Last year, ProPublica introduced our Local Reporting Network to help create vital, investigative journalism in communities where such stories would otherwise not to be done.
Now, we’re expanding it, and we’re specifically looking for accountability stories emanating from state capitals, from the governor’s mansion to the legislature to the work of state agencies.
The influence of state government is far-reaching, touching aspects of life as varied as taxes, education, environmental oversight and health care — yet elected officials and state bureaucrats are getting ever less scrutiny.
As local newsrooms are shrinking, and the number of reporters working in statehouses across the country has dropped sharply in recent years. Some news organizations no longer cover their state capitals and others have reduced their bureaus to one or two reporters.
With support from a new grant, we will pay the salary, plus an allowance for benefits, for full-time reporters at seven partner news organizations who are dedicated to big investigative projects focused on state politics and state government. We expect that at least one winning proposal will come from Illinois to complement our own local work at ProPublica Illinois. Applications are due Sept. 14, and selected reporters will begin work on Jan. 2 and work on their projects throughout 2019.
ProPublica’s first group of seven local reporters has already produced a strong body of work, exposing lapses in worker safety at nuclear facilities, failures in public housing, the devastating toll of post traumatic stress disorder on first responders, and stunning miscarriages of justice in Indiana, among others. (Here are all the stories produced by reporters in the network so far.)
Our expansion will not take the place of our original Local Reporting Network. Later this fall, we will solicit proposals for the second year of our general local reporting initiative. Instead of having seven local reporting partners, we will have 13 or 14 next year.
If your organization is selected, the reporter will continue to work in your newsroom, but they will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica. Their work will be published or broadcast by your newsroom and simultaneously by ProPublica as well. While the reporter does not have to be based in your state capital, he or she will have to spend time there during the year.
National news organizations are not eligible to apply; all other newsrooms are. We particularly want to create journalism where there is none and build capacity that news organizations would not otherwise have. We are not looking to fund day-to-day coverage of state government or the legislature, but instead to enable your organization to do ambitious accountability projects.
Applications should be submitted by newsroom leaders for a particular project and a specific reporter. If you lead a newsroom and are interested in working with us, we’d like to hear from you about:
- An investigative project. The proposed coverage can take any number of forms: a few long stories, an ongoing series of shorter stories, text, radio, video, or more. Please tell us why this coverage will be crucial to your state, any similar coverage that has been done before it, why this project has particular urgency now, and a plan for executing the work. Please also explain why your state and your newsroom is the right place to tell this particular story.
- The reporter who you ideally envision spearheading the work, and the market salary you would need to pay them for 2019. This could be someone already on staff or someone else — for example, a freelancer with whom you aspire to work. Please include a personal statement by the reporter explaining his or her interest, at least three clips of their prior best work, and, of course, a resume.
The deadline for applications is Sept. 14. Please submit your proposal using this form. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, email us at [email protected]. ProPublica reporters and editors are willing to give you feedback on your idea before you apply. Entries will be judged principally by ProPublica editors. Winning proposals will be announced in October, to enable work to begin on Jan. 2.
Here are a few questions and answers about what we’re looking for in a proposal.
Q: Wait, so now you’re giving grants for two Local Reporting Networks? What’s the difference?
A: Our original Local Reporting Network is not topic-specific and is open to any local accountability ideas. Our expansion is focused on investigative projects involving state government and state politics.
Q: When will you be soliciting applications for Season Two of the original Local Reporting Network?
A: Later this fall. If you want to be added to our list, sign up here.
Q: Can we apply for both?
A: Yes. Newsrooms can submit ideas to both. In fact, newsrooms can submit multiple ideas in each round of applications.
Q: What subjects are best suited to this program?
A: Our local reporting initiative has the same mission as that of ProPublica overall: to spur change through stories with moral force. This group of projects should focus on state government or state politics. Investigative reporters frequently examine government waste or wrongdoing. This can be on the part of elected officials, appointed ones or career bureaucrats. It could also relate to government laws, rules or policies that affect people’s lives.
Q. What if our news organization doesn’t have a state capital bureau?
A: That’s OK. We’re not expecting you to create one, but we do expect that this story will be about state government or state politics, defined broadly, and that a sufficient amount of the reporting will focus on your state capital.
Q: Does the reporter have to be based in the state capital?
A: No. We recognize that some news organizations don’t have capital bureaus and may be located hours away from their state capitals. While we generally expect that at least some of the reporting will take place there, the reporter does not have to be based in the capital full time.
Q: How detailed should we make our proposal if the deep reporting is ahead of us?
A: We know that the best stories take unanticipated turns. That said, there are several elements that can be included in a proposal. If you’re considering an idea relating to a trend, please check whether any data exists that might prove (or disprove) your story idea. It would also be helpful to provide some assessment of how your project will distinguish itself if it builds on previous coverage. And if you are proposing coverage of an issue that has received widespread attention—i.e. your state government’s handling of the opioid epidemic or its response to climate change—tell us how your state and your newsroom are uniquely positioned to tell this story.
At ProPublica, we try to send reporters after stories that we feel would not be done if we did not exist. While we’ll give preference to ideas that break new ground, we could well underwrite reporting that significantly expands on a subject that has already been the focus of some reporting. We encourage you to propose reporting that time or resource constraints have prevented you from doing. That could be something about which you have already turned up enough information to know there’s a bigger story waiting to be done.
Q: Will we still be in charge of our own reporter?
A: Yes. Your organization will designate your lead editor. They will work hand in hand with a ProPublica senior editor who will offer guidance on making the stories from each of our Local Reporting Network partners as powerful and well-executed as they can be. That ProPublica editor will also help assess whether there are ways that our expertise with data, research, or engagement could be of use.
The key decisions about how the story will be reported and written will be made in collaboration between us and your newsroom. Since we plan to jointly publish stories that result from this collaboration, that will mean, as in all of our partnerships, producing work that meets the standards of both your organization and ProPublica.
This sounds tricky, and it can sometimes get complicated. But through literally hundreds of partnerships, we’ve found that when people are truly committed to collaborating, there’s always a way to make it work.
Q: Can the reporter work on other stories while they’re doing their investigative project?
A: The goal of this initiative is to give your newsroom the resources and help to execute accountability stories that would not otherwise have been possible. We expect the reporter will be working on that full-time. Having said that, we understand that other, crucial stories may come up. If that happens, we are confident we can all settle on a plan that works for everyone.
Q: If I’m a reporter, what happens if another job opportunity comes up?
A: This is a 12-month commitment and by accepting this position, you are agreeing in good faith to stay for the duration. Obviously we know family emergencies and other situations may come up, but you should expect to commit to working on this project for the entire year. If you have doubts, you may not want to apply.
Q: How many stories are we expected to produce under this grant?
A: We’ve never found quotas particularly useful. Our reporters aim to produce a body of work each year that offers the possibility of prompting change. Sometimes, that has been a succession of stories building to a larger piece or pieces, as we did with the Red Cross. Sometimes, it’s a traditional multipart series or a single story, with appropriate follow-ups. Sometimes it’s a group of deep-dive pieces on a related topic, such as fracking or drug company payments to doctors. The goal is impact, and there are many routes to achieving it.
Q: What if we drill a dry hole?
A: This is always possible in investigative reporting, but our experience has shown it is unlikely. Send motivated reporters after a promising subject and they almost inevitably find intriguing material, including things they were not looking for when they began their research. Our plan is for our senior editor in charge of this project to be in regular touch with the newsrooms receiving the grants. If a story idea doesn’t work out, we will encourage the newsroom involved to come up with something else.
Q. What kind of support can I expect from ProPublica?
A. In addition to editing help to conceptualize and write your stories, we will also have a researcher and an engagement reporter dedicated to helping our partner newsrooms. We stand ready to offer data assistance and design help for the stories as well.
Q: What happens if we do so well, there’s more than a year’s work?
A: We should all be so lucky! Our intention is to give one-year grants. If a newsroom taps into something that is among the most promising proposals for year two, it would get serious consideration.
Q: What about other costs, such as travel or public records requests?
A: News organizations should expect to incur most of those costs, though ProPublica has set aside some funding to offset those expenses. You should consult with us in advance about splitting costs. We will not pay to set up a statehouse bureau, for equipment or for travel back and forth from your capital.
Q. Can we run our idea by you before applying?
A: Yes. Operators are standing by. In all seriousness, we want to help you make your proposal the best it can be. A team of ProPublica reporters and editors are willing to read a draft of your proposal and give you our thoughts.
You can email us your draft or any other questions you have.