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April 23, 2015

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?