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Oct. 12, 2017, 11:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With its new reporting network, ProPublica wants to fund investigative reporters around the U.S.

The ProPublica Local Reporting Network will fund reporters who already live in the communities they are writing about.

ProPublica is going local. Last week the organization announced the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, a new initiative that will pay the full-time salaries and benefits of six journalists as they do investigative reporting within their local communities.

With the effort, ProPublica wants, however slightly, to help fill some of the gaps left by the hollowing-out of local reporting, said Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor of ProPublica “We’re quite cognizant of the fact that the greatest squeeze on accountability journalism has happened on local regional levels,” he said.

The effort is something of a departure for ProPublica, which has been largely focused on national stories, or, in relatively rare cases, local stories that are of national interest or tie into broader national trends. The project’s announcement came just a few days before ProPublica began regularly publishing ProPublica Illinois, which it announced earlier this year.

Both efforts are built around a similar understanding that the best way to reach people on a local level is to report on stories that matter to them. “Fundamentally, our goal is to reach communities we would have not otherwise have reached,” Umansky said.

The program’s requirements for applicants are purposely open-ended, as ProPublica hopes to attract project ideas from reporters from at radio stations, TV stations, nonprofits, and even independent ventures. That looseness extends to the kinds of projects ProPublica is interested in funding. “‘Story’ can mean anything today,” Umansky said, which is why ProPublica is open to funding not just written projects, but also podcasts, video series, and data interactives. “We don’t care if you are a cruise ship or a canoe, so long as you are dedicated to doing the work and you have a good idea and are open to partnering with us on it,” Umansky said. (Applications are due on November 3rd.)

While the funded journalists will report to their own organizations, ProPublica plans to offer editorial guidance on its end as well. A editor attached to the project will “guide, edit and elevate the work” produced via the project, as a job listing for the role details.

There is, however, one big limitation to the kinds of work ProPublica will fund. Would-be grantees must do work at organizations in cities with populations of fewer than 1 million people. Metropolises like Houston, Phoenix, and Chicago may be attractive, but ProPublica wants to fund work in places like Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Oklahoma City. It’s all a part of the organization’s mission to go places that it might not otherwise cover.

ProPublica’s effort was in part inspired by Localore: Finding America, a project from the Association of Independents in Radio that pairs producers with public radio stations in underserved areas. It’s also similar in spirit to Report for America, the new partnership between the GroundTruth Project and Google News Lab that was also created to foster the production of more local reporting. But the two new initiatives have some significant differences. While Report for America will pay to send up to 1,000 emerging journalists to undeserved communities over the next few years, the core of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network is that the reporters it funds already live in the communities they will write about. “For us, this means that the journalism should emanate from those communities,” Umansky said.

These projects come at a vital moment in American journalism. A popular refrain since last year’s presidential election has been that coastal news organizations missed Trump’s appeal among the electorate because few reporters were on the ground covering some of the issues afflicting middle America. Umansky said it’s “not a coincidence” that these efforts are launching now. “There’s an increasing recognition that journalism is a public good, despite what our president says. And it’s all been brought into sharper relief during our current political climate,” he said.

Ultimately, the mission driving the ProPublica Local Reporting Network is to produce reporting that makes an impact and forces change. But ProPublica also hopes that the project’s success will offer a model for similar projects down the line. “At the end of the day, what we want to show is how collaborating and being open to new ways of doing journalism and working together can result in better and more journalism,” Umansky said.

POSTED     Oct. 12, 2017, 11:51 a.m.
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