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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Collaborating and Investigating   

PublicSource bolsters accountability reporting in the Pittsburgh region by teaming up with other news outlets. Thu., September 27, 2012.


By Christina Mele
Christina Mele (tjune13@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

While the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette examined how returning local veterans are struggling to find jobs, Pop City Media was covering the making of a film about female soldiers in Afghanistan. The Allegheny Front was examining the Sierra Club's efforts to get veterans involved in outdoor activities. The New Pittsburgh Courier was reporting on veterans' reactions to recruitment in the black community, and Essential Public Radio was delving into homelessness among vets.

The one thing all these Pittsburgh news outlets have in common is that they collaborate with PublicSource, a nonprofit Web site that focuses on the Pittsburgh region. This ongoing venture, whose first installment appeared on April 14, is titled "Coming Home PA."

PublicSource , which posted its first story last November, publishes original investigative reporting as well as national news relevant to the Pittsburgh area from national news sources. The site also features stories reported by its 10 regional media partners: environmental radio program Allegheny Front;, independent radio station 90.5 WESA; the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper; Pittsburgh Today which uses statistics to illuminate the quality of life in the region; weekly e-magazine Pop City; the Marcellus Shale-focused Shalereporter.com; the Times , a daily paper in Beaver County; Pittsburgh TV and radio stations WQED; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city's daily paper; and the New Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly aimed at the African American community.

"PublicSource provides an added dimension," says Sharon Walsh, the site's sole editor. "We try to give readers information to help them make decisions as citizens."

The site has published 52 stories in its rookie year. Walsh says PublicSource has three full-time reporters and will soon hire a fourth. The site also uses freelancers. "Originally it was planned we'd work just with freelancers," she says. "I didn't think that would work. We needed full-time workers."

Walsh, who has a background in investigative journalism, has worked for the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. She says PublicSource's mission is very different from that of the newspapers where she has worked.

"We don't have to cover daily events," she says. "We cover stories other publications don't."

Walsh and her staff juggle larger investigative efforts and less ambitious enterprise stories that can be put together more quickly. "We always want to do more in-depth stories, but you also have to give people interesting stories they want to read in between," she says.

Susan Smith, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says the newspaper and PublicSource have worked on "four or five collaborations that take on a life of their own". Smith says she and Walsh work as coeditors on the joint projects.

"She'll let me know about a story they're doing and ask if I'm interested," Smith says. Collaborating "takes a lot of communication and a kind of trust. We have to figure out how to marry the goals we have for the projects."

Smith says the collaborations have ranged in topic from the impact of drilling for Marcellus Shale to prison investigations to veterans coming home. "Every three or four months we collaborate on a big project," she says. "Over the summer we had two or three pieces from PublicSource reporters that we ran."

And that's part of PublicSource's strategy. "Our major publication platform is not our Web site," Walsh says. "We use our partners to get our stories out."

She says the collaborative approach strengthened the "Coming Home PA" project, which focused on veterans returning from both Iraq and Afghanistan. "By coming together and planning it, we could all focus on an aspect of it," she says, adding that such teamwork led to a fuller reporting effort.

PublicSource often links to its partners' pieces. "It's an aggregation of stories we think are important," Walsh says. The site also shares national stories from around the Web that it finds relevant or interesting.

Michael Dillon, chair of the journalism and multimedia arts department and associate professor of journalism at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says sources like PublicSource represent the future of journalism.

"Investigative reporting [at traditional news organizations] is going away because it's expensive," he says. "Newspapers are going toward consumer based news. When a smaller organization reaches an audience that cares, it is a terrific combination."

If students have an interest in investigative journalism, where can they go? "Now they can go to PublicSource," he says.

Dillon praises PublicSource for "making intuitive use of new tools" and says he intends to use the site in future classes. He also says he would encourage his students to apply to the site or its regional partners.

"PublicSource is a new entity doing [investigative reporting] in a new way," he said. "It's using multimedia; it's talking to a new audience. There's a need for it."

PublicSource has enlisted three college students, one at a time, to work as unpaid interns during the past year. "I'm in constant contact with professors in journalism departments at Pittsburgh universities," Walsh says. "We haven't taken on a project with any of the universities yet, but I speak to students a lot."

Walsh also hopes to stage some events to engage area residents in PublicSource's efforts. "We're now at the stage where we want to do community event, she says, adding, "We want to invite the public in."

She also speaks to many groups in the community about PublicSource and how citizens can suggest story ideas. The site features a page that allows readers to submit tips, ideas and corrections.

PublicSource received its initial funding from the Pittsburgh Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Andrew Sherry, vice president of communications for the Knight Foundation, says the organization has a program in which it matches funds provided by community foundations. The Pittsburgh Foundation was a winner with its proposal to fund PublicSource.

The Knight Foundation awarded a $253,000 grant to the Pittsburgh Foundation, which added $232,000 of its own money. The funds guaranteed the site funding for its first two years. Walsh says additional grants from the Heinz Endowments and the R.K. Mellon Foundation helped PublicSource hire full-time reporters. In June, PublicSource received a $2,500 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism for an individual story.

John Ellis, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Foundation, says the foundation decided to help fund PublicSource because "it was important for the community to have a source of trusted information. It's something we believe is very important."

He adds, "The digital revolution has helped give birth to these sources. A venture like this takes time to develop, but we believe it will grow and develop in the Pittsburgh region."

While many news organizations have taken to charging for digital content, PublicSource has absolutely no interest in moving in that direction. "I wouldn't go there," she says. "We're about public service. Putting up a paywall excludes people." Walsh also says the site won't pursue paid advertising.

The Post-Gazette's Smith says she welcomes having a new investigative player in town.

"We want to feel like we do a pretty good job and not like someone had to come in and save journalism in Pittsburgh," she says, laughing. "But you can never have too much as long as people are doing it right."

Dillon adds, "They're doing the kinds of things I want my students to do. They're doing something constructive for my community."

Note: This article was modified from its original version to correct Sharon Walsh's quote about paywalls and to make clear that PublicSource's interns are unpaid.