The rising tide of whistleblowing websites has reached Appalachia.
Earlier in January, a small group of young volunteers launched Honest Appalachia, a site loosely based on the WikiLeaks model. The goal, according to a Jan. 10 press release announcing the launch, is “to assist and protect whistleblowers who wish to reveal proof of corporate or government wrongdoing to citizens throughout the region.”
For now, the site will focus on seven Appalachian states: Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. It offers a secure online platform for anonymously leaking documents, and the site’s organizers say they’ll vet any contributed materials to make sure they are authentic before posting them publicly.
The site was built over a year-long development effort, aided in part by a seed grant from the Washington, DCbased Sunlight Foundation.
A week after the launch, Carolina Public Press spoke with Jim Tobias, a 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate who is one of Honest Appalachia’s co-founders. Here are excerpts of the conversation:
CPP: What was the origin of Honest Appalachia?
Tobias: I’ve been involved in journalism during and since college, and I knew other students in Pennsylvania and Ohio who were working on media and technology issues. A few us came together and came up with the idea after witnessing WikiLeaks in action for the past couple of years. We thought that a project like that would be really valuable at a local and state level, with a focus on the region’s politics and economy.
We’re really interested in supporting journalists, to help them do what they do best. One motivation was the fact that during the past 20 or 30 years, there’s been a decline in resources for journalists and especially for investigative journalists at state and local papers. We’re trying to help fill a gap that’s been left by [media] consolidation and downsizing.
Why did you choose Appalachia as the region to focus on?
We’re open to any states in Appalachia, and even to whistleblowers beyond Appalachia. But in terms of outreach, we’re mostly focused on those seven states, because those are the states the project organizers are most familiar with. A lot of us grew up here or went to school here, so we felt like we understood the media and political landscape best here. Also, we felt this project would be valuable in rural areas, where political activities and institutions too often go unobserved.
What types of records are you hoping to get and share on the site?
We’re kind of equal opportunity on that — anything from gas and coal companies to banks, from zoning boards to local and state governments. We’re looking for documents that reveal things the public doesn’t already know, or reveal evidence of corruption, wrongdoing or deceit — things that the public really should know about.
How do you plan on getting the word out to potential whistleblowers?
The media coverage of the project has been good so far, so we’ll try to keep plugging away with that. We’ll also be e-mailing people in various government agencies and corporations. We’re using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word too.
The site has only been up for a few days, but have you received any leaks yet?
Not yet. I think it’s going to be sort of a waiting game. You know, WikiLeaks was around for years before they really started getting the kind of documents that made them well-known, and I think it will probably be similar for us. We’ll be here though, as a resource, and we’ll continue the outreach. We’re willing to be patient, to wait for people to get comfortable with us.