Matchmaker, Matchmaker

ProPublica launches a new reporting tool

The folks at ProPublica have been covering the troubles with the federal government’s home loan modification program for awhile, and soliciting accounts of homeowners’ experiences with the process since last May. In a post published about four weeks ago, reporter Paul Kiel summarized some of the problems they’ve found: serious delays and backlogs, a lack of oversight and accountability, limited recourse in the face of adverse decisions.

Yesterday, the newsroom took its next step, rolling out a “Reporting Matchmaker” initiative that attempts to pair applicants in the loan modification program with local journalists who want to report on this story. It’s pretty simple: a map shows the location of homeowners who have reached out to the site, along with a few details about their situation. Journalists can scan the map for matches in their area, and obtain contact information for homeowners through ProPublica.

There are a couple of interesting and praiseworthy angles here. From one perspective, this looks like a case of a media outlet trying to be “on the public’s side” in pushing for a fairer, less arbitrary loan modification process. It’s also an example of an attempt at creative collaboration between news outlets: new media thinkers like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, and former CJR staffer Megan Garber, who has much more, all love it.

The question for all good new ideas of this type, of course, is: Will it work? One approach to this question is to look at the utility this initiative provides to journalists covering these stories—how much does it add to other digital strategies (Facebook, Twitter, HARO, etc.), plus the old-fashioned off-line techniques, for finding subjects and sources? At the same time, how much does it focus diffuse journalistic attention and effort on a story that might have been overlooked? (Early indications are that there’s clearly interest from reporters: Garber’s piece reported that half an hour after the post went live, ProPublica had fielded twenty-five requests for matches from journalists.)

More importantly, what impact will the Reporting Matchmaker have on the implementation of the loan program, and on the experiences of the homeowners participating in it—to what extent does it help effect change? Here, it’s worth remembering that “impact” does not necessarily equate to “loan modification approval” in every case. Over email, Kiel shared these thoughts on how to measure outcomes:

Our reporting has focused on the fact the process has been awful and often unfair for many homeowners, but even if the servicers were doing a fantastic job of evaluating applications, many homeowners would not qualify for a mod. So there’s not an easy way to score outcomes. Rather, we’ll be watching to see what problems this additional coverage exposes and whether the servicers respond and fix those problems.

Going forward, ProPublica has asked local outlets that use the matchmaker service to share links to their coverage. If this does catch on, someone—ProPublica, the local outlets, or other news organizations that are following along—will pick up the thread from there, doing the next round of follow-up stories, and a picture will start to emerge of whether this pressure really is driving improvements to the process. In the meantime, if you know a local journalist—or if you are one—head on over to the “matchmaker” site and see if you can find yourself a match.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.