Introducing Reveal Labs, a new engine for local investigative reporting

By Joaquin Alvarado and Cole Goins

Reveal Labs partners pose with our wood-carved sign at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. From left to right: Rori Herbison, Delta Arts Alliance; Aallyah Wright, student at Delta State University; Cole Goins, Reveal; LaToya Drake, Google News Lab.

It’s no secret that extensive downsizing at newsrooms across the country over the last decade has struck a blow to local and regional investigative journalism. Many news organizations have lost the resources needed to report big, important stories in their backyards. Finding sustainable models for journalism that spotlight injustice and empower citizens doesn’t come easily.

At the same time, shrinking resources have opened up new doors for collaboration among local newsrooms that are pooling their efforts to create journalism that serves the public interest. In July, Nieman Reports cited a wealth of examples that demonstrate how shared capacity is generating fresh opportunities amid an industry still weathering crisis.

That cooperative spirit is a driving force at The Center for Investigative Reporting. We believe in the critical role that investigative journalism serves for democracy and the importance of investing in partnerships that make it happen.

Today, with our partners at the Google News Lab, CIR is proud to announce the next chapter in our mission to fuel local investigative reporting and community engagement: Reveal Labs.

Our work with the Google team is in its fourth year and originated from TechRaking, an event series at the intersection of news, technology and design that we’ve produced in cities across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Through TechRaking, together we’ve built a network of partners and contributors that continues to thrive and deliver new tools for journalism.

As our collaboration extends to Reveal Labs, we’ll keep pushing the active innovation that powered TechRaking and apply those efforts locally to accelerate the introduction of new technology and practices. From the tools Google is developing in partnership with journalists, to community art and engagement strategies we’ve pioneered with playwrights, poets and more.

Through Reveal Labs, we’re building a series of partnerships across the country to form networks that help newsrooms find and tell tough stories, connect them to those most affected and bring them to a national audience through Reveal.

How we’re learning from past collaborations

Since CIR fully launched Reveal as an investigative reporting platform in January, we’ve co-produced more than 80 stories with partners for our podcast and public radio show. The audio productions are complemented by stories, graphics and other content on our website. Reveal is fundamentally collaborative, and we place a high premium on elevating great work from local journalists.

In recent years, CIR has launched several initiatives to invest more deeply in local partnerships and equip other newsrooms with increased capacity to carry out high-quality investigative reporting and innovative community engagement. A few examples:

  • In 2014, we partnered with the Alabama Media Group to create the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab, sparking a monthslong investigation and community engagement initiative to spotlight the many deep problems within the state’s prison system.
  • That same year, our editorial team coached journalists at The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, on data analysis, reporting and editing of an investigation into an epidemic of deadly domestic abuse in the state. The series went on to earn the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
  • In 2015, Reveal worked with New Hampshire Public Radio to turn a year’s worth of its reporting on the corrupt roots of a local neurorehab center into a nationally distributed Reveal radio documentary and podcast, a long-form text piece and an original interactive feature.
WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman kicks off the Toxic Comedy Contest at Monty Hall on July 29. Credit: Cole Goins

With each of these projects, we’ve sought to spur groundbreaking reporting, inventive storytelling and public participation among our partners while trying new things. Through Reveal Labs, we want to draw from those lessons and continue to help power in-depth local journalism in new and creative ways.

Where we’re heading with Reveal Labs

To begin, Reveal Labs will focus on projects in regions across the U.S. and in Europe. Here’s a sampling of what’s in the works:

South: We’re launching an interactive campaign in Mississippi to explore race, inequality and social transformation with a network of students, emerging and veteran journalists and community partners.

Northwest: We’ll work closely with partners in the region to address the long-term sustainability of local and regional journalism, particularly with The Seattle Times as it continues to evolve its approach to community engagement and stakeholder investment in high-impact news.

Midwest: We plan to explore the intersection of investigative reporting, public policy and solutions-driven community engagement with a network of partners in the Midwest, including the Chicago Reporter.

Northeast: We will continue to build on the partnerships we’ve developed in New Jersey, expanding into new stories and other collaborative ventures with the support of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Europe: Through a network of partnerships in Berlin, we’re creating and testing a new virtual reality storytelling tool for journalists called Fader, a concept that was born from our 2015 TechRaking event in Berlin. Next week, we’re hosting a pop-up VR studio in Kreuzberg with our partners at Vragments to showcase high-quality VR storytelling and the technologies behind it.

Reveal reporter Trey Bundy (left) and Stephan Gensch of Vragments work on Fader, a platform for VR storytelling.

We’re developing these projects within an open framework for Reveal Labs, one that’s intended to adapt based on what we and our partners learn as the collaborations evolve. Our efforts won’t remove all the barriers to strong local investigative reporting, but our goal is to forge a space for experiments that support innovation and work toward a more sustainable future.

We know these are lofty ambitions. And CIR isn’t alone in our mission to empower more in-depth, inclusive reporting. IRE and NICAR have been training journalists for decades. City Bureau in Chicago is launching a Public Newsroom and literally opening its doors to build capacity for more citizen-fueled reporting. The Center for Cooperative Media is taking steps to bridge more partnerships between local and national newsrooms. A consortium of news partners just launched Electionland, a participatory project to help newsrooms and voters report on issues at the polls. The list goes on.

We plan to openly share what we learn from Reveal Labs through this Medium collection, so expect more updates on the status of our projects, lessons from our experiments and other notes on our practice in the coming months.

If you’d like to get more direct updates about Reveal Labs, or are interested in participating, let us know here and we’ll bring you along as we develop this initiative.