Amanda Michel

Amanda Michel

Can professional journalists and citizen volunteers play well together? It’s a question that has come up repeatedly in recent years. According to Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting for the non-profit Web site ProPublica, the answer is yes — but only for projects that are properly designed.

Speaking earlier today at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, Michel described one example — the Stimulus Spot Check — whereby volunteers examined databases and interviewed local officials to track the progress of 520 of the 6,000 or so transportation projects that are part of the federal government’s $787 billion stimulus package.

By summer, she said, ProPublica’s citizen-assisted reporting had revealed that ground had been broken on 30 percent of the projects — behind the timetable Vice President Joe Biden had publicly announced.

Currently, Michel said, ProPublica is basing its reporting on health-care reform on concerns raised by people in a survey developed in conjunction with American Public Media.

The idea, said Michel, who was head of the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project during the 2008 president campaign, is to “report stories that are beyond the capacity of a single reporter.” And it turns out that a number of volunteers will step forward, contributing some labor, she said, as though they were giving to their church, or to a local animal shelter.

So what doesn’t work? At Off the Bus, Michel said she learned that not everyone wants to be a reporter or a writer. Of the 12,000 people who signed up for the OTB e-mail list, only 14 percent ever wrote anything. Instead, she said many volunteers merely wanted to give some time and help out — as with the 220 folks who gathered data for profiles of nearly 400 Democratic “superdelegates” during the 2008 primaries.

Projects must be carefully designed to account for bias, she added, sometimes by assigning more than one citizen journalist (a term, I should note, that she disdains) to the same task. And the serendipity of old-fashioned reporting is lost when volunteers are asked to carry out very specific tasks that have been carefully designed in advance.

“You can’t always delegate what you don’t know,” she said.