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.


While conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said yesterday on the Today Show that  President Obama has accomplished little of worth in his first two months in office, CBS  Evening News Producer Rick Kaplan would strongly disagree.

At a seminar held on Tuesday at  Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, Kaplan said that Obama’s record  so far has been “extraordinary.”

The “first 100 days” is a construct that began with FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and can be a useful time for judging what policies are most important to a president– before Congress and  administration insiders have  a chance to “carve out turf”… and “start bickering,” Kaplan said.

In his view, Obama has used this period well.

The President  has frozen all of former President George W. Bush’s last minute  “midnight regulations,” ended the  “gag rule” prohibiting mention of abortion in organizations receiving federal funds; put  forth ethics and lobbying bills; and passed the $800B TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) legislation, Kaplan said.

Equally impressive was  Obama’s performance at the recent G20 Summit in London.  “I’ve never seen anything like it,”  Kaplan said. At the meeting of the Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, “people  listened and were impressed. When he stood up, it was a proud moment for America.”

At news conferences, “he let the other guy go first. He grabbed President Sarkosi and the President of China; he huddled with them and [got] them to agree on a contentious set of…offshore policies. He makes the deal and at the end, both Sarcozy and the Chinese leader are smiling.

“In a meeting with the Russians on an arms deal, he gets a promise for a summit.  He meets with the South Koreans to talk about their concerns about [that day’s] North Korean missile launch….”

“And as he’s leaving…in an ‘organized leak,’ he said he would allow Cuban nationals to go and see their families and give them money.

“It was extraordinary to see him work the room in a respectful, aggressive, impressive. way. The leaders didn’t all agree with him, but they liked and respected him.”

“He’s had an extraordinary run in just 60 days. He never shows tension, never seems impacted one way or another or angry. He’s the ‘coolest guy in the room.”

Still, Kaplan said, not all is rosy.

For example,   the  President had known  known for weeks that bonuses were to be paid in Wall Street firms receiving bailout money, which made Obama’s  expressed “outrage” seemed hypocritical.  The press “let him off the hook a bit… It’s great to have dialogue, and the press corps is nervous about shaking up the relationship”  at a time [of economic crisis] where everyone is looking for stability.”

Asked (by me) what he foresees for the future of print media, Kaplan said that papers like the Boston Globe must survive,  and that the current “unwinding” could turn out to be healthy in the long run. It will likely lead to new models and  put an end to newspapers driven by owners who are more concerned about investors’ profits than their own communities, Kaplan said.


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

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.

Over a brown-bag lunch at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, New York Times Business  Columnist Joe Nocera opened his talk on the daunting question, “The Economy: Where Are We Headed?” with a resounding:  “I don’t know.”

He  offered background on the current (and future, he predicts) financial crisis, focusing first on the  housing foreclosure  crisis, and then on the banking industry.

Regarding housing, he suggested that– unfair as it may seem to people who didn’t buy into risky mortgages they couldn’t afford–we as an nation should bite the bullet and find ways to help those who did hold onto their homes.  One suggestion:  rather than  kick people out of foreclosed  homes, banks could rent them to the forfeiters  with an option to buy them back in five years with a 10 per cent down payment.

Regarding banking, Nocera said he sees no reason why “shareholder value” should remain the cornerstone  of banking industry strategy.  He  feels little sympathy for those who bet that they’d win big profits–up to 25 per cent–but lost, he said.

In Nocera’s view, Washington currently seems paralyzed by indecision over how to proceed.

One option  is the “bad bank,” in which the government buys all of the bad assets but that option has stalled because no one knows what the assets are worth.

Another is an  “RTC”  strategy like that used during the Savings and Loan Crisis of the  1980s,  in which the government formed the Resolution Trust Corporation to take over  banks. The RTC  allowed some to fold, and sold others, without the assets to new owners. The RTC  then gradually sold aoff the assets, with riders assuring that if the new owners made money, the government would receive a portion of the profits.  The process took ten years, Nocera said, but it worked.

While  President Obama  is confident about his ability to make decisions on many topics, the economy isn’t one of them, Nocera said.   Obama  chose  Bush holdover Tim Geitner as Treasury Secretary over former Harvard President Larry Summers mainly for personality reasons, but, Nocera predicted, Geitner is not likely to be able to move away from the thinking of the previous administration in order to come up with much needed  new options.

Nocera commented  wryly that his  blog, the Executive Suite,  has served as a clearning house for ideas on how to solve both the economic crisis–none of which appear to have been taken up by either administration.

Nocera’s latest post as of this writing is entitled” Bankers Gone Bonkers.”  It appeared on January 30, 2009 at


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