Digital Publishing: How ProPublica is Harnessing the Power of Collaboration

If there’s a buzzword in journalism these days that can challenge “engagement” for newsroom supremacy, it’d probably be collaboration.

It might seem like an odd pivot for an industry historically fueled by heated competition for scoops and angry newsroom rivalries. After all, movies have been made chronicling the exploits of rival journalists at the Washington Post and the New York Times chasing down leads to report out huge stories, such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.

Even today, much of the original reporting on the Trump administration originates at either the Times or the Post, thanks to reporters hard at work competing for scoops (and proudly seeking glory for their accomplishments on Twitter).

But for other media outlets without their reach and digital subscriber base, collaboration is part of a larger adaptation to a maturing digital media landscape. The strains placed on newsrooms due to the decline of print advertising have forced many outlets into a situation where they have to pick and choose the topics they can devote serious resources to covering. Plus, some stories these days are so complex, the only way to truly tackle them properly is by collaborating with experts in other newsrooms.

Leading the push for all things collaboration is ProPublica, the scrappy one-time internet start-up that has grown into a powerhouse of investigative journalism, collecting multiple Pulitzer Prizes along the way. Collaboration is in the DNA of ProPublica, who initially partnered with media organizations like NPR, “60 Minutes” and the Atlantic mostly out of a necessity to reach readers.

That’s not so much a problem today for ProPublica, where collaborations have become a cornerstone of the digital media organization’s unique approach to journalism. Just one quick look around their website reveals several large databases on relevant topics they’re sharing with any news organization that wants them—for free. Everything from Trump Town, which tracks the personal records of Trump administration staffers, to Nursing Home Inspect, which draws on nursing home inspection reports to look for trends or patterns.

Recently, two of my colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer drew on ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database to file a report on 76 doctors in the Philadelphia region paid more than $500,000 each by pharmaceutical and medical device companies (including one local ophthalmologist who pocketed nearly $6 million from 2014 to 2018).

So, it’s fitting ProPublica has rolled out a new tool designed to encourage and facilitate partnerships across multiple newsrooms. It’s called Collaborate, and as its name would suggest, it has a broad mandate—to help journalists work together and help manage complex projects. Think of it as an easy-to-use project management software that’s designed to funnel tips into a central database that journalists can use to find and track stories and sources.

The open-source software is based on ProPublica’s own in-house tool, which the company built to report out big collaborative projects like Electionland, which brought together more than 125 newsrooms to track voting problems. Thanks to a grant from the Google News Initiative, ProPublica was able to beef up its software and make it open source for any newsroom in the world to use for free.

“It’s a really helpful tool to help newsrooms go through crowdsourced information. It lets you easily mark and catalogue which tips were followed up on (and) which have been verified,” said Rachel Glickhouse, a ProPublica reporter who used the software to help manage their Documenting Hate project, an investigation of hate crimes and bias incidents in the U.S. compiled by over 170 newsrooms.

“But (Collaborate) also could be useful for certain types of data projects because it allows you to mark up each individual data point and keep track of every time a reporter has reached out to a source,” Glickhouse added. “It’s something I have found tremendously useful in my job, and I’m really glad we’re able to make it available to other newsrooms. Really, the intent is to save people time and sanity.”

The beautiful thing about the software is that it’s easily accessible by small and mid-sized newsrooms that don’t have their own developers on staff. Newsrooms can use a service like Heroku or Google Cloud (which have free tiers but might end up charging a small fee for heavy users) to launch Collaborate, and ProPublica has gone to great lengths to write step-by-step instructions that even I could walk through with ease.

“I just think we can do so much more work if we share the bounty,” Glickhouse said. “We’re allowing newsrooms all over the country to make use of all the information we’ve gathered…It helps save resources and we enable much more journalism to happen.”

Collaborate is just the latest move from ProPublica to help push more newsrooms past that gut feeling most journalists have to hog a scoop for themselves. It’s also an area where ProPublica reporters have learned to not just talk the talk over the years, but also to walk the walk.

Back in 2015, ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller learned that The Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong was chasing the same story—an 18-year-old girl who said she was raped before reversing her story to police officers who didn’t believe her.

Obviously, with the competitive juices of journalism flowing through both their veins, it was hard to overcome the instinctive urge for one to try and beat the other to the story. But the two ultimately decided to join and collaborate on the piece, with Armstrong focusing on the woman’s story and Miller concentrating on police failures identifying rape victims.

The result? The story, An Unbelievable Story of Rape, won the 2015 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, and it was later adapted into the Netflix series “Unbelievable.” So yeah, collaboration can be a good thing.

“Now my first impulse is to collaborate,” Armstrong told CNN at the time. “That’s the new media landscape, I suppose—and I don’t say that as a complaint. In this case, collaborating worked beautifully.”

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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