After three years’ development at Minnesota Public Radio, Public Insight Journalism is going to work for MPR/American Public Media’s national programs and will be shared with other public radio stations [separate story]. Michael Skoler, who will head MPR/APM’s new Center for Innovation in Journalism, describes how PIJ helped MPR’s St. Paul newsroom solve several problems reporters commonly encounter.
Ever since entering journalism, I have delighted in finding the hidden story or fact or source that no other reporter had. So I cultivated sources, did endless research and took every opportunity to talk with strangers. That’s how I got my very best stories. At Minnesota Public Radio, we’ve found a way to have those sources and stories come to us.
Seventeen thousand people, at last count, have volunteered to share what they know about their communities, their work and their lives to help us find and tell important stories. Many have given us leads we might never have found. Our network of public sources continues to grow (by roughly 1,000 a month) and so does its contribution to our coverage.
In the past few weeks, reporters here and at our American Public Media programs in Los Angeles have used these sources for stories on crime in Minneapolis, obstacles faced by women entrepreneurs, advances in green architecture, rising middle-class insecurity, and religion at the office. We also met with 70 people, many of them undocumented workers, for our continuing coverage of immigration issues.
We call our approach Public Insight Journalism®, or PIJ, because we seek to tap the knowledge and insight of those in the public to make our coverage stronger and more relevant.
PIJ wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. Without e-mail and the Internet, we couldn’t keep in touch with thousands of public sources. And without the software that we built to organize the information from the audience, our newsroom would be overwhelmed. We wouldn’t be able to find the diamonds in the coal bin, check them out and distill that public knowledge for reporters and editors. We have spent three years building and learning to use the tools and gathering people into our Public Insight Network.
Our approach to citizen journalism is different from other news organizations’. We are not turning over editorial control to our listeners and web readers in a separate section labeled “citizens speak.” Rather, we are embracing people in our audience and the public at large as smart, connected, engaged partners who often know more than we do. We bring their knowledge into the newsroom and into our daily reporting. In many ways, this is a more radical shift than simply handing the pen or the microphone to nonreporters.
Journalists pour their blood, sweat and passion into digging up the news and making sense of it for the public. We are justifiably proud of our Rolodexes of hard-won sources. To many of us, the idea of routinely including the public in newsgathering and defining stories seems like pandering to public opinion at best and abandonment of our mission and standards at worst.
Yet Public Insight Journalism has slowly won over most in our newsroom. First, because it regularly makes our coverage stronger. Second, because we are not abandoning the best of mainstream journalism—our professional judgment, practices, ethics and standards of reporting—but are instead deepening our reporting and judgment through the power of a vast network of sources. At its best, PIJ solves problems we journalists regularly face
Getting beyond the ‘usual suspects’
In daily news operations, it’s all too easy to rely on a relative handful of public officials, community leaders, designated spokespeople and experts to define and explain the news—people who deliver their messages in sound bites and seek to manage the press. Reporting is invariably richer when we can go beyond these usual suspects.
Public Insight Journalism extends the reach of our reporters. For a story on avian flu, we sent a query to our network of public sources and found people willing to speak openly about what they were doing personally and professionally to prepare for a pandemic, including a physician heading the effort at a Veterans’ Administration hospital. When mechanics went on strike at Northwest Airlines, an FAA mechanic in the network directed us to a database that tracked airplane maintenance problems and offered help deciphering the data. For a story on religion at work, a human resources specialist responded to a survey with details of issues at her company.
Specialized journalists in our newsroom — public insight analysts — collect the information, check it, call and vet sources (some who remain anonymous) and pass the best leads, information and people to reporters, editors and producers. We always verify sources before any information goes into a story.
In the past couple of months, 2,000 people have responded to our request for help with our 2006 election coverage. We plan to tap some in that group, along with standard political commentators, to track how campaign issues play out and attitudes shift leading up to the election.
Competing with newspapers on a major story
In the Twin Cities, the MPR reporting staff is outnumbered 7 to 1 by the major daily paper. (And by public radio standards, we are a large newsroom.) We assigned four reporters to the story when Northwest Airlines mechanics went on strike last fall and Northwest later declared bankruptcy. But more than 120 people in our Public Insight Network supported their reporting effort.
On the air and on the Web, we referred people to an online survey to share their knowledge and experience about the Northwest strike with our newsroom. We handed out cards at the airport with PIJ’s toll-free number and Web address. We sent e-mails inviting others to fill out a questionnaire on our Public Insight Network. As the story unfolded over months, Northwest employees, strikers, FAA inspectors, former Northwest managers, aviation professionals and frequent fliers came forward with information.
Our source network informed at least two dozen stories and linked our reporters to other inside sources who otherwise would have been tough to find and develop. One source helped us break news on an FBI investigation into suspected crew tampering with safety equipment during the strike. Other sources helped support our breaking story on FAA safety concerns over work by replacement mechanics. Our coverage included accounts from many of these sources—striking mechanics having second thoughts, spouses of Northwest managers, passengers who refused to cross the picket lines. Thanks to great reporters and public network participants, we competed with, and I think beat, the newspaper coverage.
Checking out a hunch or rumor
One day, our reporter Tim Post in St. Cloud, Minn., overheard a couple of hunters complaining how more and more landowners were cutting off access to hunting land. He wasn’t sure if it was a story, so he asked our public insight analysts to e-mail those in the network who had listed hunting as a passion or lived in Post’s part of the state. That e-mail connected us to an informal network of hunters.
Within a day or two, Post had nine new sources to add to his reporting and was able to confirm the trend. He wrote a story on growing disputes between landowners and hunters, and among hunters themselves, over access to hunting areas. A few weeks later, a Minnesotan killed six hunters in Wisconsin in what started as a dispute over a deer stand but also had racial overtones. We had uncovered the context for that story before it became national news.
Finding the human face for a story
Journalists know storytelling is stronger when we can put a human face on a report, whether it’s about new legislation or a long-standing social problem. Reporters rushing toward a deadline might go to the public affairs person at a social services agency or special interest group to find a person who has lived the problem and is willing to talk. The risk is that we are letting someone else pick our source, someone with an agenda. If we are reporting on a new trend—say, the rise in online gambling by college kids—often the only choice is to shake our personal contact trees by e-mailing or calling friends, family members and colleagues to find someone who might know someone.
Reporters in our newsroom frequently use Public Insight Journalism to reach beyond the activists and their personal networks to find people with specific experience. When consumer records were stolen from the credit-verifying agency ChoicePoint, reporter Dan Olson needed sources for a story on identity theft. A public insight analyst e-mailed a query to a range of people in our network, including those who worked in high tech. Within an hour, Olson started hearing from both victims of identity theft and people who had become expert in protecting their identities.
Sometimes an analyst doesn’t even send a query. Our software creates a profile for each source with information people have provided about their work, hobbies, training and experiences. When there’s news in education, we can quickly search for teachers, principals, active parents, students, curriculum developers or early education specialists. If there’s a change in state-subsidized health insurance, we know who in our network will be affected.
For a story on college kids who gamble online, an analyst sent queries to those in our network under age 24 and posted links to our query in online chat rooms and bulletin boards. This was how we found a key character for an hourlong documentary produced by American RadioWorks, our documentary unit, on the explosion of gambling among young people.
Discovering emerging stories before others do
This fall, polls showed that economic uncertainty was hurting consumer confidence right before the holiday season. We sent surveys to hundreds in our Public Insight Network; some were random and some were directed at those who had answered earlier queries on the economy. We asked if people were making small or large changes in their lives because of financial insecurity. The replies surprised us.
Out of several dozen responses, we found people who were selling their homes to rent or buy smaller ones, some who had depleted retirement savings to pay for medical care, and others who were running up credit card debt for the first time. Nearly all had been on stable footing until very recently. What started as a routine holiday shopping preview turned into a much bigger story—the faltering stability of the middle class, including young workers as well as retirees. They were victims of rising health care costs, interest rates, property taxes and job outsourcing, despite the economy’s growth.
At MPR, we have really just begun tapping the potential benefits and facing the challenges of bringing the public into newsgathering. At first, most of the newsroom was skeptical about the added work of checking out and including unknown public sources in reporting. Many bristled at the implication that our reporting could be even stronger if we opened the newsroom to the insights of the audience. With time and practice, the benefits now outweigh the discomfort and questions.
We have steadfastly avoided using our tools to do pseudoscientific online polls that determine our coverage or to collect the online equivalent of random vox pop. Instead, we search for people who have firsthand knowledge, whether from their jobs, their hobbies, their relationships or their life experiences. We ask for knowledge, not opinions.
We are also working to make our Public Insight Network diverse. Opening our newsroom to a wider range of public sources can bring more diversity into our reporting than we could ever achieve through hiring alone. We’ve held meetings around the state and made presentations in people’s homes and at community centers. We have invited people into our studios and into mobile recording booths.
We’ve built a new public space in MPR’s expanded headquarters called the Forum, where we will invite people with different backgrounds and knowledge to talk with our journalists about issues they consider important. We’ve created simulations on our website, including an interactive tool to balance the state budget, that entice people to share their knowledge. These tools have led to story assignments and have helped us design our coverage and polls.
The true challenge of Public Insight Journalism, though, is not creating a bigger, more diverse network or adding flashy interactive tools. The world we inhabit as journalists is changing fast. The audience no longer accepts our monopoly on the news. The rise of blogs, citizen journalism and wikis is an assault on the newsroom culture we grew up in — a culture that says we journalists are the experts, the gatekeepers, the ones who set the public agenda. PIJ is about reconnecting with the public.
Mainstream media has lost much of its connection to the audience. As columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “If one word can capture the public attitude toward American journalists, I’m afraid it’s ‘arrogant.’ ” And if we think that public broadcasting is immune to that eroding public trust, we are fooling ourselves. The same surveys that show we are more trusted than commercial media also tell us that a third of Americans don’t trust us, either.
At Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, we have just announced plans to share the practices and tools of Public Insight Journalism with other interested newsrooms. The challenge of the new media environment is a shared challenge, where we need to experiment and learn from one another. We are creating a Center for Innovation in Journalism at American Public Media to help lead this effort.
Public Insight Journalism doesn’t simply change our news. It changes us as journalists. By embracing the audience as experts and opening up to its knowledge, we are changing our culture and strengthening the public’s trust in our work. It makes sense that public broadcasting should be leading this critical change.
Michael Skoler, managing director of news for Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, has been named director of APM’s new Center for Innovation in Journalism. He was a science correspondent and Africa correspondent for NPR, then earned an MBA and worked as a McKinsey & Co. management consultant before returning to journalism in Minnesota. For more information on Public Insight Journalism, visit www.mpr.org/publicinsight or e-mail .
Web page posted May 10, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.