When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ordered TV stations to publish the names of those buying political campaign ads last year, journalists knew the records would reveal important stories about spending on the 2012 elections.
But to find those stories, they would first have to sift through massive amounts of data.
The staff of ProPublica, a New York City-based nonprofit news organization that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, didn’t have the resources to do it all themselves. So, they asked readers to help "Free the Files."
ProPublica pulled files from the FCC website, and asked their community to help extract key data points. These ranged from identifying which groups bought ads and where, to details on the nonprofits that played a large role in the election.
More than 1,000 people donated time to the “Free the Files” project, which revealed details about more than $1 billion in political ad spending. Amanda Zamora, senior engagement editor at ProPublica, said the project allowed for key reporting that would have been impossible without the help of the community.
“It helped us make the case that this information is vital to understanding how our votes are being influenced,” she says, “and that the current reporting system just isn’t cutting it.”
Now, ProPublica is building on the success of this project by launching “Get Involved.” This section of its site invites readers to contribute to ProPublica’s newsgathering through discussions, community groups, calls for stories and more.
This engagement gives ProPublica staff new sources for their stories, since it brings people with new perspectives and insights into the process. They are also building a community around an investigation as it’s being reported, thereby cultivating an audience for their journalism.
“Actively engaging readers entails understanding who they are, where they are coming from, what they are looking for and how that dovetails (or doesn’t) with what you are looking to accomplish journalistically,” Zamora says. “Once you can find that sweet spot where those interests align, it does take time to build experiences that drive action.”
Once ProPublica finds that sweet spot, it asks two practical questions: “How are you going to invest people in your project? Are you asking something from them that is feasible?” she says. ”If you can answer those two questions, and see a real story coming together as a result, you’ve got a great project.”
For example, ProPublica formed a community of people who have been harmed in hospitals (and others concerned about patient harm) on its site and on Facebook. Community members learn, share resources and connect with one another. As ProPublica conducts its ongoing investigation, reporters are interacting with patients, doctors and others who are invested in this issue.
Since launching Get Involved, the team has seen a significant uptick in emails from people and sign-ups for groups and their Reporting Network. They’ve also received inquiries and ideas that are outside the project's scope. So Zamora is working now to compile answers to questions that she is seeing regularly so she can reply genuinely and quickly.
“It’s a work in progress, but an important one,” she says.