A FEW YEARS AGO, SOME AUSTIN, TEXAS, residents were up in arms over “stealth dorms.” As the city council debated occupancy limits, Austin Monitor publisher Michael Kanin realized he couldn’t answer a basic question: How many stealth dorms were there?
Dan Zehr had the same question. “The city council was deliberating this basically off of neighbors who say, ‘These things are all over my neighborhood,’” says Zehr, the Austin American-Statesman’s economics and finance reporter. “That’s as in-depth as the research really got.” A local economic development consultant later pulled some figures together, but they were “quick and dirty,” Zehr says.
The research challenge isn’t unique to stealth dorms. Over pizza and beer, Kanin and Zehr brainstormed ways for their newsrooms to quickly generate rigorous research in order to contextualize reporting on civic issues. They came up with the Austin Municipal Research Institute—a nonprofit umbrella organization that would oversee three autonomous arms focused on research, journalism, and engagement.
The AMRI is barely past the conception stage; board approvals and funding applications are still in the works. However, with the help of a few more Austin newsrooms and over a dozen journalists, Kanin and Zehr plan to test their model on a big, complicated story: Austin’s current and sweeping effort to revise its development plan.
Both the Austin Municipal Research Institute and its small-scale pilot are unusual in their scope. ‘There’s this weird spot between academia and journalism,’ says Kanin.
NEXT MONTH, KANIN AND ZEHR launch CodeNEXT Hub—an informal, temporary newsroom partnership, with no new outlets or governance structures. CodeNEXT Hub will serve as a pilot program for the Austin Municipal Research Institute’s three-pronged model.
Here’s how Kanin and Zehr expect those three prongs to work. CodeNEXT Hub will launch a website devoted to coverage of Austin’s evolving land-use code, with content from the Monitor and the Statesman as well as local public radio station KUT and public TV station KLRU. In addition to its journalism, the hub will publish original research: Academics involved with AMRI’s development will analyze the history of land-use code in Austin, study the use of the city’s public spaces, and survey residents to quantify how the city’s structure affects their health, finances, social inclusion, and digital access. And CodeNEXT Hub will engage the community through a series of game nights, during which attendees can try their hands at governing and shaping the city, appropriating cash for different needs, and using Lego to model how the population might be allocated among districts. (The hub partners hope the events might enliven a topic that even the journalists involved describe as “dry.”)
Both AMRI and its small-scale pilot are unusual in their scope—particularly when it comes to research. Many news outlets invite academics to contribute pieces; many more practice data journalism, to derive new insights from existing datasets. It is far rarer for media organizations to oversee the production of original research. (There are exceptions; in business journalism, Economist Intelligence Unit comes to mind.) By asking academics to employ in-depth quantitative and qualitative research methods, the newsroom collaboration may accomplish something many journalists can’t, because they lack both the time and the training.
“There’s this weird spot between academia and journalism,” says Kanin. “As journalists, we’re trying to understand the everyday world around us, to produce that for our readers in a way that’s digestible and smart and timely, but also relevant.” Academics, however, “think about things in a little bit different way.” The sweet spot to inform civic debates, Kanin argues, lies somewhere in the middle.
The research institute’s future depends, in large part, on CodeNEXT Hub’s success.
CODENEXT HUB IS SELF-FUNDED. Each news organization will report its own stories with its own resources. Monitor editor Elizabeth Pagano will work on CodeNEXT Hub, and solicit pieces from six or seven of the Monitor’s freelancers. Four KLRU staffers will contribute to the project, at least part of the time; KUT will lend four, and the Statesman three. Glasshouse Policy, an Austin nonprofit that works with the Monitor on public events, will use grants or sponsorships from foundations, corporations, public entities and individuals in order to stage community events. (Glasshouse is still trying to secure some of those funds, though it has raised $20,000 so far from a realtors’ association and from Austin’s downtown business alliance.) KUT will build the website. The two professors conducting original research are providing their work pro bono.
AMRI’s future depends, in large part, on CodeNEXT Hub’s success—website visits, research readership, and public response to the game nights. Kanin has high hopes for the engagement efforts: More than 100 people attended a recent Glasshouse transportation game night, held in coordination with San Antonio nonprofit news site The Rivard Report, and responded to questions about the event’s effectiveness. More than 90 percent of guests said they had fun; 69 percent said they learned more about the issue than they would have by reading.
If you get more involved citizenry, they’re probably going to want to keep tabs on what’s going on in their town, want to read the Statesman, and subscribe.
LOOKING FORWARD, KANIN AND ZEHR say AMRI’s journalism arm could simply be the Monitor itself. (The Monitor is no stranger to reinvention: It started in 1995 as In Fact, a high-end insider tip sheet on local politics, and was briefly owned by the Statesman before a group of friends bought it, rebranded it, and took it nonprofit.) However, they stress that most aspects of the organization’s structure are still negotiable. The founders also hope that AMRI will help external reporters find grants to carry out research and investigative projects under the AMRI umbrella.
Kanin and Zehr hope AMRI might eventually have its own research staff. But it could also publish research by grad students, professors emeritus, or academics whose latest work isn’t quite at home in scholarly journals. Kanin and Zehr would even like to bring in members of the community and allow them to test their pet theories in partnership with a journalist, academic, or both. (The Statesman is keen to put a firewall between the research and journalism arms, so AMRI’s journalists don’t get an advantage over other news outlets.)
The update process for Austin’s development code could take up to two years, but the Monitor may be able to start assessing CodeNEXT Hub (and refining plans for the overall AMRI organization) by the end of 2017, Kanin says. By that time, Kanin will no longer be in charge—he becomes publisher of The Texas Observer in June–but he will be on the Monitor’s board and remain involved.
Zehr and Statesman editor Debbie Hiott pitched AMRI to Statesman publisher Susie Ellwood, and are seeking funding from higher-ups in the Cox Media Group hierarchy, though Zehr says the project is more likely to receive philanthropic funding from the Cox family. There’s a business rationale for supporting AMRI that shouldn’t be overlooked, says Zehr. The AMRI would support journalism that relies on quality research rather than anecdote, and develop resources to help Statesman reporters do in-depth enterprise work.
“If you get more involved citizenry, they’re probably going to want to keep tabs on what’s going on in their town, want to read the Statesman, and subscribe,” he says. And better data enables journalists to more accurately report what’s happening in their city, Zehr adds. “The research piece of this seems like almost a no-brainer.”Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.