5 Ideas to Steal from ProPublica

(For News Organizations of Any Size)

Sometimes we get candid feedback from journalism organizations that they do not have the capacity or resources to try some of the new ideas and tools we highlight on the Local News Lab and in the weekly Local Fix newsletter. We understand. There are many chicken and egg situations when it comes to small, local journalism sites.

But sometimes there are ideas that transcend the size or capacity of an organization. I was reminded of this recently as I was preparing for a meeting with ProPublica to discuss funding (ProPublica is a grantee of the Dodge Foundation).


Here are five lessons from ProPublica which can help local journalism have more impact, even if your organization is operating on a shoestring budget:

1. Have a Crystal Clear Mission.

ProPublica’s mission is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”

Is there any question what ProPublica is trying to accomplish? How does that stack up against your mission statement? Does your organization have a mission statement? (Mission statements are not just for nonprofits.)

You may not realize how much flows from being absolutely clear about what you are trying to accomplish on a daily basis. If you have a clear mission, you can measure your success and impact against that mission, learn where you are and are not having impact, and reallocate your resources more effectively.

2. Be Aggressively Transparent.
Communicate Regularly.

ProPublica Annual Report

How frequently do you talk to your community about the goals you’re trying to achieve? Do you let them know what successes you’ve had?

As a funder, I appreciate the concise yet thorough updates on ProPublica’s work throughout the year. I like to know where they are having an impact and to see how they are thinking creatively and strategically about their work. As a reader, I appreciate the blog posts that share behind-the-scenes information on their reporting process (some good examples herehere and here).

I like being kept in the loop.

If your organization receives financial contributions, whether from individuals, businesses or foundations, keep them informed of your work throughout the year – it will go a long way toward getting more funding and developing trust among your community members. Even if you are not dependent on donations, transparency helps people understand your reporting and decision-making processes, which helps build trust and deepen relationships.

3. Develop Partnerships.

Who do you partner with to distribute your stories more broadly? To report on issues collaboratively? To engage members of your community whom you’ve been unable to reach so far?

You don’t have to have a list of partners like ProPublica’s, but you should still have partners who can help you expand your reach and relationships in your community.

4. Highlight the Good Work
of Your Colleagues.

It’s a simple but effective and appreciated idea: publicly recognize the best work of your colleagues and community members. ProPublica’s “MuckReads” invites the public to share examples of high quality investigative stories via email or Twitter (#muckreads), and features them on their website and social media.

Wouldn’t you like your hard work to be recognized by others? Then do the same for your community. And if you do this in a way that’s true to your mission, then you are also serving your readers by helping them discover other great reporting.

5. Invite as Much Participation
From Your Community as Possible.

Local journalism organizations cannot thrive without a fully engaged community of readers who are invested in the work you do. If you are a regular reader of the Local News Lab, you know that we return to this point again and again and again. That’s how important it is to us.

If you are seeking financial support from your community, you should understand that people want to be asked for their advice, their experience, their help – not just for their money.

Get Involved ProPublica

Here are just a few ways ProPublica encourages community participation via its “Get Involved” page on the website: talk to reporters – ask them questions, offer them feedback; share your experiences around a specific topic or story to help inform coverage; or help collect data in your community.

In case you’re still doubting me, I featured ProPublica’s “Get Involved” page in a previous blog post last summer. In the nine months since, they’ve added more than one thousand new community contributors. Wouldn’t you like an extra 1,000 people lending you a helping hand?

We Need to Talk About Burnout in Local Newsrooms


In the wake of this week’s Pulitzer Prize announcements we learned thattwo of the journalists from the winning reporting teams have left journalism. One left because he couldn’t pay the bills while working as a journalist. The other left because she wanted a better work/life balance as she began a family. The Columbia Journalist Review noted that these two stories underscore “the demanding nature of a profession that consistently ends up at the bottom of career rankings.”

This news comes a few weeks after a new study on newsroom burnout, first reported on by Romenesko, found that “Female journalists were more likely to suffer burnout and leave the profession than men.” The study’s author Scott Reinardy pointed specifically to a pervasive lack of support for women in newsrooms as a contributing factor, and noted that this trend threatens to exacerbate the already troubling gender gap in newsroom management. At the New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy expanded on the study’s findingsto point out how some beat structures and writing trends can result in “cordoning off journalists who are Other in some way.”

The same week the study was released was also the inaugural gathering for the ONA/Poynter Women in Leadership program. In a post titled, “How’s your work/life balance?” Poynter offers four questions for finding better balance. Last month, Journo.biz reported on a survey that argues Today’s freelance investigative journalists face unworkable economics.” And last fall a study out of the UK found that journalists who regularly witness images of extreme violence show signs of PTSD. Julia Haslanger wrote a useful post a few weeks ago in response to events in Ferguson, noting that “covering such an emotional issue for a sustained period of time is taking its toll on local journalists, particularly those who use social media heavily for their work.”

The stories of the two Pulitzer winners, and the larger debate about burnout in journalism, resonates with the feedback I hear every day working with community news startups and journalism entrepreneurs. And yet, in my travels through the journalism conference circuit and even in online groups and listservs I rarely see us creating safe spaces to talk openly and honestly about these issues. There is a real need to confront some of these issues and give people tools and support for managing burnout. But we also need to honestly address the systems and biases that contribute to the kind of gender gaps Reinardy’s study highlighted.

This is adapted from the Local Fix, a weekly newsletter on journalism sustainability and community engagement. Subscribe here.

16 Lessons for Creative Revenue Strategies and Community Engagement

(This post originally appeared in our weekly newsletter, The Local Fix. Subscribe here.)
In early April four major reports were released that address the intersection of local journalism, revenue sustainability and community engagement. Below are excerpts from the reports, drawing out the key lessons and findings from each. While the focus on a number of these reports is nonprofit journalism, the clear and actionable recommendations included below are relevant to any newsroom.

Sustainable Strategies: Lessons From a Year at The Texas Tribune

Professor Jake Batsell spent a year inside the Texas Tribune studying their business model and traveling the country talking with other newsrooms about their revenue strategies. His report from this year-long study were just released. They key question he tackled was “Can the Texas Tribune model be replicated?” And he admits that while unique circumstances have helped the Texas Tribune thrive there is still a lot any news organization can learn from their approach. Here are the four lessons he shares:
  • Persistent focus on revenue diversity – “News ventures that allow themselves to remain dependent on one or two streams of income are leaving themselves dangerously vulnerable.”
  • Entrepreneurial creativity and customization – “The Tribune has been relentless in unearthing new ways to pay for its journalism.”
  • A knack for converting local sensibilities into revenue – Figure out what the unique character of your area is and how to build experiences around it.
  • A tireless champion and fundraiser-in-chief – News organizations needs bold leadership and chief evangelist with personality, visibility and connections.
  • A shared sense of editorial and business mission – “The newsroom and business side have developed a mutual sense of trust underpinned by the Tribune’s nonprofit mission.”
Batsell’s report also includes useful sections on best practices in revenue strategies including: Sponsorships and underwriting, Events, Memberships, Philanthropy and Supplementary revenue streams like syndication, crowdfunding and monetizing data sets.

Continue reading

Newsgathering as Coalition Building: Deepening Community Engagement Before, During and After the Reporting Process

In early 2015 I wrote a post about why journalists should focus on building the future of news with communities, not just for them. As part of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project we are profiling people trying to embody this community-first approach.

Storytellers All for One!

Profile Two: jesikah maria ross, Capital Public Radio

In 2013 Sacramento California’s Capital Public Radio hired jesikah maria ross to develop a deep community engagement strategy around their multimedia documentary project The View From Here. I talked to ross (whose name is written in lowercase) earlier this year about how building journalism with community is helping the radio station rethink how they put the public in public media.

ross works with the documentary unit inside newsroom whose reporting projects are often six months long. That timeline allows for more time for relationship building in the community but the tactics she uses can be adapted to many other reporting contexts. Her projects have been so successful that Capital Public Radio is expanding the work to engage more staff in these efforts. She walked me through Capital Public Radio’s recent documentary called Hidden Hunger, as an example of how she builds community participation in before, during and after the reporting process. Continue reading

What Works For Crowdfunding Local News

nbt box

When it comes to crowdfunding it is usually the record breakers that make news. The largest number of donations, the highest amount raised, etc… However, every week hundreds of small projects launch crowdfunding campaigns, and there is a lot we can learn from their successes and failures too.

That’s why I was excited last fall when I began talking with journalism crowdfunding platform, Beacon, about experimenting with how to make crowdfunding work for small local news organizations. Local organizations present some unique challenges — their audience is much more limited than national publications, they often can’t tap into national interest in a niche topic, and the smallest organizations don’t have dedicated marketing or outreach staff to run the campaigns.

One of our partner sites, New Brunswick Today, just successfully completed its Beacon campaign, raising $15,000 in one month. New Brunswick Today is an amazing four-year-old digital news start-up that publishes in English and Spanish and prints a monthly newspaper. The specialize in great watchdog reporting focused on local government and civic institutions and they have built up a loyal community following. As part of our journalism sustainability project, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, offered $5,000 in matching funds and spent $2,000 to hire Beacon staff to coach the New Brunswick Today team on managing the campaign. Continue reading

Three Local News Lab Journalists Recognized for Dedication to Community

Every day we get to work with amazing local journalists from the New Jersey and New York area who are taking risks, experimenting with fresh ideas and helping share what they are learning with others.

These journalists are deeply committed to their community and working to pioneer new models for community-driven journalism. That’s why we chose them to be part of our journalism sustainability project.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. In the last week three of our six sites have received awards and recognition for their work — Corner Media, Morristown Green, and Brick City Live. Continue reading

My Kingdom for a Platform:  The Opportunities and Threats of Publishing Direct to Facebook

Thoughts on Distributed Content and Building Community from A Facebook-Only News Site

The New York Times is reporting on Facebook’s pitch to get news organizations to host more content directly on the social network, a scoop first reported by the late David Carr last year.

“In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.” For many news organizations, the Times notes, this would be a “leap of faith.” At the Nieman Journalism Lab Josh Benton asked the question many publishers are surly mulling over: “Is it worth the tradeoff to get extra Facebook dollars today in exchange for a little of your independence tomorrow?”

This is a tradeoff that Justin Auciello understands well. Auciello has been the editor and publisher of Jersey Shore Hurricane News since its launch in the fall of 2011. And for most of its life, JSHN has existed solely on Facebook.

fire_ledeblog_2-blog480In that time Auciello has built an incredible community around the news on Facebook. With more than 220,000 likes, JSHN boasts more likes than WNYC and ProPublica combined. But for Auciello it is not just a numbers game. Auciello has cultivated an incredible level of engagement on the page (and through Twitter, Instagram and other platforms). On Facebook Auciello has pioneered what he calls a “two-way community driven news” where participants are all called contributors and he sees his role as much as an editor as a facilitator. One reporter described the site as combining “the crowdsourcing powers of social media with the journalistic screening of an editor.”

A Move That’s Been a Long Time Coming

When asked what he thought of Facebook’s attempt to become a publishing platform for more news organizations, Auciello told me he saw it as “a long time coming.” In general, he thinks it’s a good thing for news to become a more central component of the Facebook experience and he believes that people want more access of news and information on the platform. And while Auciello nods at the immense data Facebook has about its users, his focus is much more on what Facebook could offer publishers in terms of community building.

“I created Jersey Shore Hurricane News on Facebook because that’s where the community was gathering. That’s our town square,” Auciello wrote in an email to me. Although Auciello works alone, publishing on Facebook has meant he’s never really on his own. It’s like having “over 200,000 reporters on the ground — all working together because we’re all community members.” To many, that may sound cliché or like an exaggeration, but I’ve spent the last year working with Auciello as part of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, and I have been amazed by the generosity and genuine engagement evident on JSHN. Auciello shared a number of stories where communities helped report or even stepped up to cover things when he was unavailable. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Auciello said he was inspired by the way social media leveraged the “power of individual citizens to share knowledge and information.”

weather-crowd-mapFor Auciello, Facebook isn’t just a place to publish news, it is a tool to better serve his community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Auciello turned to his community to turn his publication into a peer-to-peer network for support and local aid, connecting people who needed supplies, housing and clothing to those who could offer it. TechPresident profiled the way JSHN helped connect people to emergency information during the storm and how “the site was used to crowdsource information about the availability of gas, price gauging, and places to shower or eat.” His work was recognized by the United Way, Red Cross and even the White House.

Distributed Content and Community Building

In many ways, Auciello has pioneered the kind of distributed reporting that is the hallmark of newer efforts like Reported.ly. In announcing Reported.ly Andy Carvin wrote, “We don’t try to send people away from their favorite online communities just to rack up pageviews. We take pride in being active, engaged members of Twitter, Facebook, reddit — no better than anyone else there. We want to tell stories from around the world, serving these online communities as our primary platforms for reporting — not secondary to some website or app.”

Similarly, Auciello is interested in how publishing directly to Facebook might help build deeper connections between people and publications. “I think hosting content on Facebook will help grow trust with communities in an era where clickbait runs rampant,” he told me. “If news is presented directly in your feed, there’s no need to play any tricks.” In an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab last year also he praised the transparency and directness which publishing direct to Facebook offers. “The ability to post something and it ends up in someone’s stream and they can see that without having to do anything — that’s a lot more powerful than just posting a link and saying, ‘Hey, go here,’” he told Nieman Lab.

In a nice coincidence, Josh Benton has a useful deep dive into “distributed content” this week in which he outlines the shift in how social platforms are appealing to publishers:

“It used to be: Spend some time cultivating a following of our network — we’ll send you a ton of traffic. That’s now evolving into: Give up some of your independence and step inside our walls — we promise we’ll make it worth your while.”

Who Owns the Relationship, Who Sets the Rules

And while Auciello has shown how having an open line of communication with your community on Facebook can strengthen news organizations relationship with readers, Jeff Jarvis warns about who may hold the reins in that relationship. “It’s a damned fine idea to go to the readers rather than make them come to you […] But keep in mind where the real value is: in the relationship, in knowing what people — individuals and communities, not a faceless, anonymous mass — need and want and know so you can give them relevance and value and so they will give you greater usage, engagement, attention, loyalty, and advertising value in return.” While early reports of the Facebook news have emphasized some yet to be determined revenue share, Jarvis is skeptical of any deal that doesn’t also give news organizations the data they need to build lasting relationships with their audience.

The Times itself acknowledges in its report, “Some news organizations have reacted coolly to the proposal.” On Twitter many journalists sounded off on the idea of publishing direct to Facebook, raising concerns about being beholden to Facebook’s algorithm, cutting off access to your content, and the likely minuscule revenue share numbers. The two most repeated phrases were “Faustian bargain” and “short sighted.”

photo by NJ News Commons

photo by NJ News Commons

And Auciello understands these concerns. After almost half a decade publishing daily news on Facebook Auciello is building a new stand alone website where he can employ creative engagement and revenue strategies that aren’t possible within Facebook. Until recently, Auciello has made no money from JSHN while Facebook has certainly has. Auciello works full time as an urban planner, working on JSHN in his off time. But he has also developed partnerships with WHYY, the Philadelphia public broadcaster, and others which have helped lay the groundwork for his stand-alone site.

“If Facebook had announced and implemented this [revenue sharing] earlier, I may have considered running my ‘site’ strictly on Facebook because, of course, I founded my news organization on there,” he wrote in an email to me. “I don’t know the details of how Facebook will work with publishers, but I think having a standalone site is critical to organize information and provide different services for the user.” In the end, while Facebook offers a lot for publishers and communities, Auciello shares some of the concerns about “walled gardens.” His strategy moving forward will be “a healthy mix of ‘Facebook-first’ content and smart links out” to his new site for features that are best built on the open web.