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July 18, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

ProPublica gets $1.9 million from Knight to expand its efforts in data journalism

The three-year grant means ProPublica will add staff to its news applications team.

ProPublica is getting a $1.9 million data journalism grant from the Knight Foundation, the nonprofits jointly announced on Wednesday.

The money will be used to support ProPublica’s News Applications team, including adding one full-time staffer. ProPublica has already hired that person, Lena Groeger, who first joined the team in a pilot fellowship program. The grant will also help make that fellowship program — which is essentially a paid internship for tech-savvy journalists — a permanent fixture at ProPublica.

News applications editor Scott Klein says the grant will primarily help increase his team’s metabolism to execute data-driven projects.

“Obviously, we’re going to be doing a lot of news apps,” Klein told me. “What’s important to me is that we continue to do great work that supports the mission of ProPublica, which is to have impact in the real world. I think it’s important that ProPublica be a leader in this new discipline in journalism, and to whatever extent we can help other organizations do this kind of work as well.”

Since its launch five years ago, ProPublica has aimed to be a “moral force” in news. But did its founding team envision data journalism as being a driving force for the site?

“Very honestly, no,” general manager Richard Tofel told me. “It’s really Scott Klein who led us into this. It’s fair to say that when we hired him, we thought we were hiring him to work on our website — and some other things — but principally to run our website. It was really Scott who had the vision of what this field could be.”

Data journalism has become the area into which ProPublica has poured the most additional resources, Tofel says, and Knight wants to help the site lead the journalism industry into a new age of data journalism. To do that, ProPublica has also committed to using grant money for a new job shadowing program nicknamed P5 — short for the alliterative ProPublica Paired Programming Project — that will invite one non-ProPublica journalist per month to work with Klein and his team.

“We feel like it’s important for them to kind of help us move the field forward in the space of data journalism,” said Michael Maness, vice president of journalism and innovation at the Knight Foundation. “One of the key things for us was trying to facilitate networking between not only grantees but people working in this space. We think this is a really rich area.”

Klein believes that data could play a part in the evolving business models for news. “I absolutely see our industry as a revenue opportunity,” Klein said. “Newsrooms across the country have within them data sets that would be very valuable to their communities.”

ProPublica’s own business model doesn’t include plans to sell data just yet. Tofel says the path to sustainability remains a “significant challenge” for the site. Its goal for this year is to continue to reduce its dependence on the Sandler Foundation, which provided its launch funding and continues to provide major support.

“Major support like this certainly helps,” Tofel said. “Foundations are a piece of it. Major gifts from individuals or family foundations are a piece of it. Earned revenue is a piece of it, and actually small gifts from online donors and checks in the mail are not an insignificant piece. We’re trying to move forward on all fronts, but sustainability is a significant item on our agenda all the time.”

Klein says to expect more news apps focused on the election, and projects that are designed to explore how campaigns are run and financed. One ongoing example: The ProPublica Message Machine, which collects and compares candidates’ mass emails in an effort to see how campaigns track and target voters. What it all comes down to, he says, is finding the best ways to produce compelling, high-impact journalism.

For ProPublica, “publishing is not the end — impact is the end,” Klein said. “Being free from the idea that publishing is the whole goal, the goal is really about having real-world impact — it enables you to see lots and lots of techniques, not just telling narrative stories.” In the still nascent field of data journalism, Klein says “it is going to take a lot of hard work and making mistakes and fixing them and figuring stuff out.”

Disclosure: Knight is also a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

POSTED     July 18, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
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