Profile: Michael Morisy, MuckRock

A one-time TechTarget cub reporter has gone on to help build one of the strongest journalism tools America has. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of it — MuckRock. Not Muck Rack — most PR pros know about that. No, this is MuckRock, based in Cambridge, Mass. MuckRock…

...is a non-profit news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze, and share government documents. With its easy-to-use filing tools and engaging coverage of government openness (or lack thereof), the site makes transparency accessible to everyone, keeping our democracy informed.

(Though it’s two years old, this 2016 article from executive editor JPat Brown will give you a sense of what MuckRock does and for whom.)

Co-founded in 2010 by Michael Morisy and Mitchell Kotler, MuckRock specializes in everything associated with The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That includes:

helping journalists and ordinary citizens file these requests
maintaining a database of documents obtained through FOIA, accessible for free
nurturing a community of men and women dedicated to transparency and the accountability of government

“The government is there to serve you and should exist solely at the will of the people,” Michael told us in a 28-minute audio interview recorded this month.

“Government” isn’t necessarily the Trump Administration. About 60 percent of FOIA requests are filed to state and local government agencies. It’s here where journalists often encounter intransigence, especially where the cities or towns aren't used to reportorial scrutiny.

As a PR pro you might ask, “where’s the tech media angle here?”

Well, let’s take the case of Amazon and its HQ2 raffle. Which city will land it and how much will it cost them?

MuckRock’s research helped illuminate quite a lot, for citizens and journalists alike.

Says Michael:

“Each of these cities promised tax incentives, enhanced infrastructure and a more hospitable regulatory environment... and citizens need to know what Amazon was promised. We said, ‘We want to see the materials you sent to Amazon.’”

MuckRock learned that some cities offered Amazon massive tax breaks, or worse, “veto power about how tax dollars would be spent.” That directly violates the sovereignty of taxpayers represented (and elected) by their respective governments.

City responses were mixed. Some voluntarily posted their applications and slide decks even before MuckRock asked. Some forked over the docs when MuckRock asked. Others charged MuckRock a fee, or tried to. Still others said GFY.

One can see where reporters might get discouraged, or perplexed, by bureaucracies “slow walking” requests like this. Often, government pros hope journalists will grow distracted or frustrated and just drop the whole thing. MuckRock takes that into account and has procedures in place to follow up with bureaucracies on journalists’ behalf.

Tech PR pros benefit from knowing about MuckRock because increasingly, publications must turn to specialist contractors to help them execute their tasks. Few publications can pay investigative reporters full-time. Their work is painstaking, their by-lines infrequent, and besides, few advertisers clamor to sponsor media brands that publish explosive or controversial material.

Yet, hard-nosed editorial is about the only thing left that distinguishes journalism from content or entertainment. To the extent media brands maintain audiences by speaking truth to power (as the cliche goes), MuckRock and like-minded operations will be the engines underneath the hood.

MuckRock has strong relationships with Buzzfeed, Vice, Motherboard, HuffPost and ProPublica as well as with reporters from the WSJ and NYT. Countless freelancers use MuckRock to augment their reporting power. Many academics and non-profits also are friends of the MuckRock family.

MuckRock, a non-profit itself, makes money by charging newsrooms for training and services. Individuals and small shops pay small fees. Mostly, MuckRock depends on donations from individuals, groups and foundations.

To celebrate our 20th anniversary, SWMS donated $20K to help fund the Sam Whitmore Media Survey Fellowship, designed to help one young reporter per year learn the skills associated with FOIA and then graduate to full-time employment as an investigative reporter. We'll be working with MuckRock through the rest of 2018 to obtain matching grants and other funds that will keep the fellowship producing edit talent for years to come.

(Here is MuckRock's mission statement for the fellowship, and application for candidates.)

You can reach Michael at michael at muckrock dot com.

Join the MuckRock Slack channel here.

Donate to MuckRock here.

Journalists are leaving media brands every week. Read the fruits of 16 confidential interviews with journalists now working at tech brands or PR agencies, and five interviews with the executives who hired these journalists.
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