[Editor's note: We've tweaked this mission to reflect the lessons learned from our first year. Read the original version.]
At the Reporters’ Lab, we’ve recognized that the exciting new technology that has flourished on journalism’s distribution end has been remarkably slow to arrive at a vital precinct in its production line: the investigative and beat reporters mining official and unofficial records to hold governments and other powerful institutions accountable. At the same time, a recent 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.”
So the lab’s goal is simple: Narrow that power gap by arming reporters with the latest tools, methods and techniques to mine sources for stories.
It works from the premise that part of the crisis in public affairs journalism comes from the cost side of the balance sheet, not just the revenue side. As the Nieman Journalism Lab put it, by “making journalism cheaper without cheapening journalism,” this lab hopes to empower professional and pro-am reporters by reducing the time and expense of finding, understanding and documenting stories.
It might mean borrowing technology from corporate call centers to use on county council videos and court hearing audio recordings. It might mean adapting handwriting recognition tools from historians. Or it might just mean reducing the amount of time it takes to recognize a nugget of real news in the flood of duplicative news that comes across computer and smartphone screens.
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, 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 apps that help solve some reporting problems and open up new journalistic frontiers.
The place is also right for this project. Sponsored and hosted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and directed by its Pulitzer Prize-winning Knight Professor of the Practice, the lab is 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.
Here’s how we plan to do it:
- Identify holes in the reporter’s tool kit and work with existing or start-up companies to find affordable solutions. The lab can offer test documents and tasks; identify reporters who might want to use the tool, and help test it in a real-world setting. It can also help identify broader markets that could sustain new products.
- Test existing tools for common reporting tasks and report on new developments in text mining, audio and video records, aggregation and other concerns of investigative reporting.
- Create and commission open-source tools that don’t seem to exist elsewhere and would provide a solution to common problems. We’ve already commissioned TimeFlow, an investigative timeline and chronology tool. Next up: Video Notebook, a new way to integrate social media, reporters’ notes and even closed captioning into audio and video records to reduce the amount of time searching for a quote or the correct spelling of the name of a witness. We’ll give away these early versions and help companies turn them profitable businesses.
- Contribute to research in other disciplines that might someday aid investigative and accountability journalism. The lab has already curated document sets and other challenge tasks that can be used in classes or in development.
We’re eager to work with developers who have an interest in public interest journalism and open government; with scholars interested in the application of their work to another field; and with instructors who need ideas for class projects. And of course, with reporters who find themselves stuck in the drudgery of a beat or an investigative project saying to themselves, “there’s got to be another way.”