An investigative citizen journalism initiative was launched last week by the American non-profit news project, ProPublica. The ProPublica Reporting Network aims to comprehensively track the progress of the US government's Stimulus plan through collaborative acts of information collection, performed by the public and the site's resident journalists.
Editor and organiser of the project, Amanda Michel described how the project would work:
"By collaborating directly with the public, we aim to deliver a greater range of information. E-mail, cell phones, instant messenger, ProPublica.org and social networking sites such as Facebook are our tools. Questions that hold public figures and those in power accountable are our guides."
The first project will concentrate on the Economic Recovery and Stimulus Act, with a particular concentration on its civil construction policy. The inclusive 'Adopt-a-Stimulus' venture, asks readers to choose a local reconstruction project funded by the Stimulus, which would most likely be the repairing of a bridge or road, and to monitor its development. The project will investigate whether or not the government's grand promises are fulfilled, in particular those concerning the anticipated boost in employment and the choice of sub-contractors. These issues will be pursued in order to provide answers, 'from the ground up', rather than from official agents, to the fundamental questions posed by those concerned by the direction of public resources.
"The questions we must answer" the website declares "as investigative journalists, are 1) is the stimulus working? and 2) is it being enacted responsibly -- without abuse of public trust?"
This venture is furthering the quest to hold governmental bodies and their representatives responsible through investigative journalism. Since its inception in late 2007, ProPublica has provided this necessary public service, working on a non-profit, online basis, as an alternative model to the beleaguered practice in traditional print forms. The embracement of amateur participation in the collection and transmission of information, moreover, is another large step away from classic methods of inquiry to bring "investigative journalism into a new collaborative sphere."
Indeed, the Report Network can be seen as an extension of Huffington Post's collaborative project, OffTheBus, which was also headed by Michel. The project used crowd sourcing and distributed journalism methods to cover the 2008 Presidential campaigns, in order to provide 'neutral' and 'decentralised' coverage as an alternative to standardised mainstream press coverage and official releases. Its organisers reviewed the project as being a remarkable success. Ultimately 12,000 people signed up and 'participated in politics', paving the way for a 'new journalistic future'
Returning to more day-to-day reporting, application of these methods looks set to produce results. Collaboration, it is pertained, should result in greater coverage and thus stronger effect, empowering watchdog agencies such as ProPublica with greater leverage over their targeted subjects. The organisers have taken confidence from the enthusiastic participation of their preceding venture, however, it remains to be seen if the Stimulus will prove as inspiring a topic as the 2008 race to the White House.