Two years ago, frustrated by the powerlessness citizens expressed to me about the political process, moved by their transpartisan worries about the state of U.S. democracy, I began an experiment on Facebook: I sought to train “ordinary” people from all walks of life as reporters and opinion writers.
The community grew fast, to a reach of over 10 million and between 100,000 and 250,000 users a week. People joined from 23 countries. There was clearly an appetite for this kind of training and the material it produced.
More exciting to me as a journalist was that the quality of information these “ordinary” citizens were generating – once they had taken on board basics such as “what is double sourcing?”, the importance of “who, what where, why and how?” and the role of eyewitness accounts and original documents – rose very high.
My personal beat as a reporter is civil liberties in the U.S., and the death of local newspapers has meant there is little coverage of state-level stories of these issues. That new void of local reporting leaves the federal government and Congress less than accountable on the local level.
But Gerald Rozner, a tech specialist, gave us solid blow-by-blow accounts of the Emergency Managers fight in Michigan, with original documentation such as court rulings; Jennifer Slattery, an activist, got us sound and vivid documentation of the clashes between Occupy and Oakland police, and brought us detailed reports from similar fights around the country; other sources put together a trend by agribusiness interests to criminalize raw milk production and sales state by state. Citizen reports came in from many local sources confirming that Department of Homeland Security money and armaments were flowing into local police forces; they posted city council meeting minutes to back this up. Understandably – since news outlets have had to slash the staff that used to cover these beats – this story and its magnitude was almost overlooked by mainstream news outlets till months later. None of our contributors are paid: They work because they want to make sure that the information they find gets into the public arena.