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Will MPR’s “Public Insight Journalism” Save News Integrity?

Minnesota Public Radio’s groundbreaking concept “Public Insight Journalism” already is bringing new jobs into the MPR newsroom as it tries to tap the collective thinking power of its entire audience. Michael Skoler, managing director of news at MPR, explains how it works in this special Leonard Witt IM Interview.

Key Quote: If “establishment” media organizations can plug into the energy and wisdom of the collective brain of the public, we’ll bring the strength of traditional journalism — editorial judgment, fact-checking, truth-seeking — into a new age of better, more trusted news coverage. If we don’t do this, I think the unfiltered, weblog-type model of journalism will overtake traditional media …Michael Skoler

Leonard Witt: Hi Michael, I just finished reading your bio. It’s very impressive. Speaking of impressive, tell me about “Public Insight Journalism,” one MPR document touts it as “an opportunity to create a new model of journalism.” That’s a fairly grand statement.
Michael Skoler: It is grand, and we think the idea will change the way we and others do journalism. Public Insight Journalism starts with a truth: On any given story, some people in the audience know more than even our smartest reporters and editors. This model establishes a systematic way to tap into the vast expertise and insight within the public, and then brings that knowledge into our editorial process to create deeper, more relevant news coverage. It multiplies our source list by a hundred fold or more and lets us pursue new angles and stories that set a distinct and leading news agenda.

Witt: Interesting concept, how does it work?
Skoler: The first thing we need to do is get the public engaged in our news coverage. We need them to opt in to helping us cover the news. We’ve done that by creating online simulations, like a budget-balancing game to close the $4.2 billion gap in the Minnesota state budget, and by promoting on air and sending out online surveys where people can tell us what they know (and how they know it) about specific topics.

Witt: So you make them aware, then what?
Skoler: From those efforts, we have gotten 7,100 people to opt in and they are in a database that we can search in various ways…by zip code, in some cases we have occupation information, or information on whether people have children, etc. When we want sources or information on a topic, we send a survey to a subset of those folks, sometimes targetted, sometimes random… and we often ask people for help during our radio shows and give an 800 response line. Response to those requests can be as high as 20 percent and more than a thousand people. Then we analyze and distill the information and pass it to the editors and reporters working on the story.

Witt: You make it sound so easy, but how much prodding must you do to get people to respond and become part of the process?
Skoler: The prodding has been minimal. Public radio stations are blessed in two ways: we have the radio as a means to get the word out about what we want to know, and we have a very involved, engaged audience — so engaged that tens of thousands voluntarily send money to support the station (in our case at Minnesota Public Radio, we have a network of 35 stations). The harder part than the prodding, is the filtering of the information we get and then helping people feel that we listened to their insights.

Witt: So will it work outside public radio land?
Skoler: Yes. Though I think public radio is in an especially good position to benefit from Public Insight Journalism, the ingredients are all there for any media group, they include — 1) a culture, driven by the Web, where people want information and input into all aspects of their lives, from banking to news, 2) the technology to manage lots of information quickly and distill the real expertise and insights, and 3) the disruptive media environment that is demanding that journalism get better and more relevant. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Times have been doing very interesting and similar things with their newspapers.

Witt: You said the hard part is “filtering of the information we get and then helping people feel that we listened to their insights.” How do you filter the information and make people feel they are being heard, especially when more than 1,000 people respond?
Skoler: Filtering is everything. I like to think of the newsroom as a turreted sand castle and the public input as a wave. We are working to create the canals and moats that channel that wave and keep it from swamping the castle. We are creating a new role in the newsroom, a group of analysts, whose jobs are to manage the relationships with the new sources in our “Public Insight Network” and mine the information we get. We are still creating and figuring out this new model. We have one analyst now, expect to hire another this month and a third in July. We are building software that lets us juxtapose the responses from the public and code them. Then the analyst creates a report that outlines the main themes of the responses and provides the best answers and contact information.

Witt: Who are the analysts? Journalists? Techies?
Skoler: The analysts need a mix of skills and that has made the hiring process tough. We want folks who are good at engaging with the public by e-mail, phone and in person. We want them to be very analytic — able to synthesize material and state the themes and able to recognize surprising information. And we want them to be technologically literate, so they can use databases and do more sophisticated analysis for our big interactive simulations. We prefer a journalism background. If you know of any great folks, send them my way… we plan to hire 5-6 analysts in the next couple of years.

Witt: Speaking of the newsroom how are journalists reacting to this? And don’t tell me how you would like them to be reacting, but the truth. You and I know editors and reporters are often resistant to new ideas, and especially a new idea that says the audience is smarter than they are.
Skoler: You are right. We are both journalists and know that journalists love change (it makes for interesting stories), as long as change doesn’t affect us. Reaction started at “okay, what new hoop do I have to jump through now that will make my job harder” and is slowly becoming “hey, this might actually make life a bit easier or make my story stronger… if I remember to talk to an analyst.” Just as in our transition to being both a radio and Web newsroom, this change is happening slowly, with a few people trying it out and getting interested and providing an example to others. When it comes down to it, we have to prove consistently that public insight journalism makes stronger, smarter news coverage. We are doing that bit by bit.

Witt: Can you give me a real life example of how you are using Public Insight Journalism?
Skoler: There are many examples, though none that have revealed scandals or had screaming headlines. Our aim is not to create a super “tip” line. One example: during the Minnesota budget debate, polls all showed (including our own) that a majority of Minnesotans were against raising taxes to close the $4.2 billion gap. We created the online MPR Budget Balancer to let people create their own budget plans using 60 or so options for cutting spending and raising revenue. In the 11,000 plans we received, we found that most people ended up raising taxes to avoid cutting certain social services like healthcare and education. Totally unscientific survey, right? We didn’t report on it, but what we did was design a poll to test what we were seeing in the Balancer. And we got a surprise.

When we asked people “do you want to cut spending or raise taxes to solve the budget problem?,” they said cut spending. When we asked specific questions about whether people would prefer to pay more in taxes to avoid certain spending cuts (and we choose those cuts that were very unpopular in the Balancer game), we found 60-70 percent majorities saying they would prefer to pay higher taxes than make cuts in, say, nursing home care. This was a subcurrent that other news organizations had missed

Witt: This has been a great IM Interview. One last question. What are MPR’s and other newsrooms going to look like 5, 10 years from now?
Skoler: I expect that we’ll have a set of seven-eight analysts who specialize in beats with editors and reporters. That public insight will not be a “unit”, but the way we do all journalism — bringing better sources, fresh perspectives and deeper insights to enhance every story. If “establishment” media organizations can plug into the energy and wisdom of the collective brain of the public, we’ll bring the strength of traditional journalism — editorial judgment, fact-checking, truth-seeking — into a new age of better, more trusted news coverage. If we don’t do this, I think the unfiltered, weblog-type model of journalism will overtake traditional media with its sheer energy and we will lose a powerful way of informing the public about critical issues in our democracy.

Witt: What a fantastic ending. So you are coming to our August 3, conference in Toronto: here for a document produced by MPR.

Read more Leonard Witt IM Interviews, including the latest with Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute, here.

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