New website launches with tools for public affairs reporting

With slightly more than a week under its belt, the new Reporters' Lab website is aiming to arm reporters with the tools, techniques, and research to better cover stories of public interest, hold the government accountable, and preserve investigative reporting.

The Reporters' Lab -- officially the Project for the Advancement of Public Affairs Reporting -- is based at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

"The idea is that a lot of other sites are geared at either a) tools for publishing stories, or social media impact and the like, or b) tools for computer programming and web development," Reporters' Lab founder and Pulitzer Prize winner Sarah Cohen, Duke’s Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "This site, instead, is completely geared at a reporter who covers public affairs, such as a local government reporter or an investigative reporter at a regional news organization."

The lab offers open-source software and other technology tools adapted to help public affairs reporters. Already the site has its first tool available for download: TimeFlow, a visual tool to help journalists create chronologies and track trends.

In addition, Reporters' Lab produces a news blog and reviews about reporting techniques, and contributes to research "that might someday aid investigative and accountability reporting." There also is a forum for discussion.

Public affairs reporters, Cohen said, are "people who are overwhelmed with work, whose ranks have shrunken by one-third over the past five-to-10 years, and who have no time to become programmers. Instead, they need help to make them more productive. So we're working on ways to deal with big document dumps, how to deal with common problems in the records we get from government agencies, and how to automatically extract more information from the numbing number of outlets that we have to monitor."