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The Public Insight Network gains traction by empowering users as sources

Erin Roberts

The Public Insight Network (PIN) is a powerful database of over 85,000 people who help to shape and deepen local and national public radio news coverage by volunteering their personal knowledge, experience, and opinions. Members of the network provide basic information about themselves and their areas of expertise, and receive periodic emails from their local newsroom soliciting their thoughts on issues that the station plans to cover. As Public Insight Network editor Andrew Haeg explains, reporter working on a series or piece on healthcare, could reach out into the network and find nurses and patients and doctors and administrators, sifting through responses to “see what themes and patterns emerge.”

The concept of Public Insight Journalism, with the PIN as its centerpiece, was originally pioneered by Minnesota Public Radio in response to what Haeg describes as “a big disconnect between what was going on in the newsroom — the decisions we were making, our editorial meetings — and what was going on out there in the community." The PIN was designed to bridge that divide, pioneering what the Public Insight Journalism website describes as, “a new model of journalism to meet the needs of today's open-source society...built on genuine partnership between news media and the public.”

This network-driven structure moves beyond what Haeg calls “Rolodex journalism” — relying on a small and trusted group of sources for news tips and suggestions for coverage. “We all know that people out there in the community have a much better feel for what's actually going on on-the-ground,” he says, “and if you can include them in the conversation, you're going to be much better off.”

What’s more, successive calls to the network reveal additional layers of expertise among its members. “In a Rolodex, everyone has a single area of expertise — these are my education experts, these are my health care experts — but we all know that we ourselves have many areas of expertise,” explains Haeg. “Over time as people engage with us, they tell us more about themselves and their passions, so that [the] doctor with the two kids might also be a stamp-collector and an avid birder and a volunteer water quality tester, and that helps us engage them more on a wide range of topics.” Staffers are working on new algorithms that will help to better identify the broad spectrum of interests among their members and enhance their ability to connect with Network members on multiple levels.

This method of engaging the community in the process of newsgathering has steadily gained traction in public radio newsrooms since its launch in 2003, and has spread beyond Minnesota Public Radio and its parent organization, American Public Media, to local stations nationwide. These include KETC in St. Louis, which created the video below to promote the Network to its local residents, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, which used the PIN to reach out to unemployed Oregonians, winning a Peabody Award for the resulting radio series, Hard Times.

Haeg has been gratified by this growing adoption of the PIJ model: “Initially, seven years ago, when we talked about [Public Insight Journalism], it was one of those pie-in-the-sky kind of goals,” he says. Building on this success, Public Insight Journalism has begun moving into a new area: serious gaming.To date, PIJ has developed two games – Budget Hero, and Consumer Consequences, both of which we explored in the Public Media 2.0 Showcase last year. In addition to providing an interactive experience for the audience, these games allow reporters to obtain topic-specific data from players, even those who may never volunteer information as a part of the Public Insight Network.

In each initiative, Public Insight Journalism staff have been seeking to create a greater connection between the newsroom and the public. To measure the strength of this relationship, they use traditional audience metrics, such as Arbitron audience numbers and Web analytics, but also consider membership as a tool for determining engagement. As Haeg explains, “[our newsroom may] serve 400,000 people a week, but . . . have 100,000 people who voluntarily give us money to support what we do, and if that’s not a sign of impact, I don’t know what is.” In addition, they are working with a professional evaluator who will talk to news producers, network participants, and community members to assess how the PIN has affected their engagement with the newsroom.