A non-profit investigative newsroom committed to informing society of injustices and abuses of power while promoting media literacy and educational programs
Berlin and Essen, Germany
In 2018, German investigative newsroom Correctiv set out to make the Hamburg housing market more transparent by finding out who owned residential properties. In many countries, that’s a straightforward process – but German law only allows individuals with a “legitimate interest” to inspect property records. Journalists aren’t covered by that definition. Tenants are.
So Correctiv turned to CrowdNewsroom, a platform they developed in 2015 to help them enlist community members in their investigative projects and assemble data sets. To get the property ownership information they needed for “Who Owns Hamburg?”, they invited readers to upload their leases to the platform. They collected more than 1,000 records, creating a meaningful property register that served as the starting point for investigations into the property market in Hamburg.
Then they took the project on the road. Today Correctiv has property ownership databases for other cities in Germany, and they’ve proven that inviting readers into journalism isn’t just a nice thing to do – it can create more impactful investigations, too.
Why this is important
By identifying a way for people to meaningfully contribute to its work, Correctiv has been able to investigate topics it wouldn’t have otherwise been able to investigate and given community members an opportunity to co-create journalism. By building its own platform for this way of working, it could collaborate more fully with them. And by partnering with other newsrooms, it’s been able to broaden the number of people who contribute.
Audience participation is most fulfilling for audience members and most impactful for news organizations when the news organization finds the intersection point between their needs and audience members’ motivations to participate. Correctiv succeeded at this: it needed property records, and residents wanted to understand the housing market they lived in.
What they did
Correctiv began developing CrowdNewsroom in 2015 to enable large-scale reader involvement in investigations. Put simply, CrowdNewsroom creates forms that enable structured data collection from users. They first used it for investigations into financial irregularities in local banks and tracking class cancellations in public schools.
“CrowdNewsroom is like a Google system for answers that are not given yet,” Correctiv publisher David Schraven told Solution Set.
CrowdNewsroom investigations tend to follow the same general process and take a few months to complete.
Here’s a look at how the typical CrowdNewsroom process works, with some details about what that looked like for “Who Owns Hamburg?” project in 2018:
Get the word out. Together with its newsroom partner, Correctiv launches a four-to-six week campaign to spread the word about the project, generate interest among the community, and encourage participation. For “Who Owns Hamburg?”, Correctiv partnered with local newsroom Hamburger Abendblatt, and the local tenant’s association helped promote it. Correctiv and its partner newsroom publish daily stories about the issues the project is trying to uncover, promote the CrowdPlatform callout on social media, and hold events. All of this is done with the goal of collecting data and making people aware of the investigation.
“Before you start the campaign, you collaborate with the newspaper to give people a sense of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and why it’s important,” Schraven said. “It’s a series of articles, it’s radio interviews, it’s a real journalistic series of stories.”
Collect data. Throughout the campaign, community members upload data and information into CrowdNewsroom. For “Who Owns Hamburg?”, individuals uploaded their leases to the CrowdNewsroom database and then gave Correctiv permission to pull the records from the land registry in their name. Correctiv also created a website for the Hamburg housing -market investigation where they regularly offered updates on the progress of this project and tenants could store their evidence and information.
To ensure the data is credible, every submission to CrowdPlatform has to be backed up with documentation. Correctiv will only publish information that is verifiable.
Process the data. Once the campaign ends, journalists from Correctiv and its partner newsroom will start to process, fact-check, and verify the collected data, then look for patterns to serve as the starting point for stories. Both Correctiv and its partner newsrooms have full access to the database.
“Then we take the most important stories and report on them,” Schraven said. “But we keep the other stuff just private because this is private data and we’re not going to publish like Wikileaks everything that we’ve found.”
The stories that come out of the CrowdNewsroom are then published and shared by both outlets.
“Who Owns Hamburg?” took six months to complete. By the end of the campaign, about 1,000 tenants uploaded documents about the owner of their apartments. That data allowed Correctiv to tie more than 15,000 apartments to specific property owners. From that, they discovered that money laundering was behind about 10 percent of the real estate sales in Hamburg. They also determined that more than 1 in 3 of the 707,000 apartments and houses rented in Hamburg belongs to the city’s urban housing association in Hamburg or a cooperative.
Correctiv also published 10 examples of how non-transparency harms tenants (and what could help), which divulges more findings from the research, such as the fact that tenants don’t always know who their owner is. This was only possible because of the CrowdNewsroom platform.
Correctiv spent about €1 million to develop CrowdNewsroom. Half of the funding came from a three-year €500,000 grant from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund.
“The rest was from our other sources of income,” Schraven said. “We have foundations funding us, we have individuals donating money to us as a nonprofit. We even have a small for-profit outlet that publishes books.”
What they learned
Making the project accessible for people to participate is key. The CrowdNewsroom investigations can’t happen unless people know about it, so Correctiv approaches its CrowdNewsroom investigations almost as if they were fundraising or political campaigns — it unleashes a torrent of coverage, promotion, and events to get the word out about the investigations and encourages people to participate. It also makes the CrowdNewsroom platform itself intuitive and simple to use. As of February 2019, more than 4,000 people had contributed to CrowdNewsroom projects.
Keep callouts focused. In its first CrowdNewsroom investigations, Correctiv asked its readers overly broad questions. The responses were all over the place and were not as helpful as they could be. Correctiv realized it needed to create a more focused way to ask readers to contribute, and began focusing on seeking out just one thing from readers for each investigation. When asking readers to get involved in the production of journalism, it’s important to spend time making sure the call outs are clear and set up to elicit responses that are actually actionable.
Collaboration with other publishers is essential. Correctiv also realized that its reporting would have more impact through working with other news organizations. By partnering with a variety of other publishers for CrowdNewsroom, Correctiv is able to reach audiences it would not have access to otherwise. When it covered class cancellations in public schools, for example, one of Correctiv’s partners was a student newspaper, which allowed it to make more focused call outs and also ensured that the reporting was reaching relevant communities.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Correctiv’s investigations would not be possible without the individuals that assisted with the reporting and contributed their information.
The benefits of co-creation co-creating journalism with community members extends beyond just the investigations at hand. Correctiv can use the platform to identify some of its most engaged constituents and invite them into the reporting process. But Schraven also said the process has been a powerful fundraising tool and more broadly helps educate the community about the importance of independent journalism and how investigative reporting actually works.
“But to be clear: Not the published stories are most important in running the CrowdNewsroom,” Schraven said over email. “Most important is the debate and the engagement within the community of the newspapers and media organizations we are running the CrowdNewsroom with. It is like a campaign for good journalism in a community.”
“When it comes to community building, something like this is really important,” Schraven said. “People understand that we care about their issues, we’re working on it, and we’re not just talking about it. We really put effort into it. They understand that if we want something like this to happen, we need to support those guys. It works. When you see this CrowdNewsroom, it’s not something you just do for one month — it’s for a few months. You build community around the newsroom. When you’re in the local area, it’s exactly the area you’re publishing day-to-day and all these readers and contributors understand why you’re there.”
- Solution Set, case study: The German nonprofit site Correctiv built a tool to enable community-powered investigations
- Membership Puzzle Project, research report: Making Journalism More Memberful
- Nieman Lab, article: Investigative outlet Correctiv crowdsourced data collection with the help of a local newsroom
- Correctiv, investigation: Who Owns Hamburg?