Crowdfund Data like Correctiv. How to Involve Readers in Investigations

Center for Media, Data and Society
The CMDS Blog
Published in
6 min readJun 3, 2021

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German non-profit investigative newsroom tackles the absence of reliable and accessible data with the help of its readers.

by Jelena Prtoric

Source: Correctiv Twitter

Do you know who owns the building you live in? Or which companies hold the biggest share of the real estate market in your city? In Germany, where property registries are not public, investigating real estate ownership is complicated.

According to German laws, only individuals with a “legitimate interest” are allowed to consult the property records. Tenants are considered to have a “legitimate interest”, journalists are not. This is why in 2018, when Correctiv, a German non-profit, data-driven investigative newsroom founded in 2014, started investigating property ownership in Hamburg, they turned to their readers to gather the data.

The community responded to the call, and, as a result, they were able to reveal the ownership of 15,000 apartments in Hamburg in their investigation “Who owns Hamburg?” (Wem gehört Hamburg?), published in collaboration with Hamburger Abendblatt. Projects in other German cities, among which Dusseldorf and Berlin ensued.

How to Turn Audiences into Investigators

“The idea to work with citizens was ingrained in Correctiv since the beginning,” explains editor-in-chief Justus von Daniels, who joined Correctiv in 2015.

“Who owns the city?” wasn’t the first project in which Correctiv asked their readers to help t gather data. They asked their community members to help them get the data on their local banks, and highlight the banks that were systematically under-performing. In 2017, they asked Dortmund residents to help them investigate the cancellation of classes in Dortmund schools. 3,552 class cancellations were registered, and Correctiv (with its local partner, the Dortmund-based daily Ruhr Nachrichten) were able to show that the local government was misreporting the number of cancelled classes.

In the process of gathering data and engaging with the communities, Correctiv has come up with some guidelines that could be useful to those embarking on a similar venture.

  1. Have a clear research question

The first rule for this sort of data collection project to be successful is to start with a simple and structured question. “You should always think of the questions that affect people in everyday life. You could ask people about their parents — how are they doing, do they need care, what type of care they need, what type of care they get. Or, you could ask how much money one needs to pay for their bank account. Or how safe the streets in their neighbourhood are. It needs to be something that people can refer to and share information or experiences — you can’t go for abstract questions or concepts that are too complicated,” says von Daniels. Also, the more data one asks for, the more difficult it becomes to really focus on what is really important and interesting, and to come up with the most relevant story.

2. Engage with the community

Once you decide on the question, you need to get the word out. “You need to get people involved with the investigation, and motivate them,” explains von Daniels. When they start a new project, Correctiv launches a weeks-long campaign to generate interest in the local community, usually with the help of local partners. In Hamburg, they invited people to the talks, printed out postcards for the project, and promoted it on social media.

“Who owns the city?” investigations were done in several cities, larger and smaller. The response from the community was not always the same. In most cities, the participation was a success — but they also felt hesitance in some places. “Maybe it was a mentality thing, but maybe we didn’t always have the same energy level when we reached out to the community. You need to keep up the engagement level, you need to reach out to people as much as possible,” von Daniels points out.

3. Be transparent and manage people’s expectations

With such data gathering also comes big responsibility. Any newsrooms embarking on a similar mission should make sure that they can manage people’s expectations. “It can backfire if you only collect the data and don’t respond to people’s inquiries, if you don’t keep them posted about the developments in your story,” says von Daniels. He highlights the fact that journalists need to be as precise and as structured as possible from the very beginning, and explain to people what they are doing and why.

At Correctiv, they ask themselves questions such as ‘What exactly do we give to people immediately after they fill in the form?’; ‘What do they expect from us?’

“We were honest and transparent [towards the citizens] about the fact that we would not necessarily be able to publish the story they sent us, but also explained that the more information we get, the better the general story will be. We also set up a newsletter system to inform people about the course of our investigation regularly — where we stand, what we planned to do, and we invited them to ask questions,” explains von Daniels. Many people wrote them saying they liked the approach.

4. Don’t expect too much too soon

In order to produce impactful and in-depth stories, one needs to be in it for the long haul. “You need to know that you cannot wrap it up quickly. You need to spread the word out in the community, you need to give them the time to participate, you need to evaluate the information and the data and find stories in it,” von Daniels explains. The collected data is always analysed and fact-checked by the journalists who then look for potential stories in it. Data is never being simply dumped online without contextualization.

”Who owns Hamburg?” project took some six months to complete, with some 1,000 tenants uploading documents regarding the ownership of their apartments. Three reporters, two data journalists and a designer collaborated with local partners on the research.

This resulted in multiple stories — about how Germany’s third-largest landlord owned by the city of Hamburg increases rents for its tenants; how pension funds drive the rent increase or how the lack of transparency in the housing market makes the prosecution of organized crime more difficult.

5. Get the tech up to speed

Correctiv assembles the data through CrowdNewsroom, a reporting platform they developed in 2015. CrowdNewsroom enables the structured data collection from the readers who can easily upload their receipts, contracts or other types of documents. As a tool for investigations in the public interest, it complies with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Correctiv has made the tool available to other newsrooms eager to run investigations in the public interest for an initial fee, which depends on the size of the campaign and the team of editors.

6. Think about the deliverables and post-publication engagement

Engaging with the readers also means reflecting on the best ways to bring the story to the people or continue the discussion with them after the publication. Correctiv has experimented with different formats, depending on the story or the message they wanted to convey. They have produced articles, short and long pieces, radio shows, theatre plays and graphic novels. For instance, their graphic novel White Wolves (Weisse Wölfe) told the story of an investigation into a gang of Nazi extremists from the Ruhr area, and was later turned into a touring exhibition in Germany.

For the project “Who owns the city” in Hamburg, they paired up with a group of art students and asked them to pitch ideas on how to present the project. “We collected a piece of chalk for everyone who shared the information [about their leases] with us. In the end, we had more than a thousand pieces of chalk! We invited people, gave them a piece of chalk, and told them that for a day, they owned the city. We invited them to write an idea about how the city should look like on the pavement. This simple concept didn’t necessarily have any journalistic value, but it was important to establish the connection with the audience,” believes von Daniels.

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Center for Media, Data and Society
The CMDS Blog

Research center for the study of media, communication, and information policy and its impact on society and practice. https://cmds.ceu.edu/