June 15, 2016

In the past year, MuckRock has helped reporters and others file more than 10,000 public records requests to government agencies. Now, the site will be posting some of its own public records since it has officially become a nonprofit organization.

MuckRock founder Michael Morisy made the announcement Wednesday and said he hopes the site’s new nonprofit status can lead to more crowdfunded public records projects.

I asked Morisy about why the change was necessary, how MuckRock will handle transparency within its own organization and what’s next for the website that’s dedicated to public records.

For people who don’t know, how did MuckRock get started?

MuckRock started in 2010 as a way to make public records easier for busy reporters: We help anyone file, track, and share their public records requests, and over the years we’ve added additional tools like crowdfunding for requests and projects. We’re now publishing daily original reporting, such as a deep-dive into the private prison system, and working with users around the globe to help newsrooms, activists, and the general public better understand governmental operations.

Tell me about your new 501(c)(3) status. How did that come about, and why now?

MuckRock was originally founded as an LLC, and was bootstrapped by myself and my co-founder, Mitchell Kotler. We’ve been lucky to get a few critical grants over the years, from organizations like the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Knight Foundation, but our ongoing operations have always been funded directly by users, which gave us a lot of independence. 

Watching the media landscape over the past few years, that independence became more and more important to us, and I think is something our users and readers really value. We decided that the best way to keep that independence for the long term was to forgo outside investment, and at that point the nonprofit model became a great way to legally codify that our commitment was to the public and to our users. It’s also going to allow us to do some interesting things around crowdfunding projects which we think will help set what we do apart from other platforms.

What do you see as the biggest benefit of becoming a nonprofit? Are there any negatives to it?

Day to day, there are not any huge shifts: We’ve always worked to run at break-even or a modest profit so that we can reinvest in the operations, and that hasn’t changed. We have an amazing community of users who will continue to support and sustain the site's operations. The biggest benefit is that we now have the flexibility to work with a wide variety of groups and individuals who wanted to help us grow through grants or donations while also ensuring our independence in the short and long term.

MuckRock’s new nonprofit status opens it up to more public inspection. Do you plan to post your 990 tax form and other public records related to your organization?

MuckRock has always operated as transparently as we could operate it, ranging from opening up over a million pages of records from our users’ FOIA requests to letting people dig into a variety of operational statistics through our API. We’ll be posting 990 forms as they’re wrapped up each year, and looking for ways to continue opening up more of what we do to the public.

How has the site grown over the years?

MuckRock has roughly doubled along pretty much every metric every year of its operation. We helped filed over 10,000 requests in the last year alone in every state and across almost every federal agency, and released over half a million pages of records. Right now we’re working with a number of news organizations to help their newsrooms better manage public records and we’re looking forward to continuing that pace of growth.

What’s next for MuckRock? What are your goals for the site?

We want to put MuckRock in the hands of as many reporters as possible, so we’re continuing to make improvements to the service and have been expanding the number of newsrooms that use the site. Our other big focus is on helping our users manage large public records projects and get them funded, and that’s come along really nicely.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

We’re really excited about the shift and how it will help stay focused on helping the press and the public better understand the public records process, and if there’s any newsrooms who would find the service useful, we’d love to find a way to work with them.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at WRAL.com in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter…
Kelly Hinchcliffe

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