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Doing Journalism Differently: What’s Next For ProPublica’s Engagement Reporting Team

A few months ago, we announced that we were hiring for a new kind of position: engagement reporter. Engagement is often used as a kind of euphemism for a social media gig or equated with thinking solely about getting the biggest audience. We’ve been thinking of something different: a journalist who specializes in building and cultivating communities to both deepen our reporting and to galvanize responses to it. They would operate as a kind of journalistic community organizer, who is member of investigative projects from the get-go and uses whatever tools fit best — online or off.

We’ve since hired two fabulous journalists as ProPublica’s first engagement reporters.

Adriana Gallardo most recently led a national multimedia project, AIR’s Localore: Finding America, aiming to diversify audiences at 15 NPR/PBS member stations. Previously, she spent a year traveling the country as a facilitator with the StoryCorps Airstream, where she recorded more than 400 local stories. In her hometown, Chicago, she spent over a decade working as a print writer, online editor and radio producer. She co-founded the Vocalo Storytelling Workshop and was recently appointed to serve as a board member for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Ariana Tobin comes to us most recently by way of The Guardian, where she was an engagement editor focused on audience analytics, social media and SEO best practices. Before that, she worked at WNYC producing Note to Self, a podcast about how humans interact with technology. There, she helped launch the multi-platform Bored and Brilliant and Infomagical series, which analyzed information on nearly 30,000 participants’ smartphone habits.

ProPublica has long done ambitious crowdsourcing projects in which our reporting has been informed by readers. We’ve seen time and time again just how important community contributions can be to producing hard-hitting, rich journalism.

All the way back in 2010, we created a database of thousands of struggling homeowners given short shrift by their banks. We even matched up homeowners with reporters in their areas. More recently, crowdsourcing and community were at the heart of a project focused on investigating the multi-generational impact of Agent Orange. We heard from more than 6,000 Vietnam veterans and their family members about their stories related to the dangerous chemical.

There is, of course, an element of the work that speaks to the particular moment we’re in: There has been lots of reflection since the election about how journalists should be thinking more about the audiences and communities we’re writing for — and how to reach beyond the typical ones. We see that as a key part of our job.

That doesn’t mean pandering or pulling punches. What it means is working to make connections beyond our usual online audience, with a particular focus on reaching the people who may not have heard of our work but are at the center of it. For example, in the Agent Orange project, we joined nearly 100 veteran Facebook groups, had ongoing discussions there, and, yes, distributed our stories to each one.

Our goal on the engagement team is the same as everyone’s at ProPublica: to do revelatory, powerful journalism that exposes injustices and can spur change.

Our plan is simple. We’re going to give every project at ProPublica the opportunity to be informed from the very beginning by the communities who are at the center of the stories. We don’t have a detailed blueprint. We’re going to be learning what works, what doesn’t, and changing as we go. That’s the fun part.

And just as we are going to ask the communities to share with us, we’re going to share our experiences as we go. We’ll share what we’ve learned from each project, the good, the bad, and the we-wish-we’d-never-done-that.

If you’re interested in engagement work, you should also sign up for the Crowd Powered News Network. It’s a discussion group we created — with more than 200 journalists and others on it — to talk about these very issues.

Have thoughts, suggestions, or an idea for a collaboration? We’re all ears.

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