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.


As an author, former radio and TV producer, and communications consultant, I was excited to read about “Vooks”–a hybrid “literary”  form that merges text, Web and video features–in the New York Times. 

Although most of the highbrows who commented  online were skeptical or negative about new vook ventures by Simon and Schuster and others, I’m thrilled–as I’ve been struggling to cram 4 years worth of my LOL  college diaries into linear form–along with memories buttressed by videotapes and photos of concerts and political demonstrations I was delighted to find  on line.

I’m excited to be  able integrate a myriad of forms that will allow me to share  my experiences and my peers’ with my readers –er–viewers–er  surfers.  Oh, heck.  My audience,  if I can figure out how to find one!

BTW–my book in progress is called Ithaca Diaries, and I’d love for you to suggest possible agents or vublishers.

See my blog on the Times article and commenters  at

Anita M. Harris

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

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.