How this investigative news site shows its work to build trust with readers
Last year, the San Diego nonprofit investigative site inewsource reported that a local college couldn’t account for $20 million in expenses that were supposed to be on its tax filings.
After reporter Megan Wood published the story, the college claimed there were numerous inaccuracies and it demanded a retraction from inewsource and a local TV station that the site partnered with to report the story. The college also sent a letter to students and parents “calling our reporting all kinds of ridiculous names,” inewsource senior reporter and assistant director Brad Racino told me.
inewsource, however, was able to show quickly that everything in the story was accurate and backed up by documents. In addition to publishing a typical version of its investigations, the site created a tool, called Transparify, which is a second version of the story that includes a link to every single primary document used as part of the reporting.
“Every fact in the initial story was linked to a primary document verifying the reporting. To be fully transparent, inewsource shared that version of the story and all of the documents on its website,” the site’s lawyer wrote in a letter to the college.
This week in Solution Set, we’re going to look at inewsource’s Transparify and examine why the site created the tool, how it has been received by its readers, and how it changed how its reporters approach their journalism.
“This has helped thwart the push back we used to get before we did this thing,” Racino said. “We don’t get all that many retraction demands any more and we have been doing more and more hard-hitting investigations [holding powerful people accountable.]”
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one enthralling thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
We’re also partnering with GroundSource so you can now get Solution Set delivered each week via text message. You can sign up by clicking here or by texting SOLUTION to (215) 544–3524.
Before we jump in, I wanted to share an exciting job opportunity. Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute have committed $20 million to create the Knight Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a groundbreaking effort to support innovation in local journalism over the next five years. We’re looking for a program manager to help run the fund and shape how we can strengthen local journalism at scale. You can learn more and apply here.
This is our last issue of Solution Set for 2018. We’ll be back in January.
Here’s the TLDR of what you need to know about Transparify:
• The Challenge: inewsource wanted to do a better job showing its work so its reporting wouldn’t be questioned.
• The Strategy: The site created Transparify, a tool that enables it to create a second version of its investigations that include links to every document and source used in the story.
• The Numbers: inewsource publishes about 10 big investigations a year.
• The Lessons: Transparify has changed how its journalists think about reporting and writing stories.
• The Future: inewsource is planning a website redesign that will make Transparify easier to use.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn how other news outlets are showing their work to build trust.
In 2013, Brad Racino, a senior reporter and assistant director at inewsource, a San Diego-based nonprofit investigative news outlet, published a series of stories digging into issues at a local San Diego transit agency.
The agency, to put it lightly, was not happy with the coverage — and it let inewsource know. It claimed that there were inaccuracies in the reporting and it publicly challenged Racino on Twitter and by putting out its own “fact sheet.”
The only problem? The reporting was accurate, and Racino had documentation to back up all the claims made in the stories.
Every investigation inewsource publishes is meticulously fact-checked, and the site outlined its process in a post last spring:
To do this, the reporter is paired up with a colleague and the two sequester themselves in a room with a voluminous amount of coffee. Then, the reporter must prove to the colleague that each fact is true by producing the primary document behind it. Or if using a quote, the reporter must produce the audio clip from the taped interview. This method takes about three to four hours for a short (1,000 word) story. It can take days for longer, in-depth investigations and up to a week for stories that rely on complicated data analyses.
But, like any good journalist, when the agency questioned the facts, Racino went back and made sure that everything was accurate, working with the site’s lawyers to make sure everything was squared away.
The process was time consuming and expensive — and it kept happening as others would also question and take issue with stories that were factually accurate.
“I just got frustrated,” Racino told me.
Finally, as Racino prepared to publish another story in the series about the transit agency, he decided to do something different.
In addition to publishing the typical version of the story, he also created a second version that included links to every single document and primary source that backed up facts in the story.
“We [thought we] could maybe thwart these retraction demands in the future that take up a quite a bit of our time responding to,” he said.
The version of the story that included all the documentation was generally well received, so inewsource started replicating the approach with other investigations.
“It really came in handy during the next investigation I did into a high-powered attorney here in San Diego who didn’t like our reporting but could not find anything wrong with it because we continued to publish all of the source material behind it,” Racino said. “Once we did that too it really sparked an interest in our readers.”
As inewsource began publishing its documentation more regularity, it wanted to find a way to make it easier for readers to find both versions of the story.
In 2014, it contracted with a WordPress developer to create a toggle button on its website that allows readers to switch from the typical version of the story to the version featuring all the documentation without leaving the page.
inewsource named the feature Transparify.
All the documents inewsource links to in Transparify are posted on DocumentCloud, which allows reporters to highlight sections of the documents and point readers directly to relevant passages.
“It’s not very much use to a reader if we say: go to this document to prove this sentence, and the document is 500-pages long,” Racino said.
When it bases a fact on an interview it conducted with a source, it’ll link to a document that includes a longer version of the quote with some additional context or to a document that just says the fact was gleaned from an interview. Racino said lawyers cautioned that providing more detail would potentially open the site up to legal issues.
inewsource publishes more than 100 total stories each year, Racino said. About 10 of those stories are big investigative features, and the rest are mostly follow ups or stories on developments on those stories. inewsource uses Transparify mostly for its primary investigations, Racino said.
The amount of work required to produce a Transparify version of a story depends on the story’s length, but for a 1,500 word story Racino estimated that it takes four to five hours to pull it together.
After it created the Transparify toggle button, inewsource lost the ability to track data on how many people read each version of the story.
Anecdotally though, Racino said feedback has been positive.
inewsource will receive feedback via emails from readers, but it more regularly hears from readers at gatherings it holds to highlight its reporting after a big event. During the conversation, it’ll tell the attendees about the tool.
“Almost all of the time, people are floored that this exists,” Racino said.
When inewsource published separate hyperlinked versions of the story it was able to track analytics because the stories were on separate web pages. Racino shared some analytics in a 2013 IRE blog post he wrote about the first time inewsource tried the approach as part of its investigation into the transit agency.
Within two days of publishing:
The regular story, without hyperlinks, had 317 pageviews. Readers spent an average of 4:32 on the page, and it had a 71 percent bounce rate and a 52 percent exit rate.
The story loaded with hyperlinks had 330 pageviews. Readers spent an average of 6:04 on the page, and it had a 56 percent bounce rate and a 46 percent exit rate.
We did not promote the super-hyperlinked story through social media, which means, most likely, that almost every reader who saw the regular version clicked through to the hyperlinked version, and then shared that link with friends.
inewsource publishes on WordPress, and since 2014, Transparify has just been a part of its regular CMS. The only primary cost was what the site spent on one developer’s time to build it initially.
• Put trust at the center of your product and process: We’ve all seen the studies and heard the reports about the low levels of trust in the media. One way of rebuilding that trust with the communities journalists cover is by bringing them into the reporting process and helping them understand what goes into reporting a story.
By backing up every fact in the story, Transparify shows quite clearly how much work and digging it takes to report and write an investigative story.
And using Transparify has changed how inewsource reporters approach their reporting. Now, when Racino is reading through documents, he’ll upload them to DocumentCloud and highlight the most important passages right away because he knows he’ll need to link to them in Transparify. “That helps streamline fact checking,” he said.
“In the writing process, it makes you think differently because not only are you going to have to prove this line to your editor, but you’re going to have to show readers where this came from,” Racino said. “Any time you’re tempted to take a liberty in making a vague statement or something like that it’s shut down from the beginning because you know there’s no way you can link to something to prove that.”
• Make it easy for your reporters: Creating Transparify stories is “kind of a pain in the butt, honestly,” Racino said.
I mentioned in The Numbers that it can take up to five hours to produce a 1,500 word story. Here’s how Racino explained the process to me:
“What we have to do is just put in the little link that creates that toggle button, but we then have to go into the story, go into the HTML, and start adding links with a custom shortcode before every single section that we want hyperlinks.”
The site’s interns help out with the production, but inewsource is thinking about how it can streamline the process and make it easier for its staffers.
While it is of course important to create products and experiences that benefit readers it’s also critical to think of their impact on the journalists and how they will impact their ability to do their jobs.
• Give readers options: While many readers want the immersive experience of checking all the original stories, many also just want to read the story without the intrusion.
“Not everybody wants to explore every document behind it — most people don’t — so we wanted to keep a regular version up and curious readers can hit that little button and see everything,” Racino said.
Audiences are constantly confronted with information, so it’s important to give readers the ability to access information in ways that best fit their lives.
That’s why inewsource has two separate iterations of the stories. That’s why The New York Times now aggregates its own investigative stories. And that’s why I start each issue of Solution Set with the TLDR.
One of inewsoruce’s priorities moving into 2019 is to redesign its website to make it easier for staffers to use Transparify and also so they can get more insight into how readers are actually using it.
“We haven’t focused on diving really deep into analytics on how readers engage with our work [through Transparify] and that’s because we don’t have the capability in house,” Racino said.
The site also plans to keep focusing on transparency and showing its work through events and connecting with readers online via email as well as on social media, where the site has begun publishing short videos of reporters answering reader questions.
“As cool as this tool is, it’s just one component,” Racino said of Transparify. “It’s fun to have a bright shiny object but there needs to be other things as well.”
Want to know more?
• Last week on Twitter, I asked which news organizations are doing a good job explaining their journalism processes to their readers. I got a lot of great responses back. You can find the whole thread here, but I wanted to particularly thank API’s Kevin Loker, who shared a ton of examples — including Transparify.
• Trusting News is an organization started by Joy Mayer that’s working with news orgs to help them find ways to build stronger relationships with audiences. Here’s a post Mayer and Lynn Walsh wrote about how news organizations are telling readers about how they go about their work.
• Pacific Standard editor-in-chief Nicholas Jackson wrote recently for Nieman Lab that newsrooms should be more transparent around their decision making processes.
Anything to add?
How does your newsroom provide more transparency around your reporting processes? Has it made a difference with your readers? Let me know! I’ll share some responses when we’re back in January.
I hope you get some rest over the holidays, and we’ll see you in the new year!
Photo screenshot from this video.