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Disrupting Investigative Journalism

Inside Salon co-founder (and San Francisco contributor) David Talbot’s plans for crowd-sourcing muckraking.

The steady release of information about highly-classified federal spying efforts, including the existence of the NSA's PRISM program, came as a shock to many. And although many of the details were new to longtime journalist David Talbot, the method for revealing them was not—an inside leak.

That’s why, he says, he is starting the Open America Project, dedicated to "[shining] a spotlight on secretive government and corporate practices that are damaging peoples' lives and the environment." Talbot envisions Open America as a clearing house for stories like the one broken by his former Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald last week about the secret federal government's efforts to sweep up telephone data.

“This is right out of Phillip K. Dick—and it’s been getting worse for a number of years,” Talbot says. “I’ve just had enough.” Open America, which launched last week, is currently soliciting donations on indiegogo (one of the many crowd-sourced fundraising websites we recently profiled) to fund an initial round of investigative reporting that will include Talbot’s new book on the CIA, Jefferson Morley’s investigative blog on the drone-industrial complex, and a series of articles by Mark Hertsgaard on fracking.

But beyond the initial lineup, Talbot envisions Open America as a platform for future investigative stories. “We’re good at doing the smell test. We want to build a structure where people can bring us those stories, and we can determine the risk. Once the story is vetted and edited, we can then break it in appropriate outlets, like Salon.”

Of course, there are other journalism organizations doing this kind of work, like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting. But Talbot contends that Open America will be more "aggressive" than the competition—in part because of its crowdfunded roots. "Those other investigative media groups have done great work," he says, "but because they are funded by foundations and wealthy donors, they are generally obligated to operate more cautiously and with tighter restrictions."

Talbot envisions breaking stories on what he calls "high crimes at high levels of governmen [...] We’re not interested in the peccadilloes of politicians,” he says. He points to issues like corporations shielding their assets overseas to avoid taxes as the kind of stories that Open American would be able to pursue.

Talbot knows that what he’s doing carries risks, especially to potential leakers. There’s certainly the potential of government reprisals. But there’s also the issue of trust between journalist and source. Secret-leaking army private Bradley Manning, he argues, was “thrown under the bus” by New York Times former executive editor Bill Keller. “Too many journalists have their fingers constantly in the wind, figuring out how honorable they can be versus the costs to their careers and status and bank accounts.”

The Open America Project, once up and running, can’t promise total protection for its sources, Talbot says, although the group will set up a legal and technical infrastructure to help cushion the blows. But what’s more important, Talbot argues, is that, “We’ll be in the same boat together. And we promise to go down fighting with them.”

Find out more about The Open America Project here. 

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