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Join ProPublica’s New Project to Work With Local Newsrooms

These are ProPublica journalists. Work with them. (Demetrius Freeman)

Over the past several years, economic pressures have reduced the ability of local and regional news organizations to support accountability reporting. That’s a challenge not just for journalism, but also for our democracy.

We’re committed to helping address that problem.

Earlier this year, we launched ProPublica Illinois, an initiative we hope to replicate in additional states in the coming years. Today, we’re announcing another part of our push: the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

With support from a new three-year grant, we will pay salary plus an allowance for benefits for one full-time reporter dedicated to investigative work throughout 2018 at each of up to six partner news organizations in cities with population below 1 million. The reporter will still work in and report to their home newsroom, but they will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica. Their work will be published or broadcast by their home newsroom and simultaneously by ProPublica as well.

If you lead a newsroom and are interested in working with us, send us a proposal laying out:

  • 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 community, any similar coverage that has been done before it, why this project has particular urgency now, and a plan for executing the work.
  • The reporter who you ideally envision spearheading the work, and the market salary you would need to pay them for 2018. 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 Nov. 3. Please submit your proposal using this form. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, email us at [email protected]. Entries will be judged by ProPublica editors, with advice from David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, and former executive editor of The Seattle Times. We expect that at least one winning proposal will come from Illinois. Winning proposals will be announced in December, 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: 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. Over the years, we’ve focused on the institutions that touch readers’ lives, from law enforcement agencies to businesses to government programs to the health care system. Investigative reporters frequently examine government waste or wrongdoing. But we have also found that there’s much to be learned about major institutions outside government, from banks to social media companies to nonprofit groups.

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.

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. (If you want to apply for that senior editor role at ProPublica, find details in this post.) 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 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: 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 multi-part 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 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: Do you really think this can work?

A: Yes! Two years ago, we launched a collaboration somewhat like this with the New York Daily News. One of their reporters was working on a project about the NYPD abusing so-called nuisance abatement laws and kicking people out of their homes without due process. We helped to develop the work, edit it, and dig into the data.

The stories caused an uproar, and ultimately won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for public service. Citing our reporting, the New York City Council passed a package of 13 bills in 2017 that made sweeping reforms.

That’s exactly the kind of impact we aspire to and that we believe can happen working collaboratively.

No doubt you may have other questions. Email us and we’re happy to discuss them.

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