[Editor's note: We've tweaked this mission to reflect the lessons learned from our first year. Read the new version.]
It’s hardly news that technology is transforming journalism, especially for consumers, who can now get their news whenever, however and from whomever they like. But while a culture of perpetual connection is flourishing on journalism’s distribution end, advances have been remarkably slow to arrive at a vital precinct in journalism’s production line: among investigative and beat reporters mining official and unofficial records to hold governments and other powerful institutions accountable.
Every day, government offices from the local police department to the federal Department of Energy generate artifacts that could become vital elements in investigative and other original journalism. Even when reporters can pry those records from agency warehouses and hard drives, the stories are still hidden in hours of videos, stacks of forms and gigabytes of data housed in unfriendly formats.
More troubling, the full-time reporters who ply their trade in city halls and statehouses are disappearing, A 2011 study by the Federal Communications Commission documented the decline of local watchdog reporting and described a resulting “shift in the balance of power — away from citizens, toward powerful institutions.”
Our goal at the Reporters’ Lab can be stated quite simply: Narrow the power gap by arming on-the-ground reporters with the tools, methods and techniques used by their sources and those working in better-funded disciplines. We want to build the infrastructure that will empower journalists — no matter where they are, what they cover or what job title they carry — by reducing the cost and difficulty of finding, understanding and documenting stories of public interest.
We think the time is right for a project like the lab. First, the dwindling number of local reporters need help becoming more effective — the most devoted are itching to escape the confines of their newsrooms and the constant buzz of their mobile devices to scour their communities for new stories. Also, recent advances in other fields – digital humanities, national security studies, social sciences and information science – show promise in helping journalists make sense of the messy, confusing and inconveniently formed records they usually see. Finally, the ubiquitous computing power that reduces billions of tweets into a routine data set can also be used to make easy-to-use, targeted and customized software that helps solve some reporting problems and open up new journalistic frontiers.
We also think the place is right for the project. Sponsored and hosted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, and directed by its Knight Professor of the Practice, the lab already housed in an interdisciplinary research environment that values public service journalism and its role in American democracy. The university has, through its Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, generously committed the start-up funding for the project.
The lab has four components, some of which you can already see at work on our new site:
- Adapt existing technology in other disciplines and professions for use by everyday public affairs reporters by creating, curating and deploying free and open-source software as standalone products and hosted services. Check out our tools, currently featuring TimeFlow, the investigative chronology and timeline tool commissioned by the lab in 2010, and our ongoing projects.
- Produce news and reviews of reporting techniques and advances, including disciplined tests of existing tools on real-life document and data collections. We view the reviews as a crucial first step to help us find the holes in reporting technologies that we might fill, reduce time and money spent on ineffective solutions, and create document and data collections that researchers and others can use to adapt their work.
- Contribute to research in other disciplines that might someday aid investigative and accountability reporting.
- Research public records practices and consult with journalists and government to reduce the need for technological workarounds.
We’re eager to work with developers who are interested in helping preserve investigative reporting and empower full-time and pro-am journalists with the tools they need to hold government accountable. We’re equally eager to collaborate with scholars in any discipline who might find reporters’ practices of interest or are seeking test documents or data for their research.
And of course, we’re most eager to hear from reporters, editors, pro-am journalists and citizens to let us help make your job of monitoring power in your community easier.