Today at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on  Politics, Public Policy and the PressProPublica  “distributed reporting” editor  Amanda Michel described a new form of newsgathering in which a few editors solicit and manage thousands of volunteers who research and write stories on a myriad of topics.

ProPublica is the nation’s largest nonprofit media organization to focus on investigative reporting. Founded in 2007, it is supported  mainly by a $10M a yearly grant from the Sandler Foundation.

The  method was developed by the Huffington Post during last year’s presidential campaign for a series entitled “On the Bus.”  Michel directed that effort, which employed 5 journalists who worked with some 12,000 citizens.

Michel was hired in May by  the New-York-City based  ProPublica, which employs 32 journalists and is led by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Its managing editor is Stephen Engelberg, a former managing editor of The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon and former investigative editor of The New York Times.

As ProPublica’s “distributed reporting” editor, Michel first used “crowd sourcing” and collaborative journalism methods to report on the impact of the federal stimulus bill. She is now integrating those newsgathering techniques into ProPublica’s other investigative efforts.

 To do so, she places queries on the ProPublica Web site, requesting assistance from the organization’s members, who are scattered throughout the US (and, possibly, abroad). They contribute their time “much as they would to a church or the humane society,”  Michel said.  

 ProPublica editors collect information from  the Internet and from members in the field–relying on journalists and volunteers for interpretation, analysis, and writing, Michel said.

 To maintain quality control, the editors set forth certain reporting requirements and “play the numbers game”–that is, they may ask several people to look into the same topic or report on the same event.  

Completed stories are  provided at no cost to ProPublica’s newspaper partners. One story about wrongdoing on a California Nursing Board first appeared in the Los Angeles Times and later ran on the ProPublica Web site.

Current  investigations described on the ProPublica Web site  include “Buried Secrets, Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat”; “Contractors in Iraq Are Hidden Casualties of War;” ” Strained by Katrina, Hospital Faced Deadly Choices” and “Problem Nurses Stay on the Job as Patients Suffer.”

Other news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal and  WNYC radio, have recently hired journalists to serve as “putreach editors,” to develop “networked” or  “citizen journalism.”  The Cable News Network  and  Yahoo use similar techniques to engage the public in newsgathering, Michel said.

At today’s seminar, when a BBC editor cautioned that the “networked”  method could easily be subverted by unsavory forces seeking to present disinformation,  Michel  countered that that’s already a problem in traditional newsgathering. “Reporters are often ‘played’ by sources,” she said.

Based on my  background in the alternative press, (the Harrisburg Independent Press, AKA “HIP,” was a nonprofit) I think it’s exciting that members of the public can now help the media enhance understanding of the world we live in.  However, like at least one  seminar participant, I wonder  how long people will remain interested in contributing their time for free. 

Still,  for journalists concerned about losing their jobs to unpaid competitors,  not all is lost:  ProPublica is one of the few news organizations that is now actually hiring!

Here’s a link to another writeup about the seminar.

Let me know what you think!

—–Anita Harris

New Cambridge Observer is a publication of the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, MA. We also publish HarrisCom Blog.


This blog is called New Cambridge Observer–so I guess I should jump into the fray over last week’s arrest of  Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge Police Sergeant  James M. Crowley.   

Gates, 58, who is black and walks with a cane,  had gotten out of a cab in front of his home on Ware St, couldn’t find his house keys and, while he and the cab driver were breaking into the house in broad daylight,  someone called the police.

To begin with,  I can’t understand why anyone would impugn the intentions of  the woman who called the police :  911 tapes reveal that she said she wasn’t sure if it was a break-in and that she doesn’t mention race.

I CAN understand why Crowley would insist that Gates  come outside after showing proof that he lived there;  it’s possible, tho unlikely, that someone inside the home was dangerous,  in trouble, or pressuring the owner, in some way.

I can also understand why Gates would be upset: no doubt the incident triggered memories of his own and others’ experiences of deep racial prejudice between white cops and black men.  I can also understand why Gates would  lash out verbally, and why his resistance would trigger the officer’s reflexive  response to an unruly citizen: handcuffs and arrest.

It’s harder for me to understand why President Obama lost his usual cool and say the officer reacted “stupidly” but I’m glad that he  backed off and invited both parties to the White House to discuss the matter over  a beer.

A friend rightly points out that, rather than just let things go each of the parties took the extra step: calling the police; demanding to come inside, pushing back, jumping into a local fray.  My friend suggests that behind all that is fear: of break-ins, of losing hard-won respect and status, of  loosing criminals into the community, of criticism–in a time of war and heightened economic stress.

All true.

But now, news commentators are questioning everyone’s motives. This morning, one of them questioned Obama’s choice of drink for today’s powwow and called  him a racist who hates whites;  another (is it politically correct to mention that her skin appeared to be dark?) that Obama is a “racial opportunist ” whose administration is corrupt, and that he used the term “stupidly” to draw attention away from his difficulties in getting health reform through Congress.

This epiode has often been called a “teachable moment.”  Might I suggest that it’s a moment that has gone on too long? We get it. It’s a moment whose time has passed.

Let me know what you think!

–Anita Harris
New Cambridge Observer is a publication of the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, MA, as is, which focuses on issues related to media, public relations, and HarrisCom clients–such as health, science, technology and the environment.  All entries are copyrighted by Anita M. Harris, the author.

Was surprised last night  when  two Pulitzer-prize-winning journalists locked horns on WGBH-TV’s  Greater Boston.

In a heated discussion of the New York Times’ threat to shutter the Boston Globe if employment concessions aren’t made,  former  Globe Columnist Eileen McNamara, who now teaches at Brandeis, charged that the Times is only out to save itself and doesn’t care about Boston or the Globe. She and host Emily Rooney criticized the Times for a lack of “transparency,” in threatening  to shut down the paper just a week after some 50 reporters were required to take buyouts or risk being laid off. McNamara called for an investigation into how Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. could have  so mishandled the papers’  strategies and finances.

Alex Jones, the former New York Times reporter who now directs Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said that Sulzberger has long been seeking ways to keep his papers on sound financial footing and pointed out that the Times and Globe are just two  of many papers threatened by  huge operating losses.  With countless subscribers migrating to “free” news on the Internet and advertisers cutting back in the current financial crisis, several papers have already declared bankruptcy.

I agree with Jones  that there’s no point in focusing on the New York Times as the bad guy in all of this;   the Globe is crucial to the Boston and New England communities, which must find ways to keep the paper alive.

The Boston Foundation  has put together a blue ribbon panel to seek with solutions–which might include a takeover of the Globe  by a consortium of nonprofits until the Globe’s economic situation improves.

The Globe reported this morning that both employees and management will be taking cuts in pay and security, and that 20 bloggers, organized by Paul Levy, president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, simultaneously published a post asking readers to submit suggestions on how the Globe can improve its financial position.

(Levy’s blog is at

I’ve joined the rally in a separate post.

I hope a solution is imminent  because good journalism provides crucial lifeblood to any community. As the so-called “fourth estate,” it serves as a watchdog on government, allows citizens to communicate with one another, and helps organize the thoughts, lives and livehoods of individuals and institution in a democracy.  Broadcast and Internet media certainly contribute to this–but, by and large, it’s  print reporters to do the heavy lifting.


Anita M. Harris is an award-winning former journalist who has founded a weekly alternative newspaper,  written for Newsday, produced documentaries for WRFM Radio and co-produced more than 100 live panel programs for the MacNeil/Lehrer Report (now the Newshour) of National Public television. She has taught journalism at Harvard andYale Universities and at Simmons College.

New Cambridge Observer is a publication of the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, MA.

The New Cambridge Observer is pleased to join Beth Israel Hospital’s Paul Levy et all in the rally to help the Boston Globe. Here’s the post, followed by a partial list of participating bloggers. I believe the idea is to leave comments on Paul Levy’s blog at, but if you leave them here, I’ll link or forward.  AMH
Here’s the post:

We have all read recently about the threat of possible closure faced by the Boston Globe. A number of Boston-based bloggers who care about the continued existence of the Globe have banded together in conducting a blog rally. We are simultaneously posting this paragraph to solicit your ideas of steps the Globe could take to improve its financial picture:

We view the Globe as an important community resource, and we think that lots of people in the region agree and might have creative ideas that might help in this situation. So, here’s your chance. Please don’t write with nasty comments and sarcasm: Use this forum for thoughtful and interesting steps you would recommend to the management that would improve readership, enhance the Globe’s community presence, and make money. Who knows, someone here might come up with an idea that will work, or at least help. Thank you.

(P.S. If you have a blog, please feel free to reprint this item and post it. Likewise, if you have a Twitter or Facebook account, please add this url as an update or to your status bar to help us reach more people.)

Paul Levy said…
And two more:

Look back, move forward

March 10, 2009

In his 3-05-09 post “Probe the Past to Protect the Future,”  Washington DC business-advocate- returned-investigative journalist Andrew Kreig says that the idea that the country should look forward without addressing the wrongs of the recent past is  “nonsense”.

He writes: As always,  justice starts by a review of the evidence. ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ Supreme Court Justice Louis Bandeis famously said. But pest control is useful too.  Either way, strong measures are required to build public confidence for legitimate initiatives on such complex questions as which companies are “too big to fail,” and which ones should pay the price for their terrible decisions.”

The media are unlikely provide much insight,  he implies.

Their income stream is increasingly dependent on affiliated businesses and not on serving subscribers. The major TV networks,  for instance, make virtually nothing form direct customer billings via cable and satellite, although many in the public naively assume that they’re being served via a “marketplace of ideas.”

In fact, traditional and new media alike depend heavily on the goodwill of government officials, plus advertising. The financial reports of the Washington Post, for instance, show that since 2007, it has been making more than ten times its revenue from its education industry affiliates as from its Post subscriptions,  new media are more entrepreneurial and increasingly broader-based in consumer appeal, many of their roots are in fairly recent federal Internet research and privatization policy–and many of their futures are highly dependent on favorable regulation, merger approval and stimulus spending.

Kreig calls for transparency in the Obama Administration’s decisionmaking process and for vigorous public pressure to ensure that current Congressional investigations into allegations of Bush Administration wrong-doing are not just for show.

I’m not anxious to delve back into the murky recent past and don’t relish the possibility of investigations, indictments, or imprisonments. Bytemperament, like Obama,  I’d rather move forward and let it all go.  But as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  I do think it’s important to find out why things went so wrong in hopes that we never have to go through times like those–or these–again.


New Cambridge Observer is a publication of the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, MA.

In the last few days, I’ve been in on several Webinars–some more effective than others.

Hubspot’s “5 Tips for Advanced B2B Business Blogging” was well organized and to the point. ****

Although  host and Hubspot Marketing VP Mike Volpe insisted on calling potential customers “personae,”   (in my book, the persona is the character telling the story as opposed to someone you’re trying to reach)–he did a good job of explaining that instead of using blogs to push your products,  you should offer information that will interest potential customers in order to draw them in.  Among other suggestions:

  • Offer a mix of posts–news, features, opinion, photos video, audio, lists, bold statements, funny bits, email  or videocam interviews–and information about how to get photos, via flickr.
  • Format in a readable way
  • Be patient: this sort of marketing is a marathon, not a sprint,

The webinar video and slides are available at:;
you can find  a basic introduction to business blogging at

Elizabeth Marshall’s “Striking Content Marketing Cold” with Newt Barratt, Chris Brogan, and Paul Gillin, the authors of “Get Content Get Customers” was a bit roundabout. **

With four panelists,  it was difficult to know who was speaking.            The authors, who also used (and perhaps coined?)  that peculiar
term “persona,”   focused on what they call “content marketing,”
which involves using (or possibly employing the authors?)
to   use  “story” to bring in customers.

Despite the confusing format, the authors must  have done
something right because here I am spreading the word on their

The webinar may be downloaded from:
Audio is available  at
/getcontent1.mp3 and a  written summary, in blog form,  at

Teleseminar: -Build Your Proactive PR Strategy for 2009 , featuring the increasingly visible Peter Shankman founder of  the Geek Factory and HARO (Help a Reporter Out )and Kim Keelor, PR Director of Gaylord Entertainment, was informative  but  included a few discouraging words.

The Vocus moderator, in  good social media  marketing form,
kept discussion of Vocus’ media relations outreach offerings to
a minimum.

I felt  encouraged when Keelor pointed out that PR consultants
seeing “free media” stand to do well as dollars for expensive
advertising sink  in the current flailing economy.

I also  found the advice to target a few key reporters rather
than send releases to huge  list and to use social media tools
like Twitter and Gawker to find out what reporters are
covering–to be right on–especially with reporter layoffs, and
remaining journalists increasingly assigned to  numerous

I was not shocked when Shankman predicted the imminent
demise of the press release–to be replaced by social media
tools used to reach individual reporters who have specific
informational needs.

I was, however, taken aback  when one speaker (perhaps the
unnamed moderator?) expressed anger when  asked
how to find reporters’ Twitter addresses– because he’d
posted instructions several months ago, online. If you can’t
figure  out how to Google to find that information,” he asked,
do you really belong in this [PR]  business?

As a long-time PR practitioner who is relatively new to
Twitter,   I have to ask whether insulting potential Vocus
customers–I mean… personae– who ask honest  questions is
an effective marketing tool.

That webinar and others are available at

The New Cambridge Observer is a publication of  the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

With the ever increasing fall of bookstores and impending newspaper layoffs, I’d like to echo Alex Beam’s call for readers to reach for their wallets.

In case you missed his January 9 column, “Closing Costs,” in the Boston Globe, it opens: “Here is a dispatch from the Land of No Suprises: Bookstores–buffed by the recession, by Amazon, by electronic reading devices–are closing their doors”. He points out that, easy as it is to go to Amazon for books and read newspapers online for free, by behaving normally, “you kill the things you love.”

In Boston, after several waves of reporter buyouts, people keep telling me that they’ve dropped their subscriptions to the Globe because it’s gone downhill, and, anyway, they can get it on line, for free. Duh.

My apologies for stating the obvious, but many of my friends don’t seem to get that, in  a vicious financial cycle,  with fewer paying customers,   the paper can get fewer advertisers, revenues go down, and, as a result, the Globe and many other papers have had to  “encourage”  their most senior,  talented reporters to leave.  The Globe announced  a new round of editorial layoffs just last week.

I’ll be writing more about this–but for the time being, please support the  free press–by paying for it.

The New Cambridge Observer is a publication of the Harris Communications Group, of Cambridge, MA.