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Tips on How to Write a Post for OffTheBus & Possibly Make the Front Page

Many of the people who signed up with us are seeking some guidance-- asking, in effect, what do you want? We're hoping that if we can get on the same page with contributors about what makes a good post for OffTheBus, then the site will soon start rocking. The following Q and A is intended to move that along.
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As things start rolling at OffTheBus, we're getting a lot of inquiries about effective blog posts, which is good. Many of the people who signed up with us are seeking some guidance-- asking, in effect, what do you want? We're hoping that if we can get on the same page with contributors about what makes a good post for OffTheBus, then the site will soon start rocking. The following Q and A is intended to move that along.

Q. If I want to get my post on the front page of OffTheBus, what's the best way?

A. Find some new information and put it into your post. That is the single best way. But there are several different ways to do it. Bring the scattered facts together in one place so that we have a view of them we didn't have before. Conduct an original act of reporting and tell us what you found. Interview someone (or multiple someones) whose knowledge and perspective adds to our understanding. Witness a campaign event and report what happened, making sense of it for those who weren't there. Provide an overview of an episode in the news and the range of reactions to it by linking to those reactions and to the best accounts you can find online. (Then express your own attitude.) Take a moment when the campaign for president intersected with your life, came into your house, and push on it until it reveals its secrets.

Q So OffTheBus posts have got to be about the presidential campaign, right?

A. Right. But the campaign for president includes not only the candidates as they struggle to win, but the people running the campaigns or seeking to influence them, the people who report on the race for the news media, those who volunteer or otherwise try to participate out of conviction. It includes the money, the technology, the business of campaigns, the spectacle, the human comedy, the stuff that's novelistic, if there is any. (An election is an episode in national psychology; the campaign includes that.) It includes the national dialogue that a big election like this ought to inspire, where it's happening, where it isn't. And of course the plain meaning of the 2008 election in the lives of the American people, who own it but don't run it. And it includes the people who are left out, unheard, or erased from the campaign, as well as the view from abroad: how other nations see the next election in the United States.

Q. What about Americans who are abroad and following the campaign?

A. Yes. In a sense they are ideal contributors because the American news media barely realizes what a stake other countries have in our elections, into which they feel dragged. That's a complicated (and global) story and for users of the American news product almost completely untold-- "foreign" territory. So it's a natural for OffTheBus. We need to be shrewd about finding the gaps in the On the Bus story, the places the narrative doesn't go, the informational jobs it declines. Good posts grow from that.

Q. So there's an element of media criticism in a good OffTheBus post?

A. That is not always the case. But it is frequently the case that a good OffTheBus post will start from something lacking or puzzling--or weird--in a news story covered the regular way. "I read this yesterday in the Los Angeles Times and it puzzled me so I did a little checking..." If behind that sentence there is a lot of checking, then we're golden. Because the story of what you discovered when you checked it out is bound to be engaging.

Q. And what are some things we should not be doing?

A. Some of our contributors seem to think they have stumbled on a more "open" version of the Huffington Post itself, where titles like Snow Perfectly Conveys White House's Total Arrogance are regularly found. That's not us. OffTheBus is not about politics in some general sense; it's about the 2008 contest for president. It lives at the Huffington Post, but its focus is a lot tighter. And as I said in an earlier post, "We don't want your latest rant at Bush or dig at the Clintons. Sounding off at some stray headline won't cut it." We're not an op-ed page. We're trying to offer new information and original perspectives not found elsewhere. Posts that do not have requisite links (so we can see for ourselves, get other accounts, check further into it) are not trying very hard to be published.

Q Could you give some examples of what you do want? I mean actual posts?

A. Sure. From our first two weeks in business: OffTheBus contributor Jeff Marion was there when the Democratic candidates spoke before a trial lawyers' association. He told us what they said and how that particular crowd reacted: what it was listening for, what it heard. Kerri Glover, who was on site, asked the same question of multiple people she ran into at the YouTube debate in Charleston: what difference did it make that citizens asked the questions? Ross Smith knows the guy who was in charge of debate preparation for Bill Richardson. He did a quick interview about how the staff prepared the candidate for the YouTube debate, presented in Q and A form.

Q. Okay, that's helpful. Any more?

A. Jack Muse collected key links and reactions to the news that the Republican candidates might skip the next YouTube debate in September. (Then again when the story advanced another day.) That's not new information, but it has value for another reason: it saves the reader time, which is one of the best rules-of-thumb I can offer you. Zack Exley took the same news--Republicans might skip the next YouTube debate--and revealed what was at stake by comparing the two parties strategic positions online. His was an interpretation I had not seen elsewhere, and it made the front page of Huffington Post. In this report that I wrote but eight other OffTheBus'ers contributed to, we tracked down some of those whose video questions got asked in Charleston and asked them about their experience. No one else had their reactions. This too made the front page of Hufffington Post. So the basic model is established. Successul posts filter up and reach a series of section fronts, gaining clicks.

Q. It sounds like you're saying you don't want opinion, just reporting. Is that so?

A. No. I'm saying that the best way to make the front page of OffTheBus--and just possibly the Huffington Post--is to offer new information not found elsewhere. Opinion based on discovery, some kind of finding you have made, is likely to be a lot more valuable. We have no desire to muffle our contributors' opinions. If they are based on information "everyone" has... well, that is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it's not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What's important is that they put new information in.

Q. Fine, but most of us have day jobs, busy lives and limited time. We cannot go to Charleston or Iowa City for the big event. Most of us don't know Bill Richardson's debate prep guy. We're outsiders, not insiders. So how can we do original reporting, which seems to be what you want? Sure, we could try to call Rudy Giuliani's campaign and get answers, but what are the chances they're going to respond? We're not professional reporters. So they won't know us from Adam-- or Eve!

A. That is true. It is implausible to expect our contributors to do what reporters from Newsweek or NBC News can do. This is not our expectation. The reason we call this project "off the bus" is that we think there's a role for contributors who do not have the advantages of a Big Media calling card. One can develop original information just by digging online. We urge contributors to work from areas of expertise they may already have. For example, we'd love to have an articulate physician comparing the candidates' health care plans, which are publicly available. Find the right expert in the academic, business or government worlds to comment and with an email or two you might be able to score a phone or IM interview.

Q. IM interview? Could you explain?

A. Pretty simple. Let's say you want to do a post on Internet donations. Find someone who has genuinely deep knowledge. He wrote a book. She studies the subject. He used to have a job that put him on the front lines. She went through a similar situation before. Chances are they have been thinking about the 08 campaign. Find an email address, write a note explaining what you are doing and what OffTheBus is, tell your source his or her knowledge is badly needed, and ask for an hour of their time. If they use IM (instant messaging) it's easier because now you have a ready-made transcript. Just doing that can land you on the front page if it's a timely interview and tells us something we didn't know before. And that's what I mean by: "find some new information and put it into your post."

Q. What would you recommend for the contributor who is thinking of making a commitment to reporting and posting for OffTheBus, a consistent contributor if it works out?

A. Develop a beat and stick with it. If the beat works and you're consistent, we'll promote you as, say, our Elizabeth Edwards: Illness and Strength correspondent (great beat, right?) Here's a post from Deanie Mills who is thinking about developing a Hatred for Hillary beat. Beats--if our contributors can pull them off--effectively solve the "new information" problem. A specialist tracking one part of the campaign story consistently over time quickly knows more about it than 90 percent of the press, which is something we learned from blogging. Bloggers can apply a more consistent focus to what interests or obsesses them. It is one of their natural advantages.

Q. So what do we do if we think we want an OffTheBus beat?

If you aren't signed up with us, the sign up form is here, and you can check beat reporting. If you are already a contributor, just email us at campaigntrail AT, and put beat reporting in the subject line. Do tell us about yourself, your background, any specialized knowledge you have that might apply, and any plausible beats you have in mind.

Q. What if we don't have any beat in mind, and would rather "go where needed?"

Excellent. Just email us, and say that. But we still need to know about you and your background, interests, expertise if any. Chances are that what fascinates you about presidential politics is beat material. Also, a beat is supposed to be fun. If it doesn't sound like fun, don't do it!

Q. Yeah, but how can we tell if it's going to be fun?

A. Try three sample posts. By the third, you'll know.

Q. If I've written a blogpost, how do I submit it?

Please send it to us at campaigntrail AT, along with your bio and photo. It's important that you include links to sites, people, and articles you reference in your post. To speed up the publishing process, please use the following format:

* Put brackets around the text you want hyperlinked (meaning, what text you want highighted). For example, [Yesterday the BBC said]

* Put the link after the bracketed text: [Yesterday the BBC said] http://www.....

If you've already been published, you don't need to send your bio and photo again.