ProPublica, Latter-Day Muckraker, Now Spotlighting “Reads”

Article  by  Sara HEFT  •  Published 20.08.2011  •  Updated 22.08.2011
ProPublica journalists
[NEWS] ProPublica has won a great deal of acclaim in its four years of existence, using digital tools to develop into a standard-bearer in terms of non-profit journalism. The media outlet is now working to expand its presence on social media platforms with initiatives like the recently launched MuckReads.
ProPublica, the New York-based non-profit journalism organization that has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes since its establishment in 2007, recently launched a new feature known as MuckReads, which allows users to read and recommend investigative stories online, largely via Twitter. This self-described “ongoing collection of watchdog reporting” invites anyone who wishes – journalism and information industry professionals and casual readers alike – to contribute to this social aggregation of content encompassing traditional articles alongside interactive data graphics, television and radio pieces, comics, podcasts and more, from sources Web-wide.
In her presentation of the new forum, Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of online engagement, emphasizes the desire to share local and state-level stories that are “suggestive of larger, perhaps national, problems” in keeping with a mission of “journalism that has a real-world impact” and is “focused on holding the powerful to account”. ProPublica’s editorial staff is charged with wading through user contributions in order to shine a spotlight on the most hard-hitting investigative content of the day – which, due to the nature of the site, despite its largely U.S. focus, runs the gamut from local to global, addressing issues affecting communities both domestically and abroad with work hailing from far-flung newsrooms disparate in type and size. Pieces published in recent days range from the uncovering of steep property tax discounts for a Biblical theme park in Kentucky to the mapping of poverty in relation to the UK riots.
MuckReads is the latest incarnation of the “Investigations Elsewhere” platform, still available as an archive, and models itself in part on Mark Armstrong’s LongReads, which aggregates and curates top-notch long-form Web journalism. Both tools more or less rely on Twitter to chime in on the one giant “conversation” that is the Web, as stated by ProPublica senior editor Eric Umansky in the organization’s press release. To contribute stories, users simply have to add the hashtag #MuckReads in tweeting a piece deemed relevant and worthwhile, while those not on Twitter may email it to the platform’s staff; recommenders are then given credit for shared items, which appear on both MuckReads and ProPublica’s homepage. Feature upgrades and Facebook integration are planned down the line, and user feedback is encouraged in the platform’s initial phase.
 An example of a MuckReads contribution.

This launch represents the latest foray into social media by an organization that is currently working to beef up its presence on sites like Twitter and Facebook, in keeping with its overarching aims of “transparency and social engagement”, according to general manager Richard Tofel, as relayed by Melanie Sill of The Online Journalism Review. He and others behind the ProPublica site, which currently counts some 300,000 monthly unique visitors and one million monthly page views, are hoping to boost traffic through tweets and “likes”, alongside an array of other user-friendly tools for the spread and juxtaposition of ideas and information via free and open-source[+] NoteAll ProPublica stories are available for reprint under the Creative Commons license.X [1] channels – all in the name of directly targeting the widest audience possible, rather than the limited pool of professionals oftentimes privy to the kind of specialized data ProPublica seeks to make available. One recent noteworthy example: a story published on the “opportunity gap” in terms of how access to education relates to poverty levels in different U.S. states was accompanied by a Facebook-integrated application in the form of a database allowing users to look up and compare educational offerings and student body information for public schools and districts of diverse socioeconomic standing nationwide. Work like this and “Dollars for Docs”, a collective searchable database disclosing how much pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to promote their drugs, are consistent with the news organization’s drive to produce investigative journalism “in the public interest [and] stimulate positive change [in] non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality.”
Such efforts were recognized this year with a landmark event: one of print journalism’s most prestigious prizes was, for the first time, awarded for work that had never appeared in traditional print format this spring, when ProPublica received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for Wall Street coverage – a year after its Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for a report on healthcare in a New Orleans hospital post-Katrina, which was published both on its site and in paper-and-ink version in The New York Times Magazine. This “breakthrough for digital media” comes in the wake of just three years of operations for ProPublica, over the course of which the news organization has repeatedly demonstrated its mastery of digital technologies in innovating and overhauling the field of journalism. ProPublica represents a return to the sort of in-depth investigative reporting that was traditionally the bread and butter of the major U.S. print dailies, until Internet destroyed this business model, leading to a 47% drop in advertising revenues between 2005 and 2009 – a loss that has not been compensated by online advertising, geared more toward search engines and social media than content – and a 25% cut in editorial spending between 2006 and 2009. Despite exploding readerships[+] NoteBetween 2005 and 2009, the websites of U.S. dailies saw numbers rise from 43.7 million to 3 billion monthly page views.X [2], the major financial losses incurred as a result of this situation have led to drastic staff cuts[+] Note13,400 journalists or 25% of those working have lost their jobs in the past four years, according to a report published by the Federal Communications Commission in June 2011.X [3] and increasing reluctance to broach risky investigative topics.
As traditional media outlets shrink, a number of non-profit media outlets have been born out of the desire to spur on independent journalism that is not obliged to bow to the same business pressures, thus counteracting “market failure” in terms of certain content and notably investigative reporting, as affirmed by Mr. Tofel in The Economist. ProPublica was launched under the leadership of Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and the work undertaken by its newsroom of thirty or so journalists is largely funded by the Sandler Foundation, which made a major, multi-year commitment to the organization at its launch, alongside other philanthropic contributions as well as advertising – a revenue stream that ProPublica began exploring just this year, although it insists on philanthropy as its “principal source of income for the foreseeable future”. The award-winning media outlet’s sizeable resources grant it a privileged position in the field of non-profit journalism – although as the headline of a piece on non-profit publisher The Texas Tribune proclaims, “Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean Non-Growth”. The donor model dominates for now in allowing well-established organizations like The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Center for Public Integrity to survive and thrive; and alongside financial support from sponsors, National Public Radio, for example, is partially government-subsidized.
But while across the board, the new players that have emerged are consistent in their focus on multimedia content driven by new publishing technologies, as the Texas Tribune’s CEO and co-founder Evan Smith notes in the aforementioned article, there is not yet any “playbook to follow” in establishing a business model for such initiatives; in addition to sponsorship, for example, the Austin-based outfit has an expanding live-events business and syndicates its content, partly through a recent partnership with The New York Times. Two fact-checking websites launched in recent years are the fruit of institutional initiatives: is run by Florida daily The Saint-Petersburg Times; while is a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. As the media landscape shifts and fragments, organizations like ProPublica are gaining mainstream renown in striving to ensure that information grows ever more open and accessible, free of the economic constraints that have inflicted so much harm on traditional media outlets; but given the long-term uncertainty around the viability of philanthropic funding, can these valuable sources for the spreading of knowledge bank on financial stability in the years to come?  

Photo Credits:
- ProPublica on Facebook
- MuckReads screenshot.
  • 1. All ProPublica stories are available for reprint under the Creative Commons license.
  • 2. Between 2005 and 2009, the websites of U.S. dailies saw numbers rise from 43.7 million to 3 billion monthly page views.
  • 3. 13,400 journalists or 25% of those working have lost their jobs in the past four years, according to a report published by the Federal Communications Commission in June 2011.
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