Mitch, my co-founder, is the real driver behind the site’s success. He developed the system from scratch using Django, Lamson, and other open source technologies, and continues to move the site in exciting new directions, such as our recently launched—and still slightly buggy—agency pages, which lay out exactly how well an agency is complying with its own laws.
I handle all the administrative work, from scanning documents to pitching our services to partner organizations to restarting the server if things break. I also do some original reporting and decide on feature priorities at any given time.
Recently, Tom Nash joined us to help produce more original reporting on some of the great documents that were being ignored. He recently had a piece, for example, investigating corruption in Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, which is really terrific.
How have you utilized your pro-bono relationship with the lawyers from Prince Lobel?
It’s been very reassuring to have Prince Lobel as our legal advisors, particularly when we ran into some trouble with the state of Massachusetts and when FBI Director Robert Mueller was being grilled about one of our stories. Fortunately, those tend to blow over, since we stick very close to our source material. Where Prince Lobel has been helpful—specifically where [lawyers] Rob Bertsche and Asya Calixto have been helpful—is in strategically appealing certain request denials and in ensuring that the only trouble we get into is at least tied to a good story.
What does the MuckRock clientele look like? Which news organizations have come to you for FOIA help?
Our clientele is all over the map, from traditional journalists and news bloggers to researchers and think tanks to individuals who are just passionate or curious about an issue, whether it’s in their community or across the world. That we’re able to help such a broad range of people with such a broad range of interests and needs is really gratifying.
We’ve had reporters from TalkingPointsMemo, Gannett, GateHouse, the Boston Globe, the AP, Patch and dozens more use our site.
How do you reach out to other journalists, and to the media world at large?
So far it’s been entirely word of mouth. I’ve seen way too many startups come out and talk the talk but not walk the walk. We decided early on that we’d let our work speak for itself, and I think our track record speaks very well so far. That said, we’re regularly speaking with our customers and potential customers to better tailor what we do to their needs, whether that’s redesigning our submission process or figuring out new ways for news organizations to engage their readers.
What will MuckRock look like in five years?
Right now, we’re really focused on polishing the experience and utility of MuckRock to best serve our users. Today, that means making it very simple and effortless to file and analyze a government document. We offer tools like advanced OCR to convert a print document into a spreadsheet, and we’re working on allowing our users to crowdsource analysis of large documents (we have some top-secret tools that do that today in a rough fashion).
In five years, we want to allow our users to tap into a much broader range of data pulled from a variety of sources, both digital and physical, government and non-government, woven together to help both reporters and individuals find and tell the stories that are important to them in the best way possible.
Morisy keeps an ongoing tally of stories based on MuckRock-requested documents here, including a New York blog item about the FBI’s files on the Wu-Tang Clan, a Gawker piece called “The FBI Took Secret Intelligence from Creepy Cell-Phone Tappers,” and an American Independent piece about marijuana and cancer treatment.