea of using the Web as a news gathering tool. We are entering this age where we’re more and more using the Web as a tool to gather information. It’s a new evolution of the craft. From ProPublica’s perspective, were approaching it much in the same way that we did at Off The Bus, asking “How can we work with our readers through our site with the use of technology so we can bring in information?”

FBNY: Do you think the mainstream media will begin to rely more on citizen journalists in the near future?

AM: They already are. Some papers put out calls for people to attend their local city councils. CNN features ireports. There are certain events these days that are becoming almost routine for citizen journalism, like the natural disaster, for example. Whoever is in the closest proximity to the event becomes the reporter for it. For most people who worked with us at Off The Bus, it was a hobby much like volunteering time to a pet shelter or a club or their church. There are certainly going to be people who participate who want to become full-time reporters, or who want to get paid, and a bunch of people from Off The Bus did get jobs in journalism. I think that it’s essential that you have people who are paid as working journalists. I certainly don’t advocate that citizen journalism replace traditional journalism, but citizen journalism is an engaged public. You are asking people to report and assess what is happening around them. This is not something new. People have been filing op eds for a long time. The history of media is not a monolithic one. The medium lends itself to sharing information widely and to organizing information so we’re going to see the lines blur between traditional and citizen journalism.

(Michel also spoke at the Personal Democracy Forum yesterday. She spoke on a panel about citizen journalism. Read more about the panel.)