Dollars piggybank
Credit: By 401(K) 2013 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
At US investigative non-profit ProPublica, the public is able to be very much involved.

In editorial, for example, the community is encouraged to feed into investigation research, supported by the launch of an online page centred on opportunities to 'Get Involved'.

And when it comes to funding, the organisation receives many donations from the public, with philanthropy considered ProPublica's "principal source of income for the foreseeable future", according to its About Us page.

In 2012, ProPublica received more than 2,000 individual donations, to help fuel its investigative work. So when it comes to crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, the organisation has been considering how best to utilise this approach for some time. In fact, this is something ProPublica has "been wrestling" with, community editor Blair Hickman told Journalism.co.uk.

The issue was twofold: firstly, an organisation turning to Kickstarter needs "a definite product" which will be produced as a result of the backing.

"So you say to backers, if you give us X amount of dollars then in six months we will produce this," Hickman explained, "and it's something that's difficult for investigative reporting, because a lot of times we don't know what our reporting will yield when we start out on it."

"So we can't always say here's this definite story that we're going to tell," she added.

Secondly, they did not want the funding to play a part in the reason why they could, or could not, cover a story. "If we think something is important and worth covering then we're going to cover it," Hickman said.

But, when they started an investigation into internships, a "unique" opportunity presented itself.

The intern investigation

At the beginning of last month, ProPublica produced an online form which asked for current interns, or those with stories to tell about internships from the past three years, to share their experiences.

Now, a month later, the "call-out" has resulted in the sharing of 277 stories with ProPublica, indicating to the investigative outlet that "this is clearly an issue of volume", and could offer an opportunity to provide an additional "layer of storytelling".

I think it's one of those issues where capturing individuals experiences in a very interactive, visual, compelling way could have a lot of impactBlair Hickman, ProPublica
"I think it's one of those issues where capturing individuals experiences in a very interactive, visual, compelling way could have a lot of impact," Hickman said.

"So on top of the community-building, the news apps, the traditional investigative stories, we have this other level that's collecting real people's experiences in a very open way and it's sort of playing with a new type of way to do investigative reporting out in the public".

The idea for the "other level", on top of its usual "deep-dive watchdog reporting", is to produce a multimedia project, which will involve recruiting an intern to travel to colleges across the country, "talking to everybody with a stake in the issue and capturing their experiences and their perspective on film".

These videos will then be used to produce something "very interactive and very open" via a micro-site focused on "the intern economy".

This idea meant ProPublica had both a "definite product" it could offer to Kickstarter backers, and the investigation could still continue if the funding goal was not reached, as this was just part of the overall investigation.

And so, a week ago, ProPublica launched its Kickstarter campaign Investigating the Intern Economy, with almost $5,000 of its $22,000 goal already reached at the time of writing.

The $22,000 will cover "travel, production costs, the intern's salary and then covering Kickstarter fees for the project", Hickman said.

"We also needed to make sure that we could fund the rewards," Hickman explained, which offer backers items like a mention in ProPublica's contributor gallery, or a postcard, a t-shirt or a book, at the lower levels of funding. At the higher end, a donation of $10,000 will be rewarded with a "presentation on non-profit news and changing journalism trends", while a backer who offers $1,000 will receive a communities and social media training session.

Hickman said it was essential that unpaid interns could support the campaign via the smaller backing options which start at $5, as well as offer higher-priced incentives for "businesses and journalism outlets that might benefit from a private training workshop at the $1000, for example".

ProPublica will be using the data they get from stories being submitted online to help inform the next stage of the investigation, such as which campuses the intern will visit.

Hickman said she is "monitoring that data on the back-end".

"So we're looking for trends, we're looking for individual people we want to call back and hear more about their specific stories".

She added that they are also "working on turning that data into a news app that provides more of an analytical look at trends across industries". This app is due to be launched ahead of the multimedia project. They are currently individual pieces of work, but Hickman said the outlet "would love to integrate".

"We're constantly trying to figure out ways that we can combine our social and community-building efforts with the journalism that we're actually doing and presenting, so it's definitely something that we're thinking about as we develop the app."

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