In the winter of 2019, Vox launched the Open Sourced Reporting Network – a legion of readers who signed up through Google Forms to collaboratively investigate and learn about the “new frontiers of data, privacy, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.” For reporters, the network functions as a collaborative participant base. Just one example – a reporter can ask the network for screen shots of what readers believe to be targeted ads, and then use those diverse experiences and perspectives to drive their investigation. For members of the reporting network, Open Sourced is a place to learn about and participate in the coverage of an often “closed door [digital] ecosystem.”
Project Goals: Open Sourced seeks to increase public knowledge around the issues of data, privacy, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The Open Sourced Reporting Network hopes to “illuminate what these [closed door digital ecosystems] are, how they’re built, why they matter, and their potential risks and benefits” through collaboration with an engaged network. The complex nature of these topics and the diversity of online experiences require a collaborative approach to truly explain them well.
Organization Background: Vox is a national multi-platform digital news and opinion publication launched at Vox Media in 2014 by founders Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matthew Yglesias.
Project Resources: Open Sourced is funded in partnership with a grant from the Omidyar Network. Lauren Katz, formerly a Senior Engagement Manager at Vox who now manages audio operations, led the engagement side of the project, which also employs two full-time reporters and two full-time video producers.
Tools and Technology: The Open Sourced Reporting Network used a survey, through Google Forms, to gather interest and sign readers up to participate in the network. The project continues to use email as a primary method of contact and distributes surveys to gauge interest, knowledge of different topics, and impact. Open Sourced is funded through a grant from the Omidyar Network.
Impact: Open Sourced measures its impact in two ways: through before-and-after surveys to gauge audience awareness of issues, and through the raw number of people in the reporting network (currently at 2,000+ members). Additionally, Open Sourced wants to become a practical source of knowledge for its readers. For example- an investigation into web “cookies” sought to “pull back the curtain” on what cookies mean for our privacy and illuminate the meaning behind our everyday online interactions.
At this point Open Sourced has completed five separate callouts where they have received dozens, sometimes hundreds, of responses each time. Overall, Katz has “heard that people are very excited that we’re looking into this and they’re also really eager to help us.” The impact has been overwhelmingly positive.
Here’s What Worked
1. Create a content calendar to stay consistently engaged with the reporting network
“I never want someone to feel like they took the time to sign up for this project and they never heard from us again,” said Lauren Katz. The calendar helps Katz and her team of reporters keep track of what content goes out, and when. Consistency is key. Katz added that the response has been overwhelmingly positive, “people are excited that we’re looking into this.”
2. Talk about the reporting network in all Open Sourced stories
“Every time we publish a new Open Sourced story it’s an opportunity for people who are interested to join the network and be a part of what we’re doing,” said Katz. At the launch of the project, Katz created an article with an embedded Google Form at the bottom that allows readers to understand what the reporting network is and sign up to participate. Vox’s website has a tool that makes it easy to add “related stories” at the bottom of each piece- Katz employs this tool to link back to the “Join the Open Sourced Reporting Network” story at the end of each “Open Sourced” article.
3. Rethink transparency
Katz interviewed Vox’s director of information security to help her reporters, and the reporting network, understand exactly how the information that Vox gathers for Open Sourced will be used, and where each participant’s information will go when they use the google form to participate in the project. “The whole point is all of this personal data stuff is so hard to figure out,” said Katz, “so, in a very meta way, we wanted to do the opposite of that and say here’s exactly what’s happening.” All of this information that Katz gathered was included in the article that launched the reporting network. Transparency and safety are both vital elements to the project as a whole.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Train reporters how to use the network earlier
“The reporting network is such an important part of Open Sourced,” said Katz. “In order to be successful it has to tie into the stories [we] are telling.” For some involved with the project, engaging a base like the Open Sourced Reporting Network is a new skill and, just like any new skill, it takes a little practice. “The earlier you can add [that training] in, the better,” said Katz.
2. Establish a feedback loop earlier
Consistent check-ins to ensure everybody stays on the same page were also very important to Katz. Similar to any project, Open Sourced became “part of everyone’s 80 million things they’re doing,” said Katz. The feedback loop stuttered slightly directly after launch, but as everyone was able to catch their breath it became easier for the team to have those check-ins. Katz even has a Slack room with direct lines of communication to the reporters so everyone can be checking in often, and consistently.
What Else You Should Know
- A needed outlet: Open Sourced has become an outlet for members to ask questions about these complicated issues and for reporters to help answer them., “There are so many everyday questions!” said Katz, “I’m just excited that this even exists to explore questions like that that [people] come across.”
- Framing a complicated issue in a way that connects with people: Katz and her team used common online experiences (for example, an ad following you around from site to site) as a doorway to deeper investigation and interest in more complex issues. The challenge – “How do we frame this in a way that makes sense to people?”
To learn more about this project go to vox.com/open-sourced, connect with Lauren on twitter @Laur_Katz, or reach out via Gather.