June 9, 2011

DocumentCloud, the startup that works with news organizations to post troves of primary source documents online in a searchable, shareable format, becomes a project of Investigative Reporters and Editors today.

DocumentCloud launched in 2009, funded by a two-year Knight News Challenge grant of $719,500. The service has grown to host more than 100,000 source documents totaling over 1.5 million pages. News outlets have used it to annotate the full text of the Arizona immigration law, explain the records behind a foster home scandal in Chicago, and more.

DocumentCloud can be used to highlight and annotate the source documents.

In short, the service takes analog paper documents and turns them into digital data, enabling reporters and users to read, analyze, highlight and share them online. Advanced features help journalists look for patterns and recurring names, extract dates, and annotate documents with notes to explain sections and help tell a story.

“DocumentCloud as a service for journalists and for the public is vitally important,” Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE, told me. It is a “terrific tool” for supporting some of the key values of IRE, which are to get documents, use them in reporting and make them public.

With a two-year startup grant from Knight, the team at DocumentCloud knew they’d have to find a long-term home. They did not want to sell it to a for-profit company, and they did not want to place it in a low-budget maintenance mode just to keep it going. Scott Klein told me that he and fellow co-founders Aron Pilhofer and Eric Umansky thought IRE would be a great steward of the project.

All three co-founders have kept their day jobs while building DocumentCloud — Klein and Umansky at ProPublica and Pilhofer at The New York Times — and did not want leave those positions. They will stay involved in the project by serving on an advisory board.

Klein and Horvit said the product will continue to improve under IRE’s guidance. “We have two or three big projects ahead of us” that will improve what the product can do and how newsrooms can use it, Klein said.

IRE is hiring a lead developer to oversee and run DocumentCloud, Horvit said. (The current lead developer, Jeremy Ashkenas, has moved to the Times’ interactive news team, but he too will remain involved.) Program Director Amanda Hickman will stay on for the transition.

Everyone involved gave assurances that there would be no immediate change in the service and that the existing document hosting services will remain free. News orgs will be able to use the service regardless of IRE membership.

They did speculate about adding paid services to DocumentCloud in the future to help sustain it. Although DocumentCloud will not be run as a profit-making venture, there are costs of staff and data hosting to consider.

Among the ideas, according to Klein: paid subscriptions for users who want to keep many documents private or have access to extra features, and customized versions of DocumentCloud for certain communities or businesses.

IRE is interested in getting more newsrooms to use DocumentCloud, but there are no plans to open the system to contributions from the general public or other non-news organizations, Horvit said.

Because the Knight News Challenge is designed to be a contest for new ideas, not to sustain projects for the long term, all successful projects eventually have to find a new home. The most notable example is when msnbc.com bought the hyperlocal site EveryBlock in 2009.

The Knight Foundation is happy to see DocumentCloud find a sustainable home, said John Bracken, the foundation’s director of digital media.

“It has been even more successful than we thought,” Bracken said. “The pickup they’ve had by news organizations has demonstrated the promise of the initial idea they had.”

When the trio submitted their News Challenge application in 2008, some people argued that The New York Times could have funded this project itself without consuming grant funds. After they won the grant, the co-founders took pains to explain that although they worked for The New York Times and ProPublica, the money went to them, not the companies.

Klein said the growth of the project shows the benefit of it being funded as an independent nonprofit, instead of a department within the Times. DocumentCloud wouldn’t have gained hundreds of partner newsrooms if those journalists felt they had to trust another news organization with access to their source documents, he said.

“It was vital,” Klein said, “that DocumentCloud be its own entity, its own organization with its own funding.”

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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