Four stations help test and build APM’s database of ‘real people’
The web-based sourcing system Public Insight Journalism, developed by Minnesota Public Radio, is gaining far-flung users through pilot partnerships with radio networks in Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon and North Carolina.
Colorado Public Radio’s Denver station KCFR and New Hampshire Public Radio announced the project to their audiences in April; Oregon Public Broadcasting’s radio network and WUNC in Chapel Hill are ramping up to launch this fall.
The initiative, which cultivates radio and web audiences as potential sources in news stories, helps reporters find individuals who can bring expertise and personal experience to their stories — consumers adopting green technologies in their homes, families struggling with rising health care costs and, this month, eyewitnesses to the collapse of the I-35 West bridge in Minneapolis.
The public insight system, which MPR began integrating into its newsroom four years ago, contributed substantially to the network’s coverage of the Aug. 1 failure of the bridge.
“It’s really hard to get a sense of the impact it had, because we were all running around, working on our coverage,” said Andrew Haeg, senior producer for the Center for Innovation in Journalism with MPR’s sibling, American Public Media. The system had never been deployed for a story on this scale or to gather participants’ own accounts and photos of a catastrophic event, he said.
As MPR’s reporters raced to the collapsed Mississippi River bridge during evening rush hour, public insight analysts in the newsroom posted a query on the MPR News website asking readers, “Were you directly affected by the 35W bridge collapse?”
Within two hours, MPR began receiving responses, Haeg said, and more poured in the next morning, including many photos. Witnesses to the collapse—some who were on the bridge, had just driven beneath it or had watched it fall from a boat 500 feet upstream—shared their stories for MPR radio and web coverage. Photos came in from a firefighter who had spent the night at the scene assessing the safety of railroad tank cars under the bridge. He spoke to MPR for a broadcast report.
The eyewitnesses’ accounts were among the first gathered by MPR News, Haeg said. After follow-up calls from public insight analysts and reporters in the newsroom, their stories were woven into MPR’s radio and web coverage, Haeg said.
“This is not just about getting amateur journalists to share their thoughts,” Haeg said. “It’s bringing whatever content we can to bear on news stories and intermingling it with our news coverage.”
MPR’s public insight operation is much more advanced than what pilot stations are doing so far, Haeg said. The point of the pilot is to figure out how to adapt the reporting tools for other newsrooms, he said.
“Our partners receive the tools and training, but they also help us develop them by improving the tools process and thinking through newsroom integration issues—how to work with the culture of the newsroom,” Haeg said. MPR hopes that the public insight technologies eventually will be adopted widely in pubradio and by newspapers and other news organizations, he said.
“The important thing to remember is that this is just a piece of professional journalism,” Haeg said. “The real strength of our network is that it’s tied to a very respected and credible news organization, with people who are committed to reporting things in a sober and dispassionate way.”
“Essentially, when you’re first starting off, you’ve got a database—a Rolodex if you will—that’s got no names in it,” said Jon Greenberg, executive editor at NHPR, who was trained in using the public insight system in January and helped to introduce it in NHPR story planning. “The first task we’re concerned with is getting people to come to you and put their information in the system,” he said.
Pilot stations recruit participants in various ways—through on-air promos, website ads with links to questionnaires, and blurbs in station publications. Sources recruited by each pilot station are available only to them, while American Public Media, can access all the sources in the database, Greenberg said. “It broadens their database for national productions,” he said.
Web pages for enrolling participants are one click away from the home pages of KCFR and NHPR. The networks ask for input on specific subjects such as, “What do pets tell us about people?,” the topic of an upcoming edition of NHPR’s Front Porch, and “How are our schools doing?,” a question to be answered in future KCFR reports. To gather insights for a series on aging that aired in April, NHPR reached out to the local AARP and subscribers to e-mail forums concerned with health care and nursing home administration.
The aging series, produced for NHPR’s interview/call-in The Exchange, was the first newsroom project to use the public insight network, Greenberg said. The story ideas weren’t a big departure from what members of the news team might have come up with themselves, he said, but the tool did turn up some good leads. “We did one story on how retirees throw themselves into their communities as volunteers, because so many people came back and said this was part of their lives,” Greenberg said.
In addition, a husband whose wife suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home came forward to describe his relationship with another woman—one whose partner has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in the same nursing home. The story, reported by Dan Gorenstein, was picked up by NPR’s Day to Day, and This American Life plans to produce its own version. “We might not have come across that story—it was one of the gems,” Greenberg said.
“On a number of fronts, this works really well for public radio,” said Dan Meyers, public insight editor for Colorado’s KCFR. “It’s a way of expanding the sources you use and getting surprising stories from people who are not in your Rolodex, and it builds connections with the audience.”
Meyers, a veteran print journalist who joined KCFR two years ago, said the public insight tools have helped shape coverage of all major topics on the station’s news agenda—health care, environmental issues, and the problems of soldiers returning home from the Iraq War. The local series Colorado Matters recently began following an Army reservist deployed to Iraq, and his wife and two young children back home, after finding them through the public insight network.
A public insight questionnaire about “going green” inspired some 316 responses from listeners and web visitors. “A lot of people mentioned that they wanted to use solar power but felt they couldn’t afford it,” Meyers said. During an interview last month, KCFR’s Ryan Warner asked Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a solar power advocate, about the affordability of the technology, and the station is planning more coverage of the topic, Meyers said.
WUNC plans to unveil its public insight project in October. “It will help set our editorial agenda and find stories we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Connie Walker, news director. She plans to use the database and tools for planned coverage of sustainability issues and to help beat reporters find people who are affected by topics in the news.
“When you want to tell stories about real people who are affected by the issues you’re covering, the hardest thing is to find people who will talk with you,” Walkersaid.
OPB Radio’s public insight pilot will contribute primarily to a daily call-in show slated to debut in January, said Morgan Holm, v.p. of news and public affairs. The series, which has the working title Town Square, will cover regional current events and arts and cultural topics. “We wanted to use the public insight network as a way to give people an opportunity to suggest topics to us and to suggest sources for stories,” he said.
After unveiling the project Sept. 5, OPB will begin seeking out sources for planned stories on how health-care costs push some Oregonians toward bankruptcy, security screenings at airports, and the difficulties of talking politics with friends or relatives who have different political loyalties.
MPR’s Haeg knows firsthand that introducing the techniques into newsrooms isn’t a cakewalk. Many journalists are accustomed to operating as lone wolves in their reporting, and they’re generally a skeptical bunch.
It takes a while for some reporters to become comfortable with the technology, Haeg said, and come to see it as a resource that “can empower your journalism and help you tell much better, more nuanced stories.”
Web page posted Aug. 19, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee