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June 11, 2018, 10:30 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

In the hunt for sustainability, DocumentCloud and MuckRock are joining together as one organization

“It’s a much better problem to have: How are you going to make those all work together, rather than how are you going to make it work at all.”

Muckcloud? Docrock? MuckumentCloud?

Just kidding. They’re keeping their own names, but MuckRock and DocumentCloud are joining into one organization on the quest for sustainability as a hub for some of journalism’s most widely-used tools for transparency.

“Joining forces for the sake of joining forces doesn’t make any sense,” Aron Pilhofer, DocumentCloud’s cofounder and executive director. “You would only do it in the case of where you think there can be opportunities to save money, to dramatically improve the product, to take the platform in a different direction, to expand, to have access to potential users you haven’t reached, on and on and on. All of those boxes are ticked by MuckRock.”

Last summer, DocumentCloud teetered on the edge of unaffordable abyss while housed at Investigative Reporters and Editors, its home base since 2011. Pilhofer said DocumentCloud had always planned on asking the news organizations who are major users of the platform to chip in toward the operating costs, but “we just have never gotten around to actually doing it,” he told me back then. The situation was dire, but there was hope: At a conference in the fall, MuckRock cofounder Michael Morisy and Pilhofer hatched a plan to unite the two into one — in order to strengthen both organizations, create a more compelling product for users to buy into, and (hopefully) keep them alive.

“It’s a much better problem to have: How are you going to make those all work together, rather than how are you going to make it work at all,” Pilhofer said.

The Knight Foundation helped out last year with an grant to bolster DocumentCloud’s flailing finances. (Disclosure: Knight has also supported Nieman Lab.) DocumentCloud’s relationship with Temple University will continue as announced, via in-kind support and Pilhofer’s salary, at least for now.

MuckRock has been seeking its own sustainability, transitioning to a nonprofit in the summer of 2016 and absorbing another journalism tool, FOIA Machine, later that year. In addition to philanthropic support for the nonprofit, MuckRock has a payment system for users and organizations, which DocumentCloud is eager to introduce.

The Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund provided a boost for MuckRock to gear up for long-term sustainability last summer. The funding, in addition to other revenue from newsroom trainings, MuckRock swag sales, and past crowdfunding campaigns, supports Morisy, cofounder Mitchell Kotler and three more staff members. They’re on track to break even in 18 months, Morisy said.

So why bring on an organization that doesn’t have the greatest (or any) track record of sustainability? Morisy doesn’t see DocumentCloud’s instability as a hindrance; instead, he sees its brand recognition and reputation as assets.

“It really goes back to our history together as platforms, but also as people, and our shared vision for where we want to go in the future,” Morisy said. He and Pilhofer met at a SXSW pitch event in 2011, when both organizations were seedlings. “DocumentCloud has been really good at showing it’s important to the journalism community and getting foundational support. We weren’t very good at that, so we were kind of forced to charge money and pay our own way. That made us really scrappy, but it meant that we had to fight for every inch of growth. I think we can help each other and as a combined organization get the best of both worlds.” MuckRock users have also asked for annotation and others features that DocumentCloud already has, Morisy said.

Expect them to pitch potential payers with the two-is-stronger-than-one approach for the combined offering of DocumentCloud and MuckRock. The price-point details are still being ironed out, and back-end work probably won’t be complete for six more months, but Pilhofer and Morisy said users can expect to see one login/account across the sites and paid memberships to unlock access to different levels of service on both DocumentCloud and MuckRock simultaneously. In other words, you won’t have to get separate memberships for MuckRock or DocumentCloud, and you should be able to automatically access all the files you request via MuckRock on DocumentCloud and vice versa; hopefully, no one will have to reinvent the wheel. Pilhofer said the combined service will still include a free, limited version. And they’re also joining forces to work on a Quackbot reboot, with stipends for bright ideas to build tools to make journalists’ lives easier.

Perhaps their eventual unification was fate. As former Nieman Lab staffer Justin Ellis wrote in 2010, in the aptly titled “MuckRock makes FOIA requests easy, but will reporters use it?”:

Making freedom of information requests can be a daunting task. If it’s not an agency dragging its heels on releasing documents or asking for a fee large enough to buy a compact car, then it’s the actual process of the, well, process. You’ve got to identify the right agency, contact the right administrator, find out whether they take requests in the mail or electronically, and even then you’ve got to word your request precisely or risk ending up with liquor licenses when you wanted restaurant inspections.

It’s a system begging for simplification. While DocumentCloud is making it easier to wrangle and make sense of public records, MuckRock wants to make FOIA requests similarly effortless.

But they’ve continued on separate paths, with MuckRock focusing more on the individual user (including non-journalists) and DocumentCloud building for organizations, which complicated things for document ownership if an individual who filed for it changed jobs (or if there’s a legal threat, for example). The joint team will likely shift to the individual model, which has more flexibility for the media environment of today where many people are not represented by a news organization, Pilhofer said.

The next ten years of Muckumentrockcloud — okay, I’m done — will continue to bring challenges not unlike the last decade in journalism, but hopefully strength in numbers can provide a greater chance for sustainability. But what does success look like beyond that? According to Morisy: “Success as a shared organization is broadly empowering local accountability journalism all across America and giving our local newsrooms and giving non-journalists who are doing acts of journalism tools to do transparent, impactful, quality journalism.”

Image of a rock and a cloud by Francis Vallance used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 11, 2018, 10:30 a.m.
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