|MPR fleshed out an economics story with help from Susan and John Marsh and other PIJ sources. (Photo: MPR.)|
MPR aims to share its Public Insight system
Journalists at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media plan to share with other news media a source-building technology, Public Insight Journalism, that helps reporters flesh out, refine and find stories.
“It’s our intention to offer it at little or no cost to public radio stations,” says Michael Skoler, managing director of news at MPR, who was appointed last week as director of a new Center for Innovative Journalism that will continue developing PIJ and other tools.
Reporters use the system of database and Internet technologies to find real-life examples of statistical trends, expand their range of sources, check out hunches and, at best, turn up new stories, Skoler explains in a Current commentary this week.
MPR has used PIJ for three years in Minnesota and has started applying it in reporting for national programs produced by its affiliate American Public Media.
Two trained PIJ analysts working at MPR in St. Paul and one at APM in Los Angeles draw on databases of volunteers to find sources familiar with a topic through experience or expertise. PIJ now has 17,000 sources centered in Minnesota, and Marketplace found 2,500 involved in business topics, according to Skoler.
The nonprofit state network has allocated $2.25 million from its recent capital campaign for the project and has built a zinc-clad room atop MPR’s building to hold meetings of PIJ sources. Bill Buzenberg, senior v.p for news and overseer of the new center, estimates the net has spent $350,000 to $500,000 on the project since 2003.
Outside MPR/APM, pilot users will include Colorado Public Radio and four other stations yet to be chosen, says Skoler.
“It’s a great use for technology, for a great purpose,” says Jim Paluzzi, CPR v.p. of applied technology and member of the delegation from Denver that vetted PIJ in January.
MPR wants newspapers and other interested journalists to use the system, Skoler says, but hasn’t yet decided how to proceed or cover training and other costs.
The idea and the kickstart came from Bill Kling, MPR’s founder and president, according to Buzenberg and Skoler.
Kling explains his thinking in a video on MPR’s website: “On any given story we think there’s somebody in our audience that knows more that we do about the subject. If we can get that knowledge from that audience member into our newsroom, we think it will make our coverage smarter, and it’ll make our stories deeper and richer and more valuable to our audience.”
What is this thing?
Advocates for PIJ put it in historical context. Kling says it “will significantly advance democracy.” Skoler sees it as a way to connect with Internet-era news consumers who distrust journalists and see them as arrogant.
“We don’t see it as a tool as much as we see it as our future,” Skoler says.
But in practical settings, such as the St. Paul newsroom, the advocates emphasize that PIJ is only a tool, and not a magical one, that helps reporters do their jobs better.
When MPR offered PIJ to its reporters, they wanted to know what was wrong with their proven reporting methods, Buzenberg recalls. “It was universal skepticism to begin with,” he says, acknowledging that some doubts linger.
“A lot of people who are paid to be skeptical said, ‘Oh, come on!’” observes Mike Mulcahy, MPR’s political editor.
“We think of ourselves as solo operators,” says reporter veteran Dan Olson. But journalists are greedy for good quotes. “If there was any skepticism, it has all but vanished,” he says, as PIJ “put us in touch with people who give us fresher, better information than we had before, in some instances.”
“It is just journalism,” Paluzzi says. “But now you have a huge Rolodex that would never fit on your desk,” he adds, which is valuable because a reporter’s work is only as good as the sources tapped.
MPR solicits PIJ sources on the air and online for help with upcoming reports. Volunteers reply online, filling in surveys. By noting their expertise and experience, they are tagged for retrieval from the database.
PIJ analysts send topical queries by e-mail to appropriate sources. Within a morning or a week the reporter has a stack of potential sources to consider calling and to vet for credibility. Some replies provide leads to people who know more. PIJ later follows up by sending a thank-you and a link to an online audio file of the resulting story.
Because the system communicates mostly with people who have computers, and most participants are pubradio listeners, the database doesn’t cover the full range of human experience, as Skoler recognizes. So PIJ analysts have called community meetings to consult illegal immigrants and others who can contribute their insights on the news.
Geographically, PIJ adds to the diversity of sources, which makes it especially useful in covering a big state or world. Olson now can quote small-town sources and others he wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Skoler says PIJ beats going to oft-quoted observers and predictable spokespersons. Business reporter Jeff Horwich says it’s also better at finding “ordinary folks” than the old way: asking neighbors or newsroom colleagues if they know somebody who fits the story. For Horwich’s April report on families crunched by the economy, PIJ queries turned up dozens of possible sources, including five he interviewed and three heard on air.
Better yet, a fall 2003 query about economics turned up so much fiscal stress in the middle class, as Skoler writes, that MPR shelved a routine pre-Christmas story and built the first big PIJ project, Horwich’s five-part 2004 series “Whose Recovery Is It?”
At first, Mulcahy says, PIJ seemed to be a big Rolodex, but it has turned out to be an “almost endless” one.
Variations on PIJ include the Idea Generator software that MPR has used to uncover public suggestions for addressing persistent problems, such as the decline in small-town economies and the gap in high school graduation rates among ethnic groups. Then MPR put the suggestions to experts at town meetings about the subject.
Journalists also watched online simulations such as MPR’s Budget Balancer, which let web visitors try to align Minnesota state spending with taxes. Skoler says MPR did a story on “sin taxes” after seeing amateur budgeteers’ fondness for them.
MPR is also asking online sources to suggest story topics — also the grail for Christopher Lydon’s Boston-based talk show, Open Source, which looks for program material in online interaction with fans.
Producers at MPR are trying PIJ techniques for the same purpose with a pilot series called The Loop, which has aired three times so far and interacts with its own small subset of the PIJ database, Skoler says.
He’s quick to point out what PIJ is not. MPR doesn’t use it for easy opinion polls with no scientific validity. It’s not just a fancy hotline for news tips, though tips are welcome. And it’s not a newswriting robot.
“We haven’t given up our standards, our professional judgment and our fact-checking,” Skoler says.
PIJ data is treated confidentially, like a reporter’s source notes. Potential sources are assured that MPR isn’t asking for money, says Buzenberg, and the network makes good on the pledge by maintaining a firewall around the information.
Keeping source data out of the hands of MPR fundraisers was “a battle here that we’ve won,” Skoler says, adding, “It wasn’t much of a battle.”
But asking for the knowledge of listeners and potential donors doesn’t hurt MPR’s relationship with them, Buzenberg acknowledges. “We’re much closer to our audience because of this.”
Web page posted May 10, 2006
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