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Aug. 20, 2015, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production

ProPublica expands news apps and networked reporting with new funding from Knight Foundation

With $2.2 million in new funding from Knight, ProPublica will increase its Get Involved network, measure the success of news apps, and hold trainings for journalists.

Since its earliest days, one thing that helped distinguish ProPublica from other news outlets — aside from its nonprofit status and focus on investigations — was its reliance on sharing. That took a number of forms, in the partnerships with other news outlets to deliver investigations, and in creating news apps around data that let stories take on new life after publication.

The Knight Foundation wants that work to continue and is investing $2.2 million in ProPublica that will expand its efforts in collaboration and data-backed journalism. In announcing the funding today, Knight vice president for journalism Jennifer Preston said the support will help ProPublica continue to develop new tools for news and new methods of storytelling.

“ProPublica’s engagement and news apps teams have been leading the way in the use of data, social media and other powerful tools to engage members of the public in the newsgathering process,” Preston said in a statement. (Disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)

This is not the first time Knight has given financial support to ProPublica. Among other grants, in 2012 Knight gave $1.9 million to ProPublica to increase the capacity of the news apps team.

The new backing from Knight will also be used to increase the audience engagement work that helps reporters cultivate sources and build community on and offline. The funding will also help ProPublica launch a two-week summer training institute in 2016 to help journalists learn skills for handling data, interactive design, and more.

Scott Klein, ProPublica’s assistant managing editor, said over email the goal is to help working journalists and aspiring journalists use the same skills as the nonprofit, to “learn how to do our jobs — getting data, cleaning it, analyzing and asking good questions of it, and ultimately visualizing it.”

All of that contributes to the applications, visualizations, and other tools that ProPublica produces for its investigations. Things like databases that allow parents to compare school districts, a scoring system to rate surgeons and hospitals in your area, or a handy guide to health and safety info on cruise ships.

Those projects are all part of ProPublica’s strategy of extending the life of investigations, giving the information a kind of utility to readers. That same thinking applies to helping out other news organizations, Klein said. Almost all of ProPublica’s work is made available for reuse under Creative Commons.

But ProPublica is also developing ways to make the underlying data in those stories more accessible to other reporters. The organization produces “reporting recipes” that guide other journalists in how to apply datasets to their own community.

The new funding from Knight will help ProPublica make that information more readily available for other reporters, Klein said. “As a national organization headquartered in New York, it’s very hard for us to do local stories that can have local impact. Providing high-quality local data sets that come out of our national reporting lets our work be in many places at once and magnifies the chance for real-world impact,” he said.

Klein said they’re also planning to work with researchers to better measure the impact of their work, and whether the types of news apps ProPublica makes informs readers decisions in the real world.

In the last several years, ProPublica has tried to make sure that emphasis on real-world impacts is baked into the reporting process from the beginning. They’ve used social networks and other digital tools to cultivate sources and story ideas. The funding from Knight will help boost that work as well, said Amanda Zamora, ProPublica’s senior engagement editor.

Back in 2012, they created a Facebook group to develop a community of people to share their experiences of being harmed in a hospital. That project led to stories on patient safety, and the experience was one of the motivations for creating the Get Involved, a contributors network for ProPublica’s investigations.

Get Involved has been a successful way of developing sources across a range of stories and collecting tips for reporters, and Zamora said they want to expand that effort. “When we established Get Involved we wanted to experiment with the idea of participation as a way to measure contributions and activity in our audience that went beyond the normal metrics,” she said.

Users — who can range from journalists to experts or regular readers — sign up for the network and contribute to callouts or questions in the early stages of reporting. One of the benefits, Zamora said, is that you create an audience that has already signaled it is interested in the story and can share it through other networks as the reporting progresses.

The Knight grant will help Zamora expand her team and dedicate more resources to the outreach and managing community building. They’ll also invest in more technology to help streamline that process. In the beginning, they used Google Docs and Spreadsheets; now they use Screendoor to facilitate projects.

They also plan to find more ways to make that process available to other reporters. The idea, Zamora said, is to “catalyze more reporting on the local level” through providing the tools to do similar sourcing work in their community. The key, she said, is not just better technology, but putting those tools in the hands of journalists when they’re just getting started on a story.

“The reason it works is because our team is not this sort of magical engagement team that operates on one end of the newsroom and makes all this stuff happen in a vacuum,” Zamora said. “The reporters are an integral part of the process.”

Photo of the ProPublica newsroom celebrating its Pulitzer Prize win in 2010 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 20, 2015, 9 a.m.
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