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ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network Is Looking for the Best Accountability Projects to Fund in 2019

We pay the salary and a stipend for benefits to local reporters working on investigative projects with a moral force. Apply by Oct. 26.

The past year has seen yet more cutbacks at local news organizations.

One bright spot, we’d like to think, has been our Local Reporting Network. It has paid the salary and benefits of reporters at seven newsrooms across the country to pursue accountability projects important to their local communities. Our partner reporters have exposed 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 other findings. (Here are all the stories produced by reporters in the network so far.)

Now, we’re opening up applications for our second year — once again seeking proposals for investigative projects with moral force behind them.

In August, we solicited applications for accountability projects involving state government. This call for proposals is more general. You can propose looking at local agencies, businesses, nonprofit groups, law enforcement — any accountability issue that resonates with your local readers, viewers or listeners.

As we’ve done this year, we will pay the salary plus an allowance for benefits for one full-time reporter dedicated to investigative work throughout 2019 at partner news organizations in cities with populations 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, including editing, research, data and community engagement assistance. Their work will be published or broadcast simultaneously by their home newsrooms and ProPublica.

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 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 envision spearheading the work, and the 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 Oct. 26. Please submit your proposal using this form. We are happy to give you feedback on your idea before you apply. If you would like to do that or have other other questions, 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.

What subjects are best suited to this program?

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.

How detailed should we make our proposal if the deep reporting is ahead of us?

We know that the best stories take unanticipated turns. That said, there are several elements that can be included in a proposal. 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. Finally, if you’re considering an idea relating to a trend, please check whether any data exists that might prove (or disprove) your story idea.

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. Take a look at the projects underway by Local Reporting Network newsrooms this year.

Will we still be in charge of our own reporter?

Yes. Your organization will designate your lead editor. They will work 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 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 hundreds of partnerships, we’ve found that when people are truly committed to collaborating, there’s always a way to make it work.

Can the reporter work on other stories while they’re doing their investigative project?

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.

How many stories are we expected to produce under this grant?

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.

What if we drill a dry hole?

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 editor will 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.

What happens if we do so well, there’s more than a year’s work?

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.

We submitted a proposal for a project in the state government round. Can we submit one here as well?

Yes. Newsrooms can submit ideas to both, so long as they are in cities with populations below 1 million people. In fact, newsrooms can submit multiple ideas in each round of applications.

If I’m a reporter, what happens if another job opportunity comes up?

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.

What kind of support can I expect from ProPublica?

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.

What about other costs, such as travel or public records requests?

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.

We are based outside the United States. Can we apply?

At this time, the Local Reporting Network is only open to news organizations based in this country.

Can we run our idea by you before applying?

Yes. Operators are standing by! We want to help you make your proposal the best it can be. A team of ProPublica reporters and editors are happy to read a draft of your proposal and give you our thoughts. You can email us your draft or any other questions you have.

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