Public Insight Network:
'a tool to make us smarter'
40+ newsrooms use APM’s source-finder
American Public Media aims to more than double the number of newsrooms finding reporting sources with its Public Insight Network this year.
Since APM’s sibling Minnesota Public Radio introduced the tool in its news operation in 2003, PIN has been adopted by about 43 newsrooms, and its capabilities have been tapped to produce prize-winning reports on the economy, prison conditions and other topics.
APM aims to sign up about 50 more newsrooms this year. Most present users are public radio stations, but now NPR and daily newspapers in Miami and Charlotte are also part of the network.
Each news organization invites audience members to volunteer as sources and share their ideas, knowledge and experience with journalists. APM’s own network, serving MPR, its affiliate KPCC in Los Angeles, and its national programs, has cultivated a database of nearly 100,000 volunteers.
Other newsrooms have used APM’s infrastructure to assemble their own databases of thousands of volunteer sources. On a weekly basis, PIN’s far-flung partners work with APM’s staff to survey contacts and find people with firsthand experience relevant to topics they’re covering.
Journalists using PIN say the tool has broadened and strengthened their reporting by helping them discover hidden stories and add new and diverse voices to their coverage. PIN-fueled projects have garnered national awards, such as a Peabody Award-winning series about the recession produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
One of the most recent adopters, San Francisco’s KQED, joined PIN last month.
“It’s a tool to make us smarter,” says Raul Ramirez, KQED’s executive director of news and public affairs. Ramirez expects that PIN will teach his reporters more about the communities they cover “by helping us to incorporate into coverage plans the expertise of people otherwise known as ordinary citizens who, in fact, seldom lead ordinary lives.”
Other newcomers include three of the CPB-backed Local Journalism Centers — Fronteras, Changing Gears and Harvest Public Media.
Meanwhile, APM is also working to enlist partners beyond pubcasting. Newspapers using PIN include The Charlotte Observer and The Miami Herald. Last week, APM announced a relationship with the Media Consortium, a politically progressive group that includes Ms. magazine, ColorLines, Mother Jones and Free Speech TV.
APM hopes to add dozens more partners as it works to make the project self-sustaining. For the past two years, much of PIN’s funding has come from a $2.95 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As that grant enters its last year, APM wants PIN to stand on its own within a few years on income from user fees. Partners pay $5,000 a year to help support APM’s 24 staffers devoted to PIN.
Newsgathering organizations have been running to catch up with and integrate new technologies such as social media into their practices, says Joaquin Alvarado, APM’s senior v.p. for digital innovation. “But there hasn’t really been a technology to address their specific requirements. That’s what we’ve been able to do with Public Insight Network.”
PIN, originally called Public Insight Journalism, has grown through its relationship with MPR’s large network of regional newsrooms around Minnesota, which use the database “many times a day,” Alvarado says. Last year, Minnesota reporters and all of APM’s national shows used PIN for 700 stories.
And NPR embarked this month on its first use of PIN — for a year-long series about six unemployed people in the St. Louis area. A PIN query yielded four of the six subjects.
Reporters have found many uses for PIN, but the network relies on a simple premise. By various means, a newsroom asks its listeners or readers to sign up on its website and share basic information about themselves, such as age, ethnicity, religion, occupation, interests and details about their families. The news organization promises not to use the information for marketing or fundraising purposes. It also pledges not to share the contact info outside PIN; APM can tap into local databases for its national shows.
Most partners assign at least a part-time staffer to build the PIN network and help journalists use it. The analysts use the PIN’s web-based interface and work with APM’s staffers to help reporters shape queries and to search the network based on appropriate criteria. For example, the reporter may be looking for a local person who runs a small business or who has a family member in prison.
Journalists who use PIN say the tool connects them to sources they might never have found otherwise. Sometimes a reporter seeking expertise would do as well or better to call a sound-bite-ready expert at a university or think tank. But finding an ordinary person affected by current events can be more challenging. Using a go-between, like asking a real estate agent to find a family slammed by mortgage foreclosure, might yield a source handpicked to suit the intermediary’s agenda. And sources found through online searches usually turn up because they’ve already appeared in other journalists’ articles.
Mitchell Hartman, who works the Entrepreneurship Desk for APM’s Marketplace, started using PIN when he joined the show two years ago. “The idea of being able to find regular people whom I knew were inclined to speak to a reporter and hadn’t spoken to one was kind of irresistible,” he says.
PIN has helped ease the pressure of Hartman’s tight deadlines. He typically gets an assignment in the morning and has just four hours to turn it around. It’s easy to find an expert but “much, much harder” to find average people who, for example, are feeling the effects of the recession, he says.
Hartman calls PIN his “little secret weapon” for turning up fresh sources. He uses it several times a week, with the average query turning up as many as 10 potential sources within an hour after he contacts one of APM’s analysts. Not every query ends with a PIN source getting into the final story, but Hartman says the added sources always help him shape the piece.
Like other PIN users, Hartman acknowledges that the network may include a disproportionate share of public radio listeners. Yet he’s been surprised by the diversity of opinions his queries have yielded. For one story, he found more sources who favored lower taxes than he expected to find.
“Either the demographic that PIN is touching is broader, or the public radio demographic is broader,” he says. “I’ve found a real diversity.”
Hartman is based at Oregon Public Broadcasting, where his officemates were among the first users of PIN outside of Minnesota. The Portland-based network began using it in 2007 to create Think Out Loud, a daily call-in show. PIN helped reporters find interviewees who could bring their expertise to bear on show topics, says Eve Epstein, OPB managing editor.
OPB also used PIN for Hard Times, the Peabody-winning series that examined the recession’s impact on Oregonians. Using the network, producers found a variety of people and followed their stories over the course of eight months.
The work OPB’s PIN analyst put into finding the sources proved to reporters that the series was important, Epstein says. “Having someone who had the time to do that and could come back with all of these stories — that was the moment when the newsroom said, ‘Wow, there really is a story here.’” Today OPB can consult a PIN database of 4,600 people.
Breaking the Chino prison story
Analysts who work with PIN have found that it can suit a variety of reporting efforts. Journalists such as Hartman might find a source or two for a story whose focus was already defined by an assignment editor. But newsrooms also can cast a wider net and dredge up new ideas by asking more general questions in e-mails or via the Web.
“The secret weapon here is leaving yourself enough room to be surprised by the answers that you get,” says Sharon McNary, Public Insight specialist at KPCC in Los Angeles.
That’s what happened in 2009 when KPCC began querying its PIN contacts to find people with loved ones in prison. McNary sought sources by posting questions on blogs used by families of inmates, a tactic she’s used for other topics.
Her questions led her to a woman whose husband had been involved in a riot at Chino State Prison. The riots had been covered, but not the fact that the prison was holding inmates in outdoor metal cages exposed to the elements.
McNary continued looking for people with relatives at Chino. Among the many respondents was Charlene Padilla, whose son had also witnessed the riot. Padilla’s son had been writing letters in which he detailed the substandard conditions at the prison, and Padilla began contacting other inmates on behalf of KPCC.
With Padilla’s help, KPCC’s Steven Cuevas reported a three-part series aired in January 2010. The reporting led to probes by state investigators and the state’s Office of the Inspector General. KPCC nominated Padilla for a Sunshine Award from the Society for Professional Journalists, a national honor that recognizes people who contribute to greater transparency in government practices. Padilla was one of several awardees.
McNary has become an enthusiastic PIN user. Before joining KPCC, she had been a “hard-core” general assignment beat reporter for more than 25 years. “This is just the most powerful tool I’ve ever found for finding those people who illustrate questions of policy and public life,” she says of PIN. “It allows people to alert you to issues instead of your going to find them.”
KPCC now has almost 6,000 members in its database. Like other PIN partners, KPCC has a page on its website (scpr.org/network) with many questions for visitors. McNary also ensures that PIN queries are sprinkled throughout the website’s story pages. In addition, she has gone to car shows, health fairs and street events to tell people about PIN and sign them up.
Seeking odes to LeBron
KQED in San Francisco is just getting started with PIN. Ramirez has been aware of PIN since its inception, but he declined to join because KQED couldn’t afford staffers to manage the network.
Now the the Knight Foundation stepped in to help the station support a part-time, year-long position for a PIN analyst. KQED will use the network in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, a frequent reporting partner for the station.
Some PIN users have found that queries about fluffier topics can help build up the database for more serious reporting in the future. In Miami, WLRN and the Miami Herald held a LeBron James Poetry Contest to welcome the star athlete to the city. It drew 800 entries. The winner: “Letting go is hard, we know/The King is here, and we’ve warmed up his seat/Cleveland go ahead and spit flames/You can’t burn up the Heat.”
Likewise, KQED asked its audience to sound off on a hot-button topic: a proposal to require leashes on all dogs in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “People are incredibly passionate” about the leash issue, Ramirez says. The query yielded 400 contacts, many of which are likely to be consulted in coming months about weightier topics such as the quality of California’s schools or why the state is so hard to govern.
KQED’s listeners are starting to take notice. After Ramirez appeared on KQED’s Forum talk show to discuss PIN, his neighbors asked him about it. He doesn’t usually consult with people in his social circle on news matters but says, “PIN is a tool that they would appreciate as citizens.”
“Whatever I do with my neighbors, I have to live with,” he says of PIN, laughing. “So it has to work.”
APM is developing a new, open-source version of the PIN platform, Alvarado says, which will be released in March at the South by Southwest conference. When the new platform goes live for partners in June, it will feature data-visualization tools and help them collaborate with each other on reporting efforts. APM is also looking for ways to work with other startups such as DocumentCloud, a web-based service used by journalists to upload, index, annotate and share documents related to their coverage.
Comments, questions, volunteers?
Copyright 2011 American University
SPJ comments: Charlene Padilla, originally a PIN source on China prison story, showed the qualities of "true investigative journalism"
The Society of Professional Journalists gave its Sunshine Award to a nonprofessional, Charlene "Charlie" Padilla, who was the key source and an active participant in KPCC's reporting. She became involved through the station's Public Insight Network. SPJ released this statement (link).
Months after an August 2009 inmate riot at the California Institution for Men at Chino, Charlene Padilla received a letter from her son, who was in custody there, describing his and other inmates’ confinement in outside cages without adequate clothing or shade to protect them from searing daytime sun or blankets during the night. Padilla’s letter-writing to develop evidence yielded scores of letters from inmates who described the build-up to the riot, the violence and injuries they saw.
Her materials were later used by KPCC Southern California Public Radio reporter Steven Cuevas to produce a three-part series on the events. Padilla, who had shied away from publicity about her role gathering accounts of the outdoor caging of inmates, eventually agreed to be interviewed by Cuevas.
Although she was not a trained journalist, Padilla’s qualities of true investigative journalism showed dogged determination, exhaustive documentation and research. As a mother and concerned Californian, she worked to expose and correct substandard conditions in a state prison.