A little help from our friends

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This post is a long overdue, but we have a few “Thank You”‘s that need to be given.

First off, if you follow the blog you’ve noticed some heroic FOIA Friday recaps, covering all that is new and interesting in the world of Freedom of Information and open access. None other than the amazingly talented MuckRock intern Philip Halin has been putting these together, as well as some interesting FOI requests of his own. Halin is a senior at Newton North High School who is interested in theatre, history, philosophy, and political science. He has a passion for free information and a voracious appetite for news from local to global, and we’ve been incredibly grateful and excited to work with him.

Second, journalist Ben Eisen has generously been helping out, pitching in our latest news story on the 17 proposed Massachusetts charter schools. Ben graduated from Cornell University after having served as managing editor of the Cornell Daily Sun and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

We’ve also been able to make some very important process improvements, including faster and more consistent scanning turnaround time, thanks to a very generous grant from the Sunlight Foundation. We would not have been able to accomplish as nearly as much as we have (including some three-dozen MuckRock-driven news stories) without this great organization’s support, which has covered our hosting costs, paper costs, lots and lots (and lots!) of stamps, and the newest full-time member of our team, the Brother MFC-9840CDW:

He never takes holidays, coffee breaks, and only complains occasionally when the FTP server fills up.

We’ve also been generously supported in several Freedom of Information requests via Spot.us, a crowdfunding site that lets you donate to stories or Freedom of Information request you’re interested in, either by making a direct contribution or even by just taking a survey. I’ll write more about our partnership later, but we’ve been incredibly humbled by the results and pleased with how well it integrates with MuckRock, both technically and in the ethos of locally-driven, locally-supported journalism and transparency.

Finally, we’d like to thank the amazing community of members and visitors that makes MuckRock possible: Without the regular e-mail tips, contributions via Spot.us, and brilliant requests that come in all the time, the site would be nothing, and we really appreciate all the support. Thanks for making it happen!

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A short prescription for making more news

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At MuckRock, two central tenets inform everything we do:

  • People have a right to know what their government is up to.
  • Giving people tools to look at and discuss what their government is up to leads to a more open, transparent, and hopefully better democracy for all.

By people, we mean everyone: MuckRock is used by journalists, think tanks, single-issue interest groups, academics, bloggers and lots of folks who don’t fit into any of those labels, but are still interested in actively engaging with their government and community. And even if that’s just one niche issue they are passionate about, by sharing what they learn with the world, we think they’re doing a great service.

And so in the theme of this month’s Carnival of Journalism, which asks how to increase the number of news sources, we have a very simple thesis: Empowering people to ask and answer questions that matter to them is a win for democracy, whether or not it fits into traditionally tidy boundaries of news or not.

Now, that simple thesis can take a lot of strange forms. Obvious ones would be Quora and Kommons, which are general-purpose question and answer sites. These are great! It’s wonderful when, for example, Steve Case goes on and explains why AOL sent out so many of those coffee coaster CDs, because it helps explain an iconic part of the early part of the Internet, and it help explains how businesses think to people who might very well be starting their own business. But we think it can be almost equally journalistic to answer a question of, say, where the best burger joint is in your town, another type of question these sites can answer.

And here’s where things can get really cool, because sites like Yelp also ask that question, and invite tens of thousands of answers from people around the world. Each one of those reviews is serving a journalistic niche. Although we’d be hard pressed to call them news sources on an individual or even aggregate basis, they truly reflect the whims, tastes and cultures of hundreds of cities and towns across America.

It’s time we got serious about truly encouraging and empowering people to be their own news source, and that requires developers and dreamers – whether their from news organizations, food review sites, or somewhere else undreamt of yet – to keep in mind some central tenets.

Pick your masters wisely. In most media today, the customer is the advertiser. There’s many advantages to this, but it’s important to think of sustainable ways to empower communities to take control and ownership of producing news. We’ve seen time and time again about how ad-supported media can quickly disappear or revamp, costing users their data and communities their source of information. Building a sustainable business, as companies like WordPress have, on serving the right customers is integral to creating more lasting news sources.

Respect the community. At MuckRock, one of the most exciting things is having members that are so much smarter than us. Sometimes, that means they’re much smarter about their local community, or about the FOIA appeals process, or about which records exist where. Sometimes it’s about knowing the right questions to ask. Throughout this entire process, we’ve been incredibly grateful to those users for trusting us with their time, ideas and efforts, and we’ve tried to build a tool that treats them with the appropriate respect they deserve, knowing that respect is the best basis for a sustained community.

Share abundantly. We would not be where we were without the generosity of many, many people, many of whom we have never even met or had a chance to say thank you to. Some of that comes from open source projects like Django and DocumentCloud, which freely have given us the tools to quickly put together a prototype site, and then keep building on it without having to reinvent dozens of web app wheels. Some comes from the very generous minds of FOI and journalism mailing lists which have offered feedback, advice and critiques in a way that has shaped every step of our development.

So it should be no surprise that we are incredibly excited to be able to give back. The most obvious way, of course, is by letting anyone see the documents first hand. But there’s many other ways we try and give back:

  • Visitors now have a collection of over 300 Freedom of Information request templates to base their own queries on, even if they never want to sign up for an account, that they can file directly on their own.
  • We’ve had a chance to share what we’ve learned about using DocumentCloud with the rest of the world, and that simple tutorial is one of our most popular posts.
  • Anyone is free to easily site and share MuckRock documents, and because we don’t charge we’ve seen dozens of news organizations, blogs, and social network users comment on and add richness to our understanding of these documents.

We think that these three simple rules, and a willingness to be a part of something that extends well past any one site’s meager boundaries, helps create a culture of open journalism, in all its forms, and encourages everyone to participate in the news making process. It’s also been incredibly rewarding to us, letting MuckRock have a far greater reach and impact than we otherwise would have.