Q&A: Michael Morisy, Co-Founder of MuckRock

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MuckRock is an online startup that helps journalists streamline, track, and fulfill their public records requests. Since May 2010, when the beta version of the site debuted, they’ve had 851 requests filed, 232 requests successfully completed, and 66 requests denied. The site has helped facilitate the release of 25,254 pages of government documents. MuckRock is currently part of the Boston Globe’s GlobeLab incubator program, working out of the Globe’s offices alongside other tech start-ups. Erin Siegal recently interviewed co-founder Michael Morisy, 28, about how the site works, what it’s accomplished, and where it might go from here.

You guys got some great press (Boston Phoenix, NiemanLab, and Mother Jones, to name a few) when you first came out. How are you doing today?

Things have only gotten better. We’ve opened up our private beta to more users, we’ve helped file over 850 requests across a dozen states, and, most importantly, we’ve gotten to work on some great stories with both wonderful news organizations and passionate individuals trying to shine light on the issues they care about.

We’re still officially in our private beta, but are now focused on really polishing the experience to be ready for a public launch in the coming months. We’ve done some great work with a very small userbase (still under 300 registered users, fewer active) and I can’t wait to see what the wider public can do with our tools.

We’re also really exciting about the potential to partner with news organizations that put our tools in the hands of their readers, helping spotlight issues based on direct reader contributions and verified government documents.

You guys have been called “new media junkies.” Elaborate.

I think it’d be more accurate to say we’re “all media junkies”: I’ve been lucky enough to work at places like the New York Daily News as well as online-only publications, and done everything from measuring picas in Quark and InDesign to coding together news sites in Drupal. My co-founder, Mitch Kotler, has worked at a few startups and is a Hacker News junkie.

What we wanted to do with MuckRock is embrace and enable the best of both traditional and new media reporting: Solid sourcing, in-depth reading and admittedly wonky material meet a somewhat radical approach to transparency, meta-data gathering and software-as-a-service. Did I dance around that question too much?

Where does MuckRock’s funding come from?

A generous grant from the Sunlight Foundation helped cover our initial costs, including incorporation, a nice scanner, and funds to pay for us to present at South by Southwest, but since then we’ve been funded exclusively by site members, who pay fees in exchange for filing requests or other related services, like cleaning up or visualizing data. The Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts has been a great early customer and supporter.

Going forward, we plan to stay funded by our users, and are looking to actively partner with news organizations to help them more efficiently and transparently report on important local issues; the exact same kind of reporting that readers regularly say is worth paying for, even as its being done less and less.

How do you track and manage requests? Can you describe your organizational structure?

Every time a user files a request, a new virtual mailbox is created: Each request gets both a unique P.O. Box and e-mail address, and all incoming and outgoing responses are automatically channeled through them, so that when an agency responds via e-mail, the user is instantly notified. If they send a snail mail letter (usually the case), we scan it in and upload it that request’s unique page on MuckRock, and the user gets a notification e-mail that their digitized documents are ready.

Tell me a bit about the nuts and bolts of your operation. How many staffers and volunteers do you have? What’s a day in the life of a MuckRocker look like?

Mitch, my co-founder, is the real driver behind the site’s success. He developed the system from scratch using Django, Lamson, and other open source technologies, and continues to move the site in exciting new directions, such as our recently launched—and still slightly buggy—agency pages, which lay out exactly how well an agency is complying with its own laws.

I handle all the administrative work, from scanning documents to pitching our services to partner organizations to restarting the server if things break. I also do some original reporting and decide on feature priorities at any given time.

Recently, Tom Nash joined us to help produce more original reporting on some of the great documents that were being ignored. He recently had a piece, for example, investigating corruption in Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, which is really terrific.

How have you utilized your pro-bono relationship with the lawyers from Prince Lobel?

It’s been very reassuring to have Prince Lobel as our legal advisors, particularly when we ran into some trouble with the state of Massachusetts and when FBI Director Robert Mueller was being grilled about one of our stories. Fortunately, those tend to blow over, since we stick very close to our source material. Where Prince Lobel has been helpful—specifically where [lawyers] Rob Bertsche and Asya Calixto have been helpful—is in strategically appealing certain request denials and in ensuring that the only trouble we get into is at least tied to a good story.

What does the MuckRock clientele look like? Which news organizations have come to you for FOIA help?

Our clientele is all over the map, from traditional journalists and news bloggers to researchers and think tanks to individuals who are just passionate or curious about an issue, whether it’s in their community or across the world. That we’re able to help such a broad range of people with such a broad range of interests and needs is really gratifying.

We’ve had reporters from TalkingPointsMemo, Gannett, GateHouse, the Boston Globe, the AP, Patch and dozens more use our site.

How do you reach out to other journalists, and to the media world at large?

So far it’s been entirely word of mouth. I’ve seen way too many startups come out and talk the talk but not walk the walk. We decided early on that we’d let our work speak for itself, and I think our track record speaks very well so far. That said, we’re regularly speaking with our customers and potential customers to better tailor what we do to their needs, whether that’s redesigning our submission process or figuring out new ways for news organizations to engage their readers.

What will MuckRock look like in five years?

Right now, we’re really focused on polishing the experience and utility of MuckRock to best serve our users. Today, that means making it very simple and effortless to file and analyze a government document. We offer tools like advanced OCR to convert a print document into a spreadsheet, and we’re working on allowing our users to crowd source analysis of large documents (we have some top-secret tools that do that today in a rough fashion).

In five years, we want to allow our users to tap into a much broader range of data pulled from a variety of sources, both digital and physical, government and non-government, woven together to help both reporters and individuals find and tell the stories that are important to them in the best way possible.

Also seen in Columbia Journalism Review