Jimmy Tobias spends most days leading a trail crew for the Montana Conservation Corps. But when he’s not working with MCC on Forest Service contracts, he’s busy running Honest Appalachia, a new WikiLeaks-type website designed to help whistleblowers anonymously leak documents to journalists and the public.
“The idea is that as traditional media is dwindling, especially in rural areas like Appalachia, that someone else needs to step in to expose and investigate important stories,” says Tobias, 24. “I see the site as helping to fill that void.”
Honest Appalachia launched January 11 after receiving a $5,000 grant from the Sunlight Foundation. Already, Tobias and co-founder Garrett Robinson have received considerable publicity for essentially localizing the WikiLeaks model. The Associated Press and Washington Post have both written stories about the project, and that coverage has helped generate new leads. Tobias says a local media partner is currently following up on one tip involving “a major state agency in West Virginia.”
Honest Appalachia aims to do three things: support whistleblowers, act as a “matchmaker” between whistleblowers and local journalists, and help others set up similar sites on their own.
Tobias says the Honest Appalachia team—about five people, most of whom work in West Virginia—will vet documents and personally investigate tips before sharing information with chosen media outlets. As for helping others launch their own sites, Honest Appalachia’s code is open source and low cost—but secure. The site’s software is set up to encrypt and route documents through servers located in Iceland, Tobias says, in order to protect the contributors’ identity. “Providing anonymity is vital,” he says.
What’s not vital, however, is Tobias working anywhere near Appalachia. He moved to Missoula in May 2011 and, since his MCC work is mostly seasonal, he can dedicate a lot of the winter to working on the site. In the summer, others will pick up the slack.
“Because it’s a web-based project, it makes it easier,” says Tobias, who first got involved in Appalachian issues with Climate Ground Zero. “There are really no problems to me being based in Missoula, which is great because I like it here.”
In fact, Tobias says the Honest Appalachia model could lend itself to his new home state. He admits it’s a ways off, but notes that Montana mirrors the Appalachia region and its history with the extraction industry.
“If it’s successful and we have the financial resources and the time…something like Honest Rockies could be a possibility,” he says.
This story was updated on March 6.