American Public Media’s nine-year-old Public Insight Network now claims more than 130,000 sources — that is, ordinary folks across America (and as of November, South Africa) who contribute their personal experiences to PIN’s massive database. It’s a gold mine for journalists reporting stories about, say, families facing foreclosure in San Diego or business owners deciding when to hire in St. Paul. As it describes itself:
Every day, sources in the Public Insight Network add context, depth, humanity and relevance to news stories at trusted newsrooms around the country…
Using our industry-leading platform, journalists and citizens reach beyond pundits, PR professionals and polemics to inform themselves and each other, strengthening the communities they serve…
Thanks to our technology, editors, reporters and producers can quickly find and learn from thousands of people who have experience or knowledge on a story we are covering. We call this the Public Insight Network, and it relies on everyday people — our public sources.
The problem is, most of PIN’s rich data is going to waste. “One of the things we learned early on,” said Linda Fantin, director of the PIN initiative, “is the amount of intelligence and amazing insights and stories that people have shared with us quickly overwhelm a journalist’s ability to get that information out there.”
So APM, as part of its unflagging hiring spree, is bringing in journalists to help turn more of the data into stories. While PIN will continue its primary mission serving 60 newsrooms, the new team will generate original reporting. And they’re starting without a distribution plan, or even a defined medium — radio? print? Tumblr? — hoping to let people drive the reporting and story forms.
“How do you do journalism in an environment of abundance?”
PIN is full of “unstructured data,” as Fantin calls it, “that’s never seen the light of day, because most traditional story forms are about quoting three or four people and getting a lot of context, and the rest of it is kind of buried in the reporter’s notebook.” What if, instead of three or four people, you could talk to a thousand people?
The team’s upcoming first project is an election-focused, month-long “virtual road trip,” asking Americans how their expectations and values have been tested or changed and whether presidential candidates reflect those values. Journalists will follow the established PIN model: The network puts out queries to its pre-existing sources and encourages new people to participate with a simple web form. Sources who can answer a query from experience are asked to fill out a questionnaire and, if willing, agree to be interviewed on the record.
The reporting is “a little different than certainly a lot of the reporting I’ve been involved in for 35 years,” said Jacqui Banaszynski, the recently hired editor of PIN’s reporting efforts. “As we report, we’re going to constantly go back into the network and talk to people and ask questions, and we’re going to let the discovery process help us keep determining where the story goes.” It’s journalism as a process, not a product.
And Banaszynski hopes to find a news outlet to pick up the work — be it a print partner such as The Washington Post or The Charlotte Observer, one of many participating public radio stations, or someone else. For now, the reporting will live on a Tumblr blog called Dispatches from the American Now, which is launched today. The PIN website is being reconfigured to serve more as a news site.
“At first that was a frustration for me, because when I do journalism I like it to actually go out into the world,” Banaszynski told me. But now it’s liberating, she said. Banaszynski and Fantin have deep newspaper experience; others on the team contribute radio skills. “We’re going to let our skills determine how we’re going to tell the story, as opposed to taking a story and shoehorning it into an existing frame.”
PIN has also hired two reporters and an engagement editor; the team is now hiring an associate editor and, soon, an additional journalist to focus on the results of news games such as APM’s Budget Hero.
Fantin said PIN’s new emphasis on process journalism ties in nicely with its recent acquisition of Spot.us, David Cohn’s platform for crowdfunded reporting. Individual journalists who raise money for stories will now have access to the Public Insight Network.
“One of the ideas we’re kind of toying with is a notion of funding a query,” Fantin said, as opposed to a story. “A journalist puts together a set of really interesting questions, and a community says…’we would love to see those questions put out to knowledgeable people and hear back what they have to say.’” The difference is the journalist has not decided ahead of time what the story is, because the questions could yield unexpected answers.
Fantin said traditional news operations are built on a model of scarcity: A small number of people have the information that a large number of people need. She hopes PIN will change that paradigm. “How do you do journalism in an environment of abundance? How do you have more voices shape the story, help you know where to go, and even help vet some of the assumptions that you’re making?”