Author Archives: Megan Chan

A new fund to support investigative reporting

Investigative journalism has changed drastically over the past decade. Technology is playing a growing and evolving role in everything from gathering documents to processing data. New tools allow real-time collaboration across newsrooms and continents. While a few news organizations have the staff and resources to take advantage of these technological advances, not enough local news organizations and freelancers can say the same.

Before our current roles at Northwestern and Google, we worked together at The Washington Post. We were fortunate to be able to arm reporters with ultra-modern technology to work on document-centric news stories. The powerful combination of tools and reporters showed not only in the prizes the reporting won, but also in the tremendous impact it had on lawmakers and society. Our colleagues on The Post’s investigative team relied on technology to process and understand the large document sets that powered their award-winning work on projects like the Opioid Files and the Afghanistan Papers. These projects also motivated policy makers to bring about important societal changes.

While we met in a national newsroom, we both have roots in local journalism. We know how important accountability reporting can be to local communities. Smaller newsrooms, especially those that cover marginalized groups, need more resources to supply critical, accountability coverage.

Supporting journalists all over the world and creating tools to help them do their work more efficiently, regardless of their organization’s size, is an essential part of the Google News Initiative. Last year, the GNI launched Journalist Studio, a suite of Google tools to help journalists. This includes Pinpoint, which uses the best of Google’s search, artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to help reporters quickly search through large amounts of documents.

Today, we’re announcing The Data-Driven Reporting Project, a partnership between the GNI and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Medill will run The Data-Driven Reporting Project, which aims to address the inequality of resources for local newsrooms and freelancers when doing essential data-driven, investigative reporting. The project is committed to awarding $2 million to journalists working on document-based investigative projects that serve local and underrepresented communities throughout the United States and Canada.

The goal of the program is to help qualified applicants publish meaningful stories which make use of modern tools and resources. Medill will provide specialized training, expertise and resources to award recipients. The program also seeks to build a greater sense of community among journalists doing this kind of work. When possible, awarded projects will contribute to a growing collection of publicly accessible data for other journalists to explore and use. Medill will put together a jury of academics, journalists and technologists to vet applicants and choose projects to fund. Google will have no role in the jury or project selection process.

The Data-Driven Reporting Project reflects Journalist Studio’s focus on giving reporters access to tools and training. Pinpoint can transcribe audio files and recognize handwriting and text in images. The tool has proved useful to several journalists at, for example, The Boston Globe, which analyzed hundreds of documents in their Pulitzer-Prize-winning series Blindspot; Mexico-based Quinto Elemento’s investigation into corporate corruption; and the Philippines-based Rappler’s examination of CIA reports from the 1970s.

This illustration shows papers that have the same word and shows that Pinpoint can find them regardless if they are in text or in handwriting.

An illustration of how Pinpoint can find words across documents.

Building on powerful technology like this, the Data-Driven Reporting Project highlights three of Medill’s core strengths: its history of using investigative journalism to lift the oppressed, a focus on local newsrooms and a commitment to exploring the intersection of technology and journalism. The Medill Investigative Lab was involved in the recent publication of the Pandora Papers, a project that used technology to interrogate millions of documents to expose secret dealing by politicians and the ultra-wealthy. Medill’s Local News Initiative is working with dozens of newsrooms around the U.S. to bolster their business strategies. And Northwestern’s Knight Lab (an experimental community for journalists, technologists and designers) is working on a pair of AI-related projects, the 2021 CollabAI: Americas and the Knight Foundation’s AI for Local News initiative that seeks to apply AI methods to investigative reporting.

The Data-Driven Reporting Project will begin accepting applications beginning in December 2021. If you have a project rooted in data and documents, that could benefit from more resources, technology and training, learn more on how to apply.

Lessons from our first Community News Summit

“It’s hard being tiny on the internet,” S. Mitra Kalita,URL Media founder and former CNN Digital vice president, said during the inaugural Google News Initiative Community News Summit. “What it takes for me to get a dollar on local news versus a dollar in national news [is] so different.” 

Google was thrilled to bring together such a diverse and insightful group of community news leaders from the U.S. and Canada many of whom echoed this sentiment from Mitra during the two-day event (Aug. 17 - 18), which focused on the challenges and opportunities local publishers face when growing and monetizing their audiences. 

“Local news is where the rubber meets the road,” said summit host and GNI director Olivia Ma, in her opening remarks to a virtual audience of 495 publishers. “Those of us working on news here at Google take our responsibility to help people find trusted, authoritative local journalism very seriously.”

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for community news outlets to diversify revenue streams and innovate to find sustainable business models. “The reality was, I needed to get on the digital game plan or die,” Sonny Giles, CEO of the Houston Defender Network, said during a session on mythbusting digital advertising. 

Rebekah Monson, the co-founder of Letterhead and, built on that thought in a conversation about entrepreneurial strategies for maximizing audiences. She noted that local news entrepreneurs have to rally limited resources to succeed. “I don’t know any news orgs that hustle and embrace innovation change and interaction faster or more totally than local news outlets,” Monson said. 

Over the two days, publishers also talked about the wins and lessons learned from connecting with their audiences. While figuring out pricing structures for The Juggernaut, founder Snigda Sur said she was so afraid to charge a subscription fee at first and when she did, priced it too low. “What I wish I had known is (to) ask and ask for more,” Sur said. “Some of your earliest users are your biggest champions and your biggest ambassadors.”

Danny Sullivan, Google’s search liaison and one of the first people to work in search engine optimization before joining Google, answered questions about how search and rankings work. While local news outlets may publish a mix of stories, he noted that showcasing original local content is important. “We try to have our systems mirror what readers tend to do so we expect to see local stories,” Sullivan said. Watch the full Q&A on YouTube.

An illustration of the GNI Community News Summit created by artist Drew Merit He drew fun cartoon-like images that captured two days of discussion on everything from Google Search and ranking to entrepreneurial strategies and from reader revenue insights to making the shift from being a journalist to a business leader.  The illustration also includes key quotes like “engagement is not optional”, “tell people about the great work that you do”, “It’s about trust”, “utility is the play”, “Test: Learn: Fail Fast”, “everybody needs to be bought into the why”, and “users are your champions.” The illustration also shows images of people who took part over the two days: eg; Olivia Ma, Summit Host and GNI Director; Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison; Megan Chan who helped organize the event and authored this blog post, Lance Knobel co-founder of Cityside; Mitra Kalita founder of URL Media; Sonny Giles, CEO of the Houston Defender Network; Liz Alarcon, founder of Pulso and more.

An illustration highlighting key points, discussions and people throughout the two day virtual event.

In a conversation about balancing editorial and business missions, Pulso founder Liz Alarcón focused on the heart of our shared goals, “At the end of the day, people just want stories that will move them.” That sentiment made sense to Cityside founder Lance Knobel who also co-founded The Oaklandside which launched in June 2020 as part of GNI’s Local News Experiments Project. “The journalism is everything and that’s why we exist. That’s unquestionably why people become members and why they give us money.”

If you were unable to join us, you can watch the recording of our main-stage sessions on YouTube and get more information about Google resources and programs by visiting ourGoogle News Initiative website.

Journalist Studio premieres with two new tools for reporters

From long-term investigative projects that expose wrongdoing to breaking news analysis of important court decisions, quality journalism often relies on giant collections of documents, images and audio recordings. Reporters are often faced with a tough choice: Take weeks and go it alone, enlist a team of colleagues or try to write a program to scrape the data. 

This well-known frustration was a large focus of my newsroom career when I was the director of digital operations at The Washington Post and Politico’s director of digital product. I found myself constantly working towards a solution for this question: How can reporters focus more time on their core strengths: finding the story, reporting it out and writing the narrative? 

Our team at Google spent the past two years working collaboratively with newsrooms to help tackle this problem. What would it look like if we put the best of Google’s search, AI and machine learning technology into the hands of reporters?

Today we’re announcing Journalist Studio, a suite of tools that uses technology to help reporters do their work more efficiently, securely and creatively, and two new products for reporters. 

The first tool is Pinpoint. Pinpoint helps reporters quickly go through hundreds of thousands of documents by automatically identifying and organizing the most frequently mentioned people, organizations and locations. Instead of asking users to repeatedly hit “Ctrl+F,” the tool helps reporters use Google Search and Knowledge Graph, optical character recognition and speech-to-text technologies to search through scanned PDFs, images, handwritten notes, e-mails and audio files.


Reporters can search documents in Pinpoint, which will highlight those terms and synonyms.

The tool has already proven useful for investigative projects like USA TODAY’s report on 40,600 COVID-19-related deaths tied to nursing homes and Reveal’s look into the COVID-19 “testing disaster” in ICE detention centers, as well as a Washington Post piece about the opioid crisis. Pinpoint’s speed also helped reporters with shorter-term projects like Philippines-based Rappler’s examination of CIA reports from the 1970s and breaking news situations like the Mexico-based Verificado MX’s quick fact checking of the government’s daily pandemic updates.

Pinpoint is available now and reporters can sign up to request access. The tool enables journalists to upload and analyze documents in seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portugese and Spanish. To boost collaboration, we’ve also partnered with The Center for Public Integrity, Document Cloud, Stanford University’s Big Local News program and The Washington Post to create shared public collections that are available to all users. 

The second tool we’re launching is a beta preview of The Common Knowledge Project, a new way for journalists to explore, visualize and share data about important issues in their local communities. Reporters can create their own interactive charts from thousands of data points in minutes, embed them in stories and share them out on social media. 

Common Knowledge Project infographic

An example of a Common Knowledge Project data visualization comparing the number of people of certain ages in two different cities.

The Common Knowledge Project is built by Polygraph, an award-winning visual journalism team, and supported by the Google News Initiative. The data comes from Data Commons, which compiles and joins thousands of public datasets from organizations including theU.S. Census and the CDC. Currently, the tool includes U.S. data on issues like demographics, economy, housing, education, and crime. Have features you’d like to see? Let Polygraph know through the tool’s feedback form. 

If you’d like to learn more about how to use Pinpoint and The Common Knowledge Project, join us at one of our upcoming virtual events. The first is at the Online News Association’s conference on Thursday, October 15. Beginning the week of October 20, the Google News Initiative training also kicks off a six-part series focused on tools for reporters in seven different languages across nine regions. Sign up and join us for these online events to learn more. 

Quality journalism is critical to our societies. In launching these tools, we look forward to continuing to use the best of Google to support that important work.