By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
MuckRock has become a well-established journalistic resource with tools such as DocumentCloud, oTranscribe, and FOIA Machine. The BackerTap program takes lessons learned from those other tools to offer news organizations the chance to reward loyal readers by getting them involved in the process.
“Some of the biggest stories just come out from doing lots of lots of tedious grunt work, but with newsrooms more pressed, it’s becoming harder to do that and harder to sustain that effort,” said Michael Morisy, founder and executive director of MuckRock. “We saw this as an opportunity to focus less on putting up new barriers and instead figure out ways to work with their audience to spread journalism but also to investigate important stories.”
BackerTap seeks to help reporters do ongoing, labor-intensive beat reporting by engaging the audience in the research process. For example, a City Hall reporter can ask readers to help sift through thousands of emails from the local mayor or identify how COVID-19 policies differ per school district.
“Now we’re giving readers a way to participate in a directed and monitored fashion,” Morisy said. “This is a participatory experience that, in some ways, could fundamentally change journalism.”
The project, built by a small team of two developers, received financial support for the project late last year from the Google News Initiative North American Innovation Challenge. It embraces increased audience demand for primary source materials, partially because of a distrust of what’s reported. In early experiments, Morisy said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly when measuring audience engagement.
That audience engagement translated into new newsletter subscribers for partner news organizations. Morisy said subscriptions have quadrupled, establishing a funnel of future subscribers: social media browsers eventually convert into readers, and readers convert into newsletter subscribers — who ultimately become financial supporters.
And once they are paid subscribers, BackerTap attempts to sustain the relationship by making investigations more of an ongoing, collaborative process rather than a one-time benefit to the reader.
“That’s the selling proposition we’re exploring,” Morisy said. “We’ve seen this both help you increase your audience, and help make your audience more loyal and build more direct relationships.”
Those direct relationships with readers have become key to survival; many publishers have learned. Morisy called on news outlets to return to the glory day of daily, ongoing series that sustained coverage about topics that mattered to readers.
“Individually a story here or there had some impact but didn’t really move the needle as much as sustained coverage,” Morisy said. “Let this stuff sink in with readers so they can understand the full impact.”
For example, portions of the BackerTap project have been broken off to create a standalone site called covidpublic.info. The experimental site included participation from 2 dozen newsrooms and more than 4,000 readers willing to perform research assignments. Their help unveils new COVID-19 information and creates a comprehensive database that provided much-needed context for newsgatherers.
Now lessons learned from that experiment are being incorporated back into the primary BackerTap project, Morisy said.
“Once people feel like a part of this process and they’re able to actively contribute, they’re also then willing to financially support the operation,” he said.
By the end of the year or early next year, the COVID-19 crowdsourced database could relaunch as a standalone tool. It’s part of a broader effort to integrate all of MuckRock’s tools to work together better. Morisy said he hopes the improvements make it easier for newsrooms while beat reporting and performing deep-dive investigations.
“Let’s make sure this is a conversation with our readers and help journalists tune into what matters with their audience,” he said.