A note to users of DocumentCloud.org

After a near-death experience, we’re moving to a new home with a mandate for sustainability. Here’s how you can help.

It was just about nine years ago when Eric Umansky, Scott Klein and I hit upon an idea we hoped might help journalists be a little more transparent in their reporting.

We believed then (and still do today) that if journalists were more open about their sourcing, it would help people differentiate between real reporting and nonsense.

It would not only increase the trust people have in journalism, it would encourage people to expect this same level of transparency from institutions and elected officials.

Thus, DocumentCloud.org was born.

In terms of adoption, DocumentCloud has been a runaway success beyond our wildest dreams. As of this writing, our repository hosts 3.6 million source documents, and has been used by more than 8,400 journalists in 1,619 organizations worldwide.

Documents in our collection have been viewed more than 824 million times by the public. DocumentCloud has been used by some of the largest news organizations in the world for high-profile stories such as Wikileaks, Panama Papers, and the Snowden documents.

But that success has come at a cost, quite literally. We’ve built sophisticated features into DocumentCloud, including named entity extraction, multi-language support, optical character recognition, a mobile-friendly viewer, faceted search and a powerful API.

We’ve had to learn to scale quickly and massively when our users upload hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of documents at once, as frequently happens when news breaks. And we have had to handle this demand at all hours of the day or night as DocumentCloud grew into an increasingly global platform.

Obviously, none of that is free. This is why our goal over the next few months is to start putting in place a plan to sustain DocumentCloud, to ensure this valuable tool remains available to journalists for as long as there is a need.

And at a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, I think it’s safe to say DocumentCloud, and projects like it, are needed now more than ever.

Wait, that sounds like you’re asking for money

At some point in the next few months, we will begin asking our users to help support the platform financially. It’s something we said we would do from the very beginning, literally from launch. We just haven’t gotten around to actually doing it.

Whom we ask to pay what — those are details we’re still working out. Nothing is going to change immediately and we will announce our plans well before they take effect to give everyone plenty of time for feedback.

But let me assure you of one thing: As an organization created by journalists for journalists, the board, staff and I are keenly aware of the increasingly limited resources available to most newsrooms. We will scale our ask accordingly.

We also don’t want to be punitive in our approach. Ideally, that means no fancy paywalls or hard limits. We want supporters, not subscribers. Our goal is sustainability, not profit.

Let me also repeat another promise we made when we launched DocumentCloud: There always will be a free version available to journalists. What we can no longer afford to do is offer unlimited free access to all of our users, much as we would like to.

That said, we understand that sometimes you don’t know you need DocumentCloud until you do. Even the most infrequent users occasionally find themselves sitting on a trove of documents the world needs to see. We’re journalists too. We understand that, and we will work with you.

What you can do

Of course you could always give a tax-deductible donation. It’s always appreciated. DocumentCloud is a lean operation, and every dime will go to keeping the platform alive.

If your organization is a regular user of DocumentCloud, we’d love your help in making the case to support us. We can throw out data and anecdotes until we are blue in the face. Nothing will be more compelling to a budget holder than a testimonial from a colleague who actually relies on the service.

If your organization has a philanthropic wing or you think your organization might be willing to sponsor DocumentCloud with a larger donation, we’d like to hear from you.

If you are fan of DocumentCloud and you have connections to the foundation world, we’d like to hear from you.

If you are an entrepreneur and have ideas for sustaining DocumentCloud, we’d like to hear from you. If you’re an engineer and you have ideas, we’d like to hear from you.

In short, we’d like to hear from you. Find me at aron@documentcloud.org.

Can’t you just raise more foundation money?

Of course, and we certainly will try.

But DocumentCloud needs to stand on its own eventually. Foundations — the Knight Foundation in particular — have been extremely generous to us. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that Knight saved our bacon with this latest grant.

But that funding won’t last forever. DocumentCloud as it has been operating simply isn’t sustainable. We have to start looking for more and more diverse funding sources. And some of that will have to come from those who rely on the platform the most — you, our users.

Aron Pilhofer,
Executive Director,
DocumentCloud.org