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May 4, 2016, 11:14 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With new columns and newsletters, ProPublica is trying to attract new readers and have more fun

“There’s a huge benefit to coming up with features that are more fun and more interesting. It appeals to a different audience and can create closer connections with readers — they can see a different side of us.”

While ProPublica spends most of its energy reporting long investigative stories on topics like patient safety and college debt, the nonprofit site has a goal of publishing at least one shorter piece per day.

But a few months ago, the staff was struggling to make that quota, and senior editor Joe Sexton suggested that the editors look for ways to liven up ProPublica’s day-to-day output.

“It was an opportunity to think about something larger: Showing a different side of ourselves to the world, and showing a different side of ourselves to ourselves,” said Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor.

Umansky and Sexton asked staffers to suggest ideas for new features, and then had a newsroom-wide brainstorming meeting. Each potential new project had to meet three criteria: It had to be easy enough to do that it wouldn’t detract from ProPublica’s main investigations, it had to be interesting, and it had to fit with ProPublica’s mission of accountability journalism.

As a result, ProPublica has in recent weeks debuted a number of new efforts to improve its daily content flow. News app developer Lena Groeger is writing a regular feature, Visual Evidence, that looks at everyday uses of data and design. Her first column was about how our brains trick us, and it included charts, optical illusions, and many anecdotes to show “how graphics, including charts, interactives, and other visual tools, can help show us our minds’ shortcomings.”

Reporter David Epstein launched an email newsletter, SRSLY, that highlights “under-exposed accountability journalism.”

“There is a lot of great stuff out there that’s important to highlight. I hope that I can bring to ProPublica an audience that doesn’t engage with a lot of the tone or the length of our current stories,” Epstein said.

And starting Wednesday, reporter T. Christian Miller, who won a Pulitzer earlier this month for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” will be writing a weekly advice column that instructs readers on how to use journalistic skills in their own lives. The first column discusses how to get people to respond to your emails. Next week’s will explain how to do background checks on your Tinder matches.

“We’d like everybody to be able to make the world a little more honest,” Miller wrote in his first piece. “So we hope this column will help teach you some of the tricks of our trade. We hope you learn to use them in your own life.”

Most of ProPublica’s audience consists of one-time visitors who come to the site only when it posts a major story or investigation, Umansky said. ProPublica is hopeful that these new features will attract readers who want to return to the site regularly.

“There’s a huge benefit to coming up with features that are more fun and more interesting because, externally, it appeals to a different audience and can create closer connections with readers — they can see a different side of us,” Umansky said.

ProPublica has previously experimented with different ways to connect with readers. In 2010, it partnered with NYU’s Studio 20 to look at ways it could improve its explainers. It’s also used dedicated Facebook groups to build networks of potential sources and individuals who are interested in specific coverage areas.

Internally, though, these new projects are also an opportunity for ProPublica staffers to try new things that they might not get to do in their day jobs.

Umansky highlighted Groeger, who is writing the Visual Evidence column. Though her primary responsibility at ProPublica is to build news apps, she’s also “great writer, and is a great teacher, and does these delightful columns to use the skills to her knowledge to help people understand the world,” he said.

“It reminds us that it’s a nice thing to try out different muscles and different ways of writing,” he said. “That’s healthy internally, particularly if people are working on long-term things. Having the freedom of form and timelines to bang something out can just be fun.”

Still, Umansky emphasized that these features are in fact experiments. He’s set reminders in his calendar to check in on each of the new projects in six weeks to see how they’re going. “We want to be pretty hard-minded about walking away from things if we don’t think they’re working,” he said.

ProPublica, of course, wants the projects to succeed, and any decision on how to proceed with them won’t be a simple yes or no. The team might decide to make tweaks or changes to the content or the frequency at which it’s published, depending on how readers respond.

“The question isn’t simply: ‘Is it successful?’ The question is: ‘Is it worth the time? Is it worth the investment?'” Umansky said.

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 4, 2016, 11:14 a.m.
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