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June 22, 2016, 10:47 a.m.
Reporting & Production

ProPublica is helping other news orgs do formal reporting (FOIA requests and all) on the Red Cross

“We wanted this to be a frictionless transaction. We don’t require cross-promotion.”

Saying it takes “more than one news organization in Manhattan” to report on the American Red Cross’s job cuts and chapter closures, ProPublica is tapping other journalists for help — and is helping them do that reporting, in return, by providing “potential sources, documents, and step-by-step tips.”

ProPublica launched the Red Cross Reporting Network on Tuesday. Interested journalists can fill out the contact form on ProPublica’s site to get assistance with FOIA requests, maps and contact information for Red Cross chapters, and local sources, including emergency managers in towns across the country, or former Red Cross employees.

“We want to help tell the broad story of the impact of the Red Cross’s shortcomings and cuts, as well as whether it’s stepping up in some places,” said Eric Umansky, ProPublica’s deputy managing editor. “The best way to do that is to think beyond the walls of our own newsroom.”

ProPublica’s community editor, Terry Parris Jr., is helping to coordinate requests by logging them in an app called Screendoor, “which is like Salesforce except we’re not trying to sell you anything.” (A Slack group for participants could also be a possibility.) Before it launched this formal reporting network, ProPublica had already been sharing information informally, Umansky said: “Sometimes we’ve received a tip about something and, for one reason or another, we’re not in a position to do something on it, or we think that X news organization is a better fit. In that case, we’ve reached out to [the other organization] and had stories result. This is just taking it to the next step.”

In the case of the Red Cross Reporting Network, ProPublica will attempt to match journalists with local sources. ProPublica has also been aggressive about filing Red Cross–related FOIA requests throughout the country, and “when those are relevant to reporters who’ve signed up in particular places, we can share them. We’re going to try to match reporters up with both sources and documents.”

As of Monday evening, 35 journalists had signed up.

ProPublica has done some matchmaking projects before, including this one on home loans in 2010. “The types of projects that lend themselves to a networked approach are stories that are geographically dispersed — they have things happening in many places,” Umansky said. “The Red Cross has chapters across the country, and no doubt different things are happening in different places. So involving other reporters just makes sense.”

Some initiatives that bring newsrooms together to report on an issue place requirements on the participating organizations. On a much larger scale, for instance, there’s the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which invited news organizations around the world to collaborate on the Panama Papers. The participating news organizations have to agree to ICIJ’s “radical sharing” requirement, sharing their reporting with each other and not publishing until ICIJ gives the go-ahead.

ProPublica, however, isn’t requiring anything of the news organizations that ask it for help. “Our interest is in having important stories be told, and we tried to remove as many barriers to that as possible,” said Umansky. “We wanted this to be a frictionless transaction. We don’t require cross-promotion. It would be great if they mention ProPublica and give a little bit of background on where the information is from, but we don’t require it.”

This won’t be a one-time experiment, Umansky said. “We’re thinking about how to get much more ambitious about this stuff.”

Red Cross photo by Tim used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 22, 2016, 10:47 a.m.
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