Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Supporting and enhancing ProPublica’s news applications desk

July 18, 2012, 10:11 a.m., Posted by Scott Klein

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Above: ProPublica celebrates its second Pulitzer Prize

We’re very pleased to announce that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has made a grant to support ProPublica’s news applications desk. The grant will support and enhance our ongoing efforts in what we call “news applications,” which we believe are an emerging discipline within journalism.

A news application is a large web-based interactive database that tells a journalistic story using software instead of words and pictures. It’s software and it’s journalism — both at once, and done by the same people. From Dollars for Docs, which lets readers find out if their healthcare provider is taking payments from pharmaceutical companies, to Opportunity Gap, which helps readers understand the sometimes-unequal distribution of educational opportunites to high poverty schools, ProPublica’s news applications strives toward the same goal as the traditional journalists in our newsroom do: To spur reform through a sustained spotlight on problems.

News applications afford readers the opportunity to see a broad national problem but also to understand how that problem affects them personally. It’s one thing to understand abstractly how, say, educational opporutnities are distributed. But it’s quite another to see your own high school and how it compares to the poorest and wealthiest in the state. If the best way to learn is to apply new knowledge to what you already know, then the ability of a news application to contextualize data has limitless possibilities to do great journalism.

News application developers are simultaneously reporters and programmers. They write code and call sources for comment. They write stories while fixing bugs. But although they may have a background that’s quite different a traditional reporter, they’re absolutely journalists. They sit in the newsroom, pitch stories, and report to an editor. They publish their work under their byline, and they follow the same rules of sourcing, attribution, and fairness that all journalists follow. They work on their own enterprise projects as well as on projects started by other reporters in the ProPublica newsroom.

Over the next year, ProPublica’s news apps desk will grow bigger in several important ways. We’ll also open up our newsroom, sharing our methodologies and ideas so other can learn along with us, and we’ll do more great journalism. Here’s how:

·       We’re adding a new News App Developer, in the person of Lena Groeger. Lena joined us earlier this year as the inaugural News Applications Fellow. She’s worked with ProPublica reporters on foreclosure data and drone strikes data, and she’s already hard at work on news apps that we’ll be unveiling soon.

·       Our experimental News Applications Fellowship will become a regular position in the department. And we’re recruiting the next fellow starting immediately.

·       Starting as soon as possible, we’re opening up the news application desk to coders in other newsrooms who want to hack with us on a project. Maybe you’ve got a news app you’ve been working on and need help understanding how to frame it, or maybe you just want to work inside a department that’s already solved some of the problems of joining code and journalism so you can bring our experience back to your newsroom. This post has more details.

As always, we will continue to post the details about how we put together our news applications to our nerd blog. We’ll continue to open source our code, and to meet up with and help train our fellow journalists at conferences and hackathons.

It’s been almost 45 years since Philip Meyer used an IBM 360 minicomputer to crunch the numbers on a field survey he designed to study the 1967 Detroit riots. But we think the opportunities for doing great “hacker journalism” are boundless.

By Scott Klein, editor of news applications at ProPublica