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Lessons on growth from the Public Insight Network

Imagine a giant rolodex of sources that newsrooms across the country can tap into to find varied perspectives on the news of the day. It might sound like I’m describing LinkedIn or Twitter, but I’m actually referring to American Public Media’s decade-old Public Insight Network.

Today, 415 journalists across 70 newsrooms are using the Public Insight Network to send out questionnaires to targeted members of their local audience and other people across the country who’ve chosen to make themselves available to all stations participating in the network.

Screen_Shot_2014-04-13_at_7.29.02_AMJTM board member Linda Fantin is the director of the Public Insight Network, or PIN. Fantin joined American Public Media in 2008 and has built the organization into a national network since taking the helm.

Creating a new model for engagement

PIN originated with “the idea of how can we tap the intelligence of the Minnesota Public Radio audience,” said Fantin. It grew out of a growing philosophy to redefine who should qualify as an expert and a movement toward developing journalism as a collaborative process, she said.

By building a database, a reporter could log notes about a source’s expertise and later search for whatever types of people the reporter was looking to find. The idea from the beginning was to cultivate a critical mass of sources and then export this new tool to other newsrooms, Fantin told me during a recent phone interview.

While the challenges faced in growing PIN are unique to that organization many of those obstacles are universal to anyone building an active online journalism initiative focused on community engagement.

Gaining a critical mass of users

While it’s an incredible feat just to build something that works, that’s only half of the recipe for success. It’s not enough to create an amazing product if it never gets used, and unfortunately the two are not always related. After demonstrating that their tool was working within their own newsroom, American Public Media convinced other newsrooms to not only join the network but to actively use it as well.

One of the key elements to that achievement may have been the investment that the Public Insight Network required of its new partners. The team developed a intense training program that demanded newsrooms to send their people to St. Paul, Minnesota, three times over an 18-month period at their own expense, on top of a $5,000 annual fee to participate in the network.

“A good deal of the training was: how do you go out there? How do you invite people to be in a relationship with you,” said Fantin. “Only part of it was the technology.”

PIN also required each newsroom dedicate an employee to work half-time using PIN. They later expanded that to require dedicating an employee on a full-time basis before eventually removing the requirement entirely.

Fantin said that part of the reason they lifted the requirement was because it wasn’t economically feasible for many newsrooms, but also because social networks like Facebook and Twitter are being used at news outlets to complement PIN.

“It is catching on,” said Fantin. “After ten years, the importance of engagement is being recognized more and more in the newsrooms.”

Although the demanding training regimen and the resources needed to participate in PIN were significant, Fantin said that requiring that level of investment helped ensure that the newsrooms would use the network and inspire others to sign up.

If the newsrooms hadn’t made such a strong investment in PIN, it’s possible that many of its partners would’ve used PIN only briefly before forgetting it in favor of the next news experiment. Instead, the newsrooms were determined to maximize their use of PIN and that, in turn, maximized PIN’s own success. That success is what helped catalyze a period of rapid growth which helped make the stringent requirements for how their members use the network unnecessary.

Make it scalable 

As more and more news outlets expressed interest in joining PIN, the staff realized that it wouldn’t work to continue training everyone in St. Paul.

“We had to streamline our process just so we could keep up,” she said. “We had to be a lot more flexible.” At first, PIN tried sending out their staff out to the individual newsrooms for training, but that proved to be expensive and unwieldy and the team eventually developed a self-guided training module that’s available online.

Fantin said that although they might have been able to save some time and money by creating the online training modules earlier in the process, the decision to train people in-person may have helped encourage participants to embrace PIN when it was still new and untested.

At the same time, requiring a significant upfront investment will limit who can participate and creates a significant hurdle to generating significant traction. As such, the Engagement Hub’s established less burdensome demands on its pilot partners by requiring only regular participation and a plan to incorporate the Hub into the newsroom.

Strategies should change while values remain constant 

“You have to try things. Then you have to learn. Then you have to adapt,” said Fantin. “We’ve changed many things about PIN over the last 10 years but the core values have not changed. If anything they’ve become more salient over time.”

Those values are:

Relevancy — Many people have expertise to share; people know and want to share what matters to them.

Trust  – Information shared through PIN is confidential to its network of newsrooms. It is not published, broadcast or shared with third parties without the source’s permission.

Transparency  – Journalists are encouraged to be open with sources about what they want to know, why they want to know it, and how they plan to use the information. Sources decide which newsrooms can contact them, and they can see everything they have shared with reporters.

Relationships — Journalism is relational, not transactional. Sources are thanked for their contributions and given links to stories shaped by their contributions. 

Impact — Broader sourcing = better journalism, and better journalism = bigger and more loyal audiences. 

Many newsrooms across the country share these same values, and the principles of engagement demonstrated by PIN are also being implemented by a variety of outlets not associated with PIN. More and more news organizations are incorporating comments from Twitter and Facebook into their coverage and outlets are continuing to find new ways to create the same connections made possible through PIN.

Although PIN has proven tremendously successful, American Public Media continues to underwrite the program to keep it afloat. Part of that is because PIN has kept its rates flat in order to keep the network within the reach of as many outlets as possible. PIN is exploring ways to expand its network to freelance reporters and the organization has just launched a Public Insight Network Bureau at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.

It’s also possible for newsrooms to build their own network using the very same tools that power the Public Insight Network. As part of a Knight grant several years ago, PIN transitioned from a proprietary software platform to one that is open-source. Although no one has decided to adopt the platform for their own organization or develop it further to fit their needs, Fantin said that PIN would love to see their code used by other organizations.

One thought on “Lessons on growth from the Public Insight Network

  1. Linda Fantin

    Thanks for the write up explaining the origins and evolution of PIN. It’s amazing what people will tell journalists if they bother to ask, and it’s even more remarkable the impact we can have if we take the time to listen.

    I believe the popularity of PIN is not so much the large network of sources we have amassed — 220,000 and growing. In fact many of the 87 newsrooms use PIN to connect more closely with knowledgeable sources within the communities they serve and to have greater impact as a result. PIN was always about a fostering a more inclusive, human-centered approach to journalism, something that is more important than ever in a fast-changing and fragmented media landscape that is becoming more polarized and insular.

    This subject of impact — how to define, measure and communicate it — is critical to the future of journalism. It’s the reason PIN, JTM and organizations like the Kettering Foundation, Knight Foundation and The Center for Investigative Reporting are putting considerable resources into helping news organizations figure it out be more intentional about it.

    If you are interested in this subject, CIR is holding a series of workshops — two this week in New York City and Washington DC. You can read more about it here.


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