By VICKI SMITH
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - A handful of freelance journalists and computer programmers are launching what they hope will become Appalachia's own version of WikiLeaks, a website where government and corporate whistle blowers can anonymously share documents.
Honest Appalachia launches Tuesday, and co-founder and spokesman Jim Tobias says it will be a place where people can safely post information without fear of being identified as the source and suffering retaliation. Users download a software program to render their own computers anonymous, and the Honest Appalachia team then strips out other data that could make the document traceable.
Before the documents are posted online, Honest Appalachia staff will verify their legitimacy and will work with other journalists to publish it.
The team is concerned about integrity and committed to both objectivity and professionalism, Tobias said. They're just as focused on protecting the identity of the whistle-blowers, he said, as they are on ensuring documents aren't elaborate hoaxes.
"We don't want to put out anything that's not true," he said.
Honest Appalachia will focus its initial outreach efforts on seven states: West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The group will first target people who work for in regulatory and other government agencies to build awareness about the site.
Tobias, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, says he and lead technical developer Garrett Robinson, a 22-year-old graduate of Oberlin College, are "transparency activists" trying to fill a hole as the mainstream news industry evolves.
He said they chose the region because Robinson lives in Ohio and Tobias had lived in Pennsylvania and divides his time between West Virginia and Montana. Other team members live in West Virginia and Ohio.
The region also was selected, Tobias said, because of its relatively rural area, believing there was less media scrutiny in the region and that a resource like Honest Appalachia would be particularly valuable.
Many newsrooms have shut down and many journalists have lost their jobs, Tobias says, increasing the chances that corruption and misconduct will go unchecked. And many whistleblowers are skeptical of sharing their information with mainstream media.
"We believe our country desperately needs watchdogs at the local, state and regional level," Tobias said.
"With the vast amount of information available out there today, we think this would be a great service to fill the gap," he said. "We're really trying to be team players. It's not about money. It's not about fame. It's about working together."
Private donors and a $5,000 grant from the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group committed to transparency and accountability in government, helped get the project started. Honest Appalachia has also enlisted support from attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the National Lawyers Guild.
Michael Ratner, a board member and former president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, called Tobias "really smart, really serious," and said the site he and Robinson have built over the past year is "quite comprehensive."
"They will not simply get a document and put it up," Ratner said. "That's not what they're about. They're about serious work."
Ratner's organization is dedicated to exposing government and corporate wrongdoing, and ending unnecessary secrecy. It has, among other things, fought to identify prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay and reveal details of their treatment, and it has sued to try to close the base.
The center advises and defends people who want to blow the whistle and share secret documents, too. While mainstream journalists with large news organizations are seldom challenged when they obtain confidential documents, Ratner says individuals and independent journalists generally have a tougher time.
Sunlight Foundation spokeswoman Gabriela Schneider says Honest Appalachia and sites like it are just the latest iteration of an age-old dilemma: "How do we get people better involved in creating accountability and get people to be whistle blowers when they need to be when they don't know what to do."
The foundation supports initiatives that use digital technology and the Internet to share information and "get real-time disclosure in an online forum."
Such sites don't bypass traditional mainstream media, Schneider said. Rather, they supplement it and give younger, tech-savvy people a bridge to a new model for sharing information or becoming an activist.
"It's a bridge between calling the local newspaper and posting it to a website where anything goes," she said. "WikiLeaks definitely grabbed a lot of attention, and I think you'll see that it inspires even more new models for communication."