Duke University's new Reporter's Lab for investigative tools

When Sarah Cohen looks back at the exhaustive work she and other Washington Post journalists poured into a Pulitzer-winning investigation on child deaths, she sees not just accomplishment but opportunity — to make such work easier, and to enable more of it.

Cohen now is Knight Professor of the Practice at Duke University and director of the university’s new Reporter’s Lab, which aims to be a central resource for developing and sharing technology to improve and simplify the hands-on work of public-affairs reporting. The lab plans to make its software and other resources available to anyone who wants them.

In a recent chat, Cohen told me the project aims to bring technology innovation to in-depth reporting, which she thinks has been left behind even as digital tools have transformed how news is organized and consumed.

Here’s how she put it in a May 16 blog post introducing the Reporter’s Lab:

“For professional and pro-am journalists who specialize in public affairs, the technological revolution passed them by sometime in the early millennium,” continuing that the lab aims “to do for modern reporting what photocopiers did in the 1970s, and e-mail, the Web, spreadsheets and databases did in the 1990s. It will go beyond the hype to test, create, commission or apply new methods to make the hard work of original reporting easier or more effective.”

Cohen’s work also attacks the central question facing accountability reporting, especially the highly valued variety that requires significant time and labor: How do we continue to afford it?

“What I’m looking at is how do we reduce the cost of original reporting without losing anything,” Cohen said

The Reporter’s Lab, which is part of Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Public Policy and related to the center’s computational journalism initiative, has several related goals focused on acting as a central resource for innovation and advances in the core work of in-depth journalism.

“I spent about a year interviewing reporters, editors, technologists, online folks, academic researchers, actual computer scientists, about 100 of them altogether, about what’s needed versus what’s possible using today’s technology,” Cohen said.

She also drew on her own deep experience: 20 years of reporting and editing mostly focused on computer-assisted journalism, including 10 years at the Post.

In a summary describing the lab, formally known as the Duke Project for the Advancement of Public Affairs Reporting, Cohen wrote that analysis of 15 boxes of handwritten forms and other documents for “The District’s Lost Children” series (for which she shared the 2002 investigative Pulitzer) took six months.

“Electronic tools that would have made those documents searchable, extracted the little precise information that was not censored and grouped the recommendations might have cut that effort by a third,” she wrote. “If the analysis were easier more reporters in other cities might have tackled similar projects.”

Part of the lab’s work will be in building, adapting or testing tools for depth reporting. For instance, the lab created a tool called TimeFlow (for reporters to use organizing material on long-running stories), which has been downloaded 1,500 times.

The lab recently hired Charlie Szymanski, app developer and visualization pro. Szymanski worked previously at the National Journal and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where his portfolio includes a Knight-Batten Innovation Award winner and impressive work for the paper’s series on fraud in real-estate “flipping.”

Cohen plans to work with Investigative Reporters and Editors to develop a “test kitchen” approach involving the lab’s tools and technology from other sources.

“I think there’s a great need for this,” said Mark Horvit, IRE executive director. There’s no lack of new tools being used and touted, he said, but even the open ongoing exchange at the NICAR-L listserv for computer-assisted journalism sometimes becomes overwhelming with the range of recommendations.

“It’s very hard to keep up with all of that — it’s very hard to know what tools are best for your needs,” he said.

Additionally, as Cohen notes in her project summary, tools for web-scraping, indexing material or doing other key tasks in simpler ways often are too expensive or technologically daunting to be used effectively or broadly by many reporters — especially on deadline.

Cohen plans to build testing and training into the lab and noted that thanks to Duke’s support, “everything that’s being done here is open source and free.”

About Melanie Sill

USC Annenberg executive in residence, former editor of The Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. Currently exploring ways journalism can provide value in the digital age.


  1. What we need to do is reduce the cost of distributing news (eliminate paper) and use part of the savings to spend MORE on news gathering.