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Opening Up the Newsroom

Doug Toavs is not an academic. He's not a scientist or a politician. He works as a Webmaster for a hospital in St. Paul, lives in Chisago City and knows a lot about ranching, agriculture and machinery from years of firsthand experience. So when he received an e-mail from Minnesota Public Radio News asking for his insights about CO2 emissions, he made the connection to his own research into and experience with diesel-powered cars. Toavs ended up as one of the sources in a report from Dan Olson on how personal choices contribute to global warming. And he's not alone.

St. Paul, Minn. -- Nearly every day, people around the region are bringing their knowledge to the news and helping shape the stories and expert voices you hear on Minnesota Public Radio. Minnesota Public Radio is leading the nation in partnering with its audience and the public to strengthen news coverage. The new approach-Public Insight Journalism-recognizes the power of the accumulated information, experience and knowledge of the public to help reporters and editors do their jobs. The result is news coverage that draws on a greater variety of sources, not the same pool of spokespeople and leaders, and puts big, sometimes abstract issues in the first person.

"We do have experiences in life that are unique , " Toavs says, "and sometimes that can really shed light for somebody else." Toavs is one of more than 15,000 people who have agreed to share their knowledge and insight with Minnesota Public Radio News as part of its Public Insight Network. It's a serious collaboration between reporters and the public that's meant to bring fresh insight to topics that touch us all-from health care to education to energy costs.

Not everyone who contributes to the network makes it onto the radio, but many inform coverage in less audible ways. Public Insight Journalism also helps the newsroom learn about issues that are just coming to the surface. One example: coverage of the increasing tension between hunters and landowners that preceded the killings of six Wisconsin hunters, which made national headlines two years ago.

When Minnesota Public Radio reporter Tim Post heard a couple of hunters complaining how more and more landowners were cutting off access to hunting land, Post wondered if this shrinking access was a trend. A public insight analyst sent e-mail surveys to those in our source network who had listed hunting as a "passion" or lived near prime hunting areas. The informal hunters' network then kicked in. Within a few days, Post had nine new sources. He followed up, added other sources, confirmed the trend and wrote a story on rowing disputes between landowners and hunters, and among hunters themselves, over access to hunting land. A few weeks later, a St. Paul man named Chai Vang shot and killed six hunters in Wisconsin in what started as a dispute over a deer stand but also had racial overtones. Public sources helped Minnesota Public Radio News report on the growing tension ahead of the outbreak of violence.

In the three years since Minnesota Public Radio launched Public Insight Journalism, it has informed more than a hundred reports including coverage of the Northwest Airlines mechanics' strike and a recent series on consumer-driven health care. This fall, when reporter Laura McCallum reported on whether consumers could benefit from locking in their heating costs before the winter season, she tapped Robert Klemenhagen in the Public Insight Network. Klemenhagen is a retired finance executive who modeled his home heating bills for the last two years under the "hedging" plans offered by utility companies. He found the plans would have cost him 20 percent more.

Every reporter at Minnesota Public Radio has benefited from the Public Insight Network. Business reporter Jeff Horwich uncovered a disturbing rise in financial crises among what he describes as the "working crunched." He calls Public Insight Journalism invaluable. "Finding people who have personal expertise can be really time consuming," says Horwich, but the network of public sources puts a broad, diverse group within easy reach. And those in the Public Insight Network, like Mary Warner of Little Falls, also see the power of this new partnership with the public. "People in leadership roles and with authority are going to have information that influences a lot of people," says Warner. "But they don't always have all of the information." And that's where Public Insight Journalism comes in.

"Working with the audience makes so much sense and reinvigorates journalism," says Michael Skoler, Minnesota Public Radio's managing director of news. "Our newsroom taps into the collective wisdom of our audience in many ways. We've held meetings in people's homes and at community centers. We've created online tools for people to share their knowledge. And our database of public sources and their expertise allows us to quickly find the right people with the right knowledge when we are making coverage plans or researching stories." Skoler says the newsroom even invited those with knowledge about health care to review plans for the seven-part "Prescription for Change" series that aired in January.

American Public Media programs such as Marketplace, Weekend America and American RadioWorks have started using Public Insight Journalism in the last few months, too. And Skoler says newsrooms around the country have been hearing about Minnesota Public Radio's success and asking for help in using it. "Many news organizations recognize that a revolution in media is occurring, but don't know how to respond and what a new journalism model should look like," says Skoler. Minnesota Public Radio just announced plans to establish The Center for Innovation in Journalism at American Public Media, based in Minnesota Public Radio's expanded headquarters in downtown St. Paul, to share its experience and tools with other news organizations.

Ultimately, the goal of Public Insight Journalism is to make the news as strong and as relevant as possible. Doing that means opening up the newsroom to untapped sources of knowledge and insight. It means opening up to the public and creating relationships that feed coverage. Mary Warner urges others to join the Public Insight Network. "Journalism should be about finding stories not just from the usual newsmakers, but from anyone who has something to contribute.

(This article also appeared in the June 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)