Outlier Media, MuckRock Foundation combine to bring accountability reporting and tools to more communities

Bringing together FOIA, open data, and civic engagement to reboot how journalism is done

MuckRock and Outlier Media are combining to equip newsrooms and communities with new ways to create actionable transparency that holds institutions accountable for and in collaboration with communities around the country. Together, we’re expanding our work of not only helping others release and share information, but also pioneering better ways for the public to understand and use it.

Since 2010, MuckRock has built digital transparency tools used by thousands of newsrooms while producing original reporting that opens up government. Whether exposing hidden surveillance systems or the militarization of American policing, pushing to release and read through the Mueller Report, or helping file tens of thousands of requests, we try to make transparency participatory and meaningful for everyone.

Outlier Media shares this mission. Founded in 2016, Outlier Media is a Detroit-based service journalism organization that combines text messaging and traditional reporting to deliver information that residents can use to hold landlords, municipal government, and elected officials accountable for long-standing problems in the housing and utilities markets. Their reporting has helped thousands of Detroiters stabilize their housing and held government officials, powerful institutions and real estate speculators to account.

But despite increasingly clear challenges and needs to change how we work, too often institutions charged with informing the public still fail at equipping communities with tools that help question, understand, and reshape their world.

Instead, we get endless breaking alerts, soundbite buffets, and other symptoms of information overload that leave the public feeling exhausted, confused, and disengaged from the work of accountable democracy.

In response, MuckRock’s mission has grown: How do we not only help the public get access to information but understand and use it to shape a stronger democracy for tomorrow?

And while we need all the help we can get, we are not alone in this effort. As one of our long-time partners, Outlier Media has also been rethinking how journalism, transparency, and accountability should work in the 21st century.

Outlier Media has mixed data journalism, public records, live events, and a text messaging service to bring a new kind of accountability to Detroit housing and utilities issues.

Outlier’s approach has put clear and actionable transparency directly in the hands of people who need it most. Their work has contributed to programmatic and legislative reforms throughout Detroit such as increased accountability for the Detroit Land Bank, the city’s largest property owner, and a more effective rental registration program for Detroit residents.

“MuckRock’s vision for our next 10 years aligns perfectly with the Outlier approach of public interest journalism, and Outlier was looking to expand its model to new communities,” said Michael Morisy, MuckRock co-founder. “Together, we’ll be able to do both— mixing Outlier’s service-oriented, data journalism with best-in-class reporting tools like MuckRock and DocumentCloud as well as a network of users that spans 3,000 newsrooms and tens of thousands of journalists.”

We’re particularly excited about finding new ways to serve our users with new reporting resources, access to data and documents, and increased direct editorial support for our member newsrooms, no matter their size or beat.

What the future holds

Going forward, the Outlier Media and MuckRock Foundation teams will be working as one, with a new combined entity name forthcoming.

Sarah Alvarez will oversee journalistic work across the portfolio of sites as editorial director; Mitchell Kotler will manage software development as chief technology officer; Candice Fortman will serve as chief of innovation managing communications and people; and Michael Morisy will be chief executive officer of the combined organization (see our full staff list here).

In the short term, you won’t see many changes. Our developers are hard at work revamping DocumentCloud and improving MuckRock, while our operations team will still be responding to support tickets, calling up agencies, and mailing out follow ups. If you’re a journalist or other user who keeps their requests embargoed, that privacy is still sacrosanct.

Outlier’s text based housing information service will continue without interruption to serve the needs of Detroit residents. We have an agreement to hand the service over to a local news organization later this year.

MuckRock’s editorial will live in our news section and in our newsletters, but with some new faces contributing. We will also have an increased focus on local accountability reporting and resources that help newsrooms, non-profits, and ordinary people ask hard questions — and get answers.

Get involved

We’ll also be expanding ways to get involved with our work, whether participating in a crowdsourced Assignment, attending a local event, or one of many fun surprises planned for 2020. To be the first to hear, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

When we started MuckRock a decade ago, our vision was to use transparency to make government more open, accountable, and responsive for everyone, particularly as newsrooms shrank and disappeared in communities across the country.

The work of Outlier Media — long-time MuckRock users themselves — has inspired and challenged us to think through how our tools and original reporting can better serve urgent community needs more directly. We couldn’t be more excited to get to work — together — on this important mission.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are MuckRock and Outlier combining to form one organization?

Outlier’s reporting has been based on the idea that information gaps cause lapses in accountability, especially in low-income communities. MuckRock works to increase government transparency so we all are more likely to have the information we need. Together we’ll identify when information gaps and lack of transparency together cause harm for people and communities. We will help fill those gaps, increase transparency around the issues, and report on who is responsible for any harm.

What reporting can we expect to see?

In 2020 we will continue to support the work of our users by reporting on threats to open records and freedom of information. We will support the projects of partners who come to us with an idea for a data or document set they need or want to build a project around. We will also report specifically on issues related to utilities, policing, institutionalization and incarceration, and government surveillance. We know a lack of transparency and information related to these issues are already causing harm in communities around the country. We’ll publish our work directly on MuckRock.com, in our newsletters, and with our partners.

How will you work with individuals, groups, and newsrooms who use MuckRock for their own work?

Anyone who uses our services to file a request, transcribe or analyze documents can trust us not to intrude on their work, just as before. MuckRock users have the ability to make a request private or to embargo a request and we honor those agreements.

For those who want to work collaboratively, we will have more capacity to support and bring together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens who do want to work together with us to analyze and share government documents or fill an information gap in their community. Our goal is to support this work when asked, not to hijack your existing project. If you have a collaboration you’re interested in, just let us know by emailing sarah@outliermedia.org.

Will we continue to see the kind of work Outlier started in Detroit?

You will! The work Outlier started in Detroit is continuing without interruption, though we will be handing over our SMS housing information service and reporting to a local news collaboration within the next few months. We are setting up a service similar to Outlier’s Detroit work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this year as well. If you are interested in our information needs work for your community email candice@outliermedia.org.

What is the best way to support this work?

The best way to support our work is to join it! Learn about using MuckRock and DocumentCloud, and sign up for our newsletter. If you would like to donate to our work, you can make a tax deductible donation on our dedicated donation page. Also, keep an eye out on our Assignment page for ways to take part in our crowdsourcing projects.

Photography generously provided by Bimal Nepal of Bimal Photo Studio. See more of his work on Facebook.

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