A reporter sits quietly in the newsroom when suddenly reports of a bridge collapse saturate the wire. News is breaking by the minute, but the reporter wastes precious time trying to track down an expert to speak to. Calls of “Does anyone know an engineer?” are screamed across the newsroom. Maybe the reporter gets lucky, and a colleague has a relative who can help. Maybe not, and time is spent trying to procure a source, time that could be better spend reporting.            

That’s where the Public Insight Network (PIN) comes in.            

Developed by American Public Media and funded by the Knight Foundation, PIN was initially launched by Minnesota Public Radio in June 2003, before Twitter and Facebook. Initially incubated for radio programs like Markplace and American RadioWorks, the idea behind PIN was that expanding the number of sources for stories would create a diversity of perspective that would allow shows to be more relevant to communities.            

The concept, a searchable and updatable database of sources in a variety of fields, quickly filled a need among various newsrooms. Currently, PIN boasts over 217,000 sources across the country, with more than 60 newsroom partners, which includes traditional outlets like the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer, to new media newsrooms like the St. Louis Beacon and AxisPhilly.            

Basically, the PIN platform offers a searchable database of sources in a confidential back-channel who are willing to offer their knowledge and insight for stories. Reporters can create queries that allow the data to be searchable using an almost limitless array of criteria: house income, occupation, zip code, education, etc.            

The obvious benefit is to that time-crunched reporter I mentioned before (although it’s important to note that it’s up to reporters to vet PIN’s sources, just as they would their own). But PIN also offers a break for reporters who can become dependent on officials and “expert” spokespeople who all too often are managing the press instead of offering them insight. It also allows more diversity into the pages of a newsroom’s reporting, which helps both the quality of a company’s reporting and offers the opportunity for greater engagement among its readers.            

But according to Linda Fantin, the director of network journalism and innovation at PIN, the real opportunity is uncovering stories reporters didn’t even know were there.            

“PIN has always been centered around getting insight and knowledge, not opinion,” Fantin said. “We want to help journalists at the front end of their reporting figure out what questions to ask in the first place.”            

A recent example comes from KPCC Southern California Public Radio. Reporter Steven Cuevas initially set out to report on health care at the California Institution for Men at Chino. According to Fantin, PIN didn’t have many prisoners signed up as sources, so Sharon McNary, the public insight specialist at KPCC, created a query with broader questions, such as “What do you know about prison life?”            

McNary heard back from Charlene Padilla, whose son was in custody. Padilla began to relate stories about inmates being confided in outdoor cages without adequate clothing to protect them from either the scorching daytime sun or harshly cold nights. Padilla made copies of the questionnaire and gave them to her son, who distributed them among the prisoners, who described the harsh conditions and injuries which ultimately led to a prison riot.            

Padilla was awarded a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for her work on Cuevas’ three-part series, who was also able to write a number of health care stories as he had planned. The reporting led to state investigators and the state’s Office of the Inspector General to open investigations into conditions at the prison, showcasing the public impact that could be created by asking PIN’s database of sources the right question.             

“This is just the most powerful tool I’ve ever found for finding those people who illustrate questions of policy and public life,” McNary told Current of PIN. “It allows people to alert you to issues instead of your going to find them.”            

PIN recently has taken a step to make itself more sustainable. At the beginning of March, Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism announced it will establish a hub for PIN, which will help diversify the source network and develop new application and products for PIN.            

The new bureau will be led by Rebecca Blatt, a senior editor at WAMU 88.5, NPR’s award-winning Washington, D.C. affiliate. Blatt’s goal isn’t to replace what’s already working with PIN, but to expand it and explore new practices of engagement and collaborative journalism that newsrooms both large and small can tap into.            

“The PIN bureau will provide a powerful learning experience for students, a valuable service for partner newsrooms and an incredible opportunity to explore new models for collaboration and innovation throughout the news industry,” Blatt said.            

The major benefit of the partnership is the ability for small newsrooms without the manpower to leverage students to access and query the database of sources, enabling more partners to take advantage of PIN’s wide array of tools. The benefit to students is hands-on training on the tool sets of today’s journalism, and according to Fantin, the bureau is being run as a business, meaning some students will even be paid to learn.            

“There’s real value in having a production team of students going into the network to find responses, tag sources and queries, and make it easier for newsrooms to participate,” Fantin said, noting the partnership doesn’t replace newsrooms from having direct access to the network and its sources.            

PIN isn’t just a tool for journalists. According to Michael Maness, the Vice President of Journalism and Media Innovation at the Knight Foundation, PIN can also help develop a sense of engagement within the community with a media organization.            

“What we found through research is people felt more integrated, both with the newspaper and the community itself, when they were asked to become part of the network,” Maness said. “Our sources participate out of a sense of civic good, and are generally excited about seeing the expertise represented in a story.”            

Fantin notes that with today’s environment of hyper-competition among news organization, it’s more important than ever for newsrooms to build loyalty and true engagement with their audience, a sentiment echoed by Maness.            

“We’re excited about the growth of PIN because anything that can make journalism work more efficiently and help citizens engage is a good thing,” Maness said. “As much pain as the internet has caused the news industry, at least we’re able to leverage all the great things about it to help newsrooms.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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