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ProPublica: Bright Future For Online News


Amanda Lima /


Youth Journalism International Brazilian reporter 


Thomas Mayer Rieger interviews ProPublica
Senior Editor Robin Fields in New York



Thomas Mayer Rieger
YORK, New York, U.S.A. – With apps, data bases, dialog with readers the other possibilities
that publishing online offers, serious journalism has an excellent future, a
reporter and editor from ProPublica said.
Editor Robin Fields and reporter Kim Barker spoke recently with Brazilian
journalism students about their organization’s work, the future of journalism and
data driven reporting.
is so much innovation going on,” said Barker, who joined ProPublica two years
ago after a long journalism career, including a posting as the Chicago Tribune’s South Asian bureau
chief. “I don’t think anybody can’t help but be hopeful about the future of
at ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that produces investigative
reporting, has made her believe that whatever else is going on, they’re doing
journalism better than she’s ever had the chance to do so before.
one thing, the entire production team is something that would’ve been so far
beyond anything that we would have ever imagined doing,” said Fields, who
joined ProPublica in 2008 after working as an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “I think that what
we’re doing is better than it’s ever been.”
has already made a mark in the journalism world. Since it was established in
2008, the organization won several major awards, including Pulitzer Prizes in
2010 and 2011.
of the biggest changes with an online journalism format, both women said, is
that it has become a two-way dialog between news organizations and readers.
news used to be a one-way pipeline with the reporter talking to readers through
the newspaper, media now is a conversation, Barker said.
the past, readers pretty much had to take what the paper said, and could
comment through a letter to the editor or an email.
today, said Barker, people are able to come back to a reporter right away and
say, “Well, actually, perhaps you are missing this.”
news cycle – and the feedback on it – is much quicker today than before, Barker
said, and tips come faster, too.
think it leads to better journalism, but it can also lead to a much sloppier
journalism,” said Barker. “This whole pressure to be first can make people get
stuff out there that is just plain wrong and that’s something we all have got
to be careful of.”
Amanda Lima /


Thomas Mayer Rieger interviews Kim Barker, 



investigative reporter at ProPublica in New York



said, “We don’t dictate anymore.” It’s a change that makes the job more
interesting and exciting, she said.
paid for it, on the other hand, still is a challenge, both women said.
younger generations grow up with everything free,” Barker said, “so they don’t
understand why they have to pay for music or stories.”
said newspapers are partly to blame because they didn’t come up with a better
model for getting paid when they first put stories online.
don’t like to pay for things they used to have for free,” said Fields. “I think
that, ultimately, the strongest brands will survive. A paywall, for example, is
an interesting alternative. There are many other ways to create revenue from
our work, though. It takes resources to create the content, just like it takes
resources to create a movie or music.”
a more rapid news cycle, the level of demands on reporters has increased,
Barker said, recalling her work as a foreign correspondent.
had to do everything: blog, photo, short story for the web, longer story for
the paper, audio. You have to be able to do all those things,” Barker said. “And
that’s great, to be able to be a backpack journalist that can do anything
that’s asked of you.”
media is part of the conversation, too, according to Barker, who said reporters
can find sources on Twitter and Facebook.
think there is this tendency nowadays for people to want to share about their
innermost feelings and all these things that are happening to them, which can
be a boon for journalists,” Barker said. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s
easier to get somebody through social networking than it is necessarily to find
a phone that works for that particular person, especially if they don’t want to
be found.”
journalists today may approach things differently than those of the Watergate
era 40 years ago, according to Fields, who said many of the techniques used
then would be “frowned upon” today.
said nostalgia plays a role – the Watergate era of journalism is idealized, she
said. And we also look back fondly on the days where amply-staffed newspapers
reigned supreme as sources of information.
investigative journalism is staging a bit of a comeback, Fields said, and is
showing signs of a revival.
think people have realized it is one good way to distinguish yourself in a
world of aggregation where everything is interchangeable,” Fields said. “To
have a great original story is the supreme kind of journalism currency.”
a nonprofit, ProPublica works like a boutique, providing in-depth public
interest reports based on data, but also telling compelling stories, said
Fields. “We can survive because we are essentially a boutique instead of a
general store.”
journalism, like what ProPublica does, is probably one of the most expensive
and resource-intense types of journalism, Fields said.
she said it is a big investment with a potentially big pay-off.
Amanda Lima /


Robin Fields


in an online format, Barker said, deadlines are more flexible, there are no
space limits as with the printed page and it is possible to reach more people.
you can blend everything in just one space,” said Fields. “It is, in every way,
a superior way to do journalism. The only problem is: we haven’t figured out
how to make it support the journalism financially. That’s the big trial that
we’re going through.”
top of all the other advantages of publishing online, Barker said, is another:
said apps have become very important, because they give people the ability to
find the story that is most interesting to them.
allow you to answer more specific questions you might have while reading a
story,” said Barker.
can use the apps, she said, but so can people who are looking for local
information. Someone who wanted to find out about a doctor, for example, could
do that, Barker said.
makes a difference, Barker said. She said data-driven journalism gives the
story more credibility and allows a reporter to have the numbers needed to
search out the stories.
In my
opinion, data is very important,” Barker said, but added that unless it is used
to tell very compelling stories with a human narrative, it will be difficult to
get anyone to care.
said she’s always worked with data bases, but said for those reporters who
haven’t, discovering them can be amazing, like unlocking a “great toolbox.” 
data is just one reporting tool, Barker said, but it provides the numbers to
back up the story the reporter is trying to tell.
makes you able to say, ‘Here’s the sad story and here are the numbers behind it.’
And I think when both work together, you get really good journalism,” said
a downside, though, Barker said, of reporters drawing faulty conclusions.
do see a lot of this myself – and was a victim of this myself: young
journalists saying, ‘I’ve got A, B and C. And therefore, A+B=C’ when there
really isn’t that sort of correlation,” Barker said.
merely an assumption, a coincidence, and can pose a danger of getting it wrong,
according to Barker.
got to look at all the variables going into it and also check with other people
who have studied the subjects more than we did,” said Barker. “After all, we
are just storytellers when it comes down to it. So you’ve got to make sure the
story you’re telling actually has some sort of bearing out there in the real
world. You’ve got to check things and make sure you are never assuming
Fields said “it’s anybody’s guess” what journalism will be like in 10 years,
she hopes it emerges from what she calls “this period of experimentation” with
a working model for a sustainable future.
sort in a transitional period, and I want us to leave that with answers,”
Fields said.
Junior reporters Amanda Lima, Ana Kruger and Renata
Martins Oliveira Silva Pinto contributed to this story. Like Rieger, they all
study journalism at Universidade Positivo in
Curitiba, Brazil.