ProPublica hopes to apply its Pulitzer-winning formula to local news

Sarah L. Ryley of the New York Daily News and ProPublica's Eric Umansky in the ProPublica newsroom. Photo by Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica.

ProPublica on Thursday announced the launch of its own Local Reporting Network. With funding from a three-year, $3 million grant, the project will fund the salaries and benefits of up to six full-time reporters focused on investigative work in communities with populations of less than 1 million people.

It’s one of several projects announced in 2017 that aim to help fill gaps in local reporting throughout small- and medium-sized communities throughout the US and Canada.

ProPublica drew some of the inspiration for its Local Reporting Network from Localore: Finding America, a public radio project aimed at developing stories in communities where terrestrial radio often doesn’t reach. “So we thought, what happens if you do Localore but for investigative journalism?” Deputy Managing Editor Eric Umansky tells CJR.

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Proposals from newsroom leaders or managers (apply here) are due by November 3, with winning participants scheduled to be announced in December to allow work to start on January 2. Proposals can involve existing newsroom staffers interested in doing full-time investigative work or freelancers, and can focus on any medium, not just print. The reporters participating in the Local Reporting Network will work from the local newsrooms but receive support and guidance from ProPublica. The proposal guide asks for an estimated market salary for the reporter, and there will be no quota for the number of stories produced during the year-long term.

“The creative challenge is to come up with what you think is the thing that is going to result in the journalism having the most resonance and kicking up the most shit, basically,” Umansky says.

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ProPublica expects one of the winning placements to be in Illinois, where it launched a new regional operation earlier this year focused on local accountability reporting in the state, although the reporter will be based in a different newsroom. All of the work in the Local Reporting Network will be co-published by both ProPublica and the newsroom partners. ProPublica declined to disclose the funding source for the initiative.

The creative challenge is to come up with what you think is the thing that is going to result in the journalism having the most resonance and kicking up the most shit, basically.

“The best way to reach new communities,” says Umansky, “is maybe not some fancy thing with your journalism that already exists but rather lies in creating journalism that is relevant to and emanates from communities you haven’t previously been reaching.”

ProPublica’s announcement comes only a few weeks after the launch of two other projects focused on local reporting. In September, the nonprofit television network TVO launched Ontario Hubs, a seven-person local journalism team covering Canada’s most populous province. Not long after, nonprofit media organization The GroundTruth Project and Google News Lab launched Report for America. The public service initiative, modeled after Teach For America and other nonprofits, aims to help recruit, fund, and place 1,000 journalists in underserved newsrooms across the United States over the next five years.

Umansky says the genesis for the ProPublica initiative was in noticing that the greatest decrease in capacity for accountability reporting existed at local and regional reporting organizations. “There’s the cliché ‘sunshine is the greatest disinfectant,’” he says. “Imagine what happens if there’s no sunshine. You have large areas that once had ultimately more scrutiny. It ain’t a good thing for our country.”

ProPublica’s had success with similar investigative partnerships. Its joint investigation into New York’s nuisance abatement law, with New York Daily News journalist Sarah Ryley, serves as an example of the power of collaboration The project prompted case reviews, 13 new bills, a class-action lawsuit, and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism.

ProPublica has been recognized for many of its data reporting projects. But Umansky says proposals for the Local Reporting Network do not all have be focused around a data component. “There are lots of ways to do important accountability coverage,” Umansky says, citing the recently published ProPublica story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. “Data is certainly one of them, but it is far from a prerequisite. Regional stories are about human beings.”

Adding six jobs to an industry that has lost thousands won’t solve everything. But in Umansky’s nine-plus years of working at ProPublica, he says he’s also seen how great partnerships in investigative reporting can make a difference. “This is a modest effort,” he says, “but I think it’s an important one.”

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Karen K. Ho is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.