ProPublica receives $2.2 million from Knight Foundation to expand audience engagement efforts

August 20, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

The Knight Foundation announced Thursday that it would be providing ProPublica with $2.2 million in funding. The money will be aimed toward helping the investigative non-profit improve on an existing crowdsourcing platform, in addition to offering a two-week training program for journalists.

ProPublica will offer training to 10 to 12 people through a two-week Knight-ProPublica Summer Institute next year. It will be focused at helping the participants learn to become visual data journalists. The organization is still not sure how it will select people for the training program. However, ProPublica wants to focus on groups that aren’t reached through the typical pipelines: NICAR, IRE, elite J-Schools; and “bring new and underserved populations into data journalism.”

“Out there is a stats major or a math nerd who doesn’t know journalism is an option for her but would make an amazing data journalist. That’s who I’m hoping we can bring in,” Scott Klein, assistant managing editor and the lead for ProPublica’s News Apps team, told Poynter in an email interview.

When it comes to their award winning investigations, several ProPublica stories have been rooted in surveys. “…’callouts’ are our bread and butter,” said Amanda Zamora, senior engagement editor at ProPublica.

The organization has mostly used the ‘Get Involved‘ platform to achieve these goals. For the Patient Safety investigation, for instance, the organization has been collecting responses since 2012, asking people personal stories of medical harm.

At present, Zamora’s team of two works in conjunction with reporters to identity good callout opportunities and manage the responses. Since last year, the team has been using Screendoor to manage of responses on the backend.

“It makes it easier for our team to make sense of what’s coming, to follow up with respondents, to share information within the newsroom and with partners and to track all those conversations in one place,” said Zamora.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 7.43.40 AM

Screenshot of ProPublica’s ‘Get Involved’ platform

For each story, the readers can then see the number of responses that the survey has initiated.

With the grant, the outlet will be able to increase functionalities of the platform, in particular the metrics that are visible and help make the data available for journalists outside ProPublica.

The aim is to act as a matchmaker for sourcing.

Here’s how Zamora explained the next iteration of the platform:

…the more current use case for us would be: Hey journalists, we got 500 patient safety stories, 50 of them are in your city and 45 of them are available to you as a potential source — sign up to be matched. And as reporters get paired with sources, the number of available stories changes. We’ll also be experimenting more with goals for readers, setting a number of stories we’re hoping to reach and encouraging more participation to reach that goal. All of those metrics would be tied to status tags in Screendoor, which update on the front end as we make changes on the back end.

So, it’s like a Kickstarter for sourcing, with a matchmaking element tied to it.

When many publications are thinking of killing comments, ProPublica is far from it. Instead, engagement spaces such as the Get Involved platform are places where several stories begin. For Justin Elliot’s Red-Cross Investigation, stories emerged from the comments section on one of the posts. “No fancy app needed, just a simple reminder in each of his stories and a willingness to actively engage potential sources on Facebook,” said Zamora.

The approach that ProPublica has towards most surveys isn’t exactly scientific in nature. However, according to Zamora, “they can still help shed light on the experiences of the communities we are working to engage.”

While the training and Get Involved are two ways in which ProPublica will be investing the amount, it will also contribute to some work around understanding the real-world impact of visual data journalism.

Some of the questions that the team seeks to answer are – How do people’s attitudes change about something when they’re exposed to data about it? How do their decisions change? How do different visualization techniques that we as journalists can make change those attitudes and decisions?

“Part of it will involve better metrics, more tailored to each interactive, part of it might be experimental and controlled,” said Klein. “We’re not sure. We’ve done only a little bit with this so far.”