ProPublica's outreach a welcome step toward "open-source" journalism

A couple of outreach efforts by ProPublica this week caught my eye as examples of how the Web can make journalism more open and effective — and reminders that both journalists and the public need much more of this.

The first was a post on the ProPublica website Monday offering a “step by step guide” and searchable database for anyone tracing the influence of a nonprofit organization called ALEC that has proven highly effective in developing “model bills” for state legislatures.

The second was a conference call Tuesday that drew about 140 people to hear about using ProPublica-built data and a news application for reporting on education access issues in local schools and districts.

ProPublica published a national story based on the data, examining the relationship of poverty to educational access, along with a Facebook-integrated app for looking up and comparing schools and districts.

These two efforts are moves in the right direction not just for ProPublica but for journalism and the public. By sharing data and making it easy to use, ProPublica produces more value from its deep investments of time and expertise. ProPublica can also benefit from the insights and experiences of others who share or report on the data.

During the conference call, reporter Sharona Coutts, news application developer Al Shaw and computer-assisted reporting director Jennifer LaFleur heard questions, comments and suggestions. Reporters, whose affiliations included both traditional and startup news organizations, also poked and prodded at some of the findings.

As anyone who’s worked with databases knows, data analysis tends to prompt as many questions as it answers. The ProPublica team explained what they’d done to clean up and amplify two major sets of federal data and encouraged reporters to add their knowledge and mash up the new data with other sources. ProPublica also emailed followup links later to those on the call.

This kind of nitty-gritty, story-specific journalism discussion has generally occurred mainly among a limited subset of journalists through specialized skills organizations (such as Investigative Reporters and Editors), in training seminars or in members-only settings. ProPublica’s model shows the promise of opening up that discussion much more broadly — not just among journalists, but for public view of how journalism is done.

Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me that transparency and public engagement have been part of the core discussion at ProPublica since its launch in 2008. In the past year ProPublica has accelerated its social media push, growing Twitter followers by more than five times (55,883 as of this morning) and Facebook friends by more than three times (20,280).

ProPublica has as much competitive DNA as any news organization. Yet Tofel and Editor in Chief Paul Steiger note that their decisions to share databases and expertise don’t have to pass muster with corporate owners or stockholders.

Last year, a ProPublica collaboration with several other news organizations on a project called “Dollars for Docs,” showing pharmaceutical company payments to physicians, expanded its impact after the initial series by sharing and inviting further use of ProPublica’s data. Eventually, dozens of print, online and broadcast outlets drew on the database to produce stories. ProPublica’s “tools and data” page shows other examples.

Given ProPublica’s mission to “make change,” Tofel said, anything that extends the organization’s reach is worth trying.

“That tends to drive us toward open source and it tends to drive us toward sharing,” Tofel said, “and it tends to drive us toward wanting people to follow up on our stuff.”

ProPublica benefits from such followup as its work is credited broadly and its databases and stories are linked off other sites. Social media efforts like the #muckreads feature launched recently (Tweet stories using the #muckreads hashtag and ProPublica considers and aggregates on its site), along with news apps and story links, can help boost traffic to the ProPublica site, now at about 300,000 monthly unique visitors and 1 million monthly page views.

The Web, of course, offers many resources for learning about journalism. Poynter has greatly expanded its online training and knowledge-sharing, through blogs and the News University curriculum, and numerous journalism/media blogs publish spot reports, opinion pieces and guidance that fuel shared learning. Foundation and university-led institutes and websites keep up a steady stream of conversation about ideas and practices. And professional organizations play varying roles in learning for members, with IRE standing out as a leader.

ProPublica adds a new dimension as a news organization sharing its resources directly.

The Web and social media channels also are rich in open discussion and knowledge sharing about some aspects of news and information online — data analysis and visualization, use of social media, new tools and technology. Tech culture is intersecting more and more with journalism, and journalism can gain much more from that influence than new gadgets for old ideas.

Journalism researchers Nikki Usher and Seth C. Lewis explored this idea in an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog examining how open-source themes emerged in the learning lab portion of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. (I wrote here earlier about the partnership, known as “Mojo.”)

“What can open source teach journalism,” Usher and Lewis asked, “and journalism open source?”

Their findings outline ways the authors think some of the ideas of open-source software align, or don’t, with journalism: transparency, iteration, standards and collaboration. The Mojo experiment should be a good test of cross-pollination.

I’d like to hear about and share other examples of open sharing of resources that enable public-affairs news and information. Please post examples in comments here or email me using the link above. I’ll report back here.

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.