"Citizen journalism" is still often a punchline rather than a serious description of the process of amateurs producing news articles. But hotshot citizen-wrangler Amanda Michel makes a compelling case that's changing.

Following work as an internet organizer for two Democratic presidential candidates, Michel directed the Huffington Post's "Off The Bus" volunteer reporting on the 2008 presidential election. The effort produced two major, national scoops: Barack Obama's "Bittergate" comments about conservative working-class voters and Bill Clinton's rope-line slam of a Vanity Fair writer.

Success enough, perhaps. But as Michel writes in the new Columbia Journalism Review, there were other concrete news advances from the massive (12,000-volunteer) project, including:

  • Quickly locating and dispatching (via a project database of volunteers) an amateur reporter to interview and exonerate a man Fox News had falsely named as having taken Hillary Clinton campaign staff hostage. (The interview was conducted at the man's apartment while he was supposedly elsewhere holding the hostages.)
  • Correctly predicting several months before the traditional media that the 2008 election would hinge on domestic issues rather than Iraq, based on interviews by 24 reporters in 16 cities.
  • Quantifying, with its own team of accountants, researchers and at least one former Clinton administration staffer, the precise level of support Hillary Clinton's campaign received from former Bill Clinton staff and Lincoln bedroom guests.
  • Reporting on black women increasing their doses of anti-anxiety medication ahead of the presidential election (your lock on fluffy lifestyle trend stories is OVER, MSM).

Having led the most visibly successful citizen journalism initiative to date, Michel would no doubt be an attractive recruit to any number of newspapers; they still have the strong brands needed to attract free labor and, increasingly, the desperate finances to push old-fashioned editors to try and use it.

As of last week, Michel is already spoken for. She's been snapped up by ProPublica, the investigative journalism nonprofit run by former longtime Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger. (The Huffington Post rather bizarrely replaced her with its publisher's godson.)

More and more newspapers are now desperately trying to replace staff they can no longer afford with volunteers, as Jeff Bercovici at Portfolio points out. Even the New York Times!

Many will, of course, fail. But at least there's now one big, visible blueprint for success. And if a manager as erratic as Arianna Huffington can pull citizen journalism off, some ink-stained editors should be able to manage the same. They, like Huffington, just need to find the right sort of help.

(Michel pic via ny:mieg)