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Aug. 25, 2011, 1 p.m.

Making a market: How ProPublica blends news that wins Pulitzers with news that wins followers

The investigative outfit explores “aggregation in the public interest.”

Go to the ProPublica homepage right now, and you’ll see a mix of timely content whose headlines involve words like “guide.” And “FAQ.” And “Why X.” And “What is Y?” And “Z: we separate fact from fiction.” You’ll see reported blog posts and detailed explainers and thorough reading guides and news navigation maps. You’ll see a mix of content, in other words, that isn’t the kind of painstaking, time-taking Works of Public Interest Journalism that you might expect to emanate from the newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer winner; on the contrary, it’s often quick-turn, occasionally lighthearted, and almost always unapologetically derivative.

“We’re taking all the little bits and pieces and making them useful to people in a much more immediate way,” says Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting and the developer of the outfit’s overall social strategy. They’re deconstructing the news, and reconstructing it into forms designed to help their readers and serve their mission.

Part of the purpose of all that, of course, is to make sure that their website is kept fresh and, as the saying goes, “fed.” In a widely cited article earlier this month, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner described the problems investigative outlets face in the tension between traffic and impact, between short-term work and long-term, between quality and quantity. The challenge, he wrote, comes down to this: “how to reconcile serious journalism with the voracious appetite of a website (which, like a goat, will eat anything).”

“We’re taking all the little bits and pieces and making them useful to people in a much more immediate way.”

The dynamic confronting those outfits, though, isn’t (just) about the serious vs. the less-so, the long-form vs. the quick-turn, the stock vs. the flow. It’s about being active participants in an attention ecosystem that’s biased toward both immediacy and intimacy. When ProPublica launched, after all, it did so with both a mission — to produce public-interest journalism that would “shine a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong” — and an implication: that that journalism needed to exist in the nonprofit realm because it couldn’t be supported by market forces alone. Since ProPublica’s stock in trade is a strain of reporting — “investigative,” “accountability,” “public-interest” — that’s most often associated with being “crucial to democracy,” “thorough,” “high-minded,” and “boring,” the currents it’s navigating have as much to do with factors outside its newsroom as within them: with relevance, with audience, with zeitgeist.

And it’s not alone in that: Frontline, PBS’s documentary-focused investigative outfit, has been experimenting with beat-tweeting as a means of serving audiences’ particular interests, and with carving its long-form work into smaller, more share-friendly segments. California Watch has been making newsrooms out of coffee shops, and kids’ coloring books out of news stories. Etc. What their efforts amount to, ultimately, is an attempt to figure out public interest reporting’s role in the interest economy. And that includes determining how and when to drive the news cycle, and how and when to respond to it.

For ProPublica, often, the answer involves a kind of daily hybrid of investigation and curation: aggregation in the public interest. “Aggregation that adds value is God’s work,” says Eric Umansky, the ProPublica senior editor who helps oversee many of the outlet’s digital efforts. “And it’s always been thus.”

That work is done, in ProPublica’s case, by a core group of journalists within its newsroom — what Umansky calls an “ad hoc, responsive news team” — that includes Umansky, Michel, reporter-blogger Marian Wang, and social media intern Braden Goyette. The group meets every morning to discuss the big public-interest stories of the day and figure out how ProPublica might explain or expand on them (or “riff” on them, as Umansky puts it).

Often, the results of that meeting will be a quickly reported piece from Wang, whose job title reflects that product, or a “cutting through the coverage”-type summary, like the one ProPublica produced at the height of the media furor following the death of Osama bin Laden this spring. Or something like “Our Sputtering Economy, by the Numbers,” which puts the country’s dismal financial status into perspective, Harper’s Index-style. (“We try to treat them as resources rather than simply one-offs,” Umansky says, updating them and — as in the case of “Our Sputtering Economy” — inviting readers to contribute to them.) Last week, the team’s “relevant riff” approach led to its publication of News Corp.’s redactiontastic “smoking gun” letter from Clive Goodman to The News of the World — the brainchild of ProPublica’s news applications editor, Scott Klein. (Umansky and Klein are co-founders of DocumentCloud, and used the tool to annotate the letter.) And ProPublica regularly updates its tongue-in-cheek-but-accountability-focused compendium of quotes, Officials Say the Darndest Things. (A recent entry comes from Ohio state senator Kris Jordan, explaining why his wife called 911 after a domestic dispute: “She got a little upset. Girls do that.”)

By having a team whose beat is defined by speed as much as subject — Umansky used the word “nimble” several times during our conversation — you avoid the (significant) problem of attention division among your reporters. The expectation that all journalists should be active on blogs and social media isn’t always fair or, for that matter, productive; investigative reporters, in particular, often work best on a maker’s schedule, getting their best work done when they’re left uninterrupted from the vagaries of the daily news cycle. Several ProPublica journalists, sure, have taken to social media and have found it a boon to their work; and there are moments when a particular reporter’s expertise in a given area makes it worth his or her pulling away from deep-dive work to produce a quick-turn take on current events — as in the case of, say, Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica’s Pakistan expert who wrote a definitive news analysis piece immediately following the death of bin Laden. “Things that are responsive can actually have long tails,” Umansky points out. “They can really resonate for a long time.”

For the most part, though, the existence of a team dedicated to relevance and audience — to keeping ProPublica in the conversation, and to making sure that that conversation reverberates back to the newsroom — means that the outfit’s other reporters can be free to be as (relatively) isolated as they want to be. The team is a kind of situational skunkworks, a startup within a startup. And it’s part of a broader social strategy whose outcomes accrue to the newsroom as a whole.

“Things that are responsive can actually have long tails. They can really resonate for a long time.”

That strategy is partly about platforms but much more about mindset; Twitter and Facebook play a key role in it, but it’s also about constantly thinking, Michel told me, in terms of the audience — and then in terms of being responsive to that audience. The outfit’s popular explainers and reading guides came out of a kind of empathy with news consumers: How do you make sense of the day’s news? The point of that kind of content isn’t (just) traffic — “it’s not doing a slideshow,” Umansky points out — but relevance. And it’s not (just) about keeping an audience on your site; it’s also about sending them elsewhere, in the direction of good information. Muckreads, the social curation platform that ProPublica launched in June and will soon be expanding, is a prime example of that. “What started as a way to build our presence on social media,” Michel says, “has changed how we think about daily content.”

And the audience seems to be responding. While Umansky declined to provide specific traffic stats, he did tell me that ProPublica’s Twitter account has been, of late, growing at the rate of several hundred followers a day. The “Stumbling Economy by the Numbers” post ended up republished — ProPublica has liberal “Steal Our Stories” policies — on, among other platforms, Business Insider and The Atlantic Wire, and in several newspapers. And all that, of course, spreads ProPublica’s name and brand and work to more and more people. Which “helps build our punching power,” Umansky notes — a bigger audience, a broader network — when the long-form, “serious” investigations do come out. Of the 20-40 “major stories” ProPublica produces each year, editor-in-chief Paul Steiger noted recently, only about six to 10 will have “major impact.” Its stories are important stories that are also, in general, hard-sell stories. Most people don’t curl up next to a roaring fire to read deep-dive investigations into hydrofracking.

But a social presence bolstered by a network of fans can increase the odds of impact. It can help ProPublica to create, essentially, a de facto market for its work. And it can help it to achieve what Steiger called ProPublica’s “reason for existence”: “to produce stories that help the public improve the operation of American democracy and American society.” The outlet’s daily efforts may “feed the beast” of the web, but they also, just as importantly, create an environment that accommodates attention for the longer, deeper work its newsroom produces. They frame ProPublica as a community as well as a newsroom. They are, Umansky says, “completely consistent with our mission.”

Image by Hans Watson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 25, 2011, 1 p.m.
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