New England Center for Investigative Reporting: Innovations and Lessons Learned

With its $35,000 award from the INNovation Fund, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting set out to increase community engagement in government budget accountability by hosting a series of events and providing “citizen journalists” with the tools to find and describe earmarked funds. These highly engaged audience members would share findings with each other in real time and with the greater public via a standalone web site.

Responses provided by Burt Glass have been edited and condensed.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

Our initial goal was to engage and educate the public with a series of community journalism “hackathon” events, focused primarily on government accountability and earmarks in the 2016 Massachusetts state budget. We aimed to better connect with people in the Boston area, build and engage our audience around key government accountability issues, increase our social media following and email subscribers, and reinforce our partnership with public media station WGBH.

More specifically, our goals were to raise our profile among current and prospective supporters, especially among WGBH’s listeners; engage a subset as “citizen journalists” to make a deeper connection; and finally, to produce news stories tied to the state ballot questions for WGBH and our own site, The Eye.

The focus of the project shifted away from state budget earmarks and toward campaign contributions powering four separate state ballot questions: charter school expansion, marijuana legalization, gaming expansion and farm animal welfare. We felt this would make our events and our subsequent reporting more timely and more informative to an engaged public that is already well aware of the national election but relatively unaware of state ballot questions and the enormous trove of public data around the funding for these initiatives, including information on money coming from out of state to influence outcomes.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

INNovation Fund dollars funded the entire project.

What were the key successes of the project?

Audience and Revenue Outcomes

As a community outreach project, we sought to reach two audiences: public radio listeners, in part to elevate our brand, and “citizen journalists,” local residents with skills or interest in digging into the campaign data with us.

We held the first meeting on August 3 at the studios of WGBH in Boston, MA, attracting about 65 volunteers. The head of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the state agency providing us with the source data, kicked off the program with an overview of how the state tracked campaign contributions and how citizens could access the information on their own.

Then we introduced the beta form of an online app that allowed volunteers to scour campaign contributions to the ballot questions and segment the information in ways that couldn’t be done through automation and is too labor intensive to do by a single reporter. The app experienced a crash in the middle of the session, forcing volunteers to work in small groups on computers that could still run the program (The problem stemmed from the fact that we hadn’t tested on running with so many users inputting data at the same time.). Despite the inconvenience, the group’s size allowed us to process all the data we had prepped for the exercise, and volunteers left energized (and full of pizza we provided).

The second “hackathon” occurred on October 25, just before the election. This time, the group was smaller – about 25 – but more engaged and skilled in sifting through the app we had developed through the grant to make sense of the campaign contribution data supplied by the state. This time, the app worked flawlessly, and the team was able to sort the data in useful ways, such as identifying some individual donors of possible public interest.

Editorial Outcomes

The study of state contributions data revealed newsworthy nuggets, producing a series of stories for The Eye and our project partner, WGBH:

The project did not, however, reveal a major story hidden in the campaign data as we hoped. For example, the sessions with citizen journalists confirmed but did not meaningfully expand upon reports identifying the major sources of money bankrolling the state ballot initiative to expand the permitted number of public charter schools in Massachusetts. (Most of the large contributions were coming from a donors in the financial services sector, many from out of state.)

What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?

Collaboration: We engaged collaborators, including partner organization WGBH (an NPR and PBS affiliate) as well as the Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the organization Code for Boston. We secured the necessary physical space, software, and hardware to coordinate two hackathon events involving “citizen journalists.”

Promotion: We made good use of promotional opportunities, too, letting radio listeners and our own supporters know of the “hackathon” and the broader push to explore the state contribution data via on-air promotional material, collaborative social media material, a strong web presence on both NECIR and WGBH News websites, and a coordinated email marketing push. We attracted about 65 participants to the first session and about 25 to the second – about what we both expected and need to sift through the data.

What were the lessons learned?

Like many investigative projects, we started with ideas of what might be revealed. Would we find prominent donors with possible conflicts of interest using our small army of (human) data sifters? Would we see a trend in the contributions that ran against conventional wisdom? In the end, not so much.

But organizationally, we learned several lessons. One, local citizens unaffiliated with journalism in any formal way are keenly interested in participating in the process of fact-finding and public accountability. Post-event surveys of participants reported a satisfaction in coming together for a common task for an evening.

Two, we learned the advantage of people versus algorithms, at least in some situations. We need humans to sort through the data because we were looking for connections and names that did not lend to math until reviewed and cleaned.

Do you plan to do this project again?

We are grateful that we work in a state where officials collect and provide campaign data to the public in ways that can be analyzed. For this reason, asking “citizen journalists” to help us make sense of it is much easier. We remain very interested in how replicable it is by simply switching the data set. This could be used to hold campaign finance hackathons throughout New England and beyond. Similarly, we’re excited about the prospect of helping other news organizations connect with local coding organizations, universities, and campaign finance organizations to harness pre-existing expertise in a collaborative setting. We’re also considering using this app and general approach to crowd-source our reporting with journalism students at our partner institution, Boston University.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?

We benefited from recruiting volunteers for the hackathons with help from our partner WGBH and on-air announcements that cast a wide net. Many nonprofit news organizations lack similar access, unless they pay for it via advertising. If such a partnership can be made, citizen-powered projects like this work. They also afford a wonderful opportunity to connect with potential subscribers and members in ways that an email newsletter or typical “talking head” event do not.

I will say that supporters often look for a way to connect with nonprofit organizations they support beyond writing a check or subscribing to a free email newsletter. For some, being invited to participate in even infrequent journalism projects is an opportunity for closer affiliation.

Describe the market/community that you serve:

For this project, we serve engaged residents in the Greater Boston area with an interest in the election.