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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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March 31, 2010, 4:46 p.m.

Hey, journos: ProPublica wants to find you a find, catch you a catch

ProPublica: investigative news outlet, public-interest advocate, matchmaker.

No, seriously. If you’re a journalist, and you cover the economy — in particular, the federal mortgage modification program intended to assist struggling homeowners — then the nonprofit outfit wants to connect you to potential sources.

“Allow us to make an introduction: homeowners, local journalists,” Paul Kiel and Amanda Michel write in a post just launched on ProPublica’s website. “Local journalists, homeowners. We’d like to set you up.”

Since last May, nearly 800 struggling homeowners from all over the country have shared their stories with ProPublica about their efforts to get a loan modification through the federal program. Their stories have driven our coverage – dozens of stories. With their help, we showed the incredible delays and frustrations applicants typically face: mortgage servicers have repeatedly lost documents, misinformed homeowners, and denied modifications for reasons that run contrary to the program’s guidelines. Among the 1.1 million homeowners who’ve begun the program’s trial stage, which is supposed to last three months, hundreds of thousands have waited in limbo for six months or more.

We have no doubt that there are many more important stories to be told. By any account, millions of homeowners are facing possible foreclosure. Although we read every homeowner’s story, we can only use a fraction in our coverage. That’s why we’re offering to set up our readers with local journalists (with the homeowner’s permission, of course). Often, the media can be the most effective recourse for homeowners who have nowhere else to turn.

We talk about disintermediation; this is, in its way, reintermediation. Reporting Matchmaker, part of ProPublica’s “Eye on Loan Modifications” coverage, brings together struggling homeowners — it asks them to share their stories, and (confidentially) their contact information — and local reporters who might want to tell their stories. (“Struggling homeowners, share your stories with us,” the service asks; “journalists, sign up here and we’ll put you in contact with struggling homeowners in your area who want to talk with local journalists.”) And then it maps everyone, homeowners and journalists together, to determine local matchups.

The service is of a piece with the outlet’s other efforts in collaboration: its Reporting Recipe, its Stimulus Spot Check, and so on. It’s another twist on what we tend to think of when we imagine the ways journalism can effect change: Essentially, ProPublica is amplifying its impact through helping other outlets to have impact.

“Collaboration is very much a part of our DNA,” Michel told me. “We’re always looking for ways to effect change by sharing resources.” And with Reporting Matchmaker, they’re doing that by sharing not only resources, but also, simply, sources.

The idea for the project came from Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. Klein remembers listening to a Planet Money episode on loan modifications last fall: “They were trying to do stories about people with loan mod problems,” he told me, “and they would call — and the loans would be approved, suddenly.” Kiel was finding the same thing in his ProPublica work: Curiosity, when it comes from a reporter, can be a powerful weapon. So they figured: If all it takes to get reticent loan officers moving is a call from a curious reporter — “if that’s all it takes for this to get a fair hearing,” Klein says — then why not amplify reporters’ ability to make those calls?

“I’ve used the network to do a lot of stories,” Kiel says: “looking for patterns, being able to drum up half a dozen cases when I identify a problem — that’s what it’s been useful for.” Now, though, it’s “a resource that can be leveraged beyond our use of it.”

One of the powers of the web, Jay Rosen argues, is that it allows people who were formerly separate — geographically, and thus experientially — to find each other and converse with each other. He calls this “audience atomization overcome”; essentially, it’s community that transcends geography. Reporting Matchmaker is one more way — a highly systematized, efficient way — to bring people together.

Whether they’ll want to be brought together is an open question; collaboration can sometimes be more appealing in theory than in practice. Still, what reporter would decline an offer of assistance in finding story sources? Kiel points to a recent Good Morning America segment that profiled a couple trying to modify their loan — and getting rebuffed, repeatedly, by Chase bank. It was Kiel, using the ProPublica database, who put the show in touch with the couple — at the show’s request. And only thirty minutes after the Reporting Recipe post went live this afternoon, Michel points out, she and Kiel had already received twenty-five match-up requests from journalists. Middlemen aren’t always redundant; and Reporting Matchmaker may well prove that sometimes even the media can benefit from some mediating.

POSTED     March 31, 2010, 4:46 p.m.
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