Tag Archives: Michael Morisy

Thinking through the Globe’s multi-site strategy

BG frontThis post has also been published at WGBH News.

After I posted an item yesterday speculating that The Boston Globe’s lower paywall might eventually lead to the end of the paper’s two-site strategy, Jack Gately tweeted at me that the Globe actually seems to be going in the opposite direction. With the addition of its BetaBoston site, unveiled on Monday, the paper now has three.

And that’s just the beginning. Soon the Globe will launch a separate site for all things Catholic, in part so that it can showcase its prized new religion reporter, John Allen. Incumbent religion reporter Lisa Wangsness will continue. And yesterday editor Brian McGrory announced that Boston.com community engagement editor and former metro editor Teresa Hanafin will edit the new venture.

So is this a splintering of the Globe’s identity? I don’t think so. And today’s front page may serve as a good indication of how the different sites will work together. The lead story, on private repo companies that are using license-plate scanners, is from BetaBoston, and was written by Shawn Musgrave. He, in turn, is the editor of MuckRock, an independent public-records project that is affiliated with the Globe. (Here’s a 2012 interview I did with MuckRock founder Michael Morisy for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Morisy is also the editor of BetaBoston.)

What the Globe seems to be embracing is a hub-and-spoke model. The Globe, in print and online, is the hub. Spokes reach out to specialty projects such as BetaBoston, the entertainment site BDCWire (part of the Globe’s Radio BDC project), the religion site and whatever else may be in the works. It’s similar to how The New York Times handles Dealbook, or how The Washington Post interacts with Wonkblog, both before and after the departure of Ezra Klein. The idea is to foster semi-free-standing projects that generate a lot of content, some of which migrates along the spokes and into the hub.

That’s quite different from the business strategy of offering the paid BostonGlobe.com site and the free Boston.com. Those are intended as two entirely different ventures, and McGrory’s memo yesterday made it clear that they are going to be separated even more going forward.

How empty space led to experimentation at the Globe

Creative technologist Chris Marstall at the Boston Globe Idea Lab.

Creative technologist Chris Marstall at the Boston Globe Idea Lab.

The New York Times has a terrific story today about how the downsized Boston Globe — a sister paper — has turned over a chunk of unused space to entrepreneurs, its online radio station, RadioBDC, and even a pilot for a television series.

As Times reporter Christine Haughney observes, the experimental venture by Globe publisher Christopher Mayer has already paid off in the form of a partnership with Michael Morisy, the co-founder of the public-records website MuckRock.

Dominating the space is the Idea Lab, where a small group of smart young people try out new ideas, such as different approaches to tracking Globe stories on social media and a wall-size group of screens that plots Instagram photos on a map of Boston. The latter ended up playing a role in the Globe’s recent interactive series on life in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Dorchester, “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope.”

I’ve brought several groups of students to tour the Idea Lab. For anyone interested in the future of journalism, it’s one of the most interesting places you can visit.

Photo © 2012 by Megan Lieberman and used by permission.

MuckRock.com and the potential power of crowdfunding

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 7.58.38 PMThis interview was previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The first time I heard of Michael Morisy and MuckRock.com was in 2010, after the site was targeted by a bureaucrat working for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

It seems that MuckRock, using the state’s open records law, had obtained information about how food stamps were being used in grocery stores. The data, which did not name any individual food-stamp recipients, had been lawfully requested and lawfully obtained. But that didn’t stop said bureaucrat from threatening Morisy and his tech partner, Mitchell Kotler, with fines and even imprisonment if they refused to remove the documents from their site.

They refused. And the bureaucrat said it had all been a mistake.

Now Morisy is preparing to expand MuckRock’s mission of filing freedom-of-information requests with various government agencies and posting them online for all to see. The just-launched Freedom of the Press Foundation has identified MuckRock as one of four news organizations that will benefit from its system of crowdsourced donations. The best-known of the four is WikiLeaks.

The foundation’s board is a who’s who of media activists, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, Josh Stearns of Free Press and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, now with the Guardian.

“The Freedom of the Press Foundation can be a first step away from the edge of a cliff,” writes Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media” and “Mediactive.” “But it needs to be recognized and used by as many people as possible, as fast as possible. And journalists, in particular, need to offer their support in every way. This is ultimately about their future, whether they recognize it or not. But it’s more fundamentally about all of us.”

What follows is a lightly edited email interview I conducted with Morisy about MuckRock, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and what comes next.

Q: Tell me a little bit about MuckRock and its origins.

A: I’d been really frustrated that we hadn’t seen much innovation in newsgathering generated by journalistic organizations. You see lots of innovations in how stories are told, but they’ve been generated by companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — all wonderful organizations, but ones which generate news as a byproduct, and where the journalistic function is by far secondary to business considerations. My co-founder and I wanted to create a startup where creating news was a core part of the business, and where the news was both user-generated and -directed as well as verified.

Since requests on MuckRock come from — and are paid for by — our users, we are able to align our business and editorial goals almost perfectly. We don’t sell advertising, we don’t put up paywalls. We just help people investigate the issues they want to, and then share those results with the world.

We’ve know been growing as a business and as an editorial operation for three years, with a part-time news editor and two fantastic interns.

Q: What sorts of projects are you involved in today?

A: Our biggest project to date is a partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called the Drone Census, which has broken a lot of major stories around the country. We let anyone submit an agency’s information and then we follow up with a public records request. So far we’ve submitted 263 requests to state, local, and federal agencies, the vast majority of which were suggested by the public. And it’s helped shed more light on a program that police departments and drone manufacturers are very purposefully keeping quiet.

We’ve also gotten to cover some really interesting local stories, such as getting the late Boston mayor Kevin White’s FBI file and taking an inside look at the timing of a drug raid, as well as national stories.

Q: What is the nature of your relationship with the Boston Globe?

A: MuckRock was invited to be part of the Globe Lab‘s incubator program a little over a year ago. We’ve received free office space and, most important, a good mailbox to receive the dozens of responses we get back every day. It’s also given us a chance to bounce ideas back and forth with their technology and editorial teams, and we’re in the early stages of a collaborative project with them.

They also recently launched The Hive, a section focused on startups in the Boston area. Given my experience running one and my editorial background, when they were looking for someone to manage and report for that section, I was a natural fit and thrilled to be invited to cover startups in the area. It’s a dream job, and it means I now have two desks, and often wear two hats inside the same building.

Q: How did you get involved in the Freedom of the Press Foundation?

A: Trevor Timm has been our main point of contact with the EFF working on the drone project, and he’s been absolutely great to work with. He reached out to us about a week ago and said that he was working on a new venture to help crowdfund investigative journalism projects, and we were honored to be thought of. It turns out he is the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, so we got lucky to be working with the right people.

Q: Do you have a goal for how much money you’re hoping to raise through the foundation? What kinds of projects would you like to fund if you’re successful?

A: We’re kind of going into this with an open mind and a hopeful heart. Any amount raised is greatly appreciated, but this will help jumpstart several new projects similar in size and scope to the drone effort, which has had an amazing response, including nods from the New York Times and many other outlets. It may also give us the flexibility to fund important stories that maybe are not as sexy. We were really interested in funding an investigation into MBTA price jumps for the disabled, for example, but our crowdfunding efforts on Spot.us are essentially dead on arrival. Having a reserve will allow us to take gambles on stories like that without having to choose between making rent and breaking news.

A First Amendment hero-in-the-making

Michael Morisy

Last night I met a fledgling First Amendment hero: Michael Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock, a site where he posts public documents he obtains from filing public-records requests.

Morisy, as you might have heard, may be in trouble because of how Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration handled his request for records about how much money has been spent at various Massachusetts businesses under the federal food-stamp program.

The state complied with Morisy’s request. Then, in a classic CYA move, the administration — realizing after the fact that the release may have violated federal law — sent a letter to Morisy informing him he could be subject to a possible fine or imprisonment if he doesn’t take the information down. It was a ridiculous threat, and Morisy has refused to comply. The courts have consistently ruled that, under the First Amendment, the onus for keeping private records private is entirely on the keeper of those records, not on those who would publish them.

Nor is the privacy of any food-stamp recipients at risk. The records published by MuckRock, according to this Boston Globe story by Noah Bierman, do not identify any recipients.

It doesn’t seem likely that Morisy and his tech guy, Mitchell Kotler, are in any real trouble. In a follow-up in the Globe by Jonathan Saltzman, we learn that the Patrick administration issued a second CYA to cover its first CYA, assuring one and all that it never, ever intended to threaten MuckRock. Oh, no, of course not.

“At this point, I think the legal issue will blow over,” Morisy tells Chris Faraone of the Boston Phoenix. “But it’s still interesting, because all of a sudden people got very interested in what we’re doing.”

Still, you never know. Last night Morisy attended a panel discussion I moderated at Boston University on “Legal Liability in the Age of WikiLeaks,” with local First Amendment lawyers Jon Albano and Rob Bertsche. Bertsche, who has agreed to represent Morisy for free, made it clear that he doesn’t consider MuckRock to be out of the woods just yet.

Given the public attention this issue has received, I think Gov. Deval Patrick himself should announce that Morisy and Kotler are in no danger for posting records they received as a result of making a legitimate public-records request. Patrick should apologize while he’s at it.

Photo is from Morisy’s LinkedIn profile.