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March 5, 2020, 12:12 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How engagement reporting is helping ProPublica journalists find their next big story

“There’s all different kinds of lawsuits. We’re sort of the class action of an investigative story, harnessing and channeling the power in numbers.”

Did you give birth in your home? Do you know of police misconduct in New Jersey? Have you been injured working for the U.S. Postal Service? Do you make, test, or market car seats? Do you work in customer service at Apple, Disney, or Airbnb? How much did it cost to file your taxes? Have you experienced sexual misconduct at an Illinois university or college?

If so, ProPublica wants to hear from you.

There are many more questionnaires on the ProPublica site, including one for general leads that don’t fall into any preexisting category, and they form the bedrock of what the publication calls engagement reporting. The investigative newsroom has been using the online callouts and surveys to solicit tips, find sources, and identify affected communities since it launched in 2008. Some of their crowdsourced reporting has won awards you’ve heard of and the nonprofit site uses its public interest journalism to help drive donations.

Now, as ProPublica approaches its teen years, their engagement team is revamping to help their reporters better find — and comprehensively report — investigative stories with an impact. They’re also working to formalize processes that have become somewhat unwieldy as ProPublica has undergone a growth spurt that led to a correspondingly large leap in the number of submissions they receive through callouts and other channels. ProPublica has grown from 98 to 139 people in the past three years — not including the Local Reporting Network reporters that ProPublica sponsors — and the engagement team is now five strong.

Engagement editor Ariana Tobin told me how she explains engagement reporting to someone who’d never seen the inside of a newsroom: “Sometimes you get evidence through the tiny corner of a forgotten public record that you cleverly request. Sometimes a deep background source tells you something and leads you to someone else. But sometimes, for stories about big systemic harms, what you really need is lots of people pointing you in the same direction, or who can share multiple pieces of evidence that add up to something larger and more compelling,” she said. “It’s taking individual stories, combining them, and adding some journalistic muscle.”

She also takes inspiration from the courtroom in explaining her job: “There’s all different kinds of lawsuits. We’re sort of the class action of an investigative story, harnessing and channeling the power in numbers.”

Choosing the next big story

Tobin says late winter — January through March — is when many ProPublica reporters are making decisions about what projects and stories to pursue. Right now, the engagement team is trying to flag potential areas of interest for reporters and put submissions in front of teams looking to choose investigative projects “sooner rather than later.”

“I think an important role that engagement can play in your newsroom is that it helps you make that really hard decision about what to cover,” Tobin said. “Hopefully a good tip can help you choose your reporting and, once you’ve started reporting on something, help guide the work you’re doing on that subject.”

Some topics seem to lend themselves better to engagement reporting than others. “We have this incredible treasure trove of stuff that people have told us over time on a lot of different topics,” Tobin said. “But some topics in particular have always had a wealth of engagement.” Those include callouts that involve health, workplace or labor issues, and motherhood.

Sometimes an engagement approach can lead to an entirely different focus than the callout was designed to find. One callout led to reporting about age discrimination at IBM, for example, after the team noticed many of the submissions mentioned the tech sector and IBM in particular. “The more that we poked at this, the more people who wanted to talk about it, which is a great sign for any project,” Tobin said. (ProPublica published a case study about how engagement reporting produced the IBM story.)

For that reason, ProPublica uses “evergreen” callouts with no intended deadline, like this one for people working in the federal government. Although tips are just the beginning of a journalist’s reporting process, certain themes can emerge — like recurring issues or complaints from workers at specific agencies — that reporters can then substantiate and use as leverage or insider insight.

Of course, not everyone with a story to contribute is getting a ProPublica newsletter in their inbox, checking its website, or following reporters who share callouts on social media. That mandates an offline component as well.

Knowing that African American mothers are three to four times more likely to die or nearly die in childbirth, engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo knew she had more work to do when she noticed that most of the callout responders she was seeing were white. She built partnerships with other publications, including Cosmopolitan, The Root, and Univision, to share the callout link more widely and reached out individually to mothers groups in the south.

ProPublica engagement reporting fellow Maya Miller, tweeted an example of a print flyer that could be posted in community hubs. The team also uses local organizations, online communities, in-person events, and other tactics to help spread the callouts, depending on the story.

Streamlining “an onslaught” of tips

I asked Tobin to take me through the trajectory of a submission from aspiring tipster to, ultimately, the reporter who will see, read, and possibly follow up on it. “The most honest answer is that this is the moment where we’re perfecting that process,” she said.

Information can come in through many different channels. The publication’s tips page mentions emailing a reporter directly or using Signal, WhatsApp, snail mail, or SecureDrop for sensitive information. But ProPublica hopes to collect as many of its tips as possible through the callout questionnaires, which ask open- and close-ended questions, accept supporting materials like photographs and documents, and can be tailored to individual topics. (A callout for information about secret Facebook groups that publish racist, sexist, and hateful content specifically asks for screenshots of their administrator list, member list, and about page, while one on sexual violence in Alaska asks victims and survivors to select from a checklist of abuse “patterns.”)

Once completed, the questionnaires provide structured data that the engagement team can sort, filter, label, and standardize before plugging into a system that the newsroom has access to. Right now, Tobin says she’ll use Slack, Keybase, or good old-fashioned email to flag tips for the newsroom or, if she knows a colleague is actively working on a specific topic, a particular reporter.

ProPublica is currently using the ScreenDoor platform for all of their callouts. For the past year, they’ve also been working to build a tip dissemination tool using Collaborate, a customizable open-source system, that Tobin hopes her team can deploy soon.

In addition to streamlining the way the engagement team organizes and shares information with reporters, the custom system would also formalize a matchmaking service that Tobin and her colleagues currently perform themselves.

For example, Tobin said ProPublica received “an onslaught” of tips about medical debt after the publication of two investigations reported in Coffeyville, Kansas and Memphis, Tennessee. Her team collected those tips and then solicited contact information for journalists willing to follow up, eventually matching local reporters with submissions from their area.

Of course, some reporters, even at ProPublica, remain hesitant to share what stories they’re chasing and plenty of reporting topics require discretion or even secrecy. “Not every story is an engagement story,” Tobin acknowledged.

Still, ProPublica looks for opportunities for engagement even after initial reporting has been published. Some articles lead to followups that become a series of investigations. Others lend themselves to service journalism, like a short piece on how to research your Tinder match that emerged after the reader response to an investigation that found the dating app allows known sex offenders use their platform.

The bigger ProPublica’s readership gets, the larger the crowd they get to source from, as Tobin wrote in a recent newsletter. By doubling down on the engagement reporting they’ve done since inception and formalizing some of the processes they use to organize and share tips, the publications hopes to keep growing both.

POSTED     March 5, 2020, 12:12 p.m.
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