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June 16, 2011, 1:45 p.m.

With #MuckReads, ProPublica explores the social side of curation

Since ProPublica launched back in 2008, one of its goals has been not only to produce important works of investigative journalism, but also to highlight the works produced by other outlets. That effort was done largely, but not entirely, with “Investigations Elsewhere,” the section of ProPublica.org devoted to, as its title suggests, investigations that have been conducted by reporters outside ProPublica.

Today, though, Investigations Elsewhere is evolving into a new feature: #MuckReads, a more social approach to curation. Think #Longreads, but for public-interest articles.

As Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting, explains in a blog post announcing #MuckReads:

#MuckReads will curate the day’s essential accountability stories, discovered and shared by our reporters and editors, and readers like you….

#MuckReads is primarily Twitter-driven, at least at the outset. You can contribute by simply including the hashtag #MuckReads when you tweet an article…. If you don’t use Twitter, just e-mail your recommendation to muckreads@propublica.org. We will look through your recommendations and add our favorites to the #MuckReads page, ProPublica’s homepage, and to our daily e-mail. We will also retweet favorites from @ProPublica—all giving full credit to you.

Even though our feature’s name has the word ‘reads’ in it, we are interested in everything: stories, interactive graphics and databases, comics, podcasts, video, etc. What matters is that the journalism is essential, excellent and focused on holding the powerful to account. We also hope to turn the flow of recommendations into an ongoing newsroom resource.

With #MuckReads, ProPublica is essentially shifting curatorial power from the hands of its staff to those of its public more broadly. Any article tweeted with a #muckreads hashtag is included in the feature’s raw feed; from there, editors at ProPublica can delete it or promote it. It’s that now-classic combination of the human and the robot working together to complement each other.

That may seem, in the scheme of things, like a minor shift — lots of outlets, including Longreads itself, are experimenting with social curation — but it’s noteworthy in the context of curation as an industry practice. Increasingly, the Jarvisian (I know, sorry) ethos of content — do what you do best, and link to the rest — is taking hold in the mindset of newsrooms. But it hasn’t yet fully filtered into the structures of newsrooms, their workflow or their user interfaces. For many institutions, the simple act of pointing outward presents an implicit challenge.

If its increasing trove of Pulitzers is any indication, ProPublica’s already gotten the hang of the whole “do what you do best” thing; in experimenting with the social-meets-editorial curation of other outlets’ content, however, it’s trying to figure out best practices when it comes to the “linking to the rest.” And the solution #MuckReads represents is to scale curation by way of crowdsourcing curation. #MuckReads is engaging in a kind of elegant aggregation — one that emphasizes sourcing, credit, transparency, and context.

Michel was inspired to take the crowd-curated approach, in fact, by another practitioner of elegant aggregation: Longreads. “I was really excited by how Mark Armstrong, who runs it, was able to create something of enduring value from something as ephemeral as a tweet,” she says. The concept of stock and flow, the entwining of the temporal and the durable, “is especially relevant to us here at ProPublica,” she notes, “because our reporters go down the rabbit hole, and emerge months later with a story.” Many of those reporters have recently begun using Twitter to report and share stories, “and one of the questions at the forefront of my mind is: ‘What are ways that we can give their working conversations here greater value? What is it that we can do with them?'”

Michel and her intern, Braden Goyette, have been experimenting with a loose version of the #muckreads approach since January, Michel told me, gathering and otherwise curating public-interest stories from around the web. They found that, as they did so, people began suggesting stories to them. And as more reporters from ProPublica began integrating Twitter into their workflow, they also began sharing their recommendations for stories within their beats. “So #MuckReads is in part a way for us to create value from that stream of tweets,” Michel says — “and to create a way for other people to contribute to the feature.”

Michel gave me a tour of the back-end infrastructure, which allows ProPublica editors — Michel and Goyette will have day-to-day responsibility over #MuckReads, though other staffers will play curatorial roles, as well — to “follow” certain users (meaning that all of their #MuckReads contributions will automatically go into the queue) or block certain users (they can also un-block them, if circumstances change). Ultimately, Michel notes, “this is a really simple way of us beginning to identify great contributors who are reliably recommending great stories.” And, over time, “our hope is to be able to reward them in other ways.”

When it comes to those contributions, the hope is also that story suggestions will come from a wide range of sources: that everyone from partner newsrooms to fellow journalists more broadly to policy wonks to concerned citizens will participate. While a large number of contributors would be great, though, the real goal is to build a network of people who care about the kind of public-interest reporting that ProPublica produces and shares. (It’s no accident that the #MuckReads page features a prominent call-out to “Become a Source” through ProPublica’s collaboration with the Public Insight Network.) The hope is to up the engagement factor, not only when it comes to the consumption of accountability journalism, but also to the curation of it.

The interface also allows for the possibility of including an “editor’s note” from a ProPublica staffer. So if a story has a particularly cool infographic or video feature accompanying its text — or some other additional context that may not be evident in the story’s headline — the editors can highlight that for readers. “Over time, the hope is that #MuckReads becomes its own platform,” Michel says — a topic-page-like place for collected stories on, say, hydrofracking or loan mods or natural disasters. ProPublica has designed the #MuckReads interface for flexibility, hoping and expecting that it will eventually expand. But “at this point, we’re just going to launch it and see where it takes us.”

POSTED     June 16, 2011, 1:45 p.m.
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